Night Watch
Page 16

 Terry Pratchett

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'It's not me, you understand,' said Vimes, 'but if I went back and showed my captain this piece of paper and he said to me, Vi- Keel, how d'you know he's Henry the Hamster, well, I'd be a bit ... flummoxed. Maybe even perplexed.'
'Listen, we don't sign for prisoners!'
'We do, Henry,' said Vimes. 'No signature, no prisoners.'
'And you'll stop us taking 'em, will you?' said Henry the Hamster, taking a few steps forward. 'You lay a hand on that door,' said Vimes, 'and I'll-'
'Chop it off, will you?'
'-I'll arrest you,' said Vimes. 'Obstruction would be a good start, but we can probably think of some more charges back at the station.'
'Arrest me? But I'm a copper, same as you!'
'Wrong again,' said Vimes. 'What is the trouble . . . here?' said a voice. A small, thin figure appeared in the torchlight. Henry the Hamster took a step back, and adopted a certain deferential pose. 'Officer won't hand over the curfew breakers, sir,' he said. 'And this is the officer?' said the figure, lurching towards Vimes with a curiously erratic gait.
'Yessir.' Vimes found himself under cool and not openly hostile inspection from a pale man with the screwed-up eyes of a pet rat. 'Ah,' said the man, opening a little tin and taking out a green throat pastille. 'Would you be Keel, by any chance? I have been . . . hearing about you.' The man's voice was as uncertain as his walk. Pauses turned up in the wrong places. 'You hear about things quickly, sir.'
'A salute is generally in order, sergeant.'
'I don't see anything to salute, sir,' said Vimes. 'Goodpoint. Goodpoint. You are new, of course. But, you see, we in theParticulars . . . often find it necessary to wearplain . . . clothes.' Like rubber aprons, if I recall correctly, thought Vimes. Aloud, he said: 'Yes, sir.' It was a good phrase. It could mean any of a dozen things, or nothing at all. It was just punctuation until the man said something else. 'I'm Captain Swing,' said the man. Tindthee Swing. If you think the name is amusing, pleasesmirk . . . and get it over with. You may now salute.' Vimes saluted. Swing's mouth turned up at the corners very briefly. 'Good. Your first night on our hurry-up wagon, sergeant?'
'And you're here so early. With a full load, too. Shall we take alook ... at your passengers?' He glanced in between the ironwork. 'Ah. Yes. Good evening, Miss Palm. And an associate, I see-'
'I do crochet!'
'-and what appear to be some party-goers. Well, well.' Swing stood back. 'What little scamps your street officers are, to be sure. They really have scoured the streets. How they love their . . . littlejokes, sergeant.' Swing put his hand on the wagon door's handle and there was a little noise which was nevertheless a thunderclap in the silence, and it was the sound of a sword moving very slightly in its scabbard. Swing stood stock still for a moment and then delicately popped the pastille into his mouth. 'Aha. I think that perhaps this little catch can be ... thrownback, don't you, sergeant? We don't want to make a mockery of... thelaw. Take them away, take them away.'
'Yes, sir.'
'But just onemoment, please, sergeant. Indulge me . . . just a little hobby of mine 'Sir?'
Swing had reached into a pocket of his over-long coat and pulled out a very large pair of steel calipers. Vimes flinched as they were opened up to measure the width of his head, the width of his nose and the length of his eyebrows. Then a metal ruler was pressed against one ear. While doing this, Swing was mumbling under his breath. Then he closed the calipers with a snap, and slipped them back. 'I must congratulateyou, sergeant,' he said, 'in overcoming your considerable natural disadvantages. Do you know you have the eye of a mass murderer? I am neverwrong ... in these matters.'
'Nosir. Didn't know that, sir. Will try to keep it closed, sir,' said Vimes. Swing didn't crack a smile. 'However, I'm sure that when you have settled in you and Corporal, aha, Hamster here will get along like a ... houseonfire.'
'A house on fire. Yes, sir.'
'Don'tlet. . . me detain you, Sergeant Keel.' Vimes saluted. Swing nodded, turned in one movement, as though he was on a swivel, and strode back into the Watch House. Or jerked, Vimes considered. The man moved in the same way he talked, in a curious mixture of speeds. It was as if he was powered by springs; when he moved a hand, the first few inches of movement were a blur, and then it gently coasted until it was brought into conjunction with whatever was the intended target. Sentences came out in spurts and pauses. There was no rhythm to the man. Vimes ignored the fuming corporal and climbed back on to the wagon. "Turn us round, lance-constable,' he said. 'G'night, Henry.' Sam waited until the wheels were rumbling over the cobbles before he turned, wide-eyed, to Vimes. 'You were going to draw on him, weren't you?' he said. 'You were, sarge, weren't you?'
'You just keep your eyes on the road, lance-constable.'
'But that was Captain Swing, that was! And when you told that man to prove he was Henry the Hamster, I thought I'd widd- choke! You knew they weren't going to sign, right, sarge? 'cos if there's a bit of paper saying they've got someone, then if anyone wants to find out-'
'Just drive, lance-constable.' But the boy was right. For some reason, the Unmentionables both loved and feared paperwork. They certainly generated a lot of it. They wrote everything down. They didn't like appearing on other people's paperwork, though. That worried them. 'I can't believe we got away with it, sarge!' We probably haven't, Vimes thought. But Swing has enough to worry him at the moment. He doesn't care very much about a big stupid sergeant. He turned and banged on the ironwork.
'Sorry for the inconvenience, ladies and gentlemen, but it appears the Unmentionables are not doing business tonight. Looks like we'll have to do the interrogation ourselves. We're not very experienced at this, so I hope we don't get it wrong. Now, listen carefully. Are any of you serious conspirators bent on the overthrow of the government?' There was a stunned silence from within the wagon. 'Come on, come on,' said Vimes. 'I haven't got all night. Does anyone want to overthrow Lord Winder by force?'
'Well . . . no?' said the voice of Miss Palm. 'Or by crochet?'
'I heard that!' said another female voice sharply. 'No one? Shame,' said Vimes. 'Well, that's good enough for me. Lance- constable, is it good enough for you?'
'Er, yes, sarge.'
'In that case we'll drop you all off on our way home, and my charming assistant Lance-Constable Vimes will take, oh, half a dollar off each of you for travelling expenses for which you will get a receipt. Thank you for travelling with us, and we hope you will consider the hurry-up wagon in all your future curfew-breaking arrangements.' Vimes could hear shocked whispering behind him. This was not how things were supposed to go these days. 'Sarge,' said Lance-Constable Vimes. 'Yep?'
'Have you really got the eye of a mass murderer?'
'In the pocket of my other suit, yes.'
'Hah.' Sam was quiet for a while, and when he spoke again he seemed to have something new on his mind. 'Er, sarge?'
'Yes, lad?'
'What's a tuppenny upright, sarge?'
'It's a kind of jam doughnut, lad. Did your mum ever make 'em?'
'Yes, sarge. Sarge?'
'Yes, lad?'
'I think it probably means something else as well, sarge,' said Sam, sniggering. 'Something a bit ... rude
The whole of life is a learning process, lance-constable.' They got the wagon back to the yard ten minutes later, and by that time Vimes knew that a new rumour was fanning out across the city. Young Sam had already whispered things to the other officers as the curfew-breakers were dropped off, and nobody gossips like a copper. They didn't like the Unmentionables. Like petty criminals everywhere, the watchmen prided themselves that there were some depths to which they would not sink. There had to be some things below you, even if it was only mudworms. Rosie Palm bolted the door of her flat, leaned on it and stared at Sandra. 'What is he?' said Sandra, dumping her workbasket on the table. It clanked within. 'Is he on our side?'
'You heard the lads!' snapped Rosie. 'No bribes now! And then he drags us off to Swing's bastards and then he won't hand us over! I could kill him! I rescued him from the gutter, got Mossy to patch him up and suddenly he's playing big silly games!'
'Yes, what is a tuppenny upright?' said Sandra brightly. Miss Palm paused. She quite enjoyed Sandra's company and the extra rent certainly came in handy, but there were times she wondered whether a) she should have a talk with the girl or b) she was being very gently wound up. She suspected the latter, since Sandra was taking more money than her most of the time. It was getting embarrassing. 'It's a kind of jam doughnut,' she said. 'Now, you'd better go and hide the-' Someone knocked on the door behind her. She motioned Sandra through the bead curtain, took a moment to pull herself together, and opened the door a fraction. There was a very small old man standing in the hall. Everything about him sloped hopelessly downwards. His grey moustache could have been stolen from a walrus, or a bloodhound that had just been given some very bad news. His shoulders sagged listlessly. Even parts of his face seemed to be losing the battle with gravity. He held his cap in his hands and was twisting it nervously. 'Yes?' said Rosie. 'Er, it said “seamstress” on the sign,' the old man mumbled. 'An', well, since my ol' woman died, you know, what with one thing an' another, never bin any good at doing it for meself He gave Rosie a look of sheer, helpless embarrassment. She glanced down at the sack by his feet, and picked it up. It was full of very clean, but very worn, socks. Every single one had holes in the heel and toe. 'Sandra,' she said, 'I think this one's for you . . .'
It was so very early in the morning that 'late at night' wasn't quite over. White mist hung everywhere in the streets, and deposited droplets like tiny pearls on Vimes's shirt as he prepared to break the law. If you stood on the roof of the privy behind the Watch House and steadied yourself on the drainpipe, one of the upstairs windows would bounce open if you hit it with the palm of your hand in exactly the right place. It was a useful bit of information, and Vimes wondered if he should pass it on to young Sam. Every honest copper ought to know how to break into his own nick. Tilden had limped home long ago, but Vimes did a quick sweep of his office and it was with great satisfaction that he did not see what he hadn't expected to be there. Down below, a few of the more conscientious officers were signing off before heading home. He waited in the shadows until the door had banged shut for the last time and there were no footsteps for several minutes. Then he made his way down the stairs and into the locker room. He had been issued with a key to his own locker, but still oiled the hinge from a small bottle before he opened it. He had not in fact put anything in there yet but, behold, there was a rumpled sack on the floor. He lifted it up ... Well done, lads. Inside was Captain Tilden's silver inkwell. Vimes stood up, and looked around at the lockers, with their ancient carved initials and occasional knife marks on the doors. He pulled from his pocket the little black cloth roll he'd taken from the evidence locker earlier. A selection of lock picks glinted in the grey light. Vimes wasn't a genius with the hooks and rakes, but the cheap and worn door locks were hardly a major challenge. Really, it was just a matter of choosing. And afterwards he walked back through the mists. He was horrified to find he was feeling good again. It was a betrayal of Sybil and the future Watch and even of His Grace Sir Samuel Vimes, who had to think about the politics of distant countries and manpower requirements and how to raise that damn boat that River Division kept sinking. And, yes, he wanted to go back, or forwards or across or whatever. He really did. He wanted to go home so much he could taste it. Of course he did. But he couldn't, not yet, and here he was and as Dr Lawn said, you did the job. And currently the job involved survival on the street in the great game of Silly Buggers, and Vimes knew all about that game, oh yes. And there was a thrill in it. It was the nature of the beast. And thus he was walking along, lost in thought, when the men jumped him from the mouth of a shadowy alley. The first one got a foot in the stomach, because the beast does not fight fair. Vimes stepped aside and grabbed the other one. He felt the knife