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Hogfather

Hogfather

Page 5


'No one said anything about there being magic in all this,' said Peachy. 'Our destination is ... probably you should think of it as something like a wizard's tower, gentlemen,' said Teatime. 'It isn't an actual wizard's tower, is it?' said Medium Dave. 'They got a very odd sense of humour when it comes to booby traps.'

'No.'

'Guards?'

'I believe so. According to legend. But nothing very much.' Medium Dave narrowed his eyes. 'There's valuable stuff in this ... tower?'

'Oh, yes.'

'Why ain't there many guards, then?'

'The ... person who owns the property probably does not realize the value of what ... of what they have.'

'Locks?' said Medium Dave. 'On our way we shall be picking up a locksmith.'

'Who?'

'Mr Brown.' They nodded. Everyone - at least, everyone in 'the business', and everyone in 'the business' knew what 'the business' was, and if you didn't know what 'the business' was you weren't a businessman - knew Mr Brown. His presence anywhere around a job gave it a certain kind of respectability. He was a neat, elderly man who'd invented most of the tools in his big leather bag. No matter what cunning you'd used to get into a place, or overcome a small army, or find the secret treasure room, sooner or later you sent for Mr Brown, who'd turn up with his leather bag and his little springy things and his little bottles of strange alchemy and his neat little boots. And he'd do nothing for ten minutes but look at the lock, and then he'd select a piece of bent metal from a ring of several

hundred almost identical pieces, and under an hour later he'd be walkingaway with a neat ten per cent of the takings. Of course, you didn't have to use Mr Brown's services. You could always opt to spend the rest of your life looking at a locked door. 'All right. Where is this place?' said Peachy. Teatime turned and smiled at him. 'If I'm paying you, why isn't it me who's asking the questions?' Peachy didn't even try to outstare the glass eye a second time. 'Just want to be prepared, that's all,' he mumbled. 'Good reconnaissance is the essence of a successful operation,' said Teatime. He turned and looked up at the bulk that was Banjo and added, 'What is this?'

'This is Banjo,' said Medium Dave, rolling himself a cigarette. 'Does it do tricks?' Time stood still for a moment. The other men looked at Medium Dave. He was known to Ankh- Morpork's professional underclass as a thoughtful, patient man, and considered something of an intellectual because some of his tattoos were spelled right. He was reliable in a tight spot and, above all, he was honest, because good criminals have to be honest. If he had a fault, it was a tendency to deal out terminal and definitive retribution to anyone who said anything about his brother. If he had a virtue, it was a tendency to pick his time. Medium Dave's fingers tucked the tobacco into the paper and raised it to his lips. 'No,' he said. Chickenwire tried to defrost the conversation. 'He's not what you'd call bright, but he's always useful. He can lift two men in each hand. By their necks.'

'Yur,' said Banjo. 'He looks like a volcano,' said Teatime. 'Really?' said Medium Dave Lilywhite. Chickenwire reached out hastily and pushed him back down in his seat. Teatime turned and smiled at him. 'I do so hope we're going to be friends, Mr Medium Dave,' he said. 'It really hurts to think I might not be among friends.' He gave him another bright smile. Then he turned back to the rest of the table. 'Are we resolved, gentlemen?' They nodded. There was some reluctance, given the consensus view that Teatime belonged in a room with soft walls, but ten thousand dollars was ten thousand dollars. possibly even more. 'Good,' said Teatime. He looked Banjo up and down. 'Then I suppose we might as well make a start.' And he hit Banjo very hard in the mouth. Death in person did not turn up upon the cessation of every life. It was not necessary. Governments govern, but prime ministers and presidents do not personally turn up in people's homes to tell them how to run their lives, because of the mortal danger this would present. There are laws instead. But from time to time Death checked up to see that things were functioning properly or, to put it another and more accurate way, properly ceasing to function in the less significant areas of his jurisdiction. And now he walked through dark seas. Silt rose in clouds around his feet as he strode along the trench bottom. His robes floated out around him.

There was silence, pressure and utter, utter darkness. But there was life down here, even this far below the waves. There were giant squid, and lobsters with teeth on their eyelids. There were spidery things with their stomachs on their feet, and fish that made their own light. It was a quiet, black nightmare world, but life lives everywhere that life can. Where life can't, this takes a little longer. Death's destination was a slight rise in the trench floor. Already the water around him was getting warmer and more populated, by creatures that looked as though they had been put together from the bits left over from everything else. Unseen but felt, a vast column of scalding hot water was welling up from a fissure. Somewhere below were rocks heated to near incandescence by the Disc's magical field. Spires of minerals had been deposited around this vent. And, in this tiny oasis, a type of life had grown up. It did not need air or light. It did not even need food in the way that most other species would understand the term. It just grew at the edge of the streaming column of water, looking like a cross between a worm and a flower. Death kneeled down and peered at it, because it was so small. But for some reason, in this world without eyes or light, it was also a brilliant red. The profligacy of life in these matters never ceased to amaze him. He reached inside his robe and pulled out a small roll of black material, like a jeweller's toolkit. With great care he took from one of its pouches a scythe about an inch long, and held it expectantly between thumb and forefinger. Somewhere overhead a shard of rock was dislodged by a stray current and tumbled down, raising little puffs of silt as it bounced off the tubes. It landed just beside the living flower and then rolled, wrenching it from the rock. Death flicked the tiny scythe just as the bloom faded ... The omnipotent eyesight of various supernatural entities is often remarked upon. It is said they can see the fall of every sparrow. And this may be true. But there is only one who is always there when it hits the ground. The soul of the tube worm was very small and uncomplicated. It wasn't bothered about sin. it had never coveted its neighbour's polyps. It had never gambled or drunk strong liquor. It had never bothered itself with questions like 'Why am I here?' because it had no concept at all of 'here' or, for that matter, of 'I'. Nevertheless, something was cut free under the surgical edge of the scythe and vanished in the roiling waters. Death carefully put the instrument away and stood up. All was well, things were functioning satisfactorily, and -but they weren't. In the same way that the best of engineers can hear the tiny change that signals a bearing going bad long before the finest of instruments would detect anything wrong, Death picked up a discord in the symphony of the world. It was one wrong note among billions but all the more noticeable for that, like a tiny pebble in a very large shoe. He waved a finger in the waters. For a moment a blue, door-shaped outline appeared He ste pped through it and was gone. The tube creatures didn't notice him go. They hadn't noticed him arrive. They never ever noticed anything. A cart trundled through the freezing foggy streets, the driver hunched in his seat. He seemed to be all big thick brown overcoat. A figure darted out of the swirls and was suddenly on the box next to him

'Hi!' it said. 'My name's Teatime. What's yours?'

''ere, you get down, I ain't allowed to give li-' The driver stopped. It was amazing how Teatime had been able to thrust a knife through four layers of thick clothing and stop it just at the point where it pricked the flesh. 'Sorry?' said Teatime, smiling brightly. 'Er - there ain't nothing valuable, y'know, nothing valuable, only a few bags of-’ 'Oh, dear,' said Teatime, his face a sudden acre of concern. 'Well, we'll just have to see, won't we ... What is your name, sir?'

'Ernie. Er. Ernie,' said Ernie. 'Yes. Ernie. Er... ' Teatime turned his head slightly. 'Come along, gentlemen. This is my friend Ernie. He's going to be our driver for tonight.' Ernie saw half a dozen figures emerge from the fog and climb into the cart behind him. He didn't turn to look at them. By the pricking of his kidneys he knew this would not be an exemplary career move. But it seemed that one of the figures, a huge shambling mound of a creature, was carrying a long bundle over its shoulder. The bundle moved and made muffled noises. 'Do stop shaking, Ernie. We just need a lift said Teatime, as the cart rumbled over the cobbles. 'Where to, mister?'

'Oh, we don't mind. But first, I'd like you to stop in Sator Square, near the second fountain.' The knife was withdrawn. Ernie stopped trying to breathe through his ears. 'Er . . .'

'What is it? You do seem tense, Ernie. I always find a neck massage helps.'

'I ain't rightly allowed to carry passengers, see Charlie'll give me a right telling-off . . .'

'Oh, don't you worry about that,' said Tea time, slapping him on the back. 'We're all friends here!'

'What're we bringing the girl for?' said a voice behind them. ''s not right, hittin' girls,' said a deep voice. 'Our mam said no hittin' girls. Only bad boys do that, our mam said! 'You be quiet, Banjo.'

'Our mam said-'

'Shssh! Emie here doesn't want to listen to our troubles,' said Teatime, not taking his gaze off the driver. 'Me? Deaf as a post, me,' burbled Ernie, who in some ways was a very quick learner. 'Can't hardly see more'n a few feet, neither. Cot no recollection for them faces that I do see, come to that. Bad memory? Hah! Talk about bad memory. Cor, sometimes I can be like as it were on the cart, talking to people, hah, just like I'm talking gone, hah, remember anything about them or how many they were or what they were carrying or anything about any to you now, and then when they're try as I might, do you think I car girl or anything?' By this time his voice was a highpitched wheeze. 'Hah! Sometimes I forget me own name!'

'It's Ernie, isn't it?' said Teatime, giving him a happy smile. 'Ah, and here we are. Oh dear. There seems to be some excitement.' There was the sound of fighting somewhere ahead, and then a couple of masked trolls ran past with three Watchmen after them. They all ignored the cart. 'I heard the De Bris gang were going to have a go at Packley's strongroom tonight,' said a voice behind Ernie. ' Looks like Mr Brown won't be joining us, then,' said another voice. There was a snigger. 'Oh, I don't know about that, Mr Lilywhite, I don't know about that at all,' said a third voice, and this one was from the direction of the fountain. 'Could you take my bag while I climb up, please? Do be careful, it's a little heavy.'

It was a neat little voice. The owner of a voice like that kept his money in a shovel purse and always counted his change carefully. Ernie thought all this, and then tried very hard to forget that he had. 'On you go, Ernie,' said Teatime. 'Round behind the University, I think.' As the cart rolled on, the neat little voice said, 'You grab all the money and then you get out very smartly. Am I right?' There was a murmur of agreement. 'Learned that on my mother's knee, yeah.'

'You learned a lot of stuff across your ma's knee, Mr Lilywhite.'

'Don't you say nuffin' about our mam!' The voice was like an earthquake. 'This is Mr Brown, Banjo. You smarten up.'

'He dint ort to tork about our mam!'

'All right! All right! Hello, Banjo ... I think I may have a sweet somewhere ... Yes, there you' are. Yes, your ma knew the way all right. You go in quietly, you take your time, you get what you came for and you leave smartly and in good order. You don't hang around at the scene to count it out and tell one another what brave lads you are, am I right?'

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