Maskerade (Discworld #18)

Chapter 6

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'What, us?'

'Listen, lady, even if I was stopping here the tickets are forty damn' dollars each!'

'Oh.'

'Why've you got broomsticks?' shouted the driver. 'Are you witches?'

'Yes. Have you got any special low terms for witches?'

'Yeah, how about “meddling, interfering old baggages”?' Cutoff felt that he must have missed part of the conversation, because the next exchange went like this: 'What was that again, young man?'

'Two complimentary tickets to Ankh-Morpork, ma'am. No problem.'

'Inside seats, mind. No travelling on the top.'

'Certainly, ma'am. Excuse me while I just kneel in the dirt so's you can step up, ma'am.' Cutoff nodded happily to himself as the coach pulled away again. It was nice to see that good manners and courtesy were still alive. With great difficulty and much shouting and untangling of ropes far above, the figure was lowered to the stage. He was soaked in paint and turpentine. The swelling audience of off duty staff and rehearsal truants crowded in around him. Agnes knelt down, loosened his collar and tried to unwind the rope that had caught around arm and neck. 'Does anyone know him?' she said. 'It's Tommy Cripps,' said a musician. 'He paints scenery.' Tommy moaned, and opened his eyes. 'I saw him!' he muttered. 'It was horrible!'

'Saw what?' said Agnes. And then she had a sudden feeling that she'd intruded on some private conversation. Around her there was a babble of voices. 'Giselle said she saw him last week!'

'He's here!'

'It's happening again!'

'Are we all doomed?!' squeaked Christine.

Tommy Cripps gripped Agnes's arm. 'He's got a face like death!'

'Who?'

'The Ghost!'

'What gho-?'

'It's white bone! He has no nose!' A couple of ballet dancers fainted, but carefully, so as not to get their clothes dirty. 'Then how does hue' Agnes began. 'I saw him too!' On cue, the company turned. An elderly man advanced across the stage. He wore an ancient opera hat and carried a sack over one shoulder, while his spare hand made the needlessly expansive gestures of someone who has got hold of some direful information and can't wait to freeze all nearby spines. The sack must have contained something alive, because it was bouncing around. 'I saw him! Ooooooh yes! Wi' his great black cloak and his white face with no eyes but only two holes where eyes should be! Ooohhhh! And-'

'He had a mask on?' said Agnes. The old man paused and shot her the dark look reserved for all those who insist on injecting a note of sanity when things are getting interestingly ghastly. 'And he had no nose!' he went on, ignoring her. 'I just said that,' muttered Tommy Cripps, in a rather annoyed voice. 'I told them that. They already know that.'

'If he had no nose, how did he sme-' Agnes began, but no one was listening to her. 'Did you mention about the eyes?' said the old man. 'I was just getting round to the eyes,' snapped Tommy. 'Yes, he had eyes like-'

'Are we talking about some kind of mask here?' said Agnes. Now everyone was giving her that kind of look UFOlogists get when they suddenly say, 'Hey, if you shade your eyes you can see it is just a flock of geese after all.' The man with the sack coughed and regrouped. 'Like great holes, they were-' he began, but it was clear that it had all been spoiled for him. 'Great holes,' he said sourly. 'That's what I saw. And no nose, I might add, thank you so very much.'

'It's the Ghost again!' said a scene-shifter. 'He jumped out from behind the organ,' said Tommy Cripps. 'Next thing I knew, there was a rope around my neck and I was upside-down!' The company looked at the man with the sack, in case he could trump this. 'Great big black holes,' he managed, sticking to what he knew. 'All right, everyone, what's going on here?' An imposing figure strode out of the wings. He had flowing black hair, carefully brushed to give it a carefree alfresco look, but the face underneath was the face of an organizer. He nodded at the old man with the sack. 'What are you staring at, Mr Pounder?' he said. The old man looked down. 'I knows what I saw, Mr Salzella,' he said. 'I see lots o' things, I do.'

'As much as is visible through the bottom of a bottle, I have no doubt, you old reprobate. What happened to Tommy?'

'It was the Ghost!' said Tommy, delighted to have centrestage again. 'He swooped out at me, Mr Salzella! I think my leg is broken,' he added quickly, in the voice of one who is suddenly aware of the time-off opportunities of the situation.

Agnes expected the newcomer to say something like 'Ghosts? There's no such thing.' He had the kind of face that said that. Instead, he said, 'Back again, is he? Where did he go?'

'Didn't see, Mr Salzella. He just swooped off again!'

'Some of you help Tommy down to the canteen,' said Salzella. 'And someone else fetch a doctor-'

'His leg isn't broken,' said Agnes. 'But that's a nasty rope burn on his neck and he's filled his own ear with paint.'

'What do you know about it, miss?' said Tommy. A paintfilled ear didn't sound as though it had the possibilities of a broken leg. 'I've . . . er . . . had some training,' said Agnes, and then added quickly, 'It's a nasty burn, though, and of course there may be some delayed shock.'

'Brandy is very good for that, isn't it?' said Tommy. 'Perhaps you could try forcing some between my lips?'

'Thank you, Perdita. The rest of you, go back to what you were doing,' said Salzella. 'Big dark holes,' said Mr Pounder. 'Big ones.'

'Yes, thank you, Mr Pounder. Help Ron with Mr Cripps, will you? Perdita, you come here. And you, Christine.' The two girls stood before the director of music. 'Did you see anything?' said Salzella. 'I saw a great creature with great flapping wings and great big holes where his eyes should be!!' said Christine. 'I'm afraid I just saw something white up in the ceiling,' said Agnes. 'Sorry.' She blushed, aware of how useless that sounded. Perdita would have seen a mysterious cloaked figure or something. . . something interesting. . . Salzella smiled at her. 'You mean you just see things that are really there?' he said. 'I can see you haven't been with the opera for long, dear. But I may say I'm pleased to have a level-headed person around here for once-'

'Oh, no!' screamed someone. 'It's the Ghost!!' shrieked Christine, automatically. 'Er. It's the young man behind the organ,' said Agnes. 'Sorry.'

'Observant as well as level-headed,' said Salzella. 'Whereas I can see that you, Christine, will fit right in here. What's the matter, André?' A fair-haired young man peered around the organ pipes. 'Someone's been smashing things, Mr Salzella,' he said mournfully. 'The pallet springs and the backfalls and everything. Completely ruined. I'm sure I won't be able to get a tune out of it. And it's priceless.' Salzella sighed. 'All right. I'll tell Mister Bucket,' he said. 'Thank you, everyone.' He gave Agnes a gloomy nod, and strode off: 'You shouldn't ort to do that to people,' said Nanny Ogg in a vague sort of way, as the coach began to get up speed. She looked around with a wide, friendly grin at the now rather dishevelled occupants of the coach. 'Morning,' she said, delving into the sack. 'I'm Gytha Ogg, I've got fifteen children, this is my friend Esme Weatherwax, we're going to Ankh- Morpork, would anyone like an egg sandwich? I've brung plenty. The cat's been sleepin' on them but they're fine, look, they bend back all right. No? Please yourself, I'm sure. Let's see what else we've got. . . ah, has anybody got an opener for a bottle of beer?' A man in the corner indicated that he might have such a thing. 'Fine,' said Nanny Ogg. 'Anyone got something to drink a bottle of beer out of?'

Another man nodded hopefully. 'Good,' said Nanny Ogg. 'Now, has anybody got a bottle of beer?' Granny, for once not the centre of attention as all horrified eyes were on Nanny and her sack, surveyed the other occupants of the coach. The express stage went right over the Ramtops and all the way through the patchwork of little countries beyond. If it cost forty dollars just from Lancre, then it must have cost these people a lot more. What sort of folk spent the best part of two months' wages just to travel fast and uncomfortably? The thin man who sat clutching his bag was probably a spy, she decided. The fat man who'd volunteered the glass looked as if he sold things; he had the unpleasant complexion of someone who'd hit too many bottles but missed too many meals. They were huddled together on their seat because the rest of it was occupied by a man of almost wizardly proportions. He didn't appear to have woken up when the coach stopped. There was a handkerchief over his face. He was snoring with the regularity of a geyser, and looked as though the only worries he might have in the world were a tendency for small objects to gravitate towards him and the occasional tide. Nanny Ogg continued to rummage around in her bag and, as was the case when she was preoccupied, her mouth had wired itself to her eyeballs without her brain intervening. She was used to travelling by broomstick. Long distance ground travel was a novelty to her, so she'd prepared with some care. '. . .lessee now. . . book of puzzles for long journeys . . . cushion . . . foot powder . . . mosquito trap. . . phrase book. . . bag to be sick into. . . oh dear. . .' The audience, which against all probability had managed to squeeze itself further away from Nanny during the litany, waited with horrified interest. 'What?' said Granny. 'How often d'you reckon this coach stops?'

'What's the matter?'

'I should've gone before we left. Sorry. It's the jolting. Anyone know if there's a privy on this thing?' she added brightly. 'Er,' said the probable spy, 'we generally wait until the next stop, or-' He stopped. He had been about to add 'there's always the window', which was a manly option on the bumpier rural stretches, but he stopped himself in the horrible apprehension that this ghastly old woman might seriously consider the possibility. 'There's Ohulan just a bit further on the road,' said Granny, who was trying to doze. 'You just wait.'

'This coach doesn't stop at Ohulan,' said the spy helpfully. Granny Weatherwax raised her head. 'Up until now, that is,' said the spy. Mr Bucket was sitting in his office trying to make sense of the Opera House's books. They didn't make any kind of sense. He reckoned he was as good as the next man at reading a balance-sheet, but these were to book-keeping what grit was to clockwork. Seldom Bucket had always enjoyed opera. He didn't understand it and never had, but he didn't understand the ocean either and he enjoyed that, too. He'd looked upon the purchase as, well, something to do, a sort of working retirement. The offer had been too good to pass up. Things had been getting pretty tough in the wholesale cheese-and-milk-derivatives business, and he'd been looking forward to the quieter climes of the world of art.

The previous owners had put on some good operas. It was only a shame that their genius hadn't run to bookkeeping as well. Money seemed to have been taken out of the accounts when anyone needed it. The financial-record system largely consisted of notes on torn bits of paper saying: 'I've taken $30 to pay Q. See you Monday. R.' Who was R? Who was Q? What was the money for? You wouldn't get away with this sort of thing in the world of cheese. He looked up as the door opened. 'Ah, Salzella,' he said. 'Thank you for coming. You don't know who Q is, by any chance?'

'No, Mr Bucket.'

'Or R?'

'I'm afraid not.' Salzella pulled up a chair. 'It's taken me all morning, but I've worked out we pay more than fifteen hundred dollars a year for ballet shoes,' said Bucket, waving a piece of paper in the air. Salzella nodded. 'Yes, they do rather go through them at the toes.'

'I mean, it's ridiculous! I've still got a pair of boots belonging to my father!'

'But ballet shoes, sir, are rather more like foot gloves,' Salzella explained. 'You're telling me! They cost seven dollars a pair and they last hardly any time at all! A few performances! There must be some way we can make a saving. . . ?' 14.0pt;mso-ansi-language:EN-GB'>Salzella gave his new employer a long, cool stare. 'Possibly we could ask the girls to spend more time in the air?' he said. 'A few extra grands jetes?' Bucket looked puzzled. 'Would that work?' he said suspiciously. 'Well, their feet wouldn't be on the ground for so long, would they?' said Salzella, in the tones of one who knows for a fact that he's much more intelligent than anyone else in the room. 'Good point. Good point. Have a word with the ballet mistress, will you?'

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