The promise of gold - The Men of the Sheds - The cost of a penny and the usefulness of widows - Overheads underfoot - Security, the importance thereof - A fascination with transactions - A son of many fathers - Alleged untrustworthiness in a case of flaming underwear - The Panopticon of the World and the blindness of Mr Bent - An Arch Comment
'SOMEHOW I WAS expecting something… bigger,' said Moist, looking through the steel bars into the little room that held the gold. The metal, in open bags and boxes, gleamed dully in the torchlight.
'That is almost ten tons of gold,' said Bent reproachfully. 'It does not have to look big.'
'But all the ingots and bags put together aren't much bigger than the desks out there!'
'It is very heavy, Mr Lipwig. It is the one true metal, pure and unsullied,' said Bent. His left eye twitched. 'It is the metal that never fell from grace.'
'Really?' said Moist, checking that the door out of there was still open.
'And it is also the only basis of a sound financial system,' Mr Bent went on, while the torchlight reflected off the bullion and gilded his face. 'There is Value! There is Worth! Without the anchor of gold, all would be chaos.'
'Who would set the value of the dollar?'
'Our dollars are not pure gold, though, are they?'
'Aha, yes. Gold-coloured, Mr Lipwig,' said Bent. 'Less gold than seawater, gold-ish. We adulterated our own currency! Infamy! There can be no greater crime!' His eye twitched again.
'Er… murder?' Moist ventured. Yep, the door was still open.
Mr Bent waved a hand. 'Murder only happens once,' he said, 'but when the trust in gold breaks down, chaos rules. But it had to be done. The abominable coins are, admittedly, only gold-ish, but they are at least a solid token of the true gold in the reserves. In their wretchedness, they nevertheless acknowledge the primacy of gold and our independence from the machinations of government! We ourselves have more gold than any other bank in the city, and only I have a key to that door! And the chairman has one too, of course,' he added, very much as a grudging and unwelcome afterthought.
'I read somewhere that the coin represents a promise to hand over a dollar's worth of gold,' said Moist helpfully.
Mr Bent steepled his hands in front of his face and turned his eyes upwards, as though praying.
'In theory, yes,' he said after a few moments. 'I would prefer to say that it is a tacit understanding that we will honour our promise to exchange it for a dollar's worth of gold provided we are not, in point of fact, asked to.'
'So… it's not really a promise?'
'It certainly is, sir, in financial circles. It is, you see, about trust.'
'You mean, trust us, we've got a big expensive building?'
'You jest, Mr Lipwig, but there may be a grain of truth there.' Bent sighed. 'I can see you have a lot to learn. At least you'll have me to teach you. And now, I think, you would like to see the Mint. People always like to see the Mint. It's twenty-seven minutes and thirty-six seconds past one, so they should have finished their lunch hour.'
It was a cavern. Moist was pleased about that, at least. A mint should be lit by flames.
Its main hall was three storeys high, and picked up some grey daylight from the rows of barred windows. And, in terms of primary architecture, that was it. Everything else was sheds.
Sheds were built on to the walls and even hung like swallows' nests up near the ceiling, accessed by unsafe-looking wooden stairs. The uneven floor itself was a small village of sheds, placed any old how, no two alike, each one carefully roofed against the non-existent prospect of rain. Wisps of smoke spiralled gently through the thick air. Against one wall a forge glowed dark orange, providing the right Stygian atmosphere. The place looked like the after-death destination for people who had committed small and rather dull sins.
This was, however, just the background. What dominated the hall was the Bad Penny. The treadmill was… strange.
Moist had seen treadmills before. There had been one in the Tanty, wherein inmates could invigorate their cardiovascular systems whether they wanted to or not. Moist had taken a turn or two before he worked out how to play the system. It had been a brute of a thing, cramped, heavy and depressing. The Bad Penny was much larger, but hardly seemed to be there at all. There was a metal rim that, from here, looked frighteningly thin. Moist tried in vain to see the spokes, until he realized that there weren't any, just hundreds of thin wires.
'All right, I can see it must work, but – ' he began, staring up at the huge gearbox.
'It works very well, I gather,' said Bent. 'They have a golem to power it when needed.'
'But surely it should fall to bits!'
'Should it? I am not in a position to say, sir. Ah, here they come…'
Figures were heading towards them from various sheds and from the door at the far end of the building. They walked slowly and deliberately and with one purpose, rather like the living dead.
In the end, Moist thought of them as the Men of the Sheds. They weren't, all of them, that old, but even the young ones, most of them, appeared to have donned the mantle of middle age very early. Apparently, to get a job in the Mint, you had to wait until someone died; it was a case of Dead Man's Sheds. Illuminating the bright side, however, was the fact that when your prospective vacancy became available you got the job even if you were only slightly less dead than the previous incumbent.
The Men of the Sheds ran the linishing shed, the milling shed, the finishing shed, the Foundry (two sheds) and the Security (one shed, but quite a big one) and the storage shed, which had a lock Moist could have opened with a sneeze. The other sheds were a mystery, but presumably had been built in case someone needed a shed in a hurry.
The Men of the Sheds had what passed within the sheds as names: Alf, Young Alf, Gobber, Boy Charlie, King Henry… but the one who was, as it were, the designated speaker to the world beyond the sheds had a whole name.
'This is Mr Shady the Eighteenth, Mr Lipwig,' said Bent. 'Mr Lipwig is… just visiting.'
'The Eighteenth?' said Moist. 'There are another seventeen of you?'
'Not any more, sir,' said Shady, grinning.
'Mr Shady is the hereditary foreman, sir,' Bent supplied.
'Hereditary foreman…' Moist repeated blankly.
'That's right, sir,' said Shady. 'Does Mr Lipwig want to know the history, sir?'
'No,' said Bent firmly.
'Yes,' said Moist, seeing his firmly and raising him an emphatically.
'Oh, it appears that he does,' sighed Bent. Mr Shady smiled.
It was a very full history, and took some telling. At one point Moist was sure it was time for an ice age. Words streamed past him like sleet but, like sleet, some stuck. The post of hereditary foreman had been treated hundreds of years before, when the post of Master of the Mint was a sinecure handed to a drinking pal of the current king or patrician, who used it as a money box and did nothing more than turn up now and again with a big sack, a hangover and a meaningful look. The foremanship was instituted because it was dimly realized that someone ought to be in charge and, if possible, sober.
'So you actually run it all?' said Moist quickly, to stem the flow of really interesting facts about money.
"That's right, sir. Pro tern. There hasn't been a master for a hundred years.'
'So how do you get paid?'
There was a moment's silence, and then Mr Shady said, like a man talking to a child: 'This is a mint, sir.'
'You make your own wages?'
'Who else is going to, sir? But it's all official, isn't that right, Mr Bent? He gets all the dockets. We cut out the middle man, really.'
'Well, at least you're in a profitable business,' said Moist cheerfully. 'I mean, you must be making money hand over fist!'
'We manage to break even, sir, yes,' said Shady, as if it was a close-run thing.
'Break even? You're a mint!' said Moist. 'How can you not make a profit by making money?'
'Overheads, sir. There's overheads wherever you look.'
'There too, sir,' said Shady. 'It's ruinous, sir, it really is. Y'see, it costs a ha'penny to make a farthin' an' nearly a penny to make a ha'penny. A penny comes in at a penny farthin'. Sixpences costs tuppence farthin', so we're in pocket there. Half a dollar costs seven pence. And it's only sixpence to make a dollar, a definite improvement, but that's 'cos we does 'em here. The real buggers are the mites, 'cos they're worth half a farthin' but cost sixpence 'cos it's fiddly work, their bein' so small and havin' that hole in the middle. The thruppenny bit, sir, we've only got a couple of people makin' those, a lot of work which runs out at seven pence. And don't ask me about the tuppenny piece!'
'What about the tuppenny piece?'
'I'm glad you asked me that, sir. Fine work, sir, tots up to seven and one-sixteenth pence. And, yes, there's one sixteenth of a penny, sir, the elim.'
'I've never heard of it!'
'Well, no, sir, you wouldn't, a gentleman of class like yourself, but it has its place, sir, it has its place. Nice little thing, sir, lot of tiny detail, made by widow women according to tradition, costs a whole shilling 'cos the engraving is so fine. Takes the old girls days to do one, what with their eyesight and everything, but it makes 'em feel they're bein' useful.'
'But a sixteenth of a penny? One quarter of a farthing? What can you buy with that?'
'You'd be amazed, sir, down some streets. A candle stub, a small potato that's only a bit green,' said Shady. 'Maybe an apple core that ain't been entirely et. And of course it's handy to drop in the charity box.'
And gold is the anchor, is it? Moist thought.
He looked around the huge space. There were about a dozen people working there, if you included the golem, whom Moist had learned to think of as part of a species to be treated as 'human for a given value of human', and the pimply boy who made the tea, whom he hadn't.
'You don't seem to need many people,' he said.
'Ah, well, we only do the silver and gold – '
'Gold-ish,' Mr Bent intervened quickly.
' – gold-ish coins here, you see. And unusual stuff, like medals. We make the blanks for the copper and brass, but the outworkers do the rest.'
'Outworkers? A mint with outworkers?
'That's right, sir. Like the widows. They work at home. Huh, you couldn't expect the old dears to totter in here, most of 'em need two sticks to get about!'
'The Mint… that is, the place that makes money… employs people who work at home? I mean, I know it's fashionable, but I mean… well, don't you think it's odd?'
'Gods bless you, sir, there are families out there who've been making a few coppers every evening for generations!' said Shady happily. 'Dad doing the basic punching, mum chasing and finishing, the kids cleanin' and polishin'… it's traditional. Our outworkers are like one big family.'
'Okay, but what about security?'
'If they steal so much as a farthing they can be hanged,' said Bent. 'It counts as treason, you know.'
'What kind of families are you used to?' said Moist, aghast.
'I must point out that no one ever has, though, because they're very loyal,' said the foreman, glaring at Bent.
'It used to be a hand cut off for a first offence,' said Mr Bent the family man.
'Do they make a lot of money?' said Moist, carefully, getting between the two men. 'I mean, in terms of wages?'
'About fifteen dollars a month. It's detailed work,' said Shady. 'Some of the old ladies don't get as much. We get a lot of bad elims.'
Moist stared up at the Bad Penny. It rose through the central well of the building and looked gossamer-frail for something so big. The lone golem plodding along inside had a slate hanging around its neck, which meant it was one of those that couldn't talk. Moist wondered if the Golem Trust knew about it. They had amazing ways of finding golems.
As he watched, the wheel swung gently to a halt. The silent golem stood still.
'Tell me,' said Moist. 'Why bother with gold-ish coins? Why not just, well, make the dollars out of gold? Did you get a lot of clipping and sweating?'
'I'm surprised a gentleman like you knows them names, sir,' said the foreman, taken aback.
'I take a keen interest in the criminal mind,' said Moist, slightly faster than he'd intended. It was true. You just needed a talent for introspection.
'Good for you, sir. Oh yes, we've had them tricks and a lot more, oh yes! I swear we see 'em all. And painting an' plating an' plugging. Even re-casting, sir, adulterated with copper, very neat. I swear, sir, there are people out there that will spend two days scheming and fiddling to make the amount of money they could earn by honest means in one day!'
'As I stand here, sir,' said Shady. 'And what kind o' sane mind does that?'
Well, mine, once upon a time, Moist thought. It was more fun. 'I really don't know,' he said.
'So the city council said the dollars were to be gold-ish, mostly navy brass to tell you the truth, 'cos it shines up nice. Oh, they still forge, sir, but it's hard to get right and the Watch comes down heavily on 'em and at least no one's nicking the gold,' said Shady. 'Is that all, sir? Only we've got stuff to finish before our knocking-off time, you see, and if we stay late we have to make more money to pay our overtime, and if the lads is a bit tired we ends up earning the money faster'n we can make it, which leads to a bit of what I can only call a conundrum – '
'You mean that if you do overtime you have to do more overtime to pay for it?' said Moist, still pondering on how illogical logical thinking can be if a big enough committee is doing it.
'That's right, sir,' said Shady. 'And down that road madness lies.'
'It's a very short road,' said Moist, nodding. 'But one last thing, if I may. What do you do about security?'
Bent coughed. 'The Mint is impossible to get into from outside the bank once it is locked, Mr Lipwig. By arrangement with the Watch, off-duty officers patrol both buildings at night, with some of our own guards. They wear proper bank uniforms in here, of course, because the Watch is so shabby, but they ensure a professional approach, you understand.'
Well, yes, thought Moist, who suspected that his experience of coppers was rather more in-depth than that of Bent. The money is probably safe, but I bet you get through a hell of a lot of coffee and pens.
'I was thinking about… during the day,' he said. The Men of the Sheds were watching him with blank stares.
'Oh, that,' said Mr Shady. 'We do that ourselves. We take turns. Boy Charlie's the Security this week. Show him your truncheon, Charlie.'
One of the men pulled a large stick from inside his coat and shyly held it up.
'There used to be a badge, too, but it got lost,' said Shady. 'But that doesn't matter much 'cos we all know who he is. And when we're leaving, he's sure to remind us not to steal anything.'
'Well, that seems to cover it nicely,' said Moist, rubbing his hands together. 'Thank you, gentlemen!'
And they filed away, each man to his shed.
'Probably very little,' said Mr Bent, watching them go.
'Hmm?' said Moist.
'You were wondering how much money is walking out with them, I believe.'
'Very little, I think. They say that after a while the money becomes just… stuff,' said the chief cashier, leading the way back into the bank.
'It costs more than a penny to make a penny,' Moist murmured. 'Is it just me, or is that wrong?'
'But, you see, once you have made it, a penny keeps on being a penny,' said Mr Bent. 'That's the magic of it.'
'It is?' said Moist. 'Look, it's a copper disc. What do you expect it to become?'
'In the course of a year, just about everything,' said Mr Bent smoothly. 'It becomes some apples, part of a cart, a pair of shoelaces, some hay, an hour's occupancy of a theatre seat. It may even become a stamp and send a letter, Mr Lipwig. It might be spent three hundred times and yet - and this is the good part - it is still one penny, ready and willing to be spent again. It is not an apple, which will go bad. Its worth is fixed and stable. It is not consumed.' Mr Bent's eyes gleamed dangerously, and one of them twitched. 'And this is because it is ultimately worth a tiny fraction of the everlasting gold!'
'But it's just a lump of metal. If we used apples instead of coins, you could at least eat the apple,' said Moist.
'Yes, but you can only eat it once. A penny is, as it were, an everlasting apple.'
'Which you can't eat. And you can plant an apple tree.'
'You can use money to make more money,' said Bent.
'Yes, but how do you make more gold? The alchemists can't, the dwarfs hang on to what they've got, the Agateans won't let us have any. Why not go on the silver standard? They do that in BhangBhangduc.'
'I imagine they would, being foreign,' said Bent. 'But silver blackens. Gold is the one untarnishable metal.' And once again there was that tic: gold clearly had a tight hold on the man. 'Have you seen enough, Mr Lipwig?'
'Slightly too much for comfort, I think.'
'Then let us go and meet the chairman.'
Moist followed Bent's jerky walk up two flights of marble stairs and along a corridor. They halted in front of a pair of dark wooden doors and Mr Bent knocked, not once but with a sequence of taps that suggested a code. Then he pushed the door open, very carefully.
The chairman's office was large, and simply furnished with very expensive things. Bronze and brass were much in evidence. Probably the last remaining tree of some rare, exotic species had been hewn to make the chairman's desk, which was an object of desire and big enough to bury people in. It gleamed a deep, deep green, and spoke of power and probity. Moist assumed, as a matter of course, that it was lying.
There was a very small dog sitting in a brass in-tray, but it was only when Bent said 'Mr Lipwig, madam chairman' that Moist realized that the desk also had a human occupant. The head of a very small, very elderly, grey-haired woman was peering over the top of it at him. Resting on the desk on either side of her, gleaming silver steel in this world of gold-coloured things, were two loaded crossbows, fixed on little swivels. The lady's thin little hands were just drawing back from the stocks.
'Oh yes, how nice,' she trilled. 'I am Mrs Lavish. Do take a seat, Mr Lipwig.'
He did so, as much out of the current field of the bows as possible, and the dog leapt down from the desk and on to his lap with happy, scrotum-crushing enthusiasm.
It was the smallest and ugliest dog Moist had ever seen. It resembled those goldfish with the huge bulging eyes that look as though they are about to explode. Its nose, on the other hand, looked staved in. It wheezed, and its legs were so bandy that it must sometimes trip over its own feet.
'That's Mr Fusspot,' said the old woman. 'He doesn't normally take to people, Mr Lipwig. I am impressed.'
'Hello, Mr Fusspot,' said Moist. The dog gave a little yappy bark and then covered Moist's face in all that was best in dog slobber.
'He likes you, Mr Lipwig,' said Mrs Lavish approvingly. 'Can you guess at the breed?'
Moist had grown up with dogs and was pretty good at breeds, but with Mr Fusspot there was no place to start. He plumped for honesty. 'All of them?' he suggested.
Mrs Lavish laughed, and the laugh sounded at least sixty years younger than she was.
'Quite right! His mother was a spoon hound, very popular in royal palaces in the olden days. But she got out one night and there was an awful lot of barking and I fear Mr Fusspot is the son of many fathers, poor thing.'
Mr Fusspot turned two soulful eyes on Moist, and his expression began to become a little strained.
'Bent, Mr Fusspot is looking rather uncomfortable,' said Mrs Lavish. 'Please take him for his little walk in the garden, will you? I really don't think the young clerks give him enough time.'
A brief spell of thundery weather passed across the chief cashier's face, but he obediently took a red leash from a hook.
The little dog began to growl.
Bent also took down a pair of heavy leather gloves and deftly put them on. As the growling increased he picked up the dog very carefully and held it under one arm. Without uttering a word, he left the room.
'So you are the famous Postmaster General,' said Mrs Lavish. 'The man in the golden suit, no less. But not this morning, I note. Come here, dear boy. Let me look at you in the light.'
Moist advanced, and the old lady got awkwardly to her feet by means of a pair of ivory-handled walking sticks. Then she dropped one and grabbed Moist's chin. She stared intently at him, turning his head this way and that.
'Hmm,' she said, stepping back. 'It's as I thought…' The remaining walking stick caught Moist a whack across the back of the legs, scything him over like a straw. As he lay stunned on the thick carpet Mrs Lavish went on, triumphantly: 'You're a thief, a trickster, a charlie artful and all-round bunco artist! Admit it!'
'I'm not!' Moist protested weakly.
'Liar, too,' said Mrs Lavish cheerfully. 'And probably an impostor! Oh, don't waste that innocent look on me! I said you are a rogue, sir! I wouldn't trust you with a bucket of water if my knickers were on fire!'
Then she prodded Moist in the chest, hard. 'Well, are you going to lie there all day?' she snapped. 'Get up, man. I didn't say I didn't like you!'
Head spinning, Moist got cautiously to his feet.
'Give me your hand, Mr Lipwig,' said Mrs Lavish. 'Postmaster General? You are a work of art! Put it here!'
'What? Oh…' Moist grasped the old woman's hand. It was like shaking hands with cold parchment.
Mrs Lavish laughed. 'Ah, yes. Just like the forthright and reassuring grasp of my late husband. No honest man has a handshake as honest as that. How in the world has it taken you so long to find the financial sector?'
Moist looked around. They were alone, his calves were sore, and there was no fooling some people. What we have here, he told himself, is a Mkl Feisty Old Lady: turkey neck, embarrassing sense of humour, a gleeful pleasure in mild cruelty, direct way of speaking that flirts with rudeness and, more importantly, also flirts with flirting. Likes to think she's no 'lady'. Game for anything that doesn't carry the risk of falling over and with a look in her eye that says 'I can do what I like, because I am old. And I have a soft spot for rascals.' Old ladies like that were hard to fool, but there was no need to. He relaxed. Sometimes it was a sheer relief to drop the mask.
'I'm not an impostor, at least,' he said. 'Moist von Lipwig is my given name.'
'Yes, I can't imagine that you would have had any choice in the matter,' said Mrs Lavish, heading back to her seat. 'However, you seem to be fooling all of the people all of the time. Sit down, Mr Lipwig. I shall not bite.' This last was said with a look that transmitted: 'But give me half a bottle of gin and five minutes to find my teeth and we shall see!' She indicated a chair next to her.
'What? I thought I was being dismissed!' said Moist, playing along.
'For being all those things you said?'
'I didn't say I thought you were a bad person,' said Mrs Lavish. 'And Mr Fusspot likes you and he is a remarkably good judge of people. Besides, you've done wonders with our Post Office, just as Havelock says.' Mrs Lavish reached down beside her and pulled a large bottle of gin on to the desktop. 'A drink, Mr Lipwig?'
'Er, not at this time.'
Mrs Lavish sniffed. 'I don't have much time, sir, but fortunately I have a lot of gin.' Moist watched her pour a marginally sub-lethal measure into a tumbler. 'Do you have a young lady?' she asked, raising the glass.
'Does she know what you're like?'
'Yes. I keep telling her.'
'Doesn't believe you, eh? Ah, such is the way of a woman in love,' sighed Mrs Lavish.
'I don't think it worries her, actually. She's not your average girl.'
'Ah, and she sees your inner self? Or, perhaps, the carefully constructed inner self you keep around for people to find? People like you…' She paused and went on:'… people like us always keep at least one inner self for inquisitive visitors, don't we?'
Moist didn't rise to this. Talking to Mrs Lavish was like standing in front of a magic mirror that stripped you to your marrow. He just said: 'Most of the people she knows are golems.'
'Oh? Great big clay men who are utterly trustworthy and don't have anything to declare in the trouser department? What does she see in you, Mr Lipwig?' She prodded him with a finger like a cheese straw.
Moist's mouth dropped open.
'A contrast, I trust,' said Mrs Lavish, patting him on the arm. 'And now Havelock has sent you here to tell me how to run my bank. You may call me Topsy.'
'Well, I – ' Tell her how to run her bank? It hadn't been put like that.
Topsy leaned forward. 'I never minded about Honey, you know,' she said, slightly lowering her voice. 'Quite a nice girl, but thick as a yard of lard. She wasn't the first, either. Not by a long way. I was Joshua's mistress once myself.'
'Really?' He knew he was going to hear it all, whether he wanted to or not.
'Oh, yes,' said Mrs Lavish. 'People understood more then. It was all quite acceptable. I used to take tea with his wife once a month to sort out his schedule, and she always said she was glad to have him out from under her feet. Of course, a mistress was expected to be a woman of some accomplishment in those days.' She sighed. 'Now, of course, the ability to spin upside down around a pole seems to be sufficient.'
'Standards are falling everywhere,' said Moist. It was a pretty good bet. They always were.
'Banking is really rather similar,' said Topsy, as though thinking aloud.
'I mean the mere physical end in view is going to be the same, but style should count for something, don't you think? There should be flair. There should be inventiveness. There should be an experience rather than a mere function. Havelock says you understand these tilings.' She gave Moist a questioning look. 'After all, you have made the Post Office an almost heroic enterprise, yes? People set their watches by the arrival of the Genua express. They used to set their calendars!'
'The clacks still makes a loss,' said Moist.
'A marvellously small one, while enriching the commonality of mankind in all sorts of ways, and I've no doubt that Havelock's tax men take their share of that. You have the gift of enthusing people, Mr Lipwig.'
'Well, I… well, I suppose I do,' he managed. 'I know if you want to sell the sausage you have to know how to sell the sizzle.'
'Well and good, well and good,' said Topsy, 'but I hope you know that however gifted you are as a sizzle salesman, sooner or later you must be able to produce the sausage, hmm?' She gave him a wink which would have got a younger woman jailed.
'Incidentally,' she went on, 'I recall hearing that the gods led you to the treasure trove that helped you to rebuild the Post Office. What really happened? You can tell Topsy.'
He probably could, he decided, and noticed that although her hair was indeed thinning and almost white, it still held a pale trace of orange that hinted of more vivid reds in the past. 'It was my stashed loot from years of swindling,' he said.
Mrs Lavish clapped her hands. 'Wonderful! A sausage indeed! That is so… satisfying. Havelock has always had an instinct for people. He has plans for the city, you know.'
'The Undertaking,' said Moist. 'Yes, I know.'
'Underground streets and new docks and everything,' said Topsy, 'and for that a government needs money, and money needs banks. Unfortunately, people have rather lost their faith in banks.'
'Because we lost their money, usually. Mostly not on purpose. We have been badly buffeted in recent years. The Crash of '88, the Crash of '93, the Crash of '98… although that one was more of a ding. My late husband was a man who loaned unwisely, so we must carry bad debts and the other results of questionable decisions. Now we're where little old ladies keep their money because they always have done and the nice young clerks are still polite and there's still a brass bowl by the door for their little dogs to drink out of. Could you do anything about this? The supply of old ladies is running out, as I'm well aware.'
'Well, er, I may have a few ideas,' said Moist. 'But it's all still a bit of a shock. I don't really understand how banks work.'
'You've never put money in a bank?'
'Not in, no.'
'How do you think they work?'
'Well, you take rich people's money and lend it to suitable people at interest, and give as little as possible of the interest back.'
'Yes, and what is a suitable person?'
'Someone who can prove they don't need the money?'
'Oh, you cynic. But you have got the general idea.'
'No poor people, then?'
'Not in banks, Mr Lipwig. No one with an income under a hundred and fifty dollars a year. That is why socks and mattresses were invented. My late husband always said that the only way to make money out of poor people is by keeping them poor. He was not, in his business life, a very nice man. Do you have any more questions?'
'How did you become the bank's chairman?' said Moist.
'Chairman and manager,' said Topsy proudly. 'Joshua liked to be in control.
'Oh yes, didn't he just,' she added, as if to herself. 'And I am now both of them because of a bit of ancient magic called "being left fifty per cent of the shares".'
'I thought that bit of magic was fifty-one per cent of the shares,' said Moist. 'Couldn't the other shareholders force – '
A door opened at the far side of the room and a tall woman in white entered, carrying a tray with its contents concealed by a cloth.
'It really is time for your medicine, Mrs Lavish,' she said.
'It does me no good at all, Sister!' snapped the old woman.
'Now, you know the doctor said no more alcohol,' said the nurse. she looked accusingly at Moist. 'She's to have no more alcohol,' she repeated, on the apparent assumption that he had a few bottles on his person.
'Well, I say no more doctor!' said Mrs Lavish, winking conspiratorially at Moist. 'My so-called stepchildren are paying for this, can you believe it? They're out to poison me! And they tell everyone I've gone mad – '
There was a knock at the door, less a request to enter than a declaration of intent. Mrs Lavish moved with impressive speed and the bows were already swivelling when the door swung open.
Mr Bent came in with Mr Fusspot under his arm, still growling.
'I said five times, Mr Bent!' Mrs Lavish yelled. 'I might have shot Mr Fusspot! Can't you count?'
'I do beg your pardon,' said Bent, placing Mr Fusspot carefully in the in-tray. 'And I can count.'
'Who's a little fusspot, then?' said Mrs Lavish, as the little dog almost exploded with mad excitement at seeing someone he'd last seen at most ten minutes ago. 'Has oo been a good boy? Has he been a good boy, Mr Bent?'
'Yes, madam. Excessively.' The venom of a snake ice cream could not have been chillier. 'May I return to my duties now?'
'Mr Bent thinks I don't know how to run a bank, doesn't he, Mr Fusspot?' Mrs Lavish crooned to the dog. 'He's a silly Mr Bent, isn't he? Yes, Mr Bent, you may go.'
Moist recalled an old BhangBhangduc proverb: 'When old ladies talk maliciously to their dog, that dog is lunch.' It seemed amazingly appropriate at a time like this, and a time like this was not a good time to be around.
'Well, it's been nice meeting you, Mrs Lavish,' he said, standing up. 'I shall… think things over.'
'Has he been to see Hubert?' said Mrs Lavish, apparently to the dog. 'He must see Hubert before he goes. I think he is a little confused about finance. Take him to see Hubert, Mr Bent. Hubert is so good at explaining.'
'As you wish, madam,' said Bent, glaring at Mr Fusspot. 'I'm certain that having heard Hubert explain the flow of money he will no longer be a little confused. Please follow me, Mr Lipwig.'
Bent was silent as they walked downstairs. He lifted his oversized feet with care, like a man walking across a floor strewn with pins.
'Mrs Lavish is a jolly old stick, isn't she?' Moist ventured.
'I believe she is what is known as a "character", sir,' said Bent sombrely.
'A bit tiresome at times?'
'I will not comment, sir. Mrs Lavish owns fifty-one per cent of the shares in my bank.'
His bank, Moist noted.
'That's strange,' he said. 'She just told me she owned only fifty per cent.'
'And the dog,' said Bent. 'The dog owns one share, a legacy from the late Sir Joshua, and Mrs Lavish owns the dog. The late Sir Joshua had what I understand is called a puckish sense of humour, Mr Lipwig.'
And the dog owns a piece of the bank, thought Moist. What jolly people the Lavishes are, indeed. 'I can see that you might not find it very funny, Mr Bent,' he said.
'I am pleased to say I find nothing funny, sir,' Bent replied, as they reached the bottom of the stairs. 'I have no sense of humour whatsoever. None at all. It has been proved by phrenology. I have Nichtlachen-Keinwortz Syndrome, which for some curious reason is considered a lamentable affliction. I, on the other hand, consider it a gift. I am happy to say that I regard the sight of a fat man slipping on a banana skin as nothing more than an unfortunate accident that highlights the need for care in the disposal of household waste.'
'Have you tried – ' Moist began, but Bent held up a hand.
'Please! I repeat, I do not regard it as a burden! And may I say it annoys me when people assume it is such! Do not feel impelled to try to make me laugh, sir! If I had no legs, would you try to make me run? I am quite happy, thank you!'
He paused by another pair of doors, calmed down a little and gripped the handles.
'And now, perhaps, I should take this opportunity to show you where the… may I say serious work is done, Mr Lipwig. This used to be called the counting house, but I prefer to think of it as' - he pulled at the doors, which swung open majestically - 'my world.'
It was impressive. And the first impression it gave Moist was: this is Hell on the day they couldn't find the matches.
He stared at the rows of bent backs, scribbling frantically. No one looked up.
'I will not have abacuses, Calculating Bones or other inhuman devices under this roof, Mr Lipwig,' said Bent, leading the way down the central aisle. 'The human brain is capable of infallibility in the world of numbers. Since we invented them, how should it be otherwise? We are rigorous here, rigorous – ' In one swift movement Bent pulled a sheet of paper from the out-tray of the nearest desk, scanned it briefly and dropped it back again with a little grunt that signified either his approval that the clerk had got things right or his own disappointment that he had not found anything wrong.
The sheet had been crammed with calculations, and surely no mortal could have followed them at a glance. But Moist would not have bet a penny that Bent hadn't accounted for every line.
'Here in this room we are at the heart of the bank,' said the chief cashier proudly.
'The heart,' said Moist blankly.
'Here we calculate interest and charges and mortgages and costs and - everything, in fact. And we do not make mistakes.'
'Well, hardly ever. Oh, some individuals occasionally make an error,' Bent conceded, with distaste. 'Fortunately, I check every calculation. No errors get past me, you may depend upon it. An error, sir, is worse than a sin, the reason being that a sin is often a matter of opinion or viewpoint or even of timing but an error is a fact and it cries out for correction. I see you are carefully not sneering, Mr Lipwig.'
'I'm not? I mean, no. I'm not!' said Moist. Damn. He'd forgotten the ancient wisdom: take care, when you are closely observing, that you are not closely observed.
'But you are appalled, nevertheless,' said Bent. 'You use words, and I'm told you do it well, but words are soft and can be pummelled into different meanings by a skilled tongue. Numbers are hard. Oh, you can cheat with them but you cannot change their nature. Three is three. You cannot persuade it to be four, even if you give it a great big kiss.' There was a very faint snigger from somewhere in the hall, but Mr Bent apparently did not notice. 'And they are not very forgiving. We work very hard here, at things that must be done,' he said. 'And this is where I sit, at the very centre…'
They'd reached the big stepped dais in the centre of the room. As they did so, a skinny woman in a white blouse and long black skirt edged respectfully past them and carefully placed a wad of paper in a tray that was already piled high. She glanced at Mr Bent, who said Thank you, Miss Drapes'. He was too busy pointing out the marvels of the dais, on which a semicircular desk of complex design had been mounted, to notice the expression that passed across her pale little face. But Moist did, and read a thousand words, probably written in her diary and never ever shown to anyone.
'Do you see?' said the chief cashier impatiently.
'Hmm?' said Moist, watching the woman scurry away.
'See here, you see?' said Bent, sitting down and pointing with what almost seemed like enthusiasm. 'By means of these treadles I can move my desk to face anywhere in the room! It is the panopticon of my little world. Nothing is beyond my eye!' He pedalled furiously and the whole dais began to rumble round on its turntable. 'And it can turn at two speeds, too, as you can see, because of this ingenious – '
'I can see that almost nothing is beyond your eye,' said Moist as Miss Drapes sat down. 'But I'm sorry to interrupt your work.'
Bent glanced at the in-tray and gave a little shrug. 'That pile? That will not take me long,' he said, setting the handbrake and standing up. Besides, I think it important that you see what we are really about at this point, because I must now take you to meet Hubert.' He gave a little cough.
'Hubert is not what you're about?' Moist suggested, and then headed back to the main hall.
'I'm sure he means well,' said Bent, leaving the words hanging in the air like a noose.
Out in the hall a dignified hush prevailed. A few people were at the counters, an old lady watched her little dog drink from the brass bowl inside the door, and any words that were uttered were spoken in a suitably hushed voice. Moist was all for money, it was one of his favourite things, but it didn't have to be something you mentioned very quietly in case it woke up. If money talked in here, it whispered.
The chief cashier opened a small and not very grand door behind the stairs and half hidden by some potted plants.
'Please be careful, the floor is always wet here,' he said, and led the way down some wide steps into the grandest cellar Moist had ever seen. Fine stone vaulting supported beautifully tiled ceilings stretching away into the gloom. There were candles everywhere, and in the middle distance something was sparkling and filling the colonnaded space with a blue-white glow.
'This was the undercroft of the temple,' said Bent, leading the way.
'Are you telling me this place doesn't just look like a temple?'
'It was built as a temple, yes, but never used as one.'
'Really?' said Moist. 'Which god?'
'None, as it turned out. One of the kings of Ankh commanded it to be built about nine hundred years ago,' said Bent. 'I suppose it was a case of speculative building. That is to say, he had no god in mind.'
'He hoped one would turn up?'
'Like blue-tits?' said Moist, peering around. 'This place was a kind of celestial bird box?'
Bent sighed. 'You express yourself colourfully, Mr Lipwig, but I suppose there is some truth there. It didn't work, anyway. Then it got used as storage in case of siege, became an indoor market, and so on, and then Jocatello La Vice got the place when the city defaulted on a loan. It is all in the official history. Isn't the fornication wonderful?'
After quite a lengthy pause, Moist ventured: 'It is?'
'Don't you think so? There's more here than anywhere else in the city, I'm told.'
'Really?' said Moist, looking around nervously. 'Er, do you have to come down here at some special time?'
'Well, in banking hours usually, but we let groups in by appointment.'
'You know,' said Moist, 'I think this conversation has somehow got away from me…'
Bent waved vaguely at the ceiling. 'I refer to the wonderful vaulting,' he said. 'The word derives from fornix, meaning "arch".'
'Ah! Yes? Right!' said Moist. 'You know, I wouldn't be surprised if not many people knew that.'
And then Moist saw the Glooper, glowing among the arches.READ MORE >>