Night Watch
Page 20

 Terry Pratchett

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'I don't tell lies as a rule, Keel!' said the captain, but added, 'I appreciate the suggestion, nevertheless. Anyway, I know I'm not as young as I was. Perhaps it's time to retire,' he sighed. 'I have to say I've been considering it for some time.'
'Oh, don't talk like that, sir,' said Vimes, far more jovially than he felt. 'I can't see you retiring.'
'Yes, I suppose I should see things through,' Tilden mumbled, walking back to his desk. 'Do you know, sergeant, that some of the men think you are a spy?'
'Who for?' said Vimes, reflecting that Snouty delivered more than cocoa. 'Lord Winder, I assume,' said Tilden. 'Well, we all work for him, sir. But I don't report to anyone but you, if that's any help.' Tilden looked up at him and shook his head sadly. 'Spy or not, Keel, I don't mind telling you that some of the orders we've been getting lately have . . . not been thought out properly, in my opinion, what?' He gave Vimes a glare as if defying him to produce the red-hot thumbscrews there and then. Vimes could see how much the admission that abduction and torture and conspiracy to criminalize honest citizens might not be acceptable government policy was costing the old man. Tilden hadn't been brought up to think like that. He'd ridden off under the flag of Ankh-Morpork to fight the Cheese-Eaters of Quirm or Johnny Klatchian or whatever enemies had been selected by those higher up the chain of command with never a second thought about the Tightness of the cause, because that sort of thinking could slow a soldier down. Tilden had grown up knowing that the people at the top were right. That was why they were at the top. He didn't have the mental vocabulary to think like a traitor, because only traitors thought like that. 'Haven't been here long enough to comment, sir,' said Vimes. 'Don't know how you do things here.'
'Not like we used to,' mumbled Tilden. 'Just as you say, sir.'
'Snouty says you know your way around remarkably well, sergeant. For someone new to the city.' That was a sentence with a hook on the end, but Tilden was an inexperienced angler. 'One nick is pretty much like any other, sir,' said Vimes. 'And, of course, I've visited the city before.'
'Of course. Of course,' said Tilden hurriedly. 'Well . . . thank you, sergeant. If you could, er, explain things to the men? I'd be grateful
'Yes, sir. Of course.' Vimes shut the door carefully behind him and went down the steps two at a time. The squad below had barely moved. He clapped his hands like a schoolteacher. 'C'mon, c'mon, you've got patrols to go to! Get moving! Not you, Sergeant Knock - a word in the yard, please!' Vimes didn't bother to wait to see if the man would follow him. He went out into the late afternoon sunshine, leaned against the wall, and waited. Ten years ago, he'd have- correction, ten years ago, if he was sober, he'd have taught Knock a few lessons about who's boss with several well- aimed punches. And that was certainly the custom these days. Scraps between watchmen hadn't been uncommon when Vimes was a constable. But that wouldn't do for Sergeant Keel. Knock stepped out, inflated with mad, terrified bravado. When Vimes raised his hand, the man actually flinched. 'Cigar?' said Vimes. 'Er . . .'
'I don't drink,' said Vimes. 'But you can't beat a good cigar.'
'I... er ... don't smoke,' mumbled Knock. 'Look, about that inkstand-'
'D'you know, he'd gone and put it in that safe of his?' said Vimes, smiling. 'He had?'
'And then forgotten about it,' said Vimes. 'Happens to us all, Winsborough. A man's mind starts to wander, he's never quite certain of what he's done.' Vimes maintained the friendly grin. It was as good as raining blows. Besides, he'd given Knock his correct name. The man never used it in public, for fear of the panic it might cause. 'Just thought I'd put your mind at rest about it,' said Vimes. Sergeant Winsborough Knock shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. He wasn't certain whether he'd got away with something, or had just ended up getting deeper into something else. 'Tell me more about Lance-Corporal Coates,' said Vimes. Knock's face was, for a moment, an agony of calculation. And then he adopted his usual policy: when you think there's wolves on your trail, throw someone off the sleigh. 'Ned, sir?' he said. 'Hard worker, of course, does his job - but a bit tricky, between you and me.'
'How? And you don't have to call me “sir”, Winsborough. Not out here.'
'He reckons Jack's as good as his master, if you know what I mean. Reckons he's as good as anyone. Bit of a troublemaker in that respect.'
'Barrack-room lawyer?'
'That sort of thing, yes.'
'Rebel sympathies?' Knock turned his eyes up innocently. 'Could be, sir. Wouldn't like to see the lad in trouble, o'course.' You think I'm a spy for the Unmentionables, thought Vimes. And you're throwing Coates to me. The other day you were pushing him for promotion. You little worm. 'Worth keeping an eye on, then?' he said aloud. 'Yessir.'
'Interesting,' said Vimes, always a worrying word to the uncertain. It certainly worried Knock, and Vimes thought: my gods, perhaps Vetinari feels like this all the time . . . 'Some of us, er, go round to the Broken Drum after the shift's over,' said Knock. 'It's open round the clock. I don't know if you-'
'I don't drink,' said Vimes. 'Oh. Yes. You said,' said Knock. 'And now I'd better pick up young Sam and get out on patrol,' said Vimes. 'Nice to have this little talk with you, Winsborough.' He strode past, taking care not to look back. Sam was still waiting in the main office, but was sucked into his wake as he swept past. 'I say, who's the skirt up there with old Folly?' The prefects looked up. On the raised platform at the end of the noisy hall Doctor Follett, Master of Assassins and ex officio headmaster of the Guild School, was in animated conversation with, indeed, a lady. The vivid purple of her dress made a splash of colour in the vast room, where black predominated, and the elegant whiteness of his hair shone like a beacon in the darkness. It was a Guild of Assassins, after all. Black was what you wore. The night was black and so were you. And black had such style, and an Assassin without style, everyone agreed, was just a highly paid arrogant thug. The prefects were all over eighteen and, therefore, allowed to visit parts of the city that the younger boys weren't even supposed to know about. Their pimples no longer erupted at the sight of a woman. Now,
their eyes narrowed. Most of them had already learned that the world was an oyster that could be opened with gold if a blade did not suffice. 'Probably a parent,' said one of them. 'I wonder who's the lucky boy?'
'I know who she is,' said 'Ludo' Ludorum, head of Viper House. 'I heard some of the masters talking earlier. She's Madam Roberta Meserole. Bought the old house in Easy Street. They say she made a pile of money in Genua and wants to settle down here. Looking for investment opportunities, apparently.'
'Madam?' said Downey. 'An honorific or a job description?'
'In Genua? Could be both,' said someone, to general laughter. 'Folly's certainly plying her with champagne,' said Downey. They're on their third bottle. What have they got to talk about?'
'Politics,' said Ludo. 'Everyone knows Winder isn't going to do the decent thing, so it'll be down to us. And Folly's annoyed because we've lost three chaps up there already. Winder's pretty cunning. There's guards and soldiers everywhere you look.'
'Winder's a scag,' said Downey. 'Yes, Downey. You call everyone a scag,' said Ludo calmly. 'Well, everyone is.' Downey turned back to the table and a movement - or, rather, a lack of movement - caught his eye. Towards the far end one young Assassin was sitting reading, with a book stand positioned in front of his plate. He was intent on it, an empty fork halfway to his mouth. With a wink at the others, Downey selected an apple from the bowl in front of him, stealthily drew his arm back, and let fly with malicious accuracy. The fork moved like a snake's tongue, and skewered the apple out of the air. The reader turned a page. Then, eyes never leaving the print, he delicately brought the fork up to his mouth and took a bite out of the apple. The rest of the table looked back at Downey, and there were one or two chuckles. The young man's brow furrowed. Assault having failed, he was forced to try scathing wit, which he did not have. 'You really are a scag, Dog-botherer,' he said. 'Yes, Downey,' said the reader levelly, his eyes still intent on the page. 'When are you going to pass some decent exams, Dog-botherer?'
'I really couldn't say, Downey.'
'Never killed anyone, right, Dog-botherer?'
'Probably not, Downey.' The reader turned another page. That little sound infuriated Downey even more. 'What's that you're reading?' he snapped. 'Robertson, show me what the Dog-botherer is reading, will you? Come on, pass it up.' The boy next to the one currently known as Dog-botherer snatched the book off the stand and threw it along the length of the table. The reader sighed and sat back as Downey gave the pages a cursory flick. 'Well, look here, you fellows,' he said. 'Dog-botherer is reading a picture book.' He held it open. 'Colour it in yourself with your paints or crayons, did you, Dog-botherer?' The former reader stared up at the ceiling. 'No, Downey. It was hand- coloured to his instructions by Miss Emelia Jane, the sister of Lord Winstanleigh Greville-Pipe, the author. It says so on the frontispiece, you will note.'
'And here's a lovely picture of a tiger,' Downey ploughed on. 'Why're you looking at pictures, Dog-botherer?'
'Because Lord Winstanleigh has some interesting theories on the art of concealment, Downey,' said the reader. 'Huh? Black and orange tiger in green trees?' said Downey, turning the pages roughly. 'Big red ape in green forest? Black and white zebra in yellow grass? What's this, a manual on how not to do it?' Again there was a round of chuckles, but they were forced. Downey had friends because he was big and rich, but sometimes he was embarrassing to have around. 'As a matter of fact Lord Winstanleigh also has an interesting point to make on the dangers of intuitive-'
'This a Guild book, Dog-botherer?' Downey demanded. 'No, Downey. It was privately engraved some years ago and I succeeded in tracing a copy in-' Downey's hand shot out. The book whirled away, causing a table full of younger boys to scatter, and landed at the back of the fireplace. The diners on the top tables looked round, and then turned back in disinterest. Flames licked up. For a moment, the tiger burned brightly. 'Rare book, was it?' said Downey, grinning. 'I think it may now be said to be non-existent,' said the one known as Dog-botherer. 'That was the only extant copy. Even the engraved plates have been melted down.'
'Don't you ever get upset, Dog-botherer?'
'Oh yes, Downey,' said the reader. He pushed his chair back and stood up. 'And now, I believe, I will have an early night.' He nodded at the table. 'Good evening, Downey, gentlemen . . .'
'You're a scag, Vetinari.'
'Just as you say, Downey.' Vimes thought better when his feet were moving. The mere activity calmed him down and shook his thoughts into order. Apart from the curfew and manning the gates, the Night Watch didn't do a lot. This was partly because they were incompetent, and partly because no one expected them to be anything else. They walked the streets, slowly, giving anyone dangerous enough time to saunter away or melt into the shadows, and then rang the bell to announce to a sleeping world, or at any rate a world that had been asleep, the fact that all was, despite appearances, well. They also rounded up the quieter sort of drunk and the more docile kinds of stray cattle. They think I'm a spy for Winder? thought Vimes. Spying on the Treacle Mine Road Watch? It's like spying on dough. Vimes had flatly refused to carry a bell. Young Sam had acquired a lighter one, but out of deference to Vimes's crisply expressed wishes, kept the clapper muffled with a duster. Is the wagon going out tonight, sarge?' said young Sam, as the twilight faded towards night. 'Yes. Colon and Waddy are on it.'