Maskerade (Discworld #18)

Chapter 17

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'Mr Bucket says he must have got caught up in the-' someone began. 'He didn't get caught in anything! This is the Ghost's work!' said someone else. 'He could still be up there!' All eyes turned upwards. 'Mr Salzella's sent some stage-hands to flush him out.'

'Have they got flaming torches?' said Nanny. Several of them looked at her as if wondering, for the first time, who she was. 'What?'

'Got to have flaming torches when you're tracking down evil monsters,' said Nanny. 'Well-known fact.' There was a moment while this sunk in, and then: 'That's true.'

'She's right, you know.'

'Well-known fact, dear.'

'Did they have flaming torches?'

'Don't think so. Just ordinary lanterns.'

'Oh, they're no good,' said Nanny. 'That's for smugglers, lanterns. For evil monsters you need flaming-'

'Excuse me, boys and girls!' The stage manager had stood on a box. 'Now,' he said, a little pale around the face, 'I know you're all familiar with the phrase “the show must go on”. . .' There was a chorus of groans from the chorus. 'It's very hard to sing a jolly song about eating hedgehogs when you're waiting for an accident to happen to you,' shouted a gypsy king. 'Funny thing, if we're talking about songs about hedgehogs, I myself-' Nanny began, but no one was paying her any attention. 'Now, we don't actually know what happened-'

'Really? Shall we guess?' said a gypsy.

'-but we have men up in the fly loft now-'

'Oh? In case of more accidents?'

'-and Mr Bucket has authorized me to say that there will be an additional two dollars' bonus tonight in recognition of your bravely agreeing to continue with the show-'

'Money? After a shock like this? Money? He thinks he can offer us a couple of dollars and we'll agree to stay on this cursed stage?'

'Shame!'

'Heartless!, 'Unthinkable!'

'Should be at least four!'

'Right! Right!'

'For shame, my friends! To talk about a few dollars when there is a dead man lying there. . . Have you no respect for his memory?'

'Exactly! A few dollars is disrespectful. Five dollars or nothing!' Nanny Ogg nodded to herself, and wandered off and found a sufficiently big piece of cloth to cover the late Dr Undershaft. Nanny rather liked the theatrical world. It was its own kind of magic. That was why Esme disliked it, she reckoned. It was the magic of illusions and misdirection and foolery, and that was fine by Nanny Ogg, because you couldn't be married three times without a little fooling. But it was just close enough to Granny's own kind of magic to make Granny uneasy. Which meant she couldn't leave it alone. It was like scratching an itch. People didn't take any notice of little old ladies who looked as though they fitted in, and Nanny Ogg could fit in faster than a dead chicken in a maggot factory. Besides, Nanny had one additional little talent, which was a mind like a buzzsaw behind a face like an elderly apple. Someone was crying. A strange figure was kneeling beside the late chorus master. It looked like a puppet with the strings cut. 'Can you give me a hand with this sheet, mister?' said Nanny quietly. The face looked up. Two watery eyes, running with tears, blinked at Nanny. 'He won't wake up!' Nanny mentally changed gear. 'That's right, luv,' she said. 'You're Walter, ain't you?'

'He was always very good to me and our mum! He never gave me a kick!' It was obvious to Nanny that there was no help here. She knelt down and began to do her best with the departed. 'Miss they say it were the Ghost miss! It weren't the Ghost miss! He'd never do a thing like that! He was always good to me and our mum!' Nanny changed gear again. You had to slow down a bit for Walter Plinge. 'My mum'd know what to do!'

'Yes, well. . . she's gone home early, Walter.' Walter's waxy face started to contort into an expression of terminal horror. 'She mustn't walk home without Walter to look after her!' he shouted. 'I bet she always says that,' said Nanny. 'I bet she always makes sure her Walter's with her when she goes home. But I expect that right now she'd want her Walter to just get on with things so's she can be proud of him. Show's not half over yet.'

' 'S dangerous for our mum!' Nanny patted his hand and absent-mindedly wiped her own hand on her dress. 'That's a good boy,' she said. 'Now, I've got to go off-'

'The Ghost wouldn't harm no one!'

'Yes, Walter, only I've got to go but I'll find someone to help you and you must put poor Dr Undershaft somewhere safe until after the show. Understand? And I'm Mrs Ogg.' Walter gawped at her, and then nodded sharply. 'Good boy.' Nanny left him still looking at the body and headed further backstage. A young man hurrying past found that he'd suddenly acquired an Ogg. '

'Scuse me, young man,' said Nanny, still holding his arm, 'but d'you know anyone around here called Agnes? Agnes Nitt?'

'Can't say I do, ma'am. What does she do?' He made to hurry on as politely as possible, but Nanny's grip was steel. 'She sings a bit. Big girl. Voice with double joints in it. Wears black.'

'You don't mean Perdita?'

'Perdita? Oh, yes. That'd be her all right.'

'I think she's seeing to Christine. They're in Mr Salzella's office.'

'Would Christine be the thin girl in white?'

'Yes, ma'am.'

'And I expect you're going to show me where this Mr Salzella's office is?'

'Er, am I- Er, yes. It's just along the stage there, first door on the right.'

'What a good boy to help an old lady,' said Nanny. Her grip increased to a few ounces short of cutting off circulation. 'And wouldn't it be a good idea if you helped young Walter back there do something respectful for the poor dead man?'

'Back where?' Nanny turned around. The late Dr Undershaft had gone nowhere, but Walter had vanished. 'Poor chap was a bit upset, I shouldn't wonder,' said Nanny. 'Only to be expected. So. . . how about if you got another strapping young lad to help you out instead?'

'Er. . . yes.'

'What a good boy,' Nanny repeated. It was mid-evening. Granny and Mrs Plinge pushed their way through the crowds towards the Shades, a part of the city that was as thronged as a rookery, fragrant as a cesspit, and vice versa. 'So,' said Granny, as they entered the network of foetid alleys, 'your boy Walter usually sees you home, does he?'

'He's a good boy, Mistress Weatherwax,' said Mrs Plinge defensively. 'I'm sure you're grateful for a strong lad to lean on,' said Granny. Mrs Plinge looked up. Looking into Granny's eyes was like looking into a mirror. What you saw looking back at you was yourself, and there was no hiding-place. 'They torment him so,' she mumbled. 'They poke at him and hide his broom. They're not bad boys round here, but they will torment him.'

'He brings his broom home, does he?'

'He looks after his things,' said Mrs Plinge. 'I've always brought him up to look after his things and not be a trouble. But they will poke the poor soul and call him such names. . .' The alleyway opened into a yard, like a well between the high buildings. Washing-lines crisscrossed the rectangle of moonlit sky. 'I'm just in here,' said Mrs Plinge. 'Much obliged to you.'

'How does Walter get home without you?' said Granny. 'Oh, there's plenty of places to sleep in the Opera House. He knows that if I don't come for him he's to stop there for the night. He does what he's told, Mistress Weatherwax. He's never any trouble.'

'I never said he was.'

Mrs Plinge fumbled in her purse, as much to escape Granny's stare as to look for the key. 'I expect your Walter sees most of what goes on in the Opera House,' said Granny, taking one of Mrs Plinge's wrists in her hand. 'I wonder what your Walter. . . saw?' The pulse jumped at the same time as the thieves did. Shadows unfolded themselves. There was the scrape of metal. A low voice said, 'There's two of you, ladies, and there's six of us. There's no use in screaming.'

'Oh, deary deary me,' said Granny. Mrs Plinge dropped to her knees. 'Oh, please don't hurt us, kind sirs, we are harmless old ladies! Haven't you got mothers?' Granny rolled her eyes. Damn, damn and blast. She was a good witch. That was her role in life. That was the burden she had to bear. Good and Evil were quite superfluous when you'd grown up with a highly developed sense of Right and Wrong. She hoped, oh she hoped, that young though these were, they were dyed-in-the-wool criminals . . 'I 'ad a mother once,' said the nearest thief. 'Only I think I must of et 'er. . .' Ah. Top marks. Granny raised both hands to her hat to draw out two long hatpins. . . A tile slid off the roof, and splashed into a puddle. They looked up. A caped figure was visible for a moment against the moonlight. It thrust out a sword at arm's length. Then it dropped, landing lightly in front of one astonished man. The sword whirled. The first thief spun and thrust at the shadowy shape in front of him, which turned out to be another thief, whose arm jerked up and dragged its own knife along the ribcage of the thief beside him. The masked figure danced among the gang, his sword almost leaving trails in the air. It occurred to Granny later that it never actually made contact, but then, it never needed to-when six are against one in a melee in the shadows, and especially if those six aren't used to a target that is harder to hit than a wasp, and even more so if they got all their ideas of knifefighting from other amateurs, then there's six chances in seven that they'll stab a crony and about one chance in twelve that they'll nick their own earlobe. The two that remained uninjured after ten seconds looked at one another, turned, and ran. And then it was over. The surviving vertical figure bowed low in front of Granny Weatherwax. 'Ah. Bella Donna!' There was a swirl of black cloak and red silk, and it too was gone. For a moment soft footsteps could be heard skimming over the cobbles. Granny's hand was still halfway to her hat. 'Well I never!' she said. She looked down. Various bodies were groaning or making soft bubbling noises. 'Deary deary me,' she said. Then she pulled herself together. 'I reckon we're going to need some nice hot water and some bits of bandage, and a good sharp needle for the stitching, Mrs Plinge,' she said. 'We can't let these poor men bleed to death now, can we, even if they do try to rob old ladies. . .' Mrs Plinge looked horrified. 'We've got to be charitable, Mrs Plinge,' Granny insisted. 'I'll pump up the fire and tear up a sheet,' said Mrs Plinge. 'Don't know if I can find a needle. . .'

'Oh, I 'spect I've got a needle,' said Granny, extracting one' from the brim of her hat. She knelt down by a fallen thief. 'It's rather rusty and blunt,' she added, 'but we shall have to do the best we can.' The needle gleamed in the moonlight. His round, frightened eyes focused on it, and then on Granny's face. He whimpered. His shoulder blades tried to dig him into the cobbles. It was perhaps as well that no one else could see Granny's face in the shadows. 'Let's do some good,' she said. Salzella threw his hands in the air. 'Supposing he'd come down in the middle of the act?' he said. 'All right, all right,' said Bucket, who was sitting behind his desk as a man might hide behind a bunker. 'I agree. After the show we call in the Watch. No two ways about it. We shall just have to ask them to be discreet.'

'Discreet? Have you ever met a Watchman?' said Salzella. 'Not that they'll find anything. He'll have been over the rooftops and away, you may depend upon it. Whoever he is. Poor Dr Undershaft. He was always so highly strung.'

'Never more so than tonight,' said Salzella. 'That was tasteless!' Salzella leaned over the desk. 'Tasteless or not, the company are theatre people. Superstitious. One little thing like someone being murdered on stage and they go all to pieces.'

'He wasn't murdered on stage, he was murdered off stage. And we can't be sure it was murder! He'd been very. . . depressed, lately.' Agnes had been shocked, but it hadn't been shock at Dr Undershaft's death. She'd been astonished at her own reaction. It had been startling and unpleasant to see the man, but even worse to see herself actually being interested in what was happening-in the way people reacted, in the way they moved, in the things they said. It had been as if she'd stood outside herself, watching the whole thing. Christine, on the other hand, had just folded up. So had Dame Timpani. Far more people had fussed over Christine than around the prima donna, despite the fact that Dame Timpani had come around and fainted again quite pointedly several times and had eventually been forced to go for hysterics. No one had assumed for a minute that Agnes couldn't cope. Christine had been carried into Salzella's backstage office and put on a couch. Agnes had fetched a bowl of water and a cloth and was wiping her forehead, for there are some people who are destined to be carried to comfortable couches and some people whose only fate is fetching a bowl of cold water. 'Curtain goes up again in two minutes,' said Salzella. 'I'd better go and round up the orchestra. They'll all be in the Stab In The Back over the road. The swine can get through half a pint before the applause has died away.'

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