5,087
26.12.2018

The water was soaking through the cheap clothes. Back home . . . somewhere . . . was his huge leather greatcoat, heavy with oil, warm as toast . . . Think, think, don't let the terror take control. . . Perhaps he could go and explain things to Sybil. After all, she was still Sybil, wasn't she? Kind to bedraggled creatures? But even the softest heart would be inclined to harden when a , rough, desperate man with a fresh scar and bad clothes barged into the house and said he was going to be your husband. A young woman could get quite the wrong idea, and he wouldn't want that, not while she was holding a sword. Besides, Lord I Ramkin was probably still alive and he'd been a bloodthirsty old ; devil, as far as Vimes could recall. He slumped against the wall and reached for a cigar and the terror twisted him again. There was nothing in his pocket. Nothing at all. No Pantweed's Slim Panatellas but, more importantly, no cigar case . . . It had been specially made. It had a slight curve. It had always nestled in his pocket since the day Sybil had given it to him. It was as near part of him as any thing could be. 'We are here, and this is now.' Constable Visit, a strict believer in the Omnian religion, occasionally quoted that from their holy book. Vimes understood it to mean, in less exalted copper speak, that you have to do the job that is in front of you. I am here, Vimes thought, and this is then. And less conscious parts of his brain added: you have no friends here. No home here. No purpose here. You are alone here. No … not alone, said a part that was much, much deeper even than the terror, and was always on watch. Someone was watching him. A figure detached itself from the damp shadows of the street, and walked towards him. Vimes couldn't make out the face, but that didn't matter. He knew it would be smiling that special smile of the predator who knows he has the prey under his paw, and knows that the prey knows this too, and also knows that the prey is desperately going to act as if they're having a perfectly friendly conversation, because the prey wants, so much, for this to be the case . . . You don't want to die here, said the deep dark part of Vimes's soul. 'Got a light, mister?' said the predator. He didn't even bother to wave an unlit cigarette. 'Why, yes, of course,' said Vimes. He went as if to pat his pocket but swung around, arm outstretched, and caught a man creeping up behind him right across the ear. Then he leapt for the light-seeker in front of him and bore him to the ground with an arm across his throat.

It would have worked. He knew, afterwards, that it really would have worked. If there hadn't been two more men in the shadows, it would have worked. As it was, he managed to kick one of them on the kneecap before he felt the garrotte go round his neck. He was pulled upright, the scar screaming pain as he tried to clutch at the rope. 'You hold him right there,' said a voice. 'Look what he did to Jez. Damn! I'm gonna kick him in-' The shadows moved. Vimes, struggling for breath, his one good eye watering, was only vaguely aware of what was happening. But there were some grunts, and some soft, strange noises, and the pressure on his neck was abruptly released. He fell forward, and then, reeling a little, struggled to his feet. A couple of men were lying on the ground. One was bent double, making little bubbling noises. And, far off and getting further, there were running footsteps. 'Lucky we found you in time, kind sir,' said a voice right behind him. 'Not lucky for some, dearie,' said one right next to it. Rosie stepped forward, out of the gloom. 'I think you ought to come back with us,' she said. 'You're going to get hurt, running around like this. Come on. Obviously I'm not taking you back to my place-'

'-obviously,' murmured Vimes. '-but Mossy'll find you somewhere to lay your head, I expect.'

'Mossy Lawn!' said Vimes, suddenly light-headed. That's him! The pox doctor! I remember!' He tried to focus one tired eye on the young woman. Yes, the bone structure was right. That chin. That was a no-nonsense chin. It was a chin that took people somewhere. 'Rosie . . . you're Mrs Palm!'

'Mrs?' she said, coldly, while the Agony Aunts giggled their high-pitched giggle. 'I think not.'

'Well, I mean-' Vimes floundered. Of course, only the senior members of the profession adopted 'Mrs' as an honorific. She wasn't senior yet. There wasn't even a guild. 'And I've never seen you before,' said Rosie. 'And neither have Dotsie and Sadie, and they have an amazing memory for faces. But you know us and you act as if you own the place, John Keel.'

'Do I?'

'You do. It's the way you stand. Officers stand like that. You eat well. Maybe a bit too well. You could lose a few pounds. And then there's the scars all over you. I saw 'em in Mossy's place. Your legs are tanned from the knees down, and that says “watchman” to me, because they go bare- legged. But I know every watchman in the city and you're not one of them, so maybe you're a military man. You fight by instinct, and dirty, too.

That means you're used to fighting for your life in a melee, and that's odd, because that says to me “foot soldier”, not officer. The word is that the lads took some fine armour off you. That's officer. But you don't wear rings. That's foot soldier – rings catch in things, can pull your finger off if you're not careful. And you're married.'

'How can you tell that?'

'Any woman could tell that,' said Rosie Palm smoothly. 'Now, step sharp. We're out after curfew as it is. The Watch won't bother much about us, but they will about you.' Curfew, thought Vimes. That was a long time ago. Vetinari never ordered curfews. They interfered with business. 'I think perhaps I lost my memory when I was attacked,' he said. That sounded good, he thought. What he really needed now was somewhere quiet, to think. 'Really? I think perhaps I'm the Queen of Hersheba,' said Rosie. 'Just remember, kind sir. I'm not doing this because I'm interested in you, although I'd admit to a macabre fascination about how long you're going to survive. If it hadn't been a cold wet night I'd have left you in the road. I'm a working girl, and I don't need trouble. But you look like a man who can lay his hands on a few dollars, and there will be a bill.'

'I'll leave the money on the dressing table,' said Vimes. The slap in the face knocked him against the wall. 'Consider that a sign of my complete lack of a sense of humour, will you?' said Rosie, shaking some life back into her hand. 'I'm . . . sorry,' said Vimes. 'I didn't mean to … I mean . . . look, thank you for everything. I mean it. But this is not being a good night.'

'Yes, I can see that.'

'It's worse than you think. Believe me.'

'We all have our troubles. Believe me,' said Rosie. Vimes was glad of the Agony Aunts behind them as they walked back to the Shades. This was the old Shades, and Lawn lived a street's width away from it. The Watch never set foot here. In truth, the new Shades wasn't a lot better, but people had at least learned what happened if anyone attacked a watchman. The Aunts were a different matter. No one attacked the Aunts. A night's sleep, thought Vimes. Maybe, in the morning, this won't have happened. 'She wasn't there, was she?' said Rosie, after a while. 'Your wife? That was Lord Ramkin's house. Are you in trouble with him?'

'Never met the man,' said Vimes absently.

'You were lucky someone told us where you'd gone. Those men were probably in the pay of someone up there. They're a law unto themselves, over in Ankh. Some rough man walking around with no tradesman's tools . . . well, he's to be turned off the patch, and if they rob you blind while they're doing it who's going to care?' Yes, thought Vimes. That's the way it was. Privilege, which just means private law. Two types of people laugh at the law: those that break it and those that make it. Well, it's not like that now- -but I'm not in 'now' now. Damn those wizards . . . The wizards. Right! In the morning I'll go and explain! Easy! They'll understand! I'll bet they can send me right back to when I left! There's a whole university full of people to deal with this! It's not my problem any more! Relief filled his body like warm pink mist. All he had to do was get through the night… But why wait? They were open all night, weren't they? Magic didn't shut. Vimes remembered late-night patrols when he could practically see by the glows coming from some of the windows. He could simply- Hold on, hold on. A policeman's thought had been stirring in his mind. The Aunts didn't run. They famously didn't run. They caught up with you slowly. Anyone who'd been, as they called it, 'a very naughty boy' would sleep extremely badly knowing that the Aunts on his tail were slowly getting nearer, pausing only for a cream tea somewhere or to visit an interesting jumble sale. But Vimes had run, run all the way up to Scoone Avenue, in the dark, through coach traffic and crowds of people swarming home before curfew. No one had paid him any attention, would surely not have seen his face if they did. And he certainly didn't know anyone here. He amended the thought: no one knew him. 'So,' he said casually, 'who told you where I'd gone?'

'Oh, one of those old monks,' said Rosie. 'Which old monks?'

'Who knows? A little bald man with a robe and a broom. There's always monks begging and chanting somewhere. He was in Phedre Road.'

'And you asked him where I'd gone?'

'What? No. He just looked around and said, “Mr Keel ran up to Scoone Avenue,” and then he went on sweeping.'

'Sweeping?'

'Oh, it's the kind of holy thing they do. So they don't tread on ants, I think. Or they sweep sins away. Or maybe they just like the place clean. Who cares what monks do?'

'And nothing about that struck you as odd?'

'Why? I thought perhaps you were naturally kind to beggars!' snapped Rosie. 'It doesn't bother me. Dotsie said she put something in his begging bowl, though.'

'What?'

'Would you ask?' The majority of Vimes thought: who does care about what monks do? They're monks. That's why they're weird. Maybe one had a moment of revelation or something, they like that kind of thing. So what? Find the wizards, explain what's happened and leave it to them. But the policeman part thought: how do little monks know I'm called Keel? I smell a rat. The majority said: it's a thirty-year-old rat, then. And the policeman said: yes, that's why it smells. 'Look, I'm going to have to go and check something,' he said. 'I'll . . . probably be back.'

'Well, I can't chain you up,' said Rosie. She smiled a grim little smile, and went on: That costs extra. But if you don't come back, yet have any intention of staying in this city, then the Aunts-'

'I promise you, the last thing I want to do is leave Ankh-Morpork,' said Vimes. 'That actually sounded convincing,' said Rosie. 'Off you go, then. We're past curfew now. But why don't I think you'll be bothered by that?' As he disappeared in the gloom Dotsie sidled up to Rosie. 'You want we should follow him, dearie?'

'Don't bother.'

'You should have let Sadie give him a little prod, dear. That slows them down.'

'I think it takes quite a lot to slow that man down. And we don't want trouble. Not at a time like this. We're too close.'

'You don't want to be out at a time like this, mister.' Vimes turned. He'd been hammering on the closed gates of the University. There were three watchmen behind him. One of them was holding a torch. Another was holding a bow. The third had clearly decided that activities for tonight would not include heavy lifting. Vimes raised his hands slowly. 'I expect he wants to be in a nice cold cell for the night,' said the one with the torch.

Oh dear, thought Vimes. It's the Comedian of the Year contest. Coppers really oughtn't to try this, but they still did. 'I was just visiting the University,' he said. 'Oh, yes?' said the one without either torch or bow. He was portly, and Vimes could make out the tarnished gleam of a sergeant's stripes. 'Where d'you live?'