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Hogfather

Hogfather

Page 33


'Three Bulgies?'

'Gerbils. They tend to die a lot,' said Susan. 'The trick is to replace them when she's not looking. You really don't know anything, do you?'

'Er... hello?' The voice came from the corridor. They worked their way round to the next room. There, sitting on the floor and tied to the leg of a white display case, was Violet. She looked up in apprehension, and then in bewilderment, and finally in growing recognition. 'Aren't you-?'

'Yes, yes, we see each other sometimes in Biers, and when you came for Twyla's last tooth you were so shocked that I could see you I had to give you a drink to get your nerves back,' said Susan, fumbling with the ropes. 'I don't think we've got a lot of time.'

'And who's he?' The oh god tried to push his lank hair into place. 'Oh, he's just a god,' said Susan. 'His name's Bilious.'

'Do you drink at all?' said the oh god. 'What sort of quest-'

'He needs to know before he decides whether he hates you or not,' said Susan. 'It's a god thing.'

'No, I don't,' said Violet. 'What an idea. I've got the blue ribbon!' The oh god raised his eyebrows at Susan. 'That means she's a member of Offler's League of Temperance,' said Susan. 'They sign a pledge not to touch alcohol. I can't think why. Of course, Offler's a crocodile. They don't go in bars much. They're into water.'

'Not touch alcohol at all?' said the oh god. 'Never!' said Violet. 'My dad's very strict about that sort of thing!' After a moment Susan felt forced to wave a hand across their locked gaze. 'Can we get on?' she said. 'Good. Who brought you here, Violet?'

'I don't know! I was doing the collection as usual, and then I thought I heard someone following me, and then it all went dark, and when I came to we were... Have you seen what it's like outside?'

'Yes.'

'Well, we were there. The big one was carrying me. The one they call Banjo. He's not bad, just a bit... odd. Sort of... slow. He just watches me. The others are thugs. Watch out for the one with the glass eye. They're all afraid of him. Except Banjo.'

'Class eye?'

'He's dressed like an Assassin. He's called Teatime. I think they're trying to steal something... They spent ages carting the teeth out. Little teeth everywhere... It was horrible! Thank you,' she added to the oh god, who had helped her on to her feet. 'They've piled them up in a magic circle downstairs,' said Susan.

Violet's eyes and mouth formed three Os. It was like looking at a pink bowling ball. 'What for?'

'I think they're using them to control the children. By magic.' Violet's mouth opened wider. 'That's horrid.' Horrible, thought Susan. The word is 'horrible'. 'Horrid' is a childish word selected to impress nearby males with one's fragility, if I'm any judge. She knew it was unkind and counterproductive of her to think like that. She also knew it was probably an accurate observation, which only made it worse. 'Yes,' she said. 'There was a wizard! He's got a pointy hat!'

'I think we should get her out of here,' said the oh god, in a tone of voice that Susan considered was altogether too dramatic. 'Good idea,' she conceded. 'Let's go.' Catseye's boots had snapped their laces. It was as if he'd been pulled upwards so fast they simply couldn't keep up. That worried Medium Dave. So did the smell. There was no smell at all in the rest of the tower, but just here there was a lingering odour of mushrooms. His forehead wrinkled. Medium Dave was a thief and a murderer and therefore had a highly developed moral sense. He preferred not to steal from poor people, and not only because they never had anything worth stealing. If it was necessary to hurt anyone, he tried to leave wounds that would heal. And when in the course of his activities he had to kill people then he made some effort to see that they did not suffer much or at least made as few noises as possible. This whole business was getting on his nerves. Usually, he didn't even notice that he had any. There was a wrongness to everything that grated on his bones. And a pair of boots was all that remained of old Catseye. He drew his sword. Above him, the creeping shadows moved and flowed away. Susan edged up to the entrance to the stairways and peered around into the point of a crossbow. 'Now, all of you step out where I can see you.' said Peachy conversationally. 'And don't touch that sword, lady. You'll probably hurt yourself.' Susan tried to make herself unseen, and failed. Usually it was so easy to do that that it happened automatically, usually with embarrassing results. She could be idly reading a book while people searched the room for her. But here, despite every effort, she seemed to remain obstinately visible. 'You don't own this place,' she said, stepping back. 'No, but you see this crossbow? I own this crossbow. So you just walk ahead of me, right, and we'll all go and see Mister Teatime.'

'Excuse me, I just want to check something,' said Bilious. To Susan's amazement he leaned over and touched the point of the arrow. ',Here! What did you do that for?' said Peachy, stepping back. 'I felt it, but of course a certain amount of pain sensation would be part of normal sensory response,' said the oh god. 'I warn you, there's a very good chance that I might be immortal.'

'Yes, but we probably aren't,' said Susan. 'Immortal, eh?' said Peachy. 'So if I was to shoot you inna head, you wouldn't die?'

'I suppose when you put it like that... I do know I feel pain...'

'Right. You just keep moving, then.'

'When something happens,' said Susan, out of the corner of her mouth, 'you two try to get downstairs and out, all right? If the worst comes to the worst, the horse will. take you out of here.'

'If something happens,' whispered the oh god. 'When,' said Susan. Behind them, Peachy looked around. He knew he'd feel a lot better when any of the others turned up. It was almost a relief to have prisoners. Out of the corner of her eye Susan saw something move on the stairs on the opposite side of the shaft. For a moment she thought she saw several flashes like metal blades catching the light. She heard a gasp behind her. The man with the crossbow was standing very still and staring at the opposite stairs. 'Oh, noooo,' he said, under his breath. 'What is it?' said Susan. He stared at her. 'You can see it too?'

'The thing like a lot of blades clicking together?' said Susan. 'Oh, nooo...'

'It was only there for a moment,' said Susan. 'It's gone now,' she said. 'Somewhere else,' she added. 'It's the Scissor Man . . 'Who's he?' said the oh god. 'No one!' snapped Peachy, trying to pull himself together. 'There's no such thing as the Scissor Man, all right?'

'Ah... yes. When you were little, did you suck your thumb?' said Susan. 'Because the only Scissor Man I know is the one people used to frighten children with. They said he'd turn up and---'

'Shutupshutupshutup!' said Peachy, prodding her with the crossbow. 'Kids believe all kinds of crap! But I'm grown up now, right, and I can open beer bottles with other people's teeth an- oh, gods...' Susan heard the snip, snip. It sounded very close now. Peachy had his eyes shut. 'Is there anything behind me?' he quavered. Susan pushed the others aside and waved frantically towards the bottom of the stairs. 'No,' she said, as they hurried away. 'Is there anything standing on the stairs at all?'

'No.'

'Right! If you see that one-eyed bastard you tell him he can keep the money!' He turned and ran. When Susan turned to go up the stairs the Scissor Man was there. It wasn't man-shaped. It was something like an ostrich, and something like a lizard on its hind legs, but almost entirely like something made out of blades. Every time it moved a thousand blades went snip, snip. Its long silver neck curved and a head made of shears stared down at her. 'You're not looking for me,' she said. 'You're not my nightmare.' The blades tilted this way and that. The Scissor Man was trying to think. 'I remember you came for Twyla,' said Susan, stepping forward. 'That damn governess had told her what happens to little girls who suck their thumbs, remember? Remember the poker? I bet you needed a hell of a lot of sharpening afterwards...' The creature lowered its head, stepped carefully around her in as polite a way as it could manage, and clanked on down the stairs after Peachy. Susan ran on towards the top of the tower.

Sideney put a green filter over his lantern and pressed down with a small silver rod that had an emerald set on its tip. A piece of the lock moved. There was a whirring from inside the door and something went click. He sagged with relief. It is said that the prospect of hanging concentrates the mind wonderfully, but it was Valium compared to being watched by Mister Teatime. 'I, er, think that's the third lock,' he said. 'Green light is what opens it. I remember the fabulous lock of the Hall of Murgle, which could only be opened by the Hubward wind, although that was-- -'

'I commend your expertise,' said Teatime. 'And the other four?' Sideney looked up nervously at the silent bulk of Banjo, and licked his lips. 'Well, of course, if I'm right, and the locks depend on certain conditions, well, we could be here for years...' he ventured. 'Supposing they can only be opened by, say, a small blond child holding a mouse? On a Tuesday? In the rain?'

'You can find out what the nature of the spell is?' said Teatime. 'Yes, yes, of course, yes.' Sideney waved his hands urgently. 'That's how I worked out this one. Reverse thaumaturgy, yes, certainly. Er. In time.'

'We have lots of time,' said Teatime. 'Perhaps a little more time than that,' Sideney quavered. 'The processes are very, very, very... difficult.'

'Oh, dear. If it's too much for you, you've only got to say,' said Teatime. 'No!' Sideney yipped, and then managed to get some self-control. 'No. No. No, I can... I'm sure I shall work them out soon-'

'Jolly good,' said Teatime. The student wizard looked down. A wisp of vapour oozed from the crack between the doors. 'Do you know what's in here, Mister Teatime?'

'No.'

'Ah. Right.' Sideney stared mournfully at the fourth lock. It was amazing how much you remembered when someone like Teatime was around. He gave him a nervous look. 'There's not going to be any more violent deaths, are there?' he said. 'I just can't stand the sight of violent deaths!' Teatime put a comforting arm around his shoulders. 'Don't worry,' he said. 'I'm on your side. A violent death is the last thing that'll happen to you.'

'Mister Teatime?' He turned. Medium Dave stepped onto the landing. 'Someone else is in the tower,' he said. 'They've got Catseye. I don't know how. I've got Peachy watching the stairs and I ain't sure where Chickenwire is.' Teatime looked back to Sideney, who started prodding at the fourth lock again in a feverish attempt not to die. 'Why are you telling me? I thought I was paying you big strong men a lot of money to deal with this sort of thing.' Medium Dave's lips framed some words, but when he spoke he said, 'AH right, but what are we up against here? Eh? Old Man Trouble or the bogeyman or what?' Teatime sighed. 'Some of the Tooth Fairy's employees, I assume,' he said. 'Not if they're like the ones that were here,' said Medium Dave. 'They were just civilians. It looks like the ground opened and swallowed Catseye up.' He thought about this. 'I mean the ceiling,' he corrected himself. A horrible image had just passed across his under-used imagination. Teatime walked across to the stairwell and looked down. Far below, the pile of teeth looked like a white circle.

'And the girl's gone,' said Medium Dave. 'Really? I thought I said she should be killed.' Medium Dave hesitated. The boys had been brought up by Ma Lilywhite to be respectful to women as delicate and fragile creatures, and were soundly thrashed if disrespectful tendencies were perceived by Ma's incredibly sensitive radar. And it was truly incredibly sensitive. Ma could hear what you were doing three rooms away, a terrible thing for a growing lad. That sort of thing leaves a mark. Ma Lilywhite certainly could. As for the others, they had no objections in practice to the disposal of anyone who got between them and large sums of money, but there was a general unspoken resentment at being told by Teatime to kill someone just because he had no further use for them. It wasn't that it was unprofessional. Only Assassins thought like that. It was just that there were things you did do, and things you didn't do. And this was one of the things you didn't do. 'We thought... well, you never know...'

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