Night Watch
Page 18

 Terry Pratchett

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Anyway . . . you did the job that was in front of you, like unimaginative coppers always did. He got up around one in the afternoon. Lawn was closeted in his surgery, doing something that involved some serious whimpering on the part of something else. Vimes knocked on the door. After a moment it was opened a fraction. Dr Lawn was wearing a face mask and holding a very long pair of tweezers in his hand. 'Yes?'
'I'm going out,' said Vimes. 'Trouble?'
'Not too bad. Slidey Harris was unlucky at cards last night, that's all. Played an ace.'
'That's an unlucky card?'
'It is if Big Tony knows he didn't deal it to you. But I'll soon have it removed. If you're going to injure anyone tonight, can you do it before I go to bed? Thank you.' Lawn shut the door. Vimes nodded at the woodwork, and went out to stretch his legs and get some lunch. It was waiting for him, on a tray, around the neck of a man. Quite a young man, now, but there was something about the expression, as of a rat who was expecting cheese right around the next corner, and had been expecting cheese around the last corner too, and the corner before that, and, although the world had turned out so far to be full of corners yet completely innocent of any cheese at all, was nevertheless quite certain that, just around the corner, cheese awaited. Vimes stared. But why should he be surprised? As long ago as he could remember, there was always someone selling highly suspicious chemically reclaimed pork products in this town. The seller was very familiar. Just . . . younger. His expression lit up at the sight of an unfamiliar face. The seller liked to meet people who hadn't yet bought one of his pies. 'Ah, sergeant . . . Hey, what's the little crown mean?'
'Sergeant-at-arms,' said Vimes. 'That's like “sergeant with all the trimmings”.'
'Well, sergeant, could I interest you in a very special sausage inna bun? Guaranteed no rat? One hundred per cent organic? All pork shaved before mixing?' Why not? thought Vimes. And his stomach, liver, kidneys and lengths of intestine all supplied reasons, but he fumbled in his pocket for some change anyway. 'How much, Mr . . . er,' Vimes remembered in time, and made a show of looking at the name on the front of the tray, Dibbler?'
'Four pence, sergeant.'
'And that's cutting your own throat, eh?' said Vimes jovially. 'Pardon?' said Dibbler, looking puzzled. 'I said, a price like that's cutting your own throat, eh?'
'Cutting my own . . . ?'
'Throat,' said Vimes desperately. 'Oh.' Dibbler thought about this. 'Right. Yeah. It is. You never said a truer word. So you'll have one, then?'
'I notice it says on your tray “Dibbler Enterprises, Est”,' said Vimes. 'Shouldn't it say when you were established?'
'Should it?' Dibbler looked down at his tray. 'How long have you been going?' said Vimes, selecting a pie. 'Let's see . . . what year is this?'
'Er . . . Dancing Dog, I think.'
'Since Tuesday, then,' said Dibbler. His face brightened. 'But this is only the start, mister. This is just to get a stake together. In a year or two I'm going to be a big man in this town.'
'I believe you,' said Vimes. 'I really do.' Dibbler looked down at his tray again as Vimes strolled off. 'Cutting my own throat, cutting my own throat,' he mumbled to himself, and seemed to like the sound of it. But then he focused more clearly on the tray and his face went pale. 'Sergeant!' he shouted. 'Don't eat the pie!' Vimes, a few yards away, stopped with the pie halfway to his mouth. 'What's wrong with it?' he said. 'Silly me. I mean, what's uniquely wrong with it?'
'Nothing! I mean . . . these are better!' Vimes risked another look at the tray. They all looked the same to him. Dibbler's pies quite often looked appetizing. Therein lay their one and only charm. 'I can't see any difference,' he said. 'Yeah, yeah, there is,' said Dibbler, sweat beading on his forehead. 'See? The one you got has that little pattern of pastry pigs on it? And all the others have pastry sausages? I'd hate you to think that, you know, I thought you were a pig or anything, so if you'll hand it over I'll happily give you, er, another one, that one's not the right one, er, not that it's a wrong one, but, er, with the pig and everything
Vimes looked into the man's eyes. Dibbler had yet to learn that friendly blankness that thirty years of selling truly organic pies would call into being. While the man stared in horror, he took a large bite out of the pie. It was everything that he had expected and nothing that he could identify. 'Yum,' he said and, with some concentration, eyes fixed on the luckless pieman, finished it all. 'I think it's quite possible no one else makes pies like you do, Mr Dibbler,' he said, licking his fingers in case he might want to shake hands with someone later on. 'You ate it all?' said Dibbler. 'Was that wrong?' said Vimes. And now relief rose off the man like smoke off a greenwood fire. 'What? No! That's fine! Jolly good! Want another one to help it down? Half- price?'
'No, no, one is more than enough,' said Vimes, backing away. 'You finished every bit?' said Dibbler. 'That was right, wasn't it?' said Vimes. 'Oh, yeah. Sure. Obviously!'
'Got to be going,' said Vimes, moving on down the lane. 'I'll look forward to seeing you again when I've got less appetite.' He waited until he was well out of sight before taking a few random turns in the network of alleys. Then he stepped into the shadow of a deep doorway and felt in his mouth for the piece of pie that had seemed curiously unchewable even by pie standards. Usually, if you found something more than usually hard or crunchy in one of Dibbler's Famous Pork Pies, the trick was either to swallow it and hope for the best or spit it out with your eyes closed. But Vimes felt around between gum and cheek and fished out a folded piece of paper, stained with unknowable juices. He unfolded it. In smudged pencil, but still decipherable, it read: Morphic Street, 9 o'clock tonight. Password: swordfish. Swordfish? Every password was swordfish! Whenever anyone tried to think of a word that no one would ever guess, they always chose swordfish. It was just one of those strange quirks of the human mind. That explained the guilt, anyway. A plot. Another damn plot, in a city full of plots. Did he need to know about plots? Anyway, he knew about this one. Morphic Street. The famous Morphic Street Conspiracy. Ha. He pushed the greasy scrap into a pocket and then hesitated.
Someone was being quiet. Overlaid on the distant street noises was a sort of hollow in the sounds, filled by careful breathing. And the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Quietly, he pulled the blackjack out of his rear pocket. Now, what were the options? He was a copper, and someone was creeping up on him. If they weren't a copper, then they were in the wrong (because he was a copper). If they were a copper, too, then they were one of Swing's crew and therefore in the wrong (because he was a better copper than them, and so were things floating in gutters) and therefore delivering a swift bucketful of darkness had no obvious downside. On the other hand, thieves, assassins and Swing's men, by all accounts, did a lot of creeping up on people and were probably pretty good at it, whereas the person tracking him was keeping their back so close to the wall he could hear the scraping. That meant they were probably just a member of the public with something on their mind and he was not inclined to add several ounces of lead shot simply for that reason (because he'd like to believe he wasn't that sort of copper). He settled for stepping out into the alley and saying 'Yeah?' A boy stared up at him. It had to be a boy. Nature would not have been so cruel as to do that to a girl. No single feature in itself was more than passably ugly, but the combination was greater than the sum of the parts. There was also the smell. It wasn't bad, as such. It just wasn't entirely human. There was something feral about it. 'Er . . .' said its pinched-up face. 'Look, tell you what, mister, you tell me where you're going and I'll stop following you, have we got a deal? Cost you no more'n a penny and that's a special price. Some people pay me a lot more'n that to stop following 'em.' Vimes continued to stare. The creature was wearing an oversize evening dress jacket, shiny with grease and greenish with age, and a top hat that must once have been trodden on by a horse. But the bits that were visible between the two were regrettably familiar. 'Oh, no . . .' he moaned. 'No, no, no . . .'
'You all right, mister?'
'No, no, no ... oh, ye gods, it had to happen, didn't it. . .'
'You want I should go'n' fetch Mossy, mister?' Vimes pointed an accusing finger. 'You're Nobby Nobbs, right?' The urchin backed away. 'Could be. So what? Is that a crime?' He turned to run but Vimes's hand fell heavily on his shoulder. 'Some people might say so. You're Nobby Nobbs, son of Maisie Nobbs and Sconner Nobbs?'
'Prob'ly, prob'ly! But I ain't done nothin', mister!'
Vimes bent down to look into eyes that peered out at the world through a mask of grime. 'How about whizzing wipers, snitching tinklers, pulling wobblers, flogging tumblers and running rumbles?' Nobby's brow creased in genuine puzzlement. 'What's pulling wobblers mean?' he said. Vimes gave him a similar look. Street parly had changed a lot in thirty years. 'That's stealing trifles . . . small items. Isn't it?'
'Nah, nah, mister. That's “tottering nevils”,' said Nobby, relaxing. 'But you ain't doin' badly, for someone who's new. What's oil of angels?' Memory flicked a card. 'A bribe,' said Vimes. 'And a dimber?' said Nobby, grinning. 'Easy. Could be a head beggar, could be just a handsome man.'
'Well done. Bet you don't know how to fleague a jade, though.' Once again, from a dusty recess, a memory unrolled. This one stuck in your mind. 'Dear me, do you know that? What a shame in one so young,' said Vimes. That's when you want to sell a broken-down horse and have to make it a bit frisky in front of the punters, and so you take some fresh raw hot ginger, lift up its tail, and push the ginger-'
'Cor,' said Nobby, suddenly impressed. 'Everyone says you're a real quick learner, and that's true enough. You could've been born here.'
'Why're you following me, Nobby Nobbs?' said Vimes. The urchin held out a grubby hand. Some street language never changes. Vimes pulled out sixpence. It shone in Nobby's palm like a diamond in a chimney-sweep's ear. 'One of 'em's a lady,' he said, and grinned. The hand stayed out. 'That was a bloody sixpence I just gave you, kid,' Vimes growled. 'Yeah, but I got to think of-' Vimes grabbed the lapels of Nobby's greasy coat and lifted him up, and was mildly shocked to realize that there was practically no weight there. Street urchin, he thought. Urchin sounds about right - spiky, slimy and smelling slightly of rotting seaweed. But there's hundreds of them round here, clawing a living off the very margins, and as I recall Nobby was one of the sharpest. And as trustworthy as a chocolate hammer. But that's okay. There's ways to deal with that.
'How much,' he said, 'for you to work for me, all the time?'
'I got customers to think of-' he began. 'Yeah, but I'm the one holding you up in one hand, right?' said Vimes. With his oversized boots dangling a foot above the ground, Nobby considered his position. 'All the time?'
'Er . . . for something like that I've got to be looking at a lordship every day.'
'A dollar? Guess again!'
'Er . . . half a dollar?'
'Not a chance. A dollar a week, and I won't make your life the utter misery which, Nobby, I assure you I can do in so many little ways.' Still dangling, Nobby tried to work all this out. 'So ... I'll be kind of like a copper, right?' he said, grinning artfully. 'Kind of.'
'Number One Suspect says it's a good life being a copper, 'cos you can pinch stuff without getting nicked.'
'He's got that right,' said Vimes. 'An' he says if anyone gives you lip, you can bop 'em one and chuck them in the Tanty,' Nobby went on. 'I'd like to be a copper one day.'