6,220
26.12.2018

‘All right, it takes time, we understand,’ said Greenyham. ‘How long will it take if you . . . hire more men and get these walking towers working and—’

‘You made me sack a lot of the craftsmen,’ said Pony. ‘We didn’t sack them. We “let them go”,’ said Gilt. ‘We . . . downsized,’ said Greenyham. ‘Looks like you succeeded, sir,’ said Pony. He took a stub of pencil out of one pocket and a grubby notebook out of the other. ‘D’you want it fast or cheap or good, gentlemen?’ he said. ‘The way things have gone, I can only give you one out of three . . .’

‘How soon can we have the Grand Trunk running properly?’ said Greenyham, while Gilt leaned back and shut his eyes. Pony’s lips moved as he ran his eyes over his figures. ‘Nine months,’ he said. ‘I suppose if we’re seen to be working hard nine months of erratic running won’t seem too—’ Mr Stowley began. ‘Nine months shut down,’ said Mr Pony.

‘Don’t be a fool, man!’

‘I ain’t a fool, sir, thank you,’ said Pony sharply. ‘I’ll have to find and train new craftsmen, ‘cos a lot of the old brigade won’t come back whatever I offer. If we shut the towers down I can use the signallers; at least they know their way around a tower. We can get more work done if we don’t have to drag walking towers and set them up. Make a clean start. The towers were never built that well to begin with. Dearheart never expected this sort of traffic. Nine months of dark towers, sirs.’ He wanted to say, oh, how he wanted to say: craftsmen. D’you know what that means? It means men with some pride, who get fed up and leave when they’re told to do skimpy work in a rush, no matter what you pay them. So I’m employing people as ‘craftsmen’ now who’re barely fit to sweep out a workshop. But you don’t care, because if they don’t polish a chair with their arse all day you think a man who’s done a seven-year apprenticeship is the same as some twerp who can’t be trusted to hold a hammer by the right end. He didn’t say this aloud, because although an elderly man probably has a lot less future than a man of twenty, he’s far more careful of it . . . ‘You can’t do better than that?’ said Stowley. ‘Mr Stowley, I’ll be doin’ well if it’s only nine months,’ said Pony, focusing again. ‘If you don’t want to shut down I can maybe get it done in a year and a half, if I can find enough men and you’re ready to spend enough money. But you’ll have shutdowns every day. It’ll be crippled runnin’, sir.’

‘This man von Lipwig will walk all over us in nine months!’ said Greenyham. ‘Sorry about that, sir.’

‘And how much will it cost?’ asked Gilt dreamily, without opening his eyes. ‘One way or the other, sir, I reckon maybe two hundred thousand,’ said Pony. ‘That’s ridiculous! We paid less than that for the Trunk!’ Greenyham burst out. ‘Yes, sir. But, you see, you got to run maint’nance all the time, sir. The towers have been run ragged. There was that big gale back in Sektober and all that trouble in Uberwald. I haven’t got the manpower. If you don’t do maint’nance a little fault soon becomes a big one. I sent you gentlemen lots of reports, sir. And you cut my budget twice. I may say my lads did wonders with—’

‘Mr Pony,’ said Gilt quietly, ‘I think what I can see here is a conflict of cultures. Would you mind strolling along to my study, please? Igor will make you a cup of tea. Thank you so much.’ When Pony had gone, Greenyham said: ‘Do you know what worries me right now?’

‘Do tell us,’ said Gilt, folding his hands across his expensive waistcoat. ‘Mr Slant is not here.’

‘He has apologized. He says he has important business,’ said Gilt. ‘We’re his biggest clients! What’s more important than us? No, he’s not here because he wants to be somewhere else! The damn old revenant senses trouble and he’s never there when it all goes bad. Slant always comes out smelling of roses!’

‘That is at least more fragrant than his usual formaldehyde,’ said Gilt. ‘Don’t panic, gentlemen.’

‘Somebody did,’ said Stowley. ‘Don’t tell me that fire was accidental! Was it? And what happened to poor old Fatty Horsefry, eh?’

‘Calm down, my friends, calm down,’ said Gilt. They’re just merchant bankers, he thought. They’re not hunters, they’re scavengers. They have no vision. He waited until they had settled down and were regarding him with that strange and rather terrifying look that rich men wear when they think they may be in danger of becoming poor men. ‘I expected something like this,’ he said. ‘Vetinari wants to harry us, that is all.’

‘Readier, you know we’ll be in big trouble if the Trunk stops working,’ said Nutmeg. ‘Some of us have . . . debts to service. If the Trunk fails for good then people will . . . ask questions.’ Oh, those pauses, thought Gilt. Embezzlement is such a difficult word. ‘Many of us had to work very hard to raise the cash,’ said Stowley.

Yes, keeping a straight face in front of your clients must be tricky, Gilt thought. Aloud, he said, ‘I think we have to pay, gentlemen. I think we do.’

‘Two hundred thousand?’ said Greenyham. ‘Where do you think we can get that kind of money?’

‘You got it before,’ murmured Gilt. ‘And what is that supposed to mean, pray?’ said Greenyham, with just a little too much indignation. ‘Poor Crispin came to see me the night before he died,’ said Gilt, as calmly as six inches of snow. ‘Babbled about, oh, all sorts of wild things. They hardly bear repeating. I think he believed people were after him. He did however insist on pressing a small ledger on me. Needless to say, it is safely locked away.’ The room fell silent, its silence made deeper and hotter by a number of desperate men thinking hard and fast. They were, by their own standards, honest men, in that they only did what they knew or suspected that everyone else did and there was never any visible blood, but just now they were men far out on a frozen sea who’d just heard the ice creak. ‘I strongly suspect that it’ll be a bit less than two hundred thousand,’ said Gilt. ‘Pony would be a fool if he didn’t leave a margin.’

‘You didn’t warn us about this, Readier,’ said Stowley resentfully. Gilt waved his hands. ‘We must speculate to accumulate!’ he said. ‘The Post Office? Trickery and sleight of hand. Oh, von Lipwig is an ideas man, but that’s all he is. He’s made a splash, but he’s not got the stamina for the long haul. Yet as it turns out he will do us a favour. Perhaps we have been . . . a little smug, a little lax, but we have learned our lesson! Spurred by the competition we are investing several hundred thousand dollars—’

‘Several hundred?’ said Greenyham. Gilt waved him into silence, and continued: ‘—several hundred thousand dollars in a challenging, relevant and exciting systemic overhaul of our entire organization, focusing on our core competencies while maintaining full and listening co-operation with the communities we are proud to serve. We fully realize that our energetic attempts to mobilize the flawed infrastructure we inherited have been less than totally satisfactory, and hope and trust that our valued and loyal customers will bear with us in the coming months as we interact synergistically with change management in our striving for excellence. That is our mission.’ An awed silence followed. ‘And thus we bounce back,’ said Gilt. ‘But you said several hundr—’ Gilt sighed. ‘I said that,’ he said. ‘Trust me. It’s a game, gentlemen, and a good player is one who can turn a bad situation to their advantage. I have brought you this far, haven’t I? A little cash and the right attitude will take us the rest of the way. I’m sure you can find some more money,’ he added, ‘from somewhere it won’t be missed.’ This wasn’t silence. It went beyond silence. ‘What are you suggesting?’ said Nutmeg. ‘Embezzlement, theft, breach of trust, misappropriation of funds . . . people can be so harsh,’ said Gilt. He threw open his arms again and a big friendly smile emerged like the sun breaking through storm clouds. ‘Gentlemen! I understand! Money was made to work, to move, to grow, not to be locked up in some vault. Poor Mr Horsefry, I believe, did not really understand that. So much on his mind, poor fellow. But we . . . we are businessmen. We understand these things, my friends.’ He surveyed the faces of men who now knew that they were riding a tiger. It had been a good ride up until a week or so ago. It wasn’t a case of not being able to get off. They could get off. That was not the problem. The problem was that the tiger knew where they lived.

Poor Mr Horsefry . . . there had been rumours. In fact they were completely unsubstantiated rumours, because Mr Gryle had been excessively good at his job when pigeons weren’t involved, had moved like a shadow with claws and, while he’d left a faint scent, it had been masked by the blood. In the nose of a werewolf, blood trumps everything. But rumour rose in the streets of Ankh- Morpork like mist from a midden. And then it occurred to one or two of the board that the jovial ‘my friends’ in the mouth of Reacher Gilt, so generous with his invitations, his little tips, his advice and his champagne, was beginning, in its harmonics and overtones, to sound just like the word ‘pal’ in the mouth of a man in an alley who was offering cosmetic surgery with a broken bottle in exchange for not being given any money. On the other hand, they’d been safe so far; maybe it was worth following the tiger to the kill. Better to follow at the beast’s heel than be its prey . . . ‘And now I realize that I am inexcusably keeping you from your beds,’ said Gilt. ‘Good night to you, gentlemen. You may safely leave everything to me. Igor!’

‘Yeth, marthter,’ said Igor, behind him. ‘Do see these gentlemen out, and ask Mr Pony to come in.’ Gilt watched them go with a smile of satisfaction, which became a bright and happy face when Pony was ushered in. The interview with the engineer went like this: ‘Mr Pony,’ said Gilt, ‘I am very pleased to tell you that the Board, impressed by your dedication and the hard work you have been putting in, have voted unanimously to increase your salary by five hundred dollars a year.’ Pony brightened up. ‘Thank you very much, sir. That will certainly come in—’

‘However, Mr Pony, as part of the management of the Grand Trunk Company – and we do think of you as part of the team – we must ask you to bear in mind our cash flow. We cannot authorize more than twenty-five thousand dollars for repairs this year.’

‘That’s only about seventy dollars a tower, sir!’ the engineer protested. ‘Teh, is it really? I told them you wouldn’t accept that,’ said Gilt. ‘Mr Pony is an engineer of integrity, I said. He won’t accept a penny less than fifty thousand, I told them!’ Pony looked hunted. ‘Couldn’t really do much of a job, sir, even for that. I could get some walking tower teams out there, yes, but most of the mountain towers are living on borrowed time as it is—’

‘We’re counting on you, George,’ said Gilt. ‘Well, I suppose . . . Could we have the Hour of the Dead back, Mr Gilt?’

‘I really wish you wouldn’t use that fanciful term,’ said Gilt. ‘It really does not present the right image.’

‘Sorry, sir,’ said Pony. ‘But I still need it.’ Gilt drummed his fingers on the table. ‘You’re asking a lot, George, you really are. That’s revenue flow we’re talking about. The Board won’t be very pleased with me if I—’

‘I think I’ve got to insist, Mr Gilt,’ said Pony, looking at his feet. ‘And what could you deliver?’ said Gilt. ‘That’s what the Board will want to know. They’ll say to me: Reacher, we’re giving good old George everything he asks for; what will we be getting in return?’ Forgetting for the moment that it was a quarter of what he’d asked for, good old George said: ‘Well, we could patch up all round and get some of the really shaky towers back into some sort of order, especially 99 and 201 . . . Oh, there’s just so much to do—’

‘Would it, for example, give us a year of reasonable service?’ Mr Pony struggled manfully with the engineer’s permanent dread of having to commit himself to