Jailbreak - The prospect of the kidney sandwich - The barber-surgeon's knock - Suicide by paint, inadvisability of - Angels at one remove - Igor goes shopping - The use of understudies at a hanging, reflections on - Places suitable for putting a head - Moist awaits the sunshine - Tricks with your brain - 'We're going to need some bigger notes' - Fun with root vegetables - The lure of clipboards - The impossible cabinet
ON THE ROOF OF the Tanty, the city's oldest jail, Moist was more than moist. He'd reached the point where he was so wet that he should be approaching dryness from the other end.
With care, he lifted the last of the oil lamps from the little semaphore tower on the flat roof, and tossed its contents into the howling night. They had been only half full in any case. It was amazing that anyone had even bothered to light them on a night like this.
He felt his way back to the edge of the roof and located his grapnel, moving it gently around the stern crenellation and then letting out more rope to lower it down to the invisible ground. Now he had the rope around the big stone bulk he slid down holding on to both lengths and pulled the rope down after him. He stashed both grapnel and rope among the debris in an alley; they would be stolen within an hour or so.
Right, then. Now for it…
The Watch armour he'd lifted from the bank's locker room fitted like a glove. He'd have preferred it to fit like a helmet and breastplate. But in truth it probably didn't look any better on its owner, currently swanking along the corridors in the bank's own shiny but impractical armour. It was common knowledge that the Watch's approach to uniforms was one-size-doesn't-exactly-fit-anybody, and that Commander Vimes disapproved of armour that didn't have that kicked-by-trolls look. He liked armour to state clearly that it had been doing its job.
Moist took some time to get his breath back, and then walked round to the big black door and rang the bell. The mechanism rattled and clanked. They wouldn't rush, not on a night like this.
He was as naked and exposed as a baby lobster. He hoped he'd covered all the angles, but angles were - what did they call it, he'd gone to a lecture at the university… ah, yes. Angles were fractal. Each one was full of smaller angles. You couldn't cover them all. The watchman at the bank might be called back to work and find his locker empty, someone might have seen Moist take it, Jenkins might have been moved… The hell with it. When time was pressing you just had to spin the wheel and be ready to run.
Or, in this case, lift the huge door knocker in both hands and bring it down sharply, twice, on the nail. He waited until, with difficulty, a small hatch in the door was pulled aside.
'What?' said a petulant voice in a shadowy face.
'Prisoner pick-up. Name of Jenkins.'
'What? It's the middle of the bleedin' night!'
'Got a signed Form 37,' said Moist stolidly.
The little hatch slammed shut. He waited in the rain again. This time it was three minutes before it opened.
'What?' said a new voice, marinated in suspicion.
Ah, good. It was Bellyster. Moist was glad of that. What he was going to do tonight was going to make one of the warders a very uncomfortable screw, and some of them were decent enough, especially on Death Row. But Bellyster was a real old-school screw, a craftsman of small evils, the kind of bully who would take every opportunity to make a prisoner's life a misery. It wasn't just that he'd gob in your bowl of greasy skilly; but he wouldn't even have the common decency to do it where you couldn't see him. He picked on the weak and frightened, too. And there was another good thing. Bellyster hated the Watch, and the feeling was mutual. A man could use that.
'Come for a pris'ner,' Moist complained. An' I been standing in the rain for five minutes!'
'And you shall continue to do so, my son, oh, yes indeed, until I'm ready. Show me the docket!'
'Says here Jenkins, Owlswick,' said Moist.
'Let me see it, then!'
'They said I has to hand it over when you give me the pris'ner,' said Moist, a model of stolid insistence.
'Oh, we have a lawyer here, do we? All right, Abe, let my learned friend in.'
The hatch slid back and, after some more clanking, a wicket door opened. Moist stepped through. It was raining just as hard inside the compound.
'Have I seen you before?' said Bellyster, his head on one side.
'Only started last week,' said Moist. Behind him, the door was locked again. The slamming of the bolts echoed in his head.
'Why's there only one of you?' Bellyster demanded.
'Don't know, sir. You'd have to ask my mum and dad.'
'Don't you be funny with me! There should be two on escort duty!'
Moist gave a wet and weary shrug of pure uninterest. 'Should there? Don't ask me. They just told me he's a little piece of piss who'll be no trouble. You can check if you like. I heard the palace wants to see him right away.'
The palace. That changed the gleam in the warder's nasty little eyes. A sensible man didn't get in the way of the palace. And sending out some dim newbie to do a thankless task on a wild night like this made sense; it was exactly what Bellyster would have done.
He held out his hand and demanded: 'Docket!'
Moist handed over the flimsy paper. The man read it, lips perceptibly moving, clearly willing it to be wrong in some way. There'd be no problem there, however much the man glared; Moist had pocketed a handful of the forms while Mr Spools had been making him a cup of coffee.
'He's goin' to hang in the morning,' Bellyster said, holding the sheet up to the lantern. 'What d'they want him for now?'
'Dunno,' said Moist. 'Get a move on, will you? I'm on my break in ten minutes.'
The warder leaned forward. 'Just for that, friend, I will go and check. Just one escort? Can't be too careful, can I?'
O-kay, thought Moist. All going to plan. He'll be ten minutes having a nice cup of tea, just to teach me a lesson, five minutes to find out the clacks isn't working, about one second to decide that he'll be blowed if he's going to sort out the fault on a night like this, another second to think: the paperwork was okay, he'd checked for the watermark, and that was the main thing… call it twenty minutes, give or take.
Of course, he could be wrong. Anything could happen. Bellyster could be rounding up a couple of his mates right now, or maybe he'd get someone to run out the back way and find a real copper. The future was uncertain. Exposure could be a few seconds away.
It didn't get any better than this.
Bellyster left it for twenty-two minutes. Footsteps approached, slowly, and Jenkins appeared, tottering under the weight of the irons, with Bellyster prodding him occasionally with his stick. There was no way the little man could have gone any faster, but he was going to get prodded anyway.
'I don't think I'm going to need the shackles,' said Moist quickly.
'You ain't getting 'em,' said the warder. 'The reason bein', you buggers never bring 'em back!'
'Okay,' said Moist. 'C'mon, it's freezing out here.'
Bellyster grunted. He was not a happy man. He bent down, unlocked the shackles, and stood up again with his hand once more on the man's shoulder. His other hand thrust out, holding a clipboard.
'Sign!' he commanded. Moist did so.
And then came the magic bit. It was why the paperwork was so important, in the greasy world of turnkeys, thief-takers and bang-beggars, because what really mattered at any one moment was habeas corpus: whose hand is on the collar? Who is responsible for this corpus?
Moist had been through this before as the body in question, and knew the drill. The prisoner moved on a trail of paper. If he was found without a head, then the last person to have signed for a prisoner whose hat was not resting on his neck might well have to answer some stern questions.
Bellyster pushed the prisoner forward and spake the time-honoured words: 'To you, sir!' he barked. 'Habby arse corparse!'
Moist thrust the clipboard back at him and laid his other hand on Owlswick's other shoulder. 'From you, sir!' he replied. 'I habby his arse all right!'
Bellyster grunted and removed his hand. The deed was done, the law was observed, honour was satisfied and Owlswick Jenkins -
- looked up sadly at Moist, kicked him hard in the groin, and went off down the street like a hare.
As Moist bent double, all he was aware of outside his little world of pain was the sound of Bellyster laughing himself silly and shouting: 'Your bird, milord! You habbyed him all right! Ho yus!'
Moist had managed to walk normally by the time he got back to the little room he rented from I-don't-know Jack. He struggled into the golden suit, dried off the armour, bundled it into the bag, stepped out into the alley and hurried back to the bank.
It was harder to get back in than it had been to get out. The guards changed over at the same time as the staff left, and in the general milling about Moist, wearing the tatty grey suit he wore when he wanted to stop being Moist von Lipwig and turn into the world's most unmemorable man, had strolled out unquestioned. It was all in the mind: the night guards started guarding when everyone had gone home, right? So people going home were no problem or, if they were, they were not mine.
The guard who finally turned up to see who was struggling to unlock the front door gave him a bit of trouble until a second guard, who was capable of modest intelligence, pointed out that if the chairman wanted to get into the bank at midnight then that was fine. He was the damn boss, wasn't he? Don't you read the papers? See the gold suit? And he had a key! So what if he had a big fat bag? He was coming in with it, right? If he was leaving with it that might be a different matter, ho ho, just my little joke, sir, sorry about that sir…
It was amazing what you could do if you had the nerve to try, thought Moist, as he bid the men goodnight. F'r instance, he'd been so theatrically working the key in the lock because it was a Post Office key. He didn't have one for the bank yet.
Even putting the armour back in the locker was not a problem. The guards still walked set routes and the buildings were big and not very well lit. The locker room was empty and unregarded for hours at a time.
A lamp was still alight in his new suite. Mr Fusspot was snoring on his back in the middle of the in-tray. A night-light was burning by the bedroom door. In fact there were two, and they were the red, smouldering eyes of Gladys.
'Would You Like Me To Make You A Sandwich, Mr Lipwig?'
'No, thank you, Gladys.'
'It Would Be No Trouble. There Are Kidneys In The Ice Room.'
'Thank you, but no, Gladys. I'm really not hungry,' said Moist, carefully shutting the door.
Moist lay on the bed. Up here, the building was absolutely silent. He'd grown used to his bed in the Post Office, where there was always noise drifting up from the yard.
But it was not the silence that kept him awake. He stared up at the ceiling and thought: stupid, stupid, stupid! In a few hours there would be a shift change at the Tanty. People wouldn't get too worried about the missing Owlswick until the hangman turned up looking busy, and then there would be a nervous time when they decided who was going to go to the palace to see if there was any chance of being allowed to hang their prisoner this morning.
The man would be miles away by now, and not even a werewolf could smell him on a wet and windy night like this. They couldn't pin anything on Moist, but in the cold wet light of two a.m. he could imagine bloody Commander Vimes worrying at this, picking away at it in that thick-headed way of his.
He blinked. Where would the little man run to? He wasn't part of a gang, according to the Watch. He'd just made his own stamps. What kind of a man goes to the trouble of forging a ha'penny stamp?
What kind of a man…
Moist sat up. Could it be that easy?
Well, it might be. Owlswick was crazy enough in a mild, bewildered sort of way. He had the look of one who'd long ago given up trying to understand the world beyond his easel, a man for whom cause and effect had no obvious linkage. Where would a man like that hide?
Moist lit the lamp and walked over to the battered wreckage of his wardrobe. Once again he selected the tatty grey suit. It had sentimental value; he had been hanged in it. And it was an unmemorable suit for an unmemorable man, with the additional advantage, unlike black, of not showing up in the dark. Thinking ahead, he went into the kitchen, too, and stole a couple of dusters from a cupboard.
The corridor was reasonably well lit by the lamps every few yards. But lamps create shadows and in one of them, beside a huge Ping Dynasty vase from Hunghung, Moist was just a patch of grey on grey.
A guard walked past, treacherously silent on the thick carpet. When he'd gone, Moist hurried down the flight of marble steps and tucked himself behind a potted palm that someone had thought it necessary to put there.
The floors of the bank all opened on to the main hall which, like the one in the Post Office, went from ground floor to roof. Sometimes, depending on the layout, a guard on a floor above could see the floor below. Sometimes, the guards walked over uncarpeted marble. Sometimes, on the upper floors, they crossed patches of fine tiling which rang like a bell.
Moist stood and listened, trying to pick up the rhythm of the patrols. There were more than he'd expected. Come on, lads, you're working security: what about the traditional all-night poker game! Don't you know how to behave?
It was like a wonderful puzzle. It was better than night-climbing, better even than Extreme Sneezing! And the really good thing about it was this: if he was caught, why, he was just testing the security! Well done, lads, you found me…
But he mustn't be caught.
A guard came upstairs, walking slowly and deliberately. He leaned against the balustrade and, to Moist's annoyance, lit the stub of a cigarette. Moist watched from between the fronds while the man leaned comfortably on the marble, looking down at the floor below. He was sure that guards weren't supposed to do this. And smoking, too!
After a few reflective drags, the guard dropped the dog-end, trod on it and continued up the stairs.
Two thoughts struggled for dominance in Moist's mind. Screaming slightly louder was: he had a crossbow! Do they shoot first to avoid having to ask questions later? But also there, vibrating with indignation, was a voice saying: he stubbed out that damn cigarette right there on the marble! Those tall brass wossnames with the little bowls of white sand are there for a reason, you know!
When the man had disappeared above him Moist ran down the rest of the flight, slid across the polished marble on his duster-covered boots, found the door that led down to the basement, opened it quickly and remembered just in time to close it quietly behind him.
He shut his eyes and waited for cries or sounds of pursuit.
He opened his eyes.
There was the usual brilliant light at the far end of the undercroft, but there was no rushing of water. Only the occasional drip demonstrated the depth of the otherwise all-pervading silence.
Moist walked carefully past the Glooper, which tinkled faintly, and into the unexplored shadows beneath the wonderful fornication.
If we build it, wilt thou comest? he thought. But the hoped-for god never came. It was sad but, in some celestial way, a bit stupid. Well, wasn't it? Moist had heard that there were maybe millions of little gods floating around in the world, living under rocks, blown about like tumbleweed, clinging to the topmost branches of trees… They awaited the big moment, the lucky break that might end up with a temple and a priesthood and worshippers to call your own. But they hadn't come here, and it was easy to see why.
Gods wanted belief, not rational thinking. Building the temple first was like giving a pair of wonderful shoes to a man with no legs. Building a temple didn't mean you believed in gods, it just meant you believed in architecture.
Something akin to a workshop had been built on the end wall of the undercroft, around a huge and ancient fireplace. An Igor was working over an intense, blue-white flame, carefully bending a piece of glass pipe. Behind him, green liquid surged and fizzed in giant bottles: Igors seemed to have a natural affinity with lightning.
You could always recognize an Igor. They went out of their way to be recognized. It wasn't just the musty dusty old suits, or even the occasional extra digit or mismatched eyes. It was that you could probably stand a ball on the top of their head without it falling off.
The Igor looked up. 'Good morning, thur. And you are… ?'
'Moist von Lipwig,' said Moist. 'And you would be Igor.'
'Got it in one, thur. I have heard many good thingth about you.'
'I alwayth keep an ear to the ground, thur.'
Moist resisted the impulse to look down. Igors and metaphors didn't go well together.
'Well, Igor… the thing is… I want to bring someone into the building without troubling the guards, and I wondered if there was another door down here?'
What he did not say, but which passed between them on the ether, was: you're an Igor, right? And when the mob are sharpening their sickles and trying to break down the door, the Igor is never there. Igors were masters of the unobtrusive exit.
'There ith a thmall door we uthe, thur. It can't be opened from the outthide, tho it'th never guarded.'
Moist looked longingly at the rainwear on its stand. 'Fine. Fine. I'm just popping out, then.'
'You're the bothth, thur.'
'And I shall be popping back shortly with a man. Er, a gentleman who is not anxious to meet civic authority.'
'Quite, thur. Give them a pitchfork and they think they own the bloody plathe, thur.'
'But he's not a murderer or anything.'
'I'm an Igor, thur. We don't athk quethtionth.'
'Really? Why not?
'I don't know, thur. I didn't athk.'
Igor took Moist to a small door that opened into a grimy trash-filled stairwell, half flooded by the unremitting rain. Moist paused on the threshold, the water already soaking into his cheap suit. 'Just one thing, Igor…'
'When I walked past the Glooper just now, there was water in it.'
'Oh, yeth, thur. Ith that a problem?'
'It was moving, Igor. Should that be happening at this time of night?'
'That? Oh, jutht thyphonic variableth, thur. It happenth all the time.'
'Oh, the old syphonics, eh? Ah, well, that's a relief – '
'Jutht give the barber-thurgeon'th knock when you return, thur.'
'What is the – '
The door closed.
Inside, Igor went back to his workbench and fired up the gas again.
Some of the little glass tubes lying beside him on a piece of green felt looked… odd, and reflected the light in disconcerting ways.
The point about Igors… the thing about Igors… Well, most people looked no further than the musty suit, lank hair, cosmetic clan scars and stitching, and the lisp. And this was probably because, apart from the lisp, this was all there was to see.
And people forgot, therefore, that most of the people who employed Igors were not conventionally sane. Ask them to build a storm attractor and a set of lightning storage jars and they would laugh at you. They needed, oh, how they needed someone in possession of a fully working brain, and every Igor was guaranteed to have at least one of those. Igors were, in fact, smart, which was why they were always elsewhere when the fiery torches hit the windmill.
And they were perfectionists. Ask them to build you a device and you wouldn't get what you asked for. You'd get what you wanted.
In its web of reflections, the Glooper glooped. Water rose in a thin glass tube and dripped into a little glass bucket, which tipped on to a tiny seesaw and caused a tiny valve to open.
Owlswick Jenkins's recent abode, according to the Times, was Short Alley. There wasn't a house number because Short Alley was only big enough for one front door. The door in question was shut but hanging by one hinge. A scrap of black and yellow rope indicated, for those who hadn't spotted the clue of the door, that the place had come to the recent attention of the Watch.
The door fell off the hinge when Moist pushed at it, and landed in the stream of water that was gushing down the alley.
It wasn't much of a search, because Owlswick hadn't bothered to hide. He was in a room on the first floor, surrounded by mirrors and candles, a dreamy look on his face, peacefully painting.
He dropped the brush when he saw Moist, grabbed a tube that lay on a bench, and held it in front of his mouth, ready to swallow.
'Don't make me use this! Don't make me use this!' he warbled, his whole body trembling.
'Is it some kind of toothpaste?' said Moist. He sniffed the very lived-in air of the studio and added: 'That could help, you know.'
'This is Uba Yellow, the most poisonous paint in the world! Stand back or I will die horribly!' said the forger. 'Er, in fact the most poisonous paint is probably Agatean White, but I've run out of that, it is most vexing.' It occurred to Owlswick that he had lost the tone slightly, and he quickly raised his voice again. 'But this is pretty poisonous, all the same!'
A gifted amateur picks up a lot, and Moist had always found poisons interesting. An arsenical compound, eh?' he said. Everyone knew about Agatean White. He hadn't heard of Uba Yellow, but arsenic came in many inviting shades. Just don't lick your brush.
'It's a horrible way to die,' he continued. 'You more or less melt over several days.'
'I'm not going back! I'm not going back!' squeaked Owlswick.
'They used to use it to make skin whiter,' said Moist, moving a little closer.
'Get back! I'll use it! I swear I'll use it!'
'That's where we get the phrase "drop-dead gorgeous",' said Moist, closing in.
He snatched at Owlswick, who rammed the tube in his mouth. Moist tugged it out, pushing the forger's clammy little hands out of the way, and examined it.
'Just as I thought,' he said, pocketing the tube. 'You forgot to take the cap off. It's the kind of mistake amateurs always make!'
Owlswick hesitated, and then said: 'You mean there's people who commit suicide professionally?'
'Look, Mr Jenkins, I'm here to – ' Moist began.
'I'm not going back to that jail! I'm not going back!' said the little man, backing away.
'That's fine by me. I want to offer you a – '
'They watch me, you know,' Owlswick volunteered. 'All the time.'
Ah. This was slightly better than suicide by paint, but only just.
'Er… you mean in jail?' said Moist, just to make sure.
'They watch me everywhere! There's one of Them right behind you!'
Moist stopped himself from turning, because that way madness lay. Mind you, quite a lot of it was standing right here in front of him.
'I'm sorry to hear that, Owlswick. That's why – '
He hesitated, and thought: why not? It had worked on him.
'That's why I'm going to tell you about angels,' he said.
People said there were more thunderstorms now that Igors were living in the city. There was no more thunder now, but the rain fell as if it had got all night.
Some of it swirled over the top of Moist's boots as he stood in front of the bank's unobtrusive side door and tried to remember the barber-surgeon's knock.
Oh, yes. It was the old one that went: rat tat a tat-tat TAT TAT!
Or, to put it another way: Shave and a haircut - no legs!
The door opened instantly.
'I would like to apologithe about the lack of creak, thur, but the hingeth jutht don't theem to – '
'Just give me a hand with this lot, will you?' said Moist, bent under the weight of two heavy boxes. 'This is Mr Jenkins. Can you make up a bed for him down here? And is there any chance you could change what he looks like?'
'More than you could poththibly imagine, thur,' said Igor happily.
'I was thinking of, well, a shave and a haircut. You can do that, can't you?'
Igor gave Moist a pained look. 'It ith true that technically thurgeonth can perform tonthorial operationth – '
'No, no, don't touch his throat, please.'
'That meanth yeth, I can give him a haircut, thur,' Igor sighed.
'I had my tonsils out when I was ten,' said Owlswick.
'Would you like thome more?' said Igor, looking for some bright edge to the situation.
'This is wonderful light!' Owlswick exclaimed, ignoring the offer. 'It's like day!'
'Jolly good,' said Moist. 'Now get some sleep, Owlswick. Remember what I told you. In the morning, you are going to design the first proper one-dollar banknote, understand?'
Owlswick nodded, but his mind was already elsewhere.
'You're with me on this, are you?' said Moist. 'A note so good that no one else could do it? I showed you my attempt, yes? I know you can do better, of course.'
He looked nervously at the little man. He wasn't insane, Moist was sure, but it was clear that mostly, for him, the world happened elsewhere.
Owlswick paused in the act of unpacking his box. 'Um… I can't make things up,' he said.
'What do you mean?' said Moist.
'I don't know how to make things up,' said Owlswick, staring at a paintbrush as if expecting it to whistle.
'But you're a forger! Your stamps look better than ours!'
'Er, yes. But I don't have your… I don't know how to get started… I mean, I need something to work from… I mean, once it's there, I can…'
It must be about four o'clock, thought Moist. Four o'clock! I hate it when there are two four o'clocks in the same day…
He snatched a piece of paper from Owlswick's box, and pulled out a pencil. 'Look,' he said, 'you start with…'
'Richness,' he told himself, aloud, 'richness and solidity, like the front of the bank. Lots of ornate scrolling, which is hard to copy. A… panorama, a cityscape… Yes! Ankh-Morpork, it's all about the city! Vetinari's head, because they'll expect that, and a great big One so they get the message. Oh, the coat of arms, we must have that. And down here' - the pencil scribbled fast - 'a space for the chairman's signature, pardon me, I mean paw print. On the back… well, we are talking fine detail, Owlswick. Some god would give us a bit of gravitas. One of the jollier ones. What's the name of that god with the three-pronged fork? One like him, anyway. Fine lines, Owlswick, that's what we want. Oh, and a boat. I like boats. Tell 'em it's worth a dollar again, too. Um… oh yes, mystic stuff doesn't hurt, people'll believe in any damn thing if it sounds old and mysterious. "Doth not a penny to the widow outshine the unconquered sun?"'
'What does that mean?'
'I haven't the foggiest idea,' said Moist. 'I just made it up.' He sketched away for a while and then pushed the paper across to Owlswick. 'Something like that,' he said. 'Have a go. Think you can make something of it?'
'I'll try,' Owlswick promised.
'Good. I'll see you tomo - later on. Igor here will look after you.'
Owlswick was already staring at nothing. Moist pulled Igor aside.
'Just a shave and a haircut, okay?'
'Ath you withth, thur. Am I right in thinking that the gentleman doeth not want any entanglementth with the Watch?'
'No problem there, thur. Could I thuggetht a change of name?'
'Good idea. Any suggestions?'
'I like the name Clamp, thur. And for a firtht name, Exorbit thpringth to mind.'
'Really? Where did it spring from? No, don't answer that. Exorbit Clamp…' Moist hesitated, but at this time of the night, why argue? Especially when it was this time of the morning. 'Exorbit Clamp it is, then. Make certain he forgets even the name of Jenkins,' Moist added, with what, he later realized, was in the circumstances a definite lack of foresight.
Moist slipped back up to bed without ever having to duck out of sight. No guard is at his best in the small hours. The place was locked up tight, wasn't it? Who could break in?
Down in the well-fornicated vault, the artist formerly known as Owlswick stared at Moist's sketches and felt his brain begin to fizz. It was true that he was not, in any proper sense, a madman. He was, by certain standards, very sane. Faced with a world too busy, complex and incomprehensible to deal with, he'd reduced it to a small bubble just big enough to hold him and his palette. It was nice and quiet in there. All the noises were far away, and They couldn't spy on him.
'Mr Igor?' he said.
Igor looked up from a crate in which he had been rummaging. He held what looked like a metal colander in his hands. 'How may I be of thurvithe, thur?'
'Can you get me some old books with pictures of gods and boats and maybe some views of the city too?'
'Indeed, thur. There ith an antiquarian booktheller in Lobbin Clout.' Igor put the metal device on one side, pulled a battered leather bag from under the table and, after a moment's thought, put a hammer in it.
Even in the world of the newly fledged Mr Clamp, it was still so late at night that it was too early in the morning. 'Er, I'm sure it can wait until daylight,' he volunteered.
'Oh, I alwayth ththop at night, thur,' said Igor. 'When I'm after… bargainth.'
Moist woke far too early, with Mr Fusspot standing on his chest and squeaking his rubber bone very loudly. As a result, Moist was being dribbled on in no small way.
Behind Mr Fusspot was Gladys. Behind her were two men in black suits.
'His lordship has agreed to see you, Mr Lipwig,' said one of them quite cheerfully.
Moist tried to wipe the slobber off his lapel, and only succeeded in shining the suit.
'Do I want to see him?'
One of the men smiled.
' Ooooh, yes!'
'A hanging always makes me hungry,' said Lord Vetinari, working carefully on a hard-boiled egg. 'Don't you find this so?'
'Um… I've only been hanged once,' said Moist. 'I didn't feel like eating much.'
'I think it's the chilly early-morning air,' said Vetinari, apparently not hearing this. 'It puts an edge on the appetite.'
He looked directly at Moist for the first time, and appeared concerned. 'Oh dear, you're not eating, Mr Lipwig? You must eat. You look a little peaky. I trust your job is not getting on top of you?'
Somewhere en route to the palace, Moist thought, he must have stepped into another world. It had to be something like that. It was the only explanation.
'Er, who was hanged?' he said.
'Owlswick Jenkins, the forger,' said Vetinari, devoting himself again to his surgical removal of the white from the yolk. 'Drumknott, perhaps Mr Lipwig would like some fruit? Or some of that bowel-lacerating grain and nut concoction you favour so much?'
'Indeed, sir,' said the secretary.
Vetinari leaned forward as if inviting Moist to join a conspiracy and added: 'I believe the cook does kippers for the guards. Very fortifying. You really do look quite pale. Don't you think he looks pale, Drumknott?'
'Verging on the wan, sir.'
It was like having acid dropped slowly into your ear. Moist thought frantically, but the best he could come up with was: 'Was it a well-attended hanging?'
'Not very. I don't think it was properly advertised,' said Vetinari, 'and of course, his crime was not associated with buckets of gore. That always makes the crowd cheer. But Owlswick Jenkins was there, oh yes. He never cut a throat but he bled the city, drop by drop.'
Vetinari had removed and eaten the whole of the white of the egg, leaving the yolk glowing and unsullied.
What would I have done if I was Vetinari and found my prison was about to be a laughing stock? There's nothing like laughter for undermining authority, Moist thought. More importantly, what would he have done if he was him, which of course he is…
You'd hang someone else, that's what you'd do. You'd find some wretch of the right general shape who was waiting in the slammer for the hemp fandango and cut him a deal. Oh, he'd hang right enough, but under the name of Owlswick Jenkins. News would get out that the stand-in had been pardoned but died accidentally or something, and his dear ol' mum or his wife and kids would get an anonymous bag of wonga and escape a little bit of shame.
And then the crowd would get their hanging. Now, with any luck, Bellyster had a job washing spittoons; justice, or something vaguely similar, would be seen to have been done; and the message would have been sent out that crimes against the city should be contemplated exclusively by those with cast-iron necks, and even then only maybe.
Moist realized he was touching his own neck. Sometimes he woke up in the night, even now, just a moment after the void opened under his feet –
Vetinari was looking at him. It wasn't exactly a smile on his face, but Moist got the nape-twitching feeling that, when he tried to think like Vetinari, his lordship slid in on those thoughts like some big black spider on a bunch of bananas and scuttled around where he shouldn't.
And the certainty hit him. Owlswick wouldn't have died anyway. Not with a talent like that. He would have dropped through the trap door to a new life, just as Moist had. He'd have woken up to be given the angel offer, which for Owlswick would have been a nice light room somewhere, three meals a day, his potty emptied on demand and all the ink he wanted. From an Owlswick point of view, he'd be getting heaven. And Vetinari… would get the world's best forger, working for the city.
Oh, damn. I'm right in his way. I'm in Vetinari's way.
The orange-gold ball of the rejected yolk glowed on Vetinari's plate.
'Your wonderful plans for paper money are progressing?' said his lordship. 'I'm hearing such a lot about them.'
'What? Oh, yes. Er, I'd like to put your head on a dollar bill, please.'
'But of course. A good place to put a head, considering all the places a head might be put.'
Like a spike, yeah. He needs me, Moist thought, as the totally-not-a-threat sank in. But how much?
'Look, I – '
'Possibly your fertile mind can assist me with a little puzzle, Mr Lipwig.' Vetinari dabbed at his lips and pushed back his chair. 'Do follow me. Drumknott, please bring the ring. And the tongs, of course, just in case.'
He led the way out on to the balcony, trailed by Moist, and leaned on the balustrade with his back to the foggy city.
'Still a lot of cloud about, but I think the sun should break through at any time, don't you?' he said.
Moist glanced up at the sky. There was a patch of pale gold among the billows like the yolk of an egg. What was the man doing?
'Pretty soon, yes,' he ventured.
The secretary handed Vetinari a small box.
'That's the box for your signet ring,' said Moist.
'Well done, Mr Lipwig, observant as ever! Do take it.'
Guardedly, Moist picked up the ring. It was black and had an odd, organic feel to it. The V seemed to stare at him.
'Do you find anything unusual about it?' said Vetinari, watching him carefully.
'Feels warm,' said Moist.
'Yes it does, doesn't it,' said Vetinari. 'That is because it is made of stygium. It's called a metal, but I strongly believe that it is an alloy, and a magically constructed one at that. The dwarfs sometimes find it in the Loko region, and it is extremely expensive. One day I shall write a monograph on its fascinating history, but for now all I will say is that it is usually only of interest to those who by inclination or lifestyle move in darkness - and also, of course, to those who find a life without danger hardly worth living. It can kill, you see. In direct sunshine it heats within a few seconds to a temperature that will melt iron. No one knows why.'
Moist glanced up at the hazy sky. The boiled-egg glow of the sun drifted into another bank of fog. The ring cooled.
'Occasionally there is a fad among young assassins for stygium rings. Classically, they wear an ornate black glove over the ring during the day. It's all about risk, Mr Lipwig. It's about living with Death in your pocket. I swear, there are people who will pull a tiger's tail for mischief. Of course, people who are interested in coolth rather than danger just wear the glove. Be that as it may, less than two weeks ago the only man in the city who carries a stock of stygium and knows how to work it was murdered, late at night. The murderer dropped a peppermint bomb afterwards. Who do you think did it?'
I'm not going to look up, thought Moist. This is just a game. He wants me to sweat. 'What was taken?' he said.
'The Watch does not know because, you see, what was taken was, de facto, not there.'
'All right, what was left behind?' said Moist, and thought: he's not looking at the sky, either…
'Some gems and a few ounces of stygium in the safe,' said Vetinari. 'You didn't ask how the man was killed.'
'How was – '
'Crossbow shot to the head, while he was seated. Is this exciting, Mr Lipwig?'
'Hit man, then,' said Moist desperately. 'It was planned. He didn't pay a debt. Perhaps he was a fence and tried to pull a scam. There's not enough information!'
'There never is,' said Vetinari. 'My cap comes back from the cleaners subtly changed, and a young man who works there dies in a brawl. A former gardener here comes in at dead of night to buy a rather worn pair of Drumknott's old boots. Why? Perhaps we shall never know. Why was a picture of myself stolen from the Royal Art Gallery last month? Who benefits?'
'Uh, why was this stygium left in the safe?'
'Good question. The key was in the man's pocket. So what is our motive?'
'Not enough information! Revenge? Silence? Maybe he's made something he shouldn't? Can you make a dagger out of this stuff?'
'Ah, I think you are getting warm, Mr Lipwig. Not about a weapon, because accretions of stygium much bigger than a ring tend to explode without warning. But he was a rather greedy man, that is true.'
'An argument over something?' said Moist. Yes, I am getting warm, thank you! And what are the tongs for? To pick it up after it's dropped through my hand?
The light was growing; he could see faint shadows on the wall, he felt the sweat trickle down his spine –
'An interesting thought. Do give me that ring back,' said Vetinari, proffering the box.
Hah! So it was just a show to scare me, after all, Moist thought, flicking the wretched ring into the box. I've never even heard of stygium before! He must have made it up –
He sensed the heat and saw the ring blaze white-hot as it fell into the box. The lid snapped shut, leaving a purple hole in Moist's vision.
'Remarkable, isn't it?' said Vetinari. 'Incidentally, I think you were needlessly silly to hold it all that time. I'm not a monster, you know.'
No, monsters don't play tricks with your brain, thought Moist. At least, while it's still inside your head…
'Look, about Owlswick, I didn't mean – ' he began, but Vetinari held up a hand.
'I don't know what you are talking about, Mr Lipwig. In fact, I invited you here in your capacity as de facto deputy chairman of the Royal Bank. I want you to loan me - that is to say, the city - half a million dollars at two per cent. You are, of course, at liberty to refuse.'
So many thoughts scrambled for the emergency exit in Moist's brain that only one remained.
We're going to need some bigger notes…
Moist ran back to the bank, and straight to the little door under the stairs. He liked it down in the undercroft. It was cool and peaceful, apart from the gurgling of the Glooper and the screams. That last bit was wrong, wasn't it?
The pink poisons of involuntary insomnia slopped around in his head as he broke once more into a run.
The former Owlswick was sitting in a chair, apparently clean shaven except for a pointy little beard. Some kind of metal helmet had been attached to his head, and from it wires ran down into a glowing, clicking device that only an Igor would want to understand. The air smelled of thunderstorms.
'What are you doing to this poor man?' Moist yelled.
'Changing hith mind, thur,' said Igor, pulling a huge knife switch.
The helmet buzzed. Clamp blinked. 'It tickles,' he said. 'And for some reason it tastes of strawberries.'
'You're putting lightning right into his head!' said Moist. 'That's barbaric!'
'No, thur. Barbarianth don't have the capability,' said Igor smoothly. 'All I'm doing, thur, ith taking out all the bad memorieth and thtoring them' - here he pulled a cloth aside to reveal a big jar full of green liquid, in which was something rounded and studded with still more wires - 'in thith!'
'You're putting his brain into a… parsnip?'
'It'th a turnip,' said Igor.
'It's amazing what they can do, isn't it?' said a voice by Moist's elbow. He looked down.
Mr Clamp, now helmetless, beamed up at him. He looked shiny and alert, like a better class of shoe salesman. Igor had even managed a suit transplant.
'Are you all right?' said Moist.
'What did… it feel like?'
'Hard to explain,' said Clamp. 'But it sounded like the smell of raspberries tastes.'
'Really? Oh. I suppose that's all right, then. And you really feel okay? In yourself?' said Moist, probing for the dreadful drawback. It had to be there. But Owls - Exorbit looked happy and full of confidence and vim, a man ready to take what life threw at him and knock it out of the court.
Igor was winding up his wiring with a very smug look on what, under all those scars, was probably his face.
Moist felt a pang of guilt. He was an Uberwald boy, he'd come down the Vilinus Pass like everyone else, trying to seek his fortune - correction, everybody else's fortune - and he had no right to pick up the fashionable lowland prejudice against the clan of Igors. After all, didn't they simply put into practice what so many priests professed to believe: that the body was just a rather heavy suit of cheap material clothing the invisible, everlasting soul, and therefore, swapping around bits and pieces like spare parts was surely no worse than running a shonky shop for used clothing? It was a constant source of hurt amazement to Igors that people couldn't see that this was both sensible and provident, at least up until the time when the axe slipped and people needed someone to lend a hand in a hurry. At a time like that, even an Igor looked good.
Mostly they looked… serviceable. Igors, with their obliviousness to pain, wonderful aids to healing and marvellous ability to carry out surgery on themselves with the help of a hand mirror, could presumably not look like a stumpy butler who'd been left in the rain for a month. Igorinas all looked stunning, but there was invariably something - a beautifully curved scar under one eye, a ring of decorative stitching around a wrist - that was for the Look. That was disconcerting, but an Igor always had his heart in the right place. Or a heart, at least.
'Well, er… well done, Igor,' Moist managed. 'Ready to make a start on the ol' dollar bill, then, Mr, er… Clamp?'
Mr Clamp's smile was full of sunbeams. 'Done it!' he announced. 'Did it this morning!'
'Indeed I have! Come and see!' The little man walked over to a table and lifted a sheet of paper.
The banknote gleamed, in purple and gold. It gave off money in rays. It seemed to float above the paper like a small magic carpet. It said wealth and mystery and tradition –
'We're going to make so much money!' said Moist. We'd better, he added to himself. We'll need to print at least 600,000 of these, unless I can come up with some bigger denominations.
But there it was, so beautiful you wanted to cry, and make lots like it, and put them in your wallet.
'How did you do it so quickly?'
'Well, a lot of it is just geometry,' said Mr Clamp. 'Mr Igor here was kind enough to make me a little device which was a great help there. It's not finished, of course, and I haven't even started on the other side yet. I think I'll make a start on that now, in fact, while I'm still fresh.'
'You think you can do better?' said Moist, awed in the presence of genius.
'I feel so… full of energy!' said Clamp.
'That would be the elecktrical fluid, I expect,' said Moist.
'No, I mean I can see so clearly what needs to be done! Before, it was all like some horrible weight I had to lift, but now everything is clear and light!'
'Well, I'm glad to hear it,' said Moist, not totally certain that he was. 'Do excuse me, I have a bank to run.'
He hurried through the arches and entered the main hall via the unassuming door in time to very nearly collide with Bent.
'Ah, Mr Lipwig, I wondered where you were – '
'Is this going to be important, Mr Bent?'
The chief cashier looked offended - as if he'd ever trouble Moist about anything that was not important.
'There are lots of men outside the Mint,' he said. 'With trolls and carts. They say you want them to install a' - Bent shuddered - 'a printing engine!'
'That's right,' said Moist. 'They're from Teemer & Spools. We must print the money here. It'll look more official and we can control what goes out of the doors.'
'Mr Lipwig. You are turning the bank into a… a circus!'
'Well, I'm the man with the top hat, Mr Bent, so I suppose I'm the ringmaster!' He said it with a laugh, to lighten the mood a little, but Bent's face was a sudden thundercloud.
'Really, Mr Lipwig? And whoever told you the ringmaster runs the circus? You are very much mistaken, sir! Why are you cutting out the other shareholders?'
'Because they don't know what a bank is about. Come with me to the Mint, will you?' He strode through the main hall, having to dodge and weave between the queues.
'And you know what a bank is about, do you, sir?' said Bent, following behind with his jerky flamingo step.
'I'm learning. Why do we have one queue in front of each clerk?' Moist demanded. 'It means that if one customer takes up a lot of time, the whole queue has to wait. Then they'll start hopping sideways from one queue to another and the next thing you know someone has a nasty head wound. Have one big queue and tell people to go to the next clerk free. People don't mind a long queue if they can see that it's moving - Sorry, sir!'
This was to a customer he'd collided with, who steadied himself, grinned at Moist and said, in a voice from a past that should have stayed buried: 'Why, if it isn't my old friend Albert. You're doin' well for yourself, ain't you?' The stranger spluttered his words through ill-fitting teeth: 'You in your shuit o' lightsh!'
Moist's past life flashed before his eyes. He didn't even need to go to the bother of dying, although he felt as though he was going to.
It was Cribbins! It could only be Cribbins!
Moist's memory sandbagged him, one bag after another. The teeth! Those damn false teeth! They were that man's pride and joy. He'd prised them out of the mouth of an old man he'd robbed, while the poor devil lay dying of fear! He'd joked that they had a mind of their own! And they spluttered and popped and slurped and fitted so badly that they once turned round in his mouth and bit him in the throat!
He used to take them out and talk to them! And, aargh, they were so old, and the stained teeth had been carved from walrus ivory and the spring was so strong that sometimes it'd force the top of his head back so that you could see right up his nose!!
It all came back like a bad oyster.
He was just Cribbins. No one knew his first name. Moist had teamed up with him, oh, ten years ago and they'd run the old legacy con in Uberwald one winter. He was much older than Moist and still had the serious personal problem that made him smell of bananas.
And he was a nasty piece of work. Professionals had their pride. There had to be some people you wouldn't rob, some things you didn't steal. And you had to have style. If you didn't have style, you'd never fly.
Cribbins didn't have style. He wasn't violent, unless there was absolutely no chance of retaliation, but there was some generalized, wretched, wheedling malice about the man that had got on Moist's soul.
'Is there a problem, Mr Lipwig?' said Bent, glaring at Cribbins.
'What? Oh… no…' said Moist. It's a shakedown, he thought. That bloody picture in the paper. But he can't prove a thing, not a thing.
'You are mistaken, sir,' said Moist. He looked around. The queues were moving, and no one was paying them any attention.
Cribbins put his head on one side and gave Moist an amused look. 'Mishtaken, shir? Could be. I could be mistaken. Life on the road, making new chums every day, you know - well, you wouldn't, would you, on account of not being Albert Shpangler. Funny, though, 'cos you have his smile, sir, hard to change a man's smile, and your smile ish, like, in front of your face, like you ish looking out from behind it slurp. Just like young Albert's smile. Bright lad he was, very quick, very quick, I taught him everything I knew.'
– and that took about ten minutes, Moist thought, and a year to forget some of it. You're the sort that gives criminals a bad name –
"course, sir, you're wonderin', can the leopard change his shorts?
Can that ol' rascal I knew all them years ago have forsook the wide and wobbly for the straight an' narrow?' He glanced at Moist, and amended: 'Whoopsh! No, 'course you ain't, on account of you never seein' me before. But I was scrobbled in Pseudopolis, you see, thrown into the clink for malicious lingering, and that's where I found Om.'
'Why? What had he done?' It was stupid, but Moist couldn't resist it.
'Do not jest, sir, do not jest,' said Cribbins solemnly. 'I am a changed man, a changed man. It is my task to pass on the good news, shir.' Here, with the speed of a snake's tongue, Cribbins produced a battered tin from inside his greasy jacket. 'My crimes weigh me down like chains of hot iron, sir, like chains, but I am a man anxious to unburden himself by means of good works and confession, the last bein' most important. I have to get a lot off my chest before I can sleep easy, sir.' He rattled the box. 'For the kiddies, sir?'
This would probably work better if I hadn't seen you do this before, Moist thought. The penitent thief must be one of the oldest cons in the book.
He said: 'Well, I'm glad to hear it, Mr Cribbins. I'm sorry I'm not the old friend you are looking for. Let me give you a couple of dollars… for the kiddies.'
The coins clanked on the bottom of the tin. 'Thank you kindly, Mister Spangler,' said Cribbins.
Moist flashed a little smile. 'In fact I'm not Mr Spangler, Mr – '
I called him Cribbins! Just then! I called him Cribbins! Did he tell me his name? Did he notice? He must have noticed!
' – I beg your pardon, I mean reverend,' he managed, and the average person would not have noticed the tiny pause and quite adroit save. But Cribbins wasn't average.
'Thank you, Mister Lipwig,' he said, and Moist heard the drawn-out 'Mister' and the explosively sardonic 'Lipwig'. They meant Gotcha!
Cribbins winked at Moist and strolled off through the banking hall, shaking his tin, his teeth accompanying him with a medley of horrible dental noises.
'Woe and thrice woe !szss is the man who stealssh by words, for his tongue shall cleave to the roof of his mouth pock! Spare a few coppersh for the poor orphans sweessh! Brothers and shisters! To those svhip! that hath shall be giveneth generally shpeaking…'
'I shall call the guards,' said Mr Bent firmly. 'We don't allow beggars in the bank.'
Moist grabbed his arm. 'No,' he said urgently, 'not with all these people in here. Manhandling a man of the cloth and all that. It won't look good. I think he'll be going soon.'
Now he'll let me stew, thought Moist, as Cribbins headed nonchalantly towards the door. That's his way. He'll spin it out. Then he'll hit me for money, again and again.
Okay, but what could Cribbins prove? But did there need to be proof? If he started talking about Albert Spangler, it could get bad. Would Vetinari throw him to the wolves? He might. He probably would. You could bet your hat that he wouldn't play the resurrection game without lots of contingency plans.
Well, he had some time, at least. Cribbins wouldn't go for a quick kill. He liked to watch people wriggle.
'Are you all right?' said Bent. Moist came back to reality.
'What? Oh, fine,' he said.
'You should not encourage that sort of person in here, you know.'
Moist shook himself. 'You are right about that, Mr Bent. Let's get to the Mint, shall we?'
'Yes, sir. But I warn you, Mr Lipwig, these men will not be won over by fancy words!'
'Inspectors…' said Mr Shady, ten minutes later, turning the word over in his mouth like a sweet.
'I need people who value the high traditions of the Mint,' said Moist, and did not add: like making coins very, very slowly and taking your work home with you.
'Inspectors,' said Mr Shady again. Behind him, the Men of the Sheds held their caps in their hands and watched Moist owlishly, except when Mr Shady was speaking, when they stared at the back of the man's neck.
They were all in Mr Shady's official shed, which was built high up on the wall, like a swallow's nest. It creaked whenever anyone moved.
'And of course, some of you will still be needed to deal with the outworkers,' Moist went on, 'but in the main it will be your job to see that Mr Spools's men arrive on time, comport themselves as they should and observe proper security.'
'Security,' said Mr Shady, as if tasting the word. Moist saw a flicker of evil light in the eyes of the Men. It said: these buggers will be taking over our Mint but they'll have to go past us to get out of the door. Hoho!
'And of course you can keep the sheds,' said Moist. 'I also have plans for commemorative coins and other items, so your skills will not be wasted. Fair enough?'
Mr Shady looked at his fellows and then back to Moist. 'We'd like to talk about this,' he said.
Moist nodded to him, and to Bent, and led the way down the creaking, swaying staircase to the floor of the Mint, where the parts of the new press were already being stacked up. Bent gave a little shudder when he saw it.
'They won't accept, you know,' he said with unconcealed hope in his voice. 'They've been doing things the same way here for hundreds of years! And they are craftsmen!'
'So were the people who used to make knives out of flint,' said Moist. In truth, he'd been amazed at himself. It must have been the encounter with Cribbins. It had made his brain race. 'Look, I don't like to see skills unused,' he said, 'but I'll give them better wages and a decent job and use of the sheds. They wouldn't get an offer like that in a hundred years – '
Someone was coming down the swaying stairs. Moist recognized it as Young Alf, who, amazingly, had managed to be employed in the Mint while still too young to shave but definitely old enough to have spots.
'Er, the Men say will there be badges?' said the boy.
'Actually, I was thinking of uniforms,' said Moist. 'Silver breastplate with the city's arms on it and lightweight silver chain mail, to look impressive when we have visitors.'
The boy pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and consulted it. 'What about clipboards?' he said.
'Certainly,' said Moist. 'And whistles, too.'
'And, er, it's def'nite about the sheds, right?'
'I'm a man of my word,' said Moist.
'You are a man of words, Mr Lipwig,' said Bent as the boy scuttled back up the rocking steps, 'but I fear they will lead us into ruin. The bank needs solidity, reliability… everything that gold represents!'
Moist spun round. It had not been a good day. It had not been a good night, either. 'Mr Bent, if you do not like what I am doing, feel free to leave. You'll have a good reference and all the wages due to you!'
Bent looked as though he'd been slapped. 'Leave the bank? Leave the bank? How could I do that? How dare you!'
A door slammed above them. They looked up. The Men of the Sheds were coming down the stairs in solemn procession.
'Now we shall see,' hissed Bent. 'These are men of solid worth. They'll have nothing to do with your gaudy offer, Mr… Ringmaster!'
The Men reached the bottom of the steps. Without a word they all looked at Mr Shady, except for Mr Shady, who looked at Moist.
'The sheds stay, right?' he said.
'You're giving in?' said Mr Bent, aghast. 'After hundreds of years?'
'We-ell,' said Mr Shady, 'me and the boys had a bit of a talk and, well, at a time like this, a man's got to think of his shed. And the outworkers will be all right, right?'
'Mr Shady, I'd go to the barricades for the elim,' said Moist.
'And we talked to some of the lads from the Post Office last night and they said we could trust Mr Lipwig's word 'cos he's as straight as a corkscrew.'
'A corkscrew?' said Bent, shocked.
'Yeah, we asked about that, too,' said Shady. 'And they said he acts curly but that's okay 'cos he damn well gets the corks out!'
Mr Bent's expression went blank. 'Oh,' he said. 'This is clearly some kind of judgement-clouding joke, which I do not understand. If you will excuse me, I have a great deal of work to attend to.'
His feet rising and falling, as though he was walking on some kind of shifting staircase, Mr Bent departed in jerky haste.
'Very well, gentlemen, thank you for your helpful attitude,' said Moist, watching the retreating figure, 'and for my part I will get those uniforms ordered this afternoon.'
'You're a fast mover, Master,' said Mr Shady.
'Stand still and your mistakes catch up with you!' said Moist. They laughed, because he'd said it, but the face of Cribbins rose up in his mind and, quite unconsciously, he put his hand in his pocket and touched the blackjack. He'd have to learn how to use it now, because a weapon you held and didn't know how to use belonged to your enemy.
He'd bought it - why? Because it was like the lockpicks: a token to prove, if only to himself, that he hadn't given in, not all the way, that a part of him was still free. It was like the other ready-made identities, the escape plans, the caches of money and clothes. They told him that any day he could leave all this, melt into the crowd, say goodbye to the paperwork and the timetable and the endless, endless wanting.
They told him that he could give it up any time he liked. Any hour, any minute, any second. And because he could, he didn't… every hour, every minute, every second. There had to be a reason why.
'Mr Lipwig! Mr Lipwig!' A young clerk dodged and weaved through the busyness of the Mint, and stopped in front of Moist, panting.
'Mr Lipwig, there's a lady in the hall to see you and we've thanked her for not smoking three times and she's still doing it!'
The image of the wretched Cribbins vanished and was replaced by a much better one.
Ah, yes. That reason.
Miss Adora Belle Dearheart, known to Moist as Spike, was standing in the middle of the banking hall. Moist just headed for the smoke.
'Hello, you,' she said, and that was that. 'Can you take me away from all this?' She gestured with her non-smoking hand. Staff had meaningfully surrounded her with tall brass ashtrays, full of white sand.
Moist shifted a couple of them, and let her out.
'How was – ' he began, but she interrupted.
'We can talk on the way.'
'Where are we going?' Moist asked hopefully.
'Unseen University,' said Adora Belle, heading for the door. She had a large woven bag on her shoulder. It seemed to be stuffed with straw.
'Not lunch, then?' said Moist.
'Lunch can wait. This is important.'
It was lunchtime at Unseen University, where every meal is important. It was hard to find a time when some meal or other was not in progress there. The Library was unusually empty, and Adora Belle walked up to the nearest wizard who did not seem gainfully employed and demanded: 'I want to see the Cabinet of Curiosity right away!'
'I don't think we have anything like that,' said the wizard. 'Who's it by?'
'Please don't lie. My name is Adora Belle Dearheart, so as you can imagine I've got a pretty short temper. My father brought me with him when you people asked him to come and look at the Cabinet, about twenty years ago. You wanted to find out how the doors worked. Someone must remember. It was in a big room. A very big room. And it had lots and lots of drawers. And the funny thing about them was – '
The wizard raised his hands quickly, as if to ward off further words. 'Can you wait just one minute?' he suggested.
They waited for five. Occasionally a pointy-hatted head peered around a bookshelf to look at them, and ducked away if it thought it'd been spotted.
Adora Belle lit a fresh cigarette. Moist pointed to a sign which said 'If you are smoking, thank you for being beaten about the head.'
'That's just for show,' said Adora Belle, expelling a stream of blue smoke. 'All wizards smoke like chimneys.'
'Not in here, I notice,' said Moist, 'and possibly this is because of all the highly inflammable books? It might be a good idea to – '
He felt the swish of air and got a whiff of rainforest as something heavy swung overhead and disappeared upwards into the gloom, now trailing a stream of blue smoke.
'Hey, someone took my – ' Adora Belle began, but Moist pushed her out of the way as the thing swung back again and a banana knocked his hat off.
'They are a bit more definite about things here,' he said, picking up his hat. 'If it's any comfort, the Librarian probably intended to hit me. He can be quite gallant.'
'Ah, you're Mr Lipwig, I recognize the suit!' said an elderly wizard, who clearly hoped he was appearing as if by magic but in fact had appeared by stepping out from behind a bookcase. 'I know I am the Chair of Indefinite Studies here, for my sins. And you, ahaha, by a process of elimination, will be Miss Dearheart, who remembers the Cabinet of Curiosity?' The Chair of Indefinite Studies stepped closer and looked conspiratorial. He lowered his voice. 'I wonder if I can persuade you to forget about it?'
'Not a chance,' said Adora Belle.
'We like to think of it as one of our better-kept secrets, you see…'
'Good. I'll help you keep it,' said Adora Belle.
'Nothing I could say could change your mind?'
'I don't know,' said Adora Belle. 'Abracadabra, maybe? Got your spell book?' Moist was impressed at that. She could be so… spiky.
'Oh… that type of lady,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies wearily. 'Modern. Oh well, I suppose you'd better come with me, then.'
'What's this all about, please?' hissed Moist, as they followed the wizard.
'I need something translated,' said Adora Belle, 'in a hurry.'
'Aren't you glad to see me?'
'Oh yes. Lots. But I need something translated in a hurry.'
'And this cabinet thing can help?'
'Perhaps? "Perhaps" could wait until after lunch, couldn't it? If it was "Definitely", now, I could have seen the point – '
'Oh dear, I'm afraid I'm lost again, and through no fault of my own, I might add,' grumbled the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'I'm afraid they keep changing the parameters and they do leak so. I don't know, what with one thing and another you can't call your door your own these days…'
'What were your sins?' said Moist, giving up on Adora Belle.
'Pardon? Oh dear, what is that stain on the ceiling? Probably best not to know…'
'What were the sins you committed in order to become the Chair of Indefinite Studies?' Moist persisted.
'Oh, I just tend to say that for something to say,' said the wizard, opening a door and slamming it again quickly. 'But right now I'm inclined to think I must have committed a few, and they must have been whoppers. It's quite unbearable at the moment, of course. They're saying that everything in the whole wretched universe is technically indefinable, but what am I supposed to do about it? And of course this damn Cabinet is playing havoc with the place again. I thought we'd seen the last of it fifteen years ago… Oh, yes, mind the squid, we're a bit puzzled about that, actually… Ah, here's the right door.' The Chair sniffed. 'And it's twenty-five feet away from where it ought to be. What did I tell you…'
The door opened and then it was just a matter of knowing where to start. Moist opted for letting his jaw drop, which was clean and simple.
The room was bigger than it ought to be. No room ought to be more than a mile across, especially when from outside in the corridor, which was quite ordinary if you ignored the giant squid, it appeared to have perfectly normal rooms on either side of it. It shouldn't have a ceiling so high that you couldn't see it, either. It simply should not fit.
'It's quite easy to do this, actually,' said the Chair of Indefinite Studies as they stared. 'At least, so they tell me,' he added wistfully. 'Apparently, if you shrink time you can expand space.'
'How do they do that?' Moist asked, staring at the… structure that was the Cabinet of Curiosity.
'I'm proud to say I haven't got the faintest idea,' said the Chair. 'Frankly, I'm afraid I got rather lost round about the time we stopped using dribbly candles. I know it's technically my department but I find it best just to let them get on with it. They do insist on trying to explain things, which of course does not help…'
Moist, if he'd had any mental picture at all, was expecting a cabinet. After all, that's what it was called, yes? But what filled most of the impossible room was a tree, in the general shape of a venerable spreading oak. It was a tree in winter; there were no leaves. And then, when the mind had found a familiar, friendly simile, it had to come to terms with the fact that the tree was made of filing cabinets. They appeared to be wooden ones, but this didn't help much.
High up in what had to be called the branches, wizards on broomsticks were engaged in who-knew-what. They looked like insects.
'It is a bit of a shock when you see it for the first time, isn't it?' said a friendly voice.
Moist looked round at a young wizard, at least young by the standards of wizards, who had round spectacles, a clipboard, and the shiny sort of expression that says: I probably know more than you can possibly imagine but I am still reasonably happy to talk even to people like yourself.
'You're Ponder Stibbons, right?' said Moist. 'The only one who does any work in the university?'
Other wizards turned their heads at this, and Ponder went red. 'That's quite untrue! I just pull my weight, like any other member of the faculty,' he said, but a slight tone to his voice suggested that perhaps the other faculty members had far too much weight and not enough pull. 'I am in charge of the Cabinet Project, for my sins.'
'Why? What did you do?' said Moist, at sea in a world of sin. 'Something worse?'
'Er, volunteered to take it over,' said Ponder. 'And I have to say we have learned more in the last six months than in the past twenty-five years. The Cabinet is a truly amazing artefact.'
'Where did you find it?'
'In the attic, tucked behind a collection of stuffed frogs. We think people gave up trying to make it work years ago. Of course, that was back in the dribbly candle era,' said Ponder, earning a snort from the Chair of Indefinite Studies. 'Modern technomancy is somewhat more useful.'
'All right, then,' said Moist, 'what is it for?
'We don't know.'
'How does it work?'
'We don't know.'
'Where did it come from?'
'We don't know.'
'Well, that seems to be all,' said Moist sarcastically. 'Oh no, one last one: what is it? And let me tell you, I'm agog.'
'That may be the wrong sort of question to ask,' said Ponder, shaking his head. 'Technically it appears to be a classic Bag of Holding but with n mouths, where n is the number of items in an eleven-dimensional universe which are not currently alive, not pink and can fit in a cubical drawer 14.14 inches on a side, divided by P.'
'That may be the wrong sort of question.'
'When I was a little girl it was just a magic box,' Adora Belle broke in, in a dreamy voice. 'It was in a much smaller room and when it unfolded a few times there was a box with a golem's foot in it.'
'Ah, yes, in the third iteration,' said Ponder. 'They couldn't get much further than that in those days. Now, of course, we've got controlled recursion and aim-driven folding that effectively reduces collateral boxing to 0.13 per cent, a twelvefold improvement in the last year alone!'
'That's great!' said Moist, feeling that it was the least he could do.
'Does Miss Dearheart want to see the item again?' said Ponder, lowering his voice. Adora Belle still had a faraway look in her eyes.
'I think so,' said Moist. 'She's very big on golems.'
'We were about to fold up for today in any case,' said Ponder. 'It won't hurt to pick up the Foot on the way'
He took a large megaphone from a bench and held it to his lips.
'THE CABINET CLOSES IN THREE MINUTES, GENTLEMEN. ALL RESEARCHERS INSIDE THE SAFETY AREA NOW, PLEASE. BE THERE OR BE SQUARE!'
'Be there or be square?' said Moist, as Ponder lowered the megaphone.
'Oh, a couple of years ago someone ignored the warning and, um, when the Cabinet folded up he temporarily became a curiosity'
'You mean he ended up inside a fourteen-inch cube?' said Moist, horrified.
'Mostly. Look, we really would be very happy if you didn't tell anyone about the Cabinet, thank you. We know how to use it, we think, but it might not be the way it was intended to be used. We don't know what it's for, as you put it, or who built it or even if they are completely the wrong questions to ask. Nothing in it is bigger than about fourteen inches square, but we don't know why this is or who it is who decides they are curious, or why, and we certainly don't know why it contains nothing pink. It's all very embarrassing. I'm sure you can keep a secret, Mr Lipwig?'
'You'd be amazed.'
'That's the wrong kind of question.'
'You do know something quite important about the Cabinet,' said Adora Belle, apparently waking up. 'You know it wasn't built for or by a girl between the ages of four and, oh, eleven years old.'
'How do we know that?'
'No pink. Trust me. No girl in that age group would leave out pink.'
'Are you sure? That's wonderful!' said Ponder, making a note on his clipboard. 'That's certainly worth knowing. Let's get the Foot, then, shall we?'
The broomstick-riding wizards had touched down now. Ponder cleared his throat and picked up the megaphone. 'ALL DOWN? WONDERFUL. HEX - BE SO GOOD AS TO FOLD, PLEASE!'
There was silence for a while, and then a distant clattering noise began to grow, up near the ceiling. It sounded like gods shuffling wooden playing cards that happened to be a mile high.
'Hex is our thinking engine,' said Ponder. 'We'd hardly be able to explore the box at all without him.'
The clattering was becoming louder and faster.
'You might find your ears aching,' said Ponder, raising his voice. 'Hex tries to control the speed, but it takes finite time for the ventilators to get air back into the room. THE VOLUME OF THE CABINET CHANGES VERY FAST, YOU SEE!'
This was shouted against the thunder of collapsing drawers. They slammed in on themselves far too fast for the human eye to follow as the edifice shrank and folded and slid and rattled down into house size, shed size and, finally, in the middle of the huge space - unless it was some kind of time - became a small polished cabinet, about a foot and a half on a side, standing on four beautifully carved legs.
The Cabinet's doors clicked shut.
'Slowly unfold to specimen 1,109,' said Ponder, in the ringing silence.
The doors opened. A deep drawer slid out.
It went on sliding.
'Just follow me,' said Ponder, strolling towards the Cabinet. 'It's fairly safe.'
'Er, a drawer about a hundred yards long has just slid out of a box about fourteen inches square,' said Moist, in case he was the only one to notice.
'Yes. That's what happens,' said Ponder, as the drawer slid back about halfway. Its side, Moist saw, was a line of drawers. So drawers opened… out of drawers. Of course, Moist thought, in eleven-dimensional space that was the wrong thing to think.
'It's a sliding puzzle,' said Adora Belle, 'but with lots more directions to slide.'
'That is a very graphic analogy which aids understanding wonderfully while being, strictly speaking, wrong in every possible way,' said Ponder.
Adora Belle's eyes narrowed. She had not had a cigarette for ten minutes.
The long drawer extruded another drawer at right angles. All along the sides of it were, yes, yet more drawers. One of these extended slowly.
Moist took a risk, and tapped on what appeared to be perfectly ordinary wood. It made a perfectly ordinary noise. 'Should I worry that I just saw a drawer slide through another drawer?' he said.
'No,' said Ponder. 'The Cabinet is trying to make four-dimensional sense of something that is happening in eleven or, possibly, ten dimensions.'
'Trying? Do you mean it's alive?'
'Aha! The right type of question!'
'I bet you don't know the answer, though.'
'You are correct. But you must admit it's an interesting question not to know the answer to. And, yes, here we have the Foot. Hold and collapse, please, Hex.'
The drawers collapsed back into themselves in a series of crashes, much shorter and less dramatic than before, leaving the Cabinet looking demure and antique and slightly bow-legged. It had little claws as feet, a cabinet-makers' affectation that always annoyed Moist in a low-grade way. Did they think the things moved around in the night? Or maybe the Cabinet really did.
And the Cabinet's doors were open. Nestling inside, and only just fitting, was a golem's foot, or at least most of one.
Once, golems were beautiful. Once, the very best sculptors probably made them to rival the most beautiful of statues, but long since then the fumble-fingered many who could barely make a snake out of clay found that bashing the stuff into the shape of a big hulking gingerbread man worked just as well.
This foot was one of the early kind. It was made of a clay-like white china, with patterns of tiny raised markings in yellow, black and red. A little brass plate in front of it was engraved in Uberwaldian: 'Foot of Umnian Golem, Middle Period.'
'Well, whoever made the Cabinet comes from – '
'Anyone looking at the label sees it in their native tongue,' said Ponder wearily. 'The markings apparently indicate that it did indeed come from the city of Um, according to the late Professor Head.'
'Um?' said Moist. 'Um what? They weren't sure what to call the place?'
'Just Um,' said Ponder. 'Very ancient. About sixty thousand years, I believe. Back in the Clay Age.'
'The first golem-makers,' said Adora Belle. She unslung the bag and started to rummage in the straw.
Moist tapped the foot. It seemed eggshell thin.
'It's some sort of ceramic,' said Ponder. 'No one knows how they made it. The Umnians even baked boats out of the stuff.'
'Did they work?'
'Up to a point,' said Ponder. 'Anyway, the city was totally destroyed in the first war with the ice giants. There's nothing there now. We think that the foot was put in the Cabinet a long time ago.'
'Or will be dug up some time in the future, perhaps?' said Moist.
'That could very well be the case,' said Ponder gravely.
'In which case, won't that be a bit of a problem? I mean, can it be in the ground and in the Cabinet at the same time?'
'That, Mr Lipwig, is – '
'The wrong type of question?'
'Yes. The box exists in ten or possibly eleven dimensions. Practically anything may be possible.'
'Why only eleven dimensions?'
'We don't know,' said Ponder. 'It might be simply that more would be silly.'
'Can you take the foot out, please?' said Adora Belle, who was now brushing wisps of straw off a long package.
Ponder nodded, lifted out the relic with great care, and placed it gently on the bench behind them.
'What would have happened if you had drop – ' Moist began.
'Wrong type of question, Mr Lipwig!'
Adora Belle put the bundle down beside the foot and unwrapped it with care. It contained a part of a golem's arm, two feet long.
'I knew it! The markings are the same!' she said. 'And there's a lot more on my piece. Can you translate it?'
'Me? No,' said Ponder. 'The Arts are not my field,' he added, in a way that suggested his was a pretty superior field with much better flowers in it. 'You need Professor Flead.'
'You mean the one who's dead?' said Moist.
'He's dead at the moment, but I'm sure that in the interests of discretion my colleague Dr Hicks can arrange for the professor to talk to you after lunch.'
'When he'll be less dead?' said Moist.
'When Dr Hicks has had lunch,' said Ponder patiently. 'The Professor will be pleased to receive visitors, er, especially Miss Dearheart. He is the world expert on Umnian. Every word has hundreds of meanings, I understand.'
'Can I take the Foot?' said Adora Belle.
'No,' said Ponder. 'It's ours.'
'That was the wrong type of answer,' said Adora Belle, picking up the Foot. 'On behalf of the Golem Trust, I am acquiring this golem. If you can prove ownership, we will pay you a fair price for it.'
'Would that it were that simple,' said Ponder, politely taking it from her, 'but, you see, if a Curiosity is taken away from the Cabinet Room for more than fourteen hours and fourteen seconds, the Cabinet stops working. Last time it took us three months to restart it. But you can drop in at any time to, er, check that we're not mistreating it.'
Moist laid a hand on Adora Belle's arm to forestall an Incident.
'She's very passionate about golems,' he said. 'The Trust digs them up all the time.'
'That's very commendable,' said Ponder. 'I'll talk to Dr Hicks. He's the head of the Department of Post-Mortem Communications.'
'Post-Mortem Com – ' Moist began. 'Isn't that the same as necroman – '
'I said the Department of Post-Mortem Communications! said Ponder very firmly. 'I suggest you come back at three o'clock.'
'Did anything about that conversation strike you as normal?' said Moist, as they stepped out into the sunlight.
'Actually, I thought it went very well,' said Adora Belle.
'This wasn't how I imagined your homecoming,' said Moist. 'Why the rush? Is there some problem?'
'Look, we found four golems at the dig,' said Adora Belle.
'That's… good, yes?' said Moist.
'Yes! And you know how deep they were?'
'I couldn't guess.'
'I don't know!' said Moist, bewildered at suddenly having to play 'What's My Depth?'. 'Two hundred feet down? That's more tha – '
'Half a mile underground.'
'Impossible! That's deeper than coal!'
'Keep it down, will you? Look, is there somewhere we can go and talk?'
'How about - the Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork? There's a private dining room.'
And they'll let us eat there, will they?'
'Oh yes. The chairman is a great friend of mine,' said Moist.
'He is, is he?'
'He certainly is,' said Moist. 'Why, only this morning he licked my face!'
Adora Belle stopped and turned to stare at him. 'Really?' she said. 'Then it's just as well I got back when I did.'READ MORE >>