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Hogfather

Hogfather

Page 3


'Really . . .'

'Oh, yes, sir.' Downey nodded. The tendency of old buildings to be honeycombed with sealed chimney flues was a fact you learned early in your career. And then, he told himself, you forgot. It always paid to put the other fellow in awe of you, too. He had forgotten they taught that, too. 'The dogs seem to like you,' he said. 'I get on well with animals, sir.' Teatime's face was young and open and friendly. Or, at least, it smiled all the time. But the effect was spoiled for most people by the fact that it had only one eye. Some unexplained accident had taken the other one, and the missing orb had been replaced by a ball of glass. The result was disconcerting. But what bothered Lord Downey far more was the man's other eye, the one that might loosely be called normal. He'd never seen such a small and sharp pupil. Teatime looked at the world through a pinhole. He found he'd retreated behind his desk again. There was that about Teatime. You always felt happier if you had something between you and him. 'You like animals, do you?' he said. 'I have a report here that says you nailed Sir George's dog to the ceiling.'

'Couldn't have it barking while I was working, sir.'

'Some people would have drugged it.'

'Oh.' Teatime looked despondent for a moment, but then he brightened. 'But I definitely fulfilled the contract, sir. There can be no doubt about that, sir. I checked Sir George's breathing with a mirror as instructed. It's in my report.'

'Yes, indeed.' Apparently the man's head had been several feet from his body at that point. It was a terrible thought that Teatime might see nothing incongruous about this. 'And ... the servants...?' he said. 'Couldn't have them bursting in, sir.' Downey nodded, half hypnotized by the glassy stare and the pinhole eyeball. No, you couldn't have them bursting in. And an Assassin might well face serious professional opposition, possibly even by people trained by the same teachers. But an old man and a maidservant who'd merely had the misfortune to be in the house at the time... There was no actual rule, Downey had to admit. It was just that, over the years, the Guild had developed a certain ethos and members tended to be very neat about their work, even shutting doors behind them and generally tidying up as they went. Hurting the harmless was worse than a transgression against the moral fabric of society, it was a breach of good manners. It was worse even than that. It was bad taste. But there was no actual rule... 'That was all right, wasn't it, sir?' said Teatime, with apparent anxiety. 'It, uh ... lacked elegance,' said Downey. 'Ah. Thank you, sir. I am always happy to be corrected. I shall remember that next time.' Downey took a deep breath. 'It's about that I wish to talk,' he said. He held up the picture of ... what had the thing called him? ... the Fat Man? 'As a matter of interest,' he said, 'how would you go about inhuming this ... gentleman?' Anyone else, he was sure, would have burst out laughing. They would have said things like 'Is this a joke, sir?' Teatime merely leaned forward, with a curious intent expression. 'Difficult, sir.'

'Certainly,' Downey agreed. 'I would need some time to prepare a plan, sir,' Teatime went on. 'Of course, and-'

There was a knock at the door and Carter came in with another cup and saucer. He nodded respectfully to Lord Downey and crept out again. 'Right, sir,' said Teatime. 'I'm sorry?' said Downey, momentarily distracted. 'I have now thought of a plan, sir,' said Teatime, patiently. 'You have?'

'Yes, sir.'

'As quickly as that?'

'Yes, sir.'

'Ye gods!'

'Well, sir, you know we are encouraged to consider hypothetical problems. 'Oh, yes. A very valuable exercise----’ Downey stopped, and then looked shocked. 'You mean you have actually devoted time to considering how to inhume the Hogfather?' he said weakly. 'You've actually sat down and thought out how to do it? You've actually devoted your spare time to the problem?'

'Oh, yes, sir. And the Soul Cake Duck. And the Sandman. And Death.' Downey blinked again. 'You've actually sat down and considered how to-’ 'Yes, sir. I've amassed quite an interesting file. In my own time, of course.'

'I want to be quite certain about this, Mister Teatime. You ... have ... applied ... yourself to a study of ways of killing Death?'

'Only as a hobby, sir.'

'Well, yes, hobbies, yes, I mean, I used to collect butterflies myself,' said Downey, recalling those first moments of awakening pleasure at the use of poison and the pin, 'but-' . 'Actually, sir, the basic methodology is exactly the same as it would be for a human. Opportunity, geography, technique . . . You just have to work with the known facts about the individual concerned. Of course, with this one such a lot is known.'

'And You've worked it all out, have you?' said Downey, almost fascinated. 'Oh, a long time ago, sir.'

'When, may I ask?'

'I think it was when I was lying in bed one Hogswatchnight, sir.' My gods, thought Downey, and to think that I just used to listen for sleigh bells. 'My word,' he said aloud. 'I may have to check some details, sir. I'd appreciate access to some of the books in the Dark Library. But, yes, I think I can see the basic shape.'

'And yet ... this person ... some people might say that he is technically immortal.' Everyone has their weak point, sir.' Even Death?'

'Oh, yes. Absolutely. Very much so.'

'Really?' Downey drummed his fingers on the desk again. The boy couldn't possibly have a real plan, he told himself. He certainly had a skewed mind - skewed? It was a positive helix - but the Fat Man wasn't just another target in some mansion somewhere. It was reasonable to assume that people had tried to trap him before. He felt happy about this. Teatime would fail, and possibly even fail fatally if his plan was stupid enough. And maybe the Guild would lose the gold, but maybe not. 'Very well,' he said. 'I don't need to know what your plan is.'

'That's just as well, sir.'

'What do you mean?'

'Because I don't propose to tell you, sir. You'd be obliged to disapprove of it.'

'I am amazed that you are so confident that it can work, Teatime.'

'I just think logically about the problem, sir,' said the boy. He sounded reproachful. 'Logically?' said Downey. 'I suppose I just see things differently from other people,' said Teatime. It was a quiet day for Susan, although on the way to the park Gawain trod on a crack in the pavement. On purpose. One of the many terrors conjured up by the previous governess's happy way with children had been the bears that waited around in the street to eat you if you stood on the cracks. Susan had taken to carrying the poker under her respectable coat. One wallop generally did the trick. They were amazed that anyone else saw them. 'Gawain?' she said, eyeing a nervous bear who had suddenly spotted her and was now trying to edge away nonchalantly. 'Yes?'

'You meant to tread on that crack so that I'd have to thump some poor creature whose only fault is wanting to tear you limb from limb.'

'I was just skipping-'

'Quite. Real children don't go hoppity-skip unless they are on drugs.' He grinned at her. 'If I catch you being twee again I will knot your arms behind your head,' said Susan levelly. He nodded, and went to push Twyla off the swings. Susan relaxed, satisfied. It was her personal discovery. Ridiculous threats didn't worry them at all, but they were obeyed. Especially the ones in graphic detail. The previous governess had used various monsters and bogeymen as a form of discipline. There was always something waiting to eat or carry off bad boys and girls for crimes like stuttering or defiantly and aggravatingly persisting in writing with their left hand. There was always a Scissor Man waiting for a little girl who sucked her thumb, always a bogeyman in the cellar. Of such bricks is the innocence of childhood constructed. Susan's attempts at getting them to disbelieve in the things only caused the problems to get worse. Twyla had started to wet the bed. This may have been a crude form of defence against the terrible clawed creature that she was certain lived under it. Susan had found out about this one the first night, when the child had woken up crying because of a bogeyman in the closet. She'd sighed and gone to have a look. She'd been so angry that she'd pulled it out, hit it over the head with the nursery poker, dislocated its shoulder as a means of emphasis and kicked it out of the back door. The children refused to disbelieve in the monsters because, frankly, they knew damn well the things were there. But she'd found that they could, very firmly, also believe in the poker. Now she sat down on a bench and read a book. She made a point of taking the children, every day, somewhere where they could meet others of the same age. If they got the hang of the playground, she thought, adult life would hold no fears. Besides, it was nice to hear the voices of little children at play, provided you took care to be far enough away not to hear what they were actually saying. There were lessons later on. These were going a lot better now she'd got rid of the reading books about bouncy balls and dogs called Spot. She'd got Gawain on to the military campaigns of General Tacticus, which were suitably bloodthirsty but, more importantly, considered too difficult

for a child. As a result his vocabulary was doubling every week and he could already use words like 'disembowelled' in everyday conversation. After all, what was the point of teaching children to be children? They were naturally good at it. And she was, to her mild horror, naturally good with them. She wondered suspiciously if this was a family trait. And if, to judge by the way her hair so readily knotted itself into a prim bun, she was destined for jobs like this for the rest of her life. It was her parents' fault. They hadn't meant it to turn out like this. At least, she hoped charitably that they hadn't. They'd wanted to protect her, to keep her away from the worlds outside this one, from what people thought of as the occult, from ... well, from her grandfather, to put it bluntly. This had, she felt, left her a little twisted up. Of course, to be fair, that was a parent's job. The world was so full of sharp bends that if they didn't put a few twists in you, you wouldn't stand a chance of fitting in. And they'd been conscientious and kind and given her a good home and even an education. It had been a good education, too. But it had only been later on that she'd realized that it had been an education in, well, education. It meant that if ever anyone needed to calculate the volume of a cone, then they could confidently call on Susan Sto-Helit. Anyone at a loss to recall the campaigns of General Tacticus or the square root of 27.4 would not find her wanting. If you needed someone who could talk about household items and things to buy in the shops in five languages, then Susan was at the head of the queue. Education had been easy. Learning things had been harder. Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on. She'd become a governess. It was one of the few jobs a known lady could do. And she'd taken to it well. She'd sworn that if she did indeed ever find herself dancing on rooftops with chimney sweeps she'd beat herself to death with her own umbrella. After tea she read them a story. They liked her stories. The one in the book was pretty awful, but the Susan version was well received. She translated as she read. '... and then Jack chopped down the beanstalk, adding murder and ecological vandalism to the theft, enticement and trespass charges already mentioned, but he got away with it and lived happily ever after without so much as a guilty twinge about what he had done. Which proves that you can be excused just about anything if you're a hero, because no one asks inconvenient questions. And now,' she closed the book with a snap, 'it's time for bed.' The previous governess had taught them a prayer which included the hope that some god or other would take their soul if they died while they were asleep and, if Susan was any judge, had the underlying message that this would be a good thing. one day, Susan averred, she'd hunt that woman down. 'Susan,' said Twyla, from somewhere under the blankets. 'Yes?'

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