Night Watch
Page 25

 Terry Pratchett

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He walked lightly around the corner and waited a few minutes. A coach came along, its torches trailing flame. It slowed briefly, and its door opened and shut. The Assassin settled back in his seat as the coach picked up speed again. There was a very faint lamp in the carriage. Its glow revealed a female figure relaxing in the shadows opposite. As the coach passed a torch there was a suggestion of lilac silk. 'You've missed a bit,' said the figure. It produced a lilac-coloured handkerchief and held it in front of the young man's face. 'Spit,' came the command. Reluctantly, he did so. A hand wiped his cheek, and then held the cloth up to the light. 'Dark green,' said the woman. 'How strange. I understand, Havelock, that you scored zero in your examination for stealthy movement.'
'May I ask how you found that out, Madam?'
'Oh, one hears things,' Madam said lightly. 'One just has to hold money up to one's ear.'
'Well, it was true,' said the Assassin. 'And why was this?'
'The examiner thought I'd used trickery. Madam.'
'And did you?'
'Of course. I thought that was the idea.'
'And you never attended his lessons, he said.'
'Oh, I did. Religiously.'
'He says he never saw you at any of them.' Havelock smiled. 'And your point, Madam, is . . . ?' Madam laughed. 'Will you take some champagne?' There was the sound of a bottle moving in an ice bucket. 'Thank you, Madam, but no.'
'As you wish. I shall. And now . . . report, please.'
'I can't believe what I saw. I thought he was a thug. And he is a thug. You can see his muscles thinking for him. But he overrules them moment by moment! I think I saw a genius at work, but...'
'He's just a sergeant, Madam.'
'Don't underestimate him on that account. It is a very useful rank for the right man. The optimum balance of power and responsibility. Incidentally, they say he can read the street through the soles of his boots and keeps them very thin for that purpose.'
'Hmm. There are plenty of different surfaces, that's true, but . . .'
'You're always so solemn about these things, Havelock. Not at all like your late father. Think . . . mythologically. He can read the street. He can hear its voice, take its temperature, read its mind; it talks to him through his boots. Policemen are just as superstitious as other people. Every other Watch House was attacked tonight. Oh, Swing's people egged it on, but it was malice and stupidity that did the most damage. But not in Treacle Mine Road. No. Keel opened the doors and let the street inside. I wish I knew more about him. I'm told that in Pseudopolis he was considered to be slow, thoughtful, sensible. He certainly seems to have bloomed here.'
'I inhumed a man who attempted to nip him in the bud.'
'Really? That doesn't sound like Swing. How much do I owe you?' The young man called Havelock gave a shrug. 'Call it a dollar,' he said. 'That's very cheap.'
'He wasn't worth more. I should warn you, though. Soon you may want me to deal with Keel.'
'Surely someone like him wouldn't side with people like Winder and Swing?'
'He's a side all by himself. He is a complication. You may think it best if he ... ceased to complicate.' The rattling of the coach underlined the silence this remark caused. It was moving through a richer part of the city now, where there was more light and the curfew, being for poorer people, was less rigorously observed. The figure opposite the Assassin stroked the cat on her lap. 'No. He'll serve some purpose,' said Madam. 'Everyone is ' telling me about Keel. In a world where we all move in curves he proceeds in a straight line. And going straight in a world of curves makes things happen.' She stroked the cat. It yowled softly. It was ginger and had an expression of astonishing smugness, although periodically it scratched at its collar. 'On a different subject,' she said, 'what was that business with the book? I did not like to take too much notice.'
'Oh, it was an extremely rare volume I was able to track down. On the nature of concealment.'
'That stupid hulk of a boy burned it!'
'Yes. That was a piece of luck. I was afraid he might try to read it, although,' Havelock smiled wanly, 'someone would have had to help him with the longer words.'
'Was it valuable?'
'Priceless. Especially now it has been destroyed.'
'Ah. It contained information of value. Possibly involving the colour dark green. Will you tell me?'
'I could tell you,' Havelock smiled again. 'But then I would have to find someone to pay me to kill you.'
'Then don't tell me. But I do think Dog-botherer is an unpleasant nickname.'
'When your name is Vetinari, Madam, you're happy enough if it's merely Dog-botherer. Can you drop me off a little way from the Guild, please? I'll go in via the roof. I have a tiger to attend to before I go up to ... you know.'
'A tiger. How exciting.' She stroked the cat again. 'You've found your way in yet?' Vetinari shrugged. 'I've known my way for years, Madam. But now he has half a regiment around the palace. Four or five guards on each door, with irregular patrols and spot checks. I can't get through them. Only let me get inside, please, and the men there are no problem.' The cat pawed at its collar. 'Is it possible that he is allergic to diamonds?' said Madam. She held up the cat. 'Is oo allergic to diamonds, den?' Havelock sighed, but inwardly, because he respected his aunt. He just wished she was a bit more sensible about cats. He felt instinctively that if you were going to fondle a cat while discussing matters of intrigue, then it should be a long-haired white one. It shouldn't be an elderly street torn with irregular bouts of flatulence. 'What about the sergeant?' he said, shifting along the seat as politely as possible. The lady all in lilac lowered the cat gently on to the seat. There was a distressing smell. 'I think I should meet Mr Keel as soon as possible,' she said. 'Perhaps he can be harnessed. The party is tomorrow night. Uh ... do you mind opening the window?' A little later that night, Downey was walking unsteadily back to his study after a convivial time in the Prefects' Common Room when he noticed that a torch had gone out. With a swiftness that might have surprised someone who saw no further than his flushed face and unsteady walk, he pulled out a dagger and scanned the corridor. He glanced up at the ceiling, too. There were grey
shadows everywhere, but nothing more than that. Sometimes, torches did go out all by themselves. He stepped forward. When he woke up in his bed next morning he put the headache down to some bad brandy. And some scag had painted orange and black stripes on his face. It started to rain again. Vimes liked the rain. Street crime went down when it rained. People stayed indoors. Some of the best nights of his career had been rainy, when he'd stood in the shadows in the lee of some building, head tucked in so that there was barely anything showing between his helmet and his collar, and listened to the silvery rustle of the rain. Once he'd been standing so quietly, so withdrawn, so not there that a fleeing robber, who'd evaded his pursuers, had leaned against him to catch his breath. And, when Vimes put his arms around him and whispered 'Gotcha!' into his ear, the man had apparently done in his trousers what his dear mother, some forty years before, had very patiently taught him not to do. The people had gone home. The sewn-up Gappy had been escorted to New Cobblers, where Fred Colon had patiently explained events to the man's parents with his round red face radiating honesty. Lawn was possibly getting some use out of his bed. And the rain gurgled in the downpipes and gushed from the gargoyles and swirled in the gutters and deadened all sound. Useful stuff, rain. Vimes picked up the bottle of Mrs Arbiter's best ginger beer. He remembered it. It was as gassy as hell and therefore hugely popular. A young boy could, with encouragement and training, eventually manage to belch the whole first verse of the national anthem after just one swig. This is an important social attribute when you're eight years old. He'd chosen Colon and Waddy for this task. He wasn't going to involve young Sam. It wasn't that what he was planning was illegal, as such, it was just that it had the same colour and smell as something illegal and Vimes didn't want to have to explain. The cells were old, much older than the building above them. The iron cages were fairly new, and didn't take up all the space. There were other cellars beyond an arch, containing nothing more than rats and rubbish but, importantly, they couldn't be seen from the cages. Vimes got the men to carry the dead bowman through. Nothing wrong with that. It was the middle of the night, filthy weather, no sense in waking up the people at the mortuary when there was a nice cold cellar. He watched through the spy hole in the door as the body was taken past the cells. It caused a certain stir, especially in the first man he'd brought in. The other two had the look of men who'd seen a lot of bad stuff in the name of making money; if they were hired to steal or murder
or be a copper it was all the same to them, and they'd learned not to react too readily to deaths that were not their own. The first man, though, was getting nervous. Vimes had nicknamed him Ferret. He was the best-dressed of the three, all in black; the dagger had been expensive and, Vimes had noticed, he had a silver Death's Head ring on one finger. The other two had dressed nondescript and their weapons had been workmanlike, nothing much to look at but well used. No real Assassin would wear jewellery at work. It was dangerous and it shone. But Ferret wanted to be a big man. He probably checked himself in the mirror before he went out, to make sure he looked cool. He was the sort of little twerp that got a kick out of showing his dagger to women in bars. Ferret, in short, had big dreams. Ferret had an imagination. Well, that was fine. The watchmen returned, and picked up the packages Vimes had prepared. 'Remember, we do it fast,' he said. They're worried, they're tired, no one's come for them and they've just seen a very dead colleague. We don't want to give the first two time to think. Understand?' They nodded. 'And we leave the little one until last. I want him to have lots of time . . .' Ferret was considering his prospects. Regrettably, this didn't take long. He'd already had a row with the other two. Some rescue team they'd been. They weren't even dressed right. But the brown-jobs hadn't done things as per spec. Everyone knew they backed away. They weren't supposed to fight back or show any kind of intelligence. They- The main cell door was flung back. 'It's ginger beer time!' roared someone. And a watchman ran through with a box of bottles, and disappeared into the rooms beyond. There wasn't much light in here. Ferret cowered against the wall and saw two watchmen unlock the cell next door, drag the shackled occupant upright and out into the cellar and then hustle him around the corner. The voices had a slight echo. 'Hold him down. Mind his legs!'
'Right! Let's have the bottle! Give it a proper shake, otherwise it won't work!'
'Okay, friend. Anything you want to tell us? Your name? No? Well, it's like this. Right now, we don't care a whole lot if you talk or not There was a loud pop, a hiss and then ... a scream, an explosion of agony. After it had died away the trembling Ferret heard someone say, 'Quick, get the next one, before the captain catches us.' He cringed back as two watchmen rushed into the next cell, dragged out the struggling prisoner and hustled him into the darkness. 'All right. One chance. Are you going to talk? Yes? No? Too late!' Once again the pop, once again the hiss, once again the scream. It was louder and longer this time, and ended in a kind of bubbling sound. Ferret crouched against the wall, fingers in his mouth. Around the corner, sitting in the light of one lantern, Colon nudged Vimes, wrinkled his nose and pointed down. There was a gully that ran between all the cells, as a primitive sop to hygiene. Now a thin trickle was inching its way along it. Ferret was nervous. Gotcha, thought Vimes. But a good imagination needs a little more time. He leaned forward, and the other two moved closer expectantly. 'So,' he said in a low whisper, 'have you boys had your holidays yet?' After a few minutes of very small talk he stood up, strode round to the last occupied cell, unlocked the door, and grabbed Ferret, who was trying to squeeze into a corner. 'No! Please! I'll tell you whatever you want to know!' the man yelled. 'Really?' said Vimes. 'What's the orbital velocity of the moon?'