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26.12.2018

be. Waifs and strays, Colon had said once. Waifs and bloody strays, because normal people wouldn’t be coppers. Technically they were all in uniform, too, except that mostly they weren’t wearing the same uniform as anyone else. Everyone had just been sent down to the armoury to collect whatever fitted, and the result was a walking historical exhibit: Funny–Shaped Helmets Through the Ages. ‘Er… ladies and gentlemen–’ he began. ‘Be quiet, please, and listen to Commander Vimes!’ bellowed Carrot. Vimes found himself meeting the gaze of Angua, who was leaning against the wall. She rolled her eyes helplessly. ‘Yes, yes, thank you, captain,’ said Vimes. He turned back to the massed array of Ankh–Morpork’s finest. He opened his mouth. He stared. And then he shut his mouth, all but a corner of it. And said out of that corner: ‘What’s that little lump on Constable Flint’s head?’

‘That’s Probationary Constable Buggy Swires, sir. He likes to get a good view.’

‘He’s a gnome!’

‘Well done, sir.’

‘Another one of yours?’

‘Ours, sir,’ said Carrot, using his reproachful voice again. ‘Yes, sir. Attached to the Chitterling Street Station since last week, sir.’

‘Oh my gods…’ murmured Vimes. Buggy Swires saw his stare and saluted. He was five inches tall. Vimes regathered his mental balance. The long and the short and the tall… waifs and strays, all of us. ‘I’m not going to keep you long,’ he said. ‘You all know me… well, most of you know me,’ he added, with a sidelong glance at Carrot, ‘and I don’t make speeches. But I’m sure all of you have noticed the way this Leshp business has got people all stirred up. There’s a lot of loose talk about war. Well, war isn’t our business. War is soldiers’ business. Our business, I think, is to keep the peace. Let me show you this––’ He stood back and pulled something out of his pocket with a flourish. At least, that was the intention. There was a rip as something ceased to be entangled in the lining. ‘Damn… ah…’ He produced a length of shiny black wood from the ragged pocket. There was a large silver knob on the end. The watchmen craned to look. ‘This… er… this…’Vimes groped. ‘This old man turned up from the palace a couple of weeks ago. Cave me this damn thing. Cot a label saying "Regalia of the Watch Commandr., Citie of Ankh–Morporke”. You know they never throw anything away up at the palace.’ He waved it vaguely. The wood was surprisingly heavy. ‘It’s got the coat of arms on the knob, look.’ Thirty watchmen tried to see.

‘And I thought… I thought, good grief, this is what I’m supposed to carry? And I thought about it, and then I thought, no, that’s right, just once someone got it right. It’s not even a weapon, it’s just a thing. It ain’t for using, it’s just for having. That’s what it’s all about. Same thing with uniforms. You see, a soldier’s uniform, it’s to turn him into part of a crowd of other parts all in the same uniform, but a copper’s uniform is there to–’ Vimes stopped. Perplexed expressions in front of him told him that he was building a house of cards with too few cards on the bottom. He coughed. ‘Anyway,’ he went on, with a glare to indicate that everyone should forget the previous twenty seconds, ‘our job is to stop people fighting. There’s a lot happening on the street. You’ve probably heard that they’re starting up the regiments again. Well, people can recruit if they like. But we’re not going to have any mobs. There’s a nasty mood around. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but we’ve got to be there when it does.’ He looked around the room. ‘Another thing. This new Klatchian envoy or whatever he’s called is arriving tomorrow. I don’t think the Assassins’ Guild has anything planned but tonight we’re going to check the route the wizards’ procession will be taking. A nice little job for the night shift. And tonight we’re all on the night shift.’ There was a groan from the Watch. ‘As my old sergeant used to say, if you can’t take a joke you shouldn’t have joined,’ said Vimes. ‘A nice gentle door–to–door inspection, shaking hands with doorknobs, giving the uniform a bit of an airing. Good old–fashioned policing. Any questions? Good. Thank you very much.’ There was a general rustling and relaxing among the squad as it dawned on them that they were free to go. Carrot started to clap. It wasn’t the clap used by middlings to encourage underlings to applaud overlings. 1 It had genuine enthusiasm behind it which was, somehow, worse. A couple of the more impressionable new constables picked it up and then, in the same way that little pebbles lead the avalanche, the sound of humanoids banging their hands together filled the room. Vimes glowered. ‘Very inspiring, sir!’ said Carrot, as the clapping rose to a storm. Rain poured on Ankh–Morpork. It filled the gutters and overflowed and was then flung away by the wind. It tasted of salt. 1 The palms are held at right angles to one another and flapped together rather than clapped, while the flapper stares intently at the audience as if to say ‘We’re going to have some applause here or else the whole school is in detention.’

The gargoyles had crept out of their daytime shadows and were perched on every cornice and tower, ears and wings outstretched to sieve anything edible out of the water. It was amazing what could fall on Ankh–Morpork. Rains of small fish and frogs were common enough, although bedsteads caused comment. A broken gutter poured a sheet of water down the window of Ossie Brunt, who was sitting on his bed because there were no chairs or, indeed, any other furniture. He didn’t mind at the moment. In a minute or two he might be very angry. And, then again, possibly not. It was not that Ossie was insane in any way. Friends would have called him a quiet sort who kept himself to himself, but they didn’t because he didn’t have any friends. There was a group of men who went to practise at the archery butts on Tuesday nights, and he sometimes went to a pub with them afterwards and sat and listened to them talk, and he’d saved up once and bought a round of drinks, although they probably wouldn’t remember or maybe they’d say, ‘Oh… yeah… Ossie.’ People said that. People tended to put him out of their minds, in the same way that you didn’t pay much attention to empty space. He wasn’t stupid. He thought a lot about things. Sometimes he’d sit and think for hours, just staring at the opposite wall where the rain came in on damp nights and made a map of Klatch. Someone hammered on the door. ‘Mr Brunt? Are you decent?’

‘I’m a bit busy, Mrs Spent" he said, putting his bow under the bed with his magazines. ‘It’s about the rent!’

‘Yes, Mrs Spent?’

‘You know my rules!’

‘I shall pay you tomorrow, Mrs Spent,’ said Ossie, looking towards the window. ‘Cash in my hand by noon or it’s out you go!’

‘Yes, Mrs Spent.’ He heard her stamp downstairs again. He counted to fifty, very carefully, and then reached down and pulled out his bow again. Angua was on patrol with Nobby Nobbs. This was not an ideal arrangement, but Carrot was on swing patrol and on a night like this Fred Colon, who kept the roster, had an uncanny knack of being on desk duty in the warm. So the spare partners had been thrown together. It was a terrible thought. ‘Can I have a word, miss?’ said Nobby, as they rattled doorknobs and waved their lanterns into alleyways. ‘Yes, Nobby?’

‘It’s pers’nal.’

‘Oh.’

‘Only I’d ask Fred, but he wouldn’t understand, and I fink you would understand on account of you being a woman. Most of the time, anyway. No offence meant.’

‘What do you want, Nobby?’

‘It’s about my… sexual nature, miss.’ Angua said nothing. Rain banged off Nobby’s illfitting helmet. ‘I think it’s time I looked it full in the face, miss.’ Angua cursed her graphic imagination again. ‘And, er… how were you thinking of doing that, Nobby?’

‘I mean, I sent off for stuff, miss, Creams an’ that.’

‘Creams,’ said Angua flatly. ‘That you rub on,’ said Nobby helpfully. ‘Rub on.’

‘And a thing you do exercises with–’

‘Oh gods…’

‘Sorry, miss?’

‘What? Oh… I was just thinking of something else. Do go on. Exercises?’

‘Yeah. To build up my biceps and that.’

‘Oh, exercises. Really?’ Nobby did not appear to have any biceps to speak of. There wasn’t really anything for them to be – on. Technically he had arms, because his hands were attached to his shoulders, but that was about all you could say. Horrified interest got the better of her. ‘Why, Nobby?’ He looked down, sheepishly. ‘Well… I mean… you know… girls an’ that…’ To her amazement, Nobby was blushing. ‘You mean you…’ she began. ‘You want to… you’re looking for…’

‘Oh, I’m not just after… I mean, if you want a thing done properly then… I mean, no,’ said Nobby reproachfully. ‘What I’m saying is, as you get older, you know, you think about settlin’ down, findin’ someone who’ll go with you hand in hand down life’s bumpy highway– Why’s your mouth open?’ Angua shut it abruptly. ‘But I just don’t seem to meet girls,’ Nobby said. ‘Well, I mean, I meet girls, and then they rush off.’

‘Despite the cream.’

‘Right.’

‘And the exercises.’

‘Yes.’

‘Well, you’ve covered all the angles, I can see that,’ said Angua. ‘Beats me where you’re going wrong.’ She sighed. ‘What about Stamina Thrum, in Elm Street?’

‘She’s got a wooden leg.’

‘Well, then… Verity Pushpram, nice girl, she runs the clam and cockle barrow in Rime Street?’

‘Hammerhead? Stinks of fish all the time. And she’s got a squint.’

‘She’s got her own business, though. Does wonderful chowder, too.’

‘And a squint.’

‘Not exactly a squint, Nobby.’

‘Yes, but you know what I mean.’ Angua had to admit that she did. Verity had the opposite of a squint. Both eyes appeared to be endeavouring to see the adjacent ear. When you talked to her, you had to suppress a feeling that she was about to walk off in two directions. But she could gut fish like a champion. She sighed again. She was familiar with the syndrome. They said they wanted a soulmate and helpmeet but sooner or later the list would include a skin like silk and a chest fit for a herd of cows. Except for Carrot. That was almost… almost one of the annoying things about him. She suspected he wouldn’t mind if she shaved her head or grew a beard. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t notice, he just wouldn’t mind, and for some reason that was very aggravating. ‘The only thing I can suggest,’ she said, ‘is that women are quite often attracted to men who can make them laugh.’ Nobby brightened. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘I ought to be well in there, then.’

‘Good.’

‘People laugh at me all the time.’ High above, quite oblivious of the rain that had already soaked him to the skin, Ossie Brunt checked the oilskin cover round his bow and settled down for the long wait. Rain was a copper’s friend. Tonight people were making do with indoor crime. Vimes stood in the lee of one of the fountains in Sator Square. The fountain hadn’t worked for years, but he was getting just as wet as if it were in full flow. He’d never experienced truly horizontal rain before. There was no–one around. The rain marched across the square like… like an army… Now there was an image from his youth. Funny how they hung around in the dark alleys of your brain and suddenly jumped out on you. Rain falling on water… Ah, yes… When he was a little lad he’d pretended that the raindrops splashing in the running gutters were soldiers. Millions of soldiers. And the bubbles that sometimes went floating by were men on horseback. Right now he couldn’t remember what the occasional dead dog had been. Some kind of siege weapon, possibly.

Water swirled around his boots and dripped off his cape. When he tried to light a cigar the wind blew the match out and the rain poured off his helmet and soaked the cigar in any case. He grinned in the night. He was, temporarily, a happy man. He was cold, wet and alone, hying to keep out of the worst of the weather at three o’clock on a ferocious morning. He’d spent some of the best nights of his life like this. At such times you could just… sort of hunch your shoulders like this and let your head pull in like this and you became a little hutch of warmth and peace, the rain banging on your helmet, the mind just ticking over, sorting out the world… It was like this in the old days, when no–one cared about the Watch and all you really had to do was keep out of trouble. Those were the days when there wasn’t as much to do. But there was as much to do, said an inner voice. You just didn’t do it. He could feel the official truncheon hanging heavily in the special pocket that Sybil herself had sewn in his breeches. Why is it just a bit of wood? he’d asked himself when he’d unwrapped it. Why not a sword? That’s the symbol of power. And then he’d realized why it couldn’t ever be a sword ‘Ho there, good citizen! May I ask your business this brisk morning?’ He sighed. There was a lantern appearing through the murk, surrounded by a halo of water. Ho there, good citizen… There was only one person in the city who would say something like that and mean it. ‘It’s me, captain.’ The halo drew nearer and illuminated the damp face of Captain Carrot. The young man ripped off a salute – at godsdam three in the morning, Vimes thought – that would have brought a happy tear to the eye of the most psychotic drill sergeant. ‘What’re you doing out, sir?’