Disclaimer: I don't own the Discrworld. It all belongs to the inimitable Terry Pratchett.
Summary: Ankh-Morporkian children have been getting kidnapped for ransom, and Vimes still has no idea who is behind it. He can't help but suspect that he could have solved this case so much faster if he were ten years younger.
Warnings: aging; disability; mentions of child abuse; mentions of violence; character death; original female character; specieism; Discworld; I am not Terry Pratchett
A/N: In the fine tradition of giving someone a scary book – or, in this case, a tiny bit scary (maybe?) story – on All Hallows' Eve, a tradition that has been started by Neil Gaiman himself, this is for Zanthia – because she asked for it.
Idea sprung out of the article linked here. I am so sorry for this. Blame Neil. books/2014/sep/24/terry-pratchett-angry-not-jolly-neil-gaiman.
xActs of Kindness
Havelock licked his thumb and reached over to snuff out the candle when the knock sounded.
Mid-movement, he paused.
There was another knock, the distinct sound of a silk-covered knuckle impacting against a glass pane in a particular rapid sequence.
Havelock straightened in his chair, set his elbows on top of his desk (cushioned by the outrageous proposal for a tax break for the Pyrotechnics' Guild due to the recent droughts and the correlating frequency of naturally occurring fires), and folded his hands together.
A figure head to toe swathed in black made a short work of the lock, pushed the window open and slithered inside, landing in a half-crouch in the shadow of the heavy velvet curtains that suffered a mild moth infestation. She – for there was only one person who came knocking at the window of Havelock's office – reached into the indeterminable depths of her matte-black on matte-black professional wear, and pulled out a scroll sealed with an unassuming yet telling 'D'.
"Papi sent me to tell yah it's, like, time. Said you'd totally know what 'e was, like, on about."
Havelock took a moment to translate those two sentences into human speech. Well, that was what Downey got for sending his daughter to be educated abroad, even though, from a strategic and political point of view, Havelock absolutely commended the decision. She was, after all, still alive, and even had the makings of a sensible woman, if one was willing to look far enough into the future.
"I see," the Secretary to the Patrician said with the equanimity of a granite statue, accepted the parchment and unrolled it.
Inhaled. Exhaled. Inhaled again, meticulous about keeping the actions periodical.
"Mah Lawrd...?" the girl intoned, concerned. With childish sincerity, she shared: "Papi totally 'ad, like, a real weird smile on 'is face."
Of course he had, Vetinari thought. A face like Downey's would appear grotesque trying to split between glee and nostalgia.
Havelock stood. "If you would excuse me, Miss. I must retire for the evening."
"Ri-ight," she drawled, the hood moving up and down as she nodded. She shuffled her feet, leaving a small scuff mark on the lacquered floorboards. Then she shrugged. "G'night, mah Lawrd."
Havelock surveyed the contract, a generic document with a generous sum stated on the bottom, lacking any signature at all. Even while watching Miss Downey's progress out of his office – she politely locked the window behind her – Havelock recognised the handwriting. Despite the storm brewing in the distance (there would be no tax breaks for the Pyrotechnics), the strangest silence permeated the room.
It was time.
Havelock licked his thumb and snuffed out the candle.
It was inevitable, Vimes thought morosely, scowling yet harder.
His tea had gone cold and the room dark, because the last wave of the lazily evacuating light of the Discworld sun had rolled over Ankh and was now disappearing into the distance, leaving half-hearted twilight behind it.
Any minute now Willikins would be by to light the oil lamps, as if Vimes couldn't have done that himself.
Vimes could have. Only he was too busy reflecting on the alarming statistics.
Crime, like every other aspect of society, had its fashions. Right now, apparently, that was kidnappings. There had been a rash of abductions, starting (when older possibly related cases were added to the pool) with some low-budget fringe kidnapping on the Broadway and near the Heroes. Then, as the perpetrators grew more confident – and as they realised there was no retribution forthcoming – they moved on to Ankh.
It was turning into a problem.
The abducted were mostly kids, which just made Vimes want to beat people into submission and maybe kill them – only a little, he wasn't going to kill them much, just a tiny sodding little bit – and the ransom money was progressively gaining more zeroes at the end. It was a clear escalation, and he was fairly sure that, with a handful of exceptions, the kidnappings were perpetrated by the same group of people.
What was worse, they were continuing. He still hadn't figured it out. It was still cluttering up his desk – his desk, because there were no assassinations, and the Guild of Thieves had washed their hands off it, because apparently in some cases money did stink, and apparently Abduction was not an Allied Trade. There was no guild to exact swift and competent justice, and the Patrician was trying to put pressure on the City Watch to investigate faster.
Vimes couldn't help but wonder if this all would have been solved already, had the Patrician putting the pressure been Vetinari. This new guy was of the Vetinari school of thinking, obviously groomed by the man himself to take the position, but there was still a lot of provinciality about him: hot air coming out of his mouth, straw sticking out of his boots, and the annoying self-assurance of youth in every damn move he made. Vimes had to check himself regularly to not promise the guy that he was going to tell his mother what he had been getting up to.
Children got abducted in Ankh-Morpork and held for ransom and, in two unhappy cases of parents unable or unwilling to pay…
Vimes glanced down at the couple of iconographs. They would have to start some sort of therapy for the office imps. Hell, he sort of wanted at least his bottle of Bearhugger's Whisky after looking at those, and he hadn't been the one forced to paint them.
He changed his mind. He was just going to kill first and not bother with asking questions.
There was a crash and the distinct sound of glass shattering, and it was only a few seconds later that Vimes noticed he had flung the – fortunately unlit – oil lamp into the opposite wall. There were shards on the floor of his office. They didn't glitter, because there was not enough light left for them to reflect.
"Sam?" Sybil called out from the hallway.
The door opened and Vimes ran a hand through his hair, before he determinedly closed the file and looked up, braced for either worry or reproach.
He got the worry.
Sybil took in the sight of the office and her forehead scrunched up. She subconsciously pulled on the ribbon tied around her wrist. "Oh, Sam, have you been reading the cases again?"
Vimes stood quietly. He couldn't exactly deny it, even if he had been willing to lie to Sybil, which he wasn't. Not for a… not about this. "I don't like this, Sybil," he said instead, trite and robbed of all the choleric homicidal intent sloshing around in his stomach, begging to be diluted with alcohol.
"Well," Sybil said primly, abandoning the ribbon so that she could put her hand onto her hip, "that I understand, my dear, but it is hardly an excuse to keep us waiting to start the dinner for twenty minutes. Your son's stomach is growling like Serafine used to."
"The dinner's ready already?" Vimes glanced at the clock and briefly closed his eyes, which was as much of a cringe as he allowed himself. "Sorry, Sybil. I didn't realise it was that late."
She gave him a small smile and wound her arm through his elbow when he offered it. "Well, you said you'd be just five minutes – that was half an hour ago."
"You did," Sybil confirmed, mildly amused, as she usually was when he turned into an investigator to the exclusion of almost all else.
"Oh," Vimes said, genuinely surprised. "Sorry." It stuck in his craw to issue that many apologies in one conversation, but he was feeling somehow uprooted and Sybil – well, Sybil put up with a lot for his sake. The least he could do was keep his promises.
He didn't exactly remember asking for those five minutes but, then, he had been concentrating on the files. Maybe he was getting older.
"Don't worry," Sybil urged him, smiling so brightly that even the glow reflected off of her sapphire earrings appeared dim in comparison. "Young Sam is just nervous – I think he has something to tell us."
"Ha!" Vimes grumbled, but he could not keep from smiling back no matter how hard he tried. "About time."
They walked into the dining hall sharing conspiratorial glances, which mostly made up for the fact that the actual dining hall was actually properly set up for this occasion – or at least in Vimes' mind it did. His son squirmed in his seat, straw-coloured rat's nest of hair a complete mess from how often he had nervously run his hand through it (a gesture he had adopted from Vimes, and which was a ridiculous pretext for pride, but Vimes couldn't really help himself), wearing quite possibly the best clothes he owned, judging by the amount of frills and embroidery.
"Dad!" the boy spoke, a little too fast and loud to fit in with his artless attempt at nonchalance.
Sybil grinned into her glass of sparkling wine.
"Sam," Vimes replied, ruthlessly squashing his own smile, "good to see you. How go your studies?"
Young Sam flushed. "Ah… well. Really well. Oh, downright amazingly. The Sergeant says I could make an officer within a year. I mean-"
"Ma'am?" Mercy cut in, standing on the threshold with a covered tray in each hand. "Chure ready t'eachur Graces?"
Vimes mostly guessed what she was asking, but apparently his input wasn't needed, because Sybil easily managed to decipher the terrible, terrible accent of the maid that was sent over from one of her old school-friends after some sort of trouble with the local farrier having a nervous breakdown and refusing to come near the stables.
She took direction with aplomb, and before it occurred to Vimes that the familiar growling sound echoing from the walls was made by his stomach rather than his son's, there was a generous slice of pork under his nose, with an accompaniment of potatoes and steamed vegetables.
After a while Willikins and the bottle in his hands faded into the background, and Young Sam became sadly obvious in his efforts to rearrange the food on his plate to make it look like he was eating without any actual eating occurring.
"Why didn't you just bring her?" Vimes asked – taking the words from his wife's mouth, guessing by the look she gave him.
Young Sam startled, floundered for a bit, and then shrugged. "Wasn't going to do that without warning you first."
Vimes and Sybil shared another glance, and even a mutual eye-roll. As though their boy had not been obvious enough.
"Bring her by tomorrow," Sybil more ordered than suggested, and pointed her utensils at the meal in another, mute, order.
Young Sam dreamily scooped up peas, one by one, far away inside his mind.
Vimes looked down at the fold of his napkin and indulged in being old enough that his child was already grown and ready to set out on the walk through the well-lit streets of the real world. If this kidnapping spree had started ten years ago, Vimes would have been frothing at the mouth – and hiring bodyguards to keep his son safe.
He paused with his fork half-way to his mouth.
Hiring bodyguards. That was it. That was the answer!
He let go of the fork and barely noticed it clattering loudly against his plate. He ignored the rest of his pork, forgot about potatoes, and on his run for the door practically bowled over Mercy, who only saved the tray she was carrying through long experience with delicate balancing and with servant footwork.
By the time he got to Pseudopolis Yard, Vimes had a stitch in his side and was breathing hard enough to crack a rib.
"Littlebottom!" he yelled like a maniac, barging through the station door.
"Here, sir!" a prompt response came from the ajar door leading to one of the few bigger-than-a-cubbyhole offices on the first landing.
Vimes stomped up the stairs, huffing, and only came to a halt two steps past the door, when he realised that there was no way he could proceed without either treading on something important or hitting his head on something hard or dislodging something fragile. Littlebottom was perched on one of those allegedly healthy chairs the mere sight of which made Vimes' spine ache in sympathy. She was taking down notes on the reaction of-
Well, of something Vimes was glad to only see from distance, not clearly, and safely contained.
"Lieutenant," he panted, wiping sweat from his forehead with a damned monogrammed handkerchief, "I need you to get me a list of companies that provide bodyguards."
"Just personnel agencies, or private security companies and out-springing, too?"
"Did I stutter?" Vimes snapped, in lieu of the more honest: 'the what?' This wasn't the Ankh-Morpork he knew. This was some strange, futuristic – nonsensical – version. "I want a list of places you can turn to if you need a bodyguard, and of the people who run them."
Cheery Littlebottom nodded a couple of times and checked the contents of her uppermost drawer. She pulled out a stack of colourful square notes and started sorting through them. "They don't have a Guild, yet. In my opinion, they should set it up fast – or they'll end up having a Union, too."
"Unions are hardly bad news," Vimes pointed out, because he might have technically been nobility, but he had come from the working class, and that kind of thing was apparently more difficult to forget than literature would have you believe.
Littlebottom met his eyes for a short moment, eloquently expressing her vehement disagreement without ever saying a word or making a describable facial expression.
Vimes stopped himself from shrugging, and moved his eyes to the stack of correspondence in the dwarf's inbox. He wasn't going to engage in staring contests, just as he wasn't going to participate in political debates… outside of official diplomatic settings, anyway.
"I'll have it on your desk tomorrow morning, sir," the Lieutenant said solemnly, and tried to smile to warm up the atmosphere just a little.
Vimes wished he could have appreciated her effort. He wanted to insist that she get up and work on her damn assignment right now, that he needed that thing yesterday – he had needed it six months ago, damn it! But what would he have done with it? Would he have had the officers pull all kinds of people out of their beds in the middle of the night to answer hastily formulated questions about what they had been doing on that and that day – half a year ago?
And Sybil would have his liver for lunch if he got home at the break of dawn again-
Damn it! Had he just run off in the middle of the long-anticipated family dinner?
Growling something that with a lot of goodwill could have been misinterpreted as a greeting to Littlebottom, Vimes spun on his heel and walked out of the Lieutenant's office and makeshift laboratory. Out of habit, he punched a wall.
The wooden tiling cracked under his fist; he hissed when he saw the damage.
Hopefully, no one would notice that.
Vimes felt at the same time too old and far too young to be put into this position.
Young Sam's fiancée was… well, she was a… a woman. That spoke well of her, as far as marriages went. She wore gloves, like Sybil did, but, like Sybil, took them off when the food was brought to the table.
"Are you feeling unwell, dear?" Sybil inquired solicitously.
"Oh," the girl said, turning wide, dark eyes to Sybil. "I am- that is- I am fine Ma'am. Just fine. Just-"
"Nervous?" Vimes suggested.
"Yes!" the girl agreed, then froze, realising what she had just admitted, frowned in contemplation and eventually nodded, apparently figuring out that admitting to her uncertainty was hardly a faux pas at this point.
Vimes had a sneaking suspicion that he would like her once he got to know her. It was a little surprising; he had been bracing himself for the day when Young Sam would bring someone home, and in his predictions the girl was going to be utterly despicable. The idea did not reflect Young Sam's lack of taste in the least – it was simply a symptom of Vimes' pessimistic outlook.
He had not been prepared for this option, because it had seemed to him too good to be true. There had to be the other shoe, just waiting to drop.
Maybe he was going to have to arrest her relative, or something of the kind. Perhaps she was a criminal herself-
"We were introduced by a mutual friend," the girl explained, briefly looked at Young Sam with those wide eyes – accepting a soothing hand on her wrist – and turned back to Sybil. "Are-Dee-Jay's Father wanted to commission a portrait of his younger sister, who had just returned from her studies abroad, and wanted to meet me before he made a decision-"
"You're incredibly talented!" Young Sam interjected, and thus explained the paint-stains under the girl's nails.
The couple shared a look which made it quite clear that if they weren't married yet, they shortly would be.
Vimes met Sybil's eyes, and their smiles were mostly not nostalgic.
"That was the last of them," said Detritus after he had set the suspect back on the ground (headfirst, because he had a twisted sense of humour, and he knew he could still get away with acting stupid).
Vimes crossed his arms and rubbed his chin, staring into midair, while the proprietor of the Roache & Sons agency hesitated, and eventually scurried back inside the house, choosing to rather face the increasingly more ear-rending shouting of his wife than remain within Detritus' reach.
As far as Vimes could tell, Roache only had daughters, but a little falsehood in advertising was not a crime – it was marketing.
"Let's get back," he agreed, and walked into the night, aware that Detritus was keeping close.
A thief on shift made a couple of steps in his direction, then froze, and within an instance disappeared into the shadows.
"Good thing we didn't find the right guy," Detritus said in an uncharacteristically low voice.
"How is that a good thing?!" Vimes snapped, tired and, frankly, ready to hit either the roof or the bed.
"Cause we'd have killed him, and we'd have no lead for the rest," Detritus replied with clear-headed logic, and calmly pushed aside a drunkard that was rambling about the Unseen University being in fact made of chocolate and inviting them for test-tasting.
Vimes glanced over his shoulder.
There wasn't a whole lot of expression a troll's face could convey, but even he couldn't deny the anger and sadness written in the cracks and lichen.
"You don't hurt pebbles," Detritus said.
Vimes found that it was possibly the most profound sentence he had ever heard.
There was nothing he could say to that, so he just tacitly nodded and continued leading the way through the night. Nobody had asked why Vimes had insisted on being personally involved in this operation, even though he suspected that Carrot gave orders to put him on the least likely suspects. As if Vimes couldn't control himself. He had arrested Carcer – he wouldn't just murder the lead in an investigation.
…probably, he allowed. Taking another glance at Detritus' expression, emphasised by the deep shadows in the flickering light of streetlamps, he amended that to 'maybe'.
Pseudopolis Yard came within sight, and Vimes halted at the end of the New Bridge, observing from distance as Reg Shoe dragged in a pair of hags, which was a little too obvious, and all the more embarrassing that it took so long to smoke them out. Reginald had to walk a gauntlet of officers – way too many were present, given that it was almost midnight – and no one made a move or said a word to demand a more considerate treatment of the detained.
"Good choice," Vimes admitted, appreciating the idea that hopefully a zombie would have a cool enough head to not 'kill in self-defence' someone responsible for murders of children.
"Cheery made the roster," said Detritus gloomily, from Vimes' left side. He cracked his knuckles.
Vimes nodded again.
He felt useless – and railroaded. The thing that drove him up the wall the most was the fact that Littlebottom had been right: if Vimes had been the person on that interview, there would have been two corpses found in the morning.
Instead, there were sensational titles in both the Comet and the Times, and the light-footed paperboy from the corner of Dark Gate and The Ridings yelled himself hoarse advertising: "Kidnapper Ring Dismantled!" and "The Head of the Confectioners' Guild Luring Children Away!" even though the mastermind had in fact been the Head's cousin, who had married into the Manger family and then happened to realise that the Guild of Launderers was capable of laundering money even better than clothes.
Vimes watched the kid pocket a handful of change and start shouting again, waving the newspapers above his head. "Midnight Raiding! The Watch Harasses Good Citizens!"
Apparently, the paperboy sold the Inquirer, too.
At times like these, Vimes somewhat regretted the outlawing of the Guild of Fire Fighters. He knew from personal experience that a printing office burnt really well.
The last wedding he had attended, Vimes mused, a little startled, was his own.
There were many reasons for this: he was not a good guest, and he made a lot of the other guests uncomfortable by virtue of his profession (and the other guests' tendency to skirt the lines of legality); his less than amiable disposition and lack of social graces; his tendency to expose uncomfortable truths about his acquaintances at a loud voice; his choice of close friends that would be willing to invite him despite all aforementioned social handicaps, none of whom had seen fit to tie the proverbial noose around their necks any time in the last twenty years.
Carrot, in full dress armour, stood in the front line as the guest of honour – Young Sam's hero almost forever, even more so than Vimes himself ever could claim – and next to him Angua, weatherworn but no less statuesque than she had been when Vimes had first met her. Colon, retired, came with his Missus on his arm – a sharp-eyed, stooped old lady with a yellowish cast to her teeth and fingernails, a life-long chain-smoker. Nobby sniffled and snorted loudly into a wrinkled old handkerchief. Littlebottom attended alone; poor young dwarf had contracted the detective-typical lack of success in the permanent partnership department. She was nonetheless radiant, with fetching, complex braids woven into her beard. Detritus and Ruby pretty much towered over the rest of the crowd, considerately taking places in the back.
Vimes turned back to the front to look at-
At… that was…
Ah, damn it, he looked at the bride, who was led in by her guardian and all clad in light green. Vimes followed their progress with his eyes, just briefly checking on his son – Young Sam looked nervous but deliriously happy, shifting from foot to foot in front of the just ever-so-slightly blood-stained altar – and the girl beamed, pink in the face yet so, so joyful…
Vimes wished he could remember her damn name.
Damn it all, it was something short and simple, but with the expectation of prettiness, which was a little too optimistic in her case. She was dark-haired and dark-eyed and still had a bit of an accent, but nothing too horrible. She was polite, but not quiet, and she was unafraid of the Ramkin name. She was a bit afraid of Sybil, admittedly, and Sybil kept trying to hide just how much she enjoyed it.
At the same time, the girl was inexplicably fond of Vimes himself. She liked to lose at Thud against him, even though it was not an easy task, and took her tea with him whenever he wasn't otherwise occupied – and he joked about it, made a sort of a pun out of her name, called her…
That was it.
The minister – one of the High priests of Offler, his presence owed to the prestige of the Ramkin name – started lisping on the importance of clear-headed decision-making in the selection of a potentially successful match, and Vimes filtered out the speech. He had hoped to lead his son to enlightened atheism in the firm and proven knowledge of the existence of gods, which basically made all belief redundant. But his son just had to believe in common sense and logic and deduction… such a hassle.
"And now," the priest said, pushing a curious titmouse off of the book he was reading from, "I realise that it's the height of optimism to assume that you all know why you're here, but let us. Mr Samuel Vimes, please, verbally confirm for me that you wish to take Miss Cynthia Plythe as your wife, and that you're familiar with the state of her health, her financial situation and her legal and moral obligations to other parties."
"I am; I do," Young Sam replied solemnly, casting a lopsided, nervous grin at the bride, who was asked the same question in return and also replied positively.
"And let's get these formalities over," said the priest, "because I've got ten pages of your marital agreement to go through with you and, let's face it, I've only got my dinner of mystery sausage to look forward to, so I'm not exactly jumping for joy here."
There was a tepid cheer from the assembled crowd, and a trio of Watch officers (two dwarves and a gnome, but Vimes wasn't supposed to take that into account, because specieism was politically incorrect these days) made a comical attempt to abduct the bride.
Cynthia bopped one on the head with an ornate gong – gently, as far as Vimes was able to tell – and nimbly ducked a sack of rice jauntily thrown by Detritus.
Vimes scowled down at his wilted salad.
There was something bothering him, and it was not only the salad. There was too much incongruence to this whole… this whole celebration. Sybil had told him the name of the restaurant where they were going to lunch after the official bits, and he had had it staked out for two weeks. He could have walked the surrounding streets in his sleep.
He just hadn't expected to make the actual walk from the temple to the eatery in his sleep.
Willikins was disapprovingly standing behind Sybil's left shoulder with a carafe of wine in his hands, as if to prove that he was more than capable enough of serving the party. He had assumed that the lunch would be happening at the mansion, and took it as a personal insult that it was being out-sprung.
Vimes was about to resolve to ask the man about what had happened along the way and if he had at least gotten hit on the head, but then the music started and Young Sam was forced to display his utter lack of anything resembling grace on the dance-floor by his wife who, Vimes suspected, was an alumnus of the Quirm College for Young Ladies.
The cake, by the way, was very tasty.
"Sam?" Sybil spoke over the goose pâté their breakfast consisted of. "Did you and Havelock butt heads again?"
Vimes finished chewing his mouthful and put the rest of his roll down onto the edge of his agatea plate (he still did not get why they called earthenware 'agatea', but that was nobility for you).
"No…?" he ventured tentatively. It was anyone's guess if the Secretary to the Patrician felt spited by something Vimes had done lately.
Who knew? Maybe Vetinari suffered strong aversion to pâté. Or maybe he was unhappy about how long it took to root out the whole kidnapping gang, but if that was the case he could have contributed to the investigation. Vimes had no doubts whatsoever that the man had been in possession of information at which the Watch never could have gotten.
Because what did it matter if it took them too long and another kid was taken?
It wasn't like Vetinari had the slightest idea what it felt like to be a father.
"Are you sure?" Sybil asked skeptically.
In the interest of keeping the peace, Vimes picked up his roll again and continued eating. Oftentimes it was easier to let Sybil infer, find out what she had inferred, and surreptitiously work to disprove or corroborate the idea. More often corroborate, since Sybil still had so much – mostly undeserved – faith in him.
"Because Havelock sent that young assisting person of his by with a note." Sybil waited for a while and when he didn't say anything, added: "Said that you didn't attend the last Internal Affairs Committee-"
"And what a loss," Vimes cut in. Frankly, had no idea about any 'assisting person' and was fairly certain that no such person would survive that job for any significant amount time – definitely not if they were young. And Vetinari knew Vimes better than to expect him to attend any kind of 'committee'.
Besides, he didn't recall being invited to – or, more likely, ordered to attend – any kind of committee.
"This is a real good pâté," he pointed out once the silence had gotten uncomfortably heavy.
Sybil sighed. "Just, please, whatever it is, try to work it out. You know what Havelock is like…"
Vimes did. And he'd gladly take a vacation in Hell before he gave that man a reason to be pissed off at him.
Vimes had to admit that he was glad that Sybil had to be getting ready for her Swamp Dragons Breeders' Association Conference or whatever approximation thereof, and had to excuse herself from attending the Commissioning Ceremony for the latest batch of City Watch officers. She loved these occasions, and she would have been here, sitting in the first row, unabashedly proud of the young people being promenaded across the stage for the benefit of tradition. She had attended the past thirteen ceremonies, and was frighteningly excited for the one happening next spring, which would by all accounts include Young Sam as a graduate.
It was sheer luck that this time Sybil had a previous engagement.
Sitting on a footstool behind the construction, in one of the many corners of the segmented building of the Opera that directly faced the Watch House, Vimes gave an askance glare to the painting of the Flaming Mike – patron of policemen, sentinels and weathercocks – which was being mounted to the side of the stage. Coincidence made him jittery.
Originally, he had been peeved that Sybil could not be there. Now he was selfishly glad, because someone had written a speech for him, and he was left staring at it blankly. The buckles of his armor were done up a hole too tight, he was uncomfortably aware of the explosion of artificially coloured feathers on top of his head, too many things were gleaming, and the letters on the paper danced this way and that until he was left squinting at them and nursing a headache.
"You got fire?" he asked, addressing at the same time no one and everyone in earshot.
He pulled out a cigar and then there was a hand extended as high upwards as possible, holding a burning match. Since Vimes was sitting, he didn't have that far to lean over to light the cigar. "Thanks, Officer," he muttered, letting out a puff of bluish smoke.
He looked at the paper again. It might as well have been written in Klatchian.
"Mighta let the Cap do it instead, gov'nor," a low voice croaked from the direction of the cobblestone.
Vimes glanced down and found a gnome leaning against the construction of the stage, smoking a cigarette of his own.
The watchman hastily raised both hands in surrender. "No offence 'tended, C'mander. Justa thought."
"If I was interested in your opinion, I would have asked for it!" Vimes snapped and, with a great feat of restraint, didn't add: 'goddamn nosy little garden ornament.'
"Tche!" the gnome replied, and disappeared through the labyrinth of beams.
Before Vimes could do more than contemplate spitting in that direction, there was a shuffle of feet, and when he turned he came face to the belt-buckle with the Captain of the City Watch. Angua was right behind Carrot, as usual. And there were others trailing them, like a funeral procession.
Vimes was determined to keep at least a sliver of his dignity, so he rose to his feet.
"Commander?" Carrot inquired. His eyes moved quickly around the scene, taking in – among others – Vimes' expression and the scrunched up speech. Carrot hadn't been a born detective, but Vimes had trained the investigative skills into him himself. "If you're not feeling well, sir, I could-"
"You?!" Vimes exclaimed, ready to shout at the entire square to vent the sense of injustice and injured pride he was feeling. "You just want to depose me from here like you've done from everywhere else!"
Carrot reared back as if he had been struck; an instance later he curled his hand around the back of Angua's neck – it was not really a grip that could detain her, but a clear warning and a gesture devised to placate. Angua whined; Carrot tightened his grip.
Carrot had tamed himself a pretty killing machine there.
Vimes sneered. "You think I am out of the game, don't you. But I'm not an invalid yet." He clutched his fists, crushing the list of the new officers' names. "You thought you were getting rid of me, kids, but I'm going up there, and I'm going to make the damn speech and show you!"
He shouldered past Carrot – although, admittedly, he more slunk than shouldered, because he wasn't too angry to realise that any shouldering would end up with him having a bruised shoulder and Carrot not moving an inch.
"Captain?" he heard behind him, a confused and angry half-snarl half-whine from the werewolf.
"I don't know, Lieutenant," Carrot replied, confused, as if Vimes had perpetrated some sort of sorrow-inducing injustice upon him, rather than the other way around.
Carrot wanted everything. Everything! He should have declared himself back when. If he had made use of his royal blood he wouldn't have to be here, making injured faces at Vimes, who had single-handedly pulled the City Watch out of the damn quagmire and made it into the institution it was today. It was Vimes who started the policy of inclusion, Vimes who supported the pioneer forensic sciences, Vimes who had protected them and taught them and fought for them every damn step of the way, both damn ways uphill!
And were they grateful? No! They were so very polite about it, but every time they spoke to him now they were telling him to shove off already, and free the space for someone younger, stronger, someone with a modern way of thinking.
There was a sudden hush, and Vimes found himself standing on the stage, with a line of variously proud or nervous-looking people – humans, dwarves, a zombie, a troll, the damn gnome, and an unfortunate something that looked like it was related to Nobby – behind him, all shiny new boots and chest-plates polished to gleam in the sun. He turned to address the audience, admittedly mostly consisting of other members of the Watch and proud relatives.
"Good…" he said, then paused, cleared his throat. "Good…" That part of the day that came after lunch, after – damn it! "…day," he finished lamely.
The audience whispered and coughed, and someone bought a pork bun in not as quiet a voice as he had probably intended to use.
Vimes rapidly realised that he was not going to successfully make the speech. Carrot and Littlebottom were right, and he was going to have to listen to their empty placations and their unspoken 'we-told-you-so's as soon as this farce was over.
He was not going to stay here and wait to be humiliated.
"Welcome to the-" he knew there was no way he could remember exactly how many times they have done this before, so he skipped the number, "-graduation ceremony of the City Watch's newest batch of recruits. Be proud of them – we certainly are. Now, let Captain Ironfoundersson say a few words and introduce the graduating class."
He fled off the stage to the sad sound of lukewarm applause.
Carrot shouldered his way through the throng of people – although it would be more appropriate to say that the throng parted for him – and stomped up the wooden stairs. He almost twisted his neck trying to track Vimes' progress, but the crowd was watching him expectantly and he didn't have much choice but to pick up where Vimes had left off.
Vimes disappeared into an alley and set out for home. He was briefly worried that Angua would come after him but, like a good dog, Angua stayed with her owner to cover his back.
Even with the ridiculous helmet under his arm, Vimes didn't manage to avoid curious looks. He attracted attention along the fortunately short way home – the slam of the gate behind him once he had gotten there was far from satisfying enough to calm him down.
"Oh, Sam!" Sybil lingered in the parlour, pausing in the act of selecting a guilty bonbon from a decorative box given to her by her daughter-in-law. She had – a glance at the clock confirmed – a good half an hour before she had to set out.
Vimes hadn't thought of that.
"You are so early! Did everything go-"
"Don't ask!" Vimes growled. He looked at Sybil's startled face and hated himself. That didn't take the bite out of his voice when he spoke again: "I mean it – don't ask."
"Dad?!" Young Sam snapped from the doors to the parlour, and reflexively stepped in front of his wife – as if Vimes was a threat. Vimes, who had rocked this boy on his knees as a baby, who had been subjected on a few occasions to nappy duty, who had read him good-night stories, who had scared the boggarts away when any dared to try and infiltrate the mansion.
Vimes' little boy, looking at his Father as if his Father was an enemy.
Vimes' heart broke there, in the corridor. It had been old and worn, and often cold, and he had thought it was too hard to break anymore. Apparently not.
He spun on his heel and strode out through the other parlour door, letting one of the door-wings slam behind him. He strategically took a position behind it, because of course they were going to talk about him.
After a long while of silence and shuffling footsteps and muffled rustling of fabrics, Sybil faintly spoke: "He is just frustrated."
"I know," Young Sam's voice replied, with a rare hard edge to it. "I know he's frustrated with himself, but he doesn't get to take it out on you, Mum."
Vimes watched their reflections in the ornate mirror above the chaise.
"He has been… He's not been well, Sam." Sybil sank into an armchair. She pulled out a handkerchief, delicately dabbed at her eyes with its corner and noisily blew her nose into it.
Young Sam sank to one knee in front of her and clasped her hands into his. He had a big, solid, man's grip. "Mum?"
"I'll go ask Mercy to make tea, Maman," Cynthia muttered quickly and took her leave without waiting for a response.
She almost literally bumped into Vimes just past the door and startled; he put a finger to his lips, mutely asking for her discretion. Cynthia nodded and came to stand at his shoulder, one tiny, anemic hand on Vimes' as an unprecedented expression of compassion.
Vimes found himself locking his office for the first time since… well, for the first time ever. He made up excuses to avoid his son and spent as little time with Sybil as he could pretend to justify to himself; he wished he could somehow kick his own feckless behind when he noticed – and ostensibly ignored – her red-rimmed eyes, her pallor, and the tremor in her hands.
He was acting cowardly. But he was just taking his time – just searching for a solution. Just like with the kidnapping cases, simply waiting for a stroke of brilliance or a particle of inspiration, to put it all together and make it make sense.
In the meantime, he found a strange haven in his daughter-in-law's studio in the Weaver Street. It was the one place where he felt he was not being held to any obligations – where he could let himself unclench just a little and let the quiet soothe his frayed nerves.
The studio occupied a whole floor of the house. It had large, floor-to-ceiling windows, and there were mirrors on the walls to enhance the lighting. There were empty frames and canvasses leaning against the walls, whole structures built of cans with various paints and boxes of brushes. One corner was occupied by a lone bookcase, with a wealth of books about art, the history of art and various techniques. There was a bell that could call up a maid, who was an expert at brewing tea exactly to the erstwhile Miss Plythe's specifications. It was a completely alien place that did not make a smidgen of sense to Vimes, and yet here he was, standing on its tiny smoking balcony and looking out at the posh part of Ankh-Morpork.
"Papa?" Cynthia said with such compassion that Vimes actually became a little frightened when he looked at her. Her lips were pressed together, but he could clearly see that she was clenching her teeth very hard.
She did not remind him of Sybil even a little bit. Strange. Back in the days of olden – which, no, hadn't really been any better or worse than these days, only there used to be a lot less pain and inconvenience involved in his everyday life – Vimes' mother used to say that every young man wanted to marry his mother. Aside from the all the reasons why that was a bad idea (as was thoroughly demonstrated by the Ephebian king Matrimonius), he was never so glad as in that moment that his mother had in her last years been as full of crap as she had been full of gin.
Which just led to the realisation that he had married a woman that couldn't have been more different from his mother if she had been a troll. He thought he had a memory of the poor petticoat that spawned him spitting after the coach of the previous Duke of Ankh when it had almost ran over tiny toddler Sam.
Those hadn't been bad times, really. But they really hadn't been halcyon either-
"Papa!" Cynthia spoke again, and Vimes startled.
He had forgotten that she was there, lost as he was in the memories.
The girl's knuckles were white where she gripped the railing (she took her gloves off when she was painting, and bound her hair back in shapeless buns), and Vimes' eyes moved up the length of her laced dark blue sleeve, only to discover that her face was ashen to match. Her eyes were dark, wide and moist, staring at him.
"Your shoes," she muttered hoarsely.
What about his shoes? Sure, they were old and beaten up, because that was how he liked his shoes whenever he could save them from Sybil-
Vimes looked down. He was wearing his slippers.
He slowly looked up again and gazed over the treetops and roofs of Ankh, over squat chimneys and shiny red tiles, seeing nothing of it. There were three types of people who went out into the street in their slippers: wizards; people who had run out of their houses in panic, fleeing from fire or a similar catastrophe; and old, confused or ill people, who just hadn't remembered to put their shoes on.
Vimes wasn't a wizard. And while now he might have been panicking and the urge to flee a catastrophe was definitely there, in the morning he had been fine.
He had thought he was fine.
Vimes turned the missive over and over in his fingers, until there were rips along the edges and parts of the ink had been smudged into illegibility.
'-xpect your attendance. The issue of your -nvenience is immaterial, Your Gra-'
He wondered if he could get away with claiming that he had forgotten about this meeting as he had forgotten about the last one. Vetinari had been suspiciously laid-back about Vimes' absence – there had been no consequences drawn, and that more than anything made Vimes aware that he was not good at hiding things anymore. He had been hiding weaknesses and fabricating others to make up for them in the public eye for a long, long time, and he had taken it as granted that he was good at that kind of misdirection.
Only, this secret of his had grown too big to hide anymore. People were picking up on it; Sybil, most certainly – who knew how long she had been silently waiting for him to admit that something was wrong? – had been the first. And Young Sam, who had inherited his Father's hyperawareness (not paranoia, at least not when he was still that young) and his Mother's attention to detail, had known, too. And Castling Cynthia, standing by his side as if she was his daughter, which said all sorts of things about her Father, and Vimes was not going to go there, because the bastard was dead and good riddance.
Pseudopolis Yard, too, practically teemed with people who couldn't stop watching him out of the corners of their eyes, with one hand on their sword hilts: Carrot and Angua, Cheery, Officer Hobbs and that spacey friend of his whose name Vimes couldn't remember, and Igor – not Igor Igor, of course, but the other one – and the whole Forensic Science Unit, which seemed to consist entirely of bug-like bookworms wearing thick glasses, alchemists that couldn't stop playing with their alchemy sets, the worst kind of pyromaniacs and manic grave-robbers. Those were the people who looked at Vimes askance.
And now Vetinari was acting tolerant.
'-nvenience is immaterial, Your Gra-, Your Excellency, Duke-'
It was worse than a sodding pat on the head. Like Vetinari's terrier wasn't expected to do more than toothlessly slobber over his rubber bone in the shadowed corner and piddle into his warm, comfortable basket. What a sad sight: all empty gums and incontinence.
Something cracked; Vimes realised he had broken off the arm of his chair.
He stared at the engraved piece of mahogany in his hand for a while and then lobbed it across the room. It hit the mantelpiece and knocked off a wooden statue of a rearing bear, an iron-cast picture frame and a vase. The latter shattered on the floor with noise that was almost satisfying.
Vimes rose to his feet. The least he could do was not back down – meet Vetinari, make the bastard tell him the truth face to face, none of this implied bullshit. So they both knew… and what? Vimes was perfectly free to not acknowledge an inconvenient truth for as long as it wasn't holding a loaded Piecemaker aimed at his family.
"Chur Grace!" he heard Temperance, or Serenity, or whatever was her name cry out behind him, and then Willikins' voice, calm and dry: "I'm getting too old for this job," which was just hitting the nail on the head.
Vimes paused outside, took a deep breath, and followed his nose toward the Ankh – in the direction of the Maudlin Bridge, because he could avoid the Yard that way – and from there to the Patrician's palace. He walked fast, leaving Scoone Avenue behind, and with it most of the neighbours and neighbours' servants likely to bother calling out greetings.
As much as he teetered on the precipice of drowning in his agitation, he was still a damn Watchman. That meant he could ignore greetings and waves and smiles from people that knew him, but could not ignore it when he spotted a suspicious character. Ankh-Morpork teemed with suspicious characters, but on the right side of the river the suspicion had its noblesse oblige.
This character looked like she had been transposed straight from the Shades.
It was Mary Manger, Vimes realised when he came close enough to focus his eyes. His instincts kicked in; an instance later he was in pursuit. Mary noticed him. She grabbed her skirts and sprinted off, straight across the cemetery.
Vimes ignored the shouting behind him, the few startled and offended visitors of their late relatives, a young couple enjoying the weirdest picnic he had ever seen and a few yards further a funeral in progress. A handful of mourners turned condemning looks to him; a howling woman threw herself onto the casket.
Mary Manger lithely clambered up on a stack of marble plates and from there jumped over the spiky fence, ripping pieces out of her skirts.
Vimes followed her, nowhere near as limber but unimpeded by his clothing and driven by fury. This woman had been complicit to two child-murders.
She was not getting away.
Mary rounded a corner and disappeared. A door slammed somewhere. Vimes was barely aware of pushing a stuffy, monocle-wearing butler out of the way. He stumbled over a threshold, braced himself on a door-frame, caught his breath and ran on, over carpets, up a staircase, through a hall stuffed with pell-mell art, which was long enough for him to glimpse the fleeing criminal at the other end.
Vimes was peripherally aware that he had just invaded some noble's home – damn, let it not be one of the Rusts – and was going alone after a murderess, without any hope of backup, but none of that was really important right now.
And if Vetinari had an issue with how Vimes reacted to crime, he could exercise more tolerance or just retire Vimes straightforward.
He leapt through a door and found that he was in the servants' quarters. There was a rickety wooden staircase; the smell of lunch being prepared wafted up from the kitchens.
Vimes turned around too late.
Mary was waiting for him behind the door, a knife in her hand – the murder weapon they had yet to find, perhaps? or maybe just what she had on her – and death in her eyes.
Vimes dodged her clumsy stab. He grabbed at her hair – red curls shot through with grey. She screamed and twisted, stabbing at him again.
Vimes slammed her head against the door, and then against the wall just to be sure.
He let go. Mary Manger fell to the floor, unconscious, although probably not dead. Not yet, at any rate. Breathing hard, Vimes sank to his knees and promptly sat down. His head was spinning. And… he looked down.
There was a bleeding gash in his side. It was far from the first time, but he hadn't expected it today.
He hadn't expected not expecting it, either.
It didn't really hurt, not yet – it was too early. Soon enough, there would be the requisite pain. There would be stitches. Stitches were a bother and half, but it was better than continuing to spill his insides to the outside, so Vimes was going to take them.
Only, nobody knew where he was. There was no backup.
"Blood," he heard Angua's curt voice say somewhere below.
Boots clattered on the stairs. Then Carrot was there in the door, scowl plastered on his face, irises blown wide. Ready to find anything, money already put on Vimes' corpse.
"Like there's not a mime's chance in a scorpion pit," it occurred to Vimes, "that I could have taken down a third-rate cutthroat without dying – or without a cavalry to save me…"
"Your Grace?!" Angua demanded over Carrot's shoulder, and then they both sighed in relief, in unison, like he was their errant demented great uncle who had gotten lost in the middle of the Saturday market.
Vimes looked down again to find blood trickling through his fingers. It was starting to hurt. Pain, at least, made sense.
"I didn't expect that," he muttered. "How did you find me so quickly? Sybil called you to follow me, didn't she? She's so worried that I've finally gone mad or – more likely – I've unwittingly gotten tangled in your operation to catch Mary Manger, the cousin of the former Head of the Confectioners' Guild… damn it!"
Vimes ignored Carrot's ever-polite: "Pardon…?"
Angua, on the other hand, gave him a cold look, too busy feeling betrayed by Vimes' apparent lack of immortality to cut him any slack. She gripped too hard when they pulled him to his feet; later, as they remanded him into the well-experienced hands of the otherwise young Igor, she only bared her teeth in farewell.
Vimes wasn't an idiot (yet). He could read Angua well enough after decades of working with her.
'You're too old,' she was telling him. 'You're putting others at risk because you can't do your job anymore.'
And, Vimes realised with a shudder, just before Igor's needle pierced his skin: 'Old dogs know when their time comes, and crawl away to die in solitude.'
It had been one of the Rusts' mansion, Vimes learned two days after the fact, confined to his bed by the combination of Igor's concerns (which he hadn't hesitated to express before Sybil) and Sybil's incessant fussing.
In all probability, the only reason why he hadn't completely gone off his rocker and possibly wounded Sybil terribly through utter wrath-fuelled insensitivity, was that Castling Cynthia spent most of those two days sitting with him. She read to him – not about art, but from newspaper and some of what Vimes suspected was Cheery Littlebottom's personal library – mostly genuinely interesting things. And she played Thud with him, only letting him lose about half the time; he suspected that she was too upset to manage more. The amount of loss was still a show of skill on her part.
"There's a lawyer downstairs," she said in the late afternoon, and deposited a tray with biscuits on the bedside.
"The cesspit is in the back," Vimes grumbled, annoyed at life in general; the young woman forced a chuckle, because she respected him too much to give him a patronising smile.
"He wants to speak with you. Lady Sybil is trying to… uh… politely dissuade him-"
Cynthia grinned. "But I think your presence would be far more dissuading."
Cheeky sprog, Vimes thought, momentarily completely disarmed. As if she had exorcised his anger in a few wildly inappropriate, insolent words.
They grinned at each other then – two accomplices sharing a secret – and Vimes pulled himself out of the bed. He accepted the gown she handed him and tied the sash, sticking his feet into his slippers and shuffling toward the hallway.
With Cynthia behind him, looking as clueless and demure as if dissemblance was a part of her art, he entered the hall. He found Sybil at her Ramkin best, hands on her hips, chin tilted toward the sky and the expression of unimpeachable superiority on her face – facing probably the most notorious undead in the city.
"Merely a courtesy call," said the zombie in a voice that should have been full of sibilants, but fell short. He inclined his head to direct a blood-chilling stare at Vimes. "Your Grace."
Vimes suppressed his gag reflex – and a couple more reflexes – and decided to rely on the fact that his conscience was relatively clean. Slant could be helpful, when he was moved to. Aside from being in a morbid and shiver-inducing way Vimes' counterpart, they had on occasion joined their individual forces to unleash the full force of the Law on some of the more resistant criminal elements.
"I am gratified to inform you that Gravid Rust's accusation against you will not stand in Court of Law," the zombie said, "on account of the fact that he harboured a wanted criminal in the domicile you invaded, regardless of his claiming that he had done so unwittingly."
"In his case, lack of wit is a preexisting condition," Vimes replied, but he had known even before he had said it that Slant would just ignore him. Cynthia's quiet huff of amusement was enough to keep him from plotting to set the Watch on Gravid Rust in revenge.
"The Lawyers' Guild finds no fault with your actions, Your Grace," Slant continued as if Vimes hadn't spoken. "There shall be no racketeering and no money laundering in this city. Only honest trades, such as thievery and assassination-"
"An interesting definition of honest trade you've got there, Mr Slant," Vimes pointed out, but it was an old argument, and its rehashing only served to drive home the point that the Law was the authority both Slant and he respected above all other authorities – such as it was.
"The honest trade cannot be but one that is properly taxed," the zombie retorted, implying his exasperation with the odious necessity of tolerating scum like Gravid Rust, much less pretending to defer to his oily mug. "An honest tradesman must pay his taxes. That is the only definition that interests the Lawmaker and one of the two that interest the Law."
"The other being 'one that pays his lawyers,' I presume," said Sybil, feeling left out of the conversation.
Then again, she had been left out.
"Lucre sermat, dear Lady," Slant said as nonchalantly as only a talking corpse could.
Vimes supposed he should be irritated; it would be expected of him to gear up and go defend his wife's honour, but Sybil could manage that better than he could, so he settled for feeling relieved and faintly amused.
"And begets silence," Sybil suggested, glaring at the lawyer through the fringe of her wig.
Slant briefly remained motionlessly watching her, which was almost an expression of surprise, before he mimed a bow in her direction and took his leave, announcing: "Your confidence shall be maintained."
Vimes' amusement was lost within the blink of an eye. He took a deep breath, opened his mouth – and then changed his mind. Glancing at Sybil, who was standing in the centre of the hall, victorious and beautiful as ever, and yet with her eyes closed and her posture defeated, was enough to send him straight back to bed, where he pulled his covers over his head and pretended not to hear Cynthia's quiet footsteps.
As everyone and their estranged Aunt in Genova expected, Vimes' first steps after he was released from house confinement led straight to Pseudopolis Yard.
He walked into the Captain's office and wished he had a badge in this hand, because without all the appropriate gestures this felt like even more of a farce. "I am resigning from all my duties, effective immediately."
The rest of his actions hadn't been expected, Vimes mused as he took in the expression on Carrot's face.
"Your Grace-" Carrot tried to protest, but this was painful and humiliating enough without having to listen to excuses made either for Vimes or for Carrot.
What mattered was that Vimes was old and infirm, and apparently that erased decades' worth of accomplishments and service, but – no one was ever going to give Vimes anything he couldn't wrestle away for himself. He had learnt that a long time ago, and he had tried hard never to forget it. It would have been easy – with Sybil and with Young Sam – to once in a while let himself succumb to that illusion, but in his bones he was still a child of the streets of Morpork. A child of the Shades. Practicality was bred into him.
So he knew that it was time to go now, before he faced an enemy less honourable than Carrot and more competent than Mary Manger: someone who wouldn't pause to offer quarter.
This was what it came down to. Samuel Vimes, old and infirm. He had never thought he would live to be old and infirm.
The only witness to the end, blessedly, was Angua, lurking in the background by the ever-growing stack of reports. She was clutching to her nose the spare shirt Vimes used to keep at the Yard and had long since forgotten about. Vimes was briefly filled with the urge to pet her head, maybe scratch behind her ears for a bit, to chase that look of abandonment from her eyes.
He wasn't doing this on purpose. Damn it, did it look like he had been given a choice?
"You should come by sometimes," he said, and then realised that the Captain of the Watch was within arm's reach and scowling harder with every passing second, which prompted him to specify: "Both of you." Young Sam's hero worship of Carrot wasn't going to subside anytime soon, and Angua would probably like Cynthia once she got past the stink of paint.
"It will be our pleasure," Carrot agreed eagerly and then added, heavy like lead: "Your Grace."
Vimes nodded and walked out of the Yard, feeling… retired.
That was what it was about. The fight. The endless fight. It was supposed to be his eyes on the badge or a bow-out, otherwise, after him it would be the deluge.
There was no way he was going to let the Beast out unchecked, even for an instance, and it seemed that nowadays there was not enough there anymore to keep the Beast in check. And that meant, ironically – damn, was he meant to laugh now? really? – that he had to turn in his badge.
Lest it be misused.
Now that it was gone, he felt light, like the slightest breeze could knock him over, or could pick him up and carry him away. Maybe, he thought fancifully, that's what vampires felt like just after being dusted.
It was like… well, like death.
"Aaand, aaand…" the old man said, then blinked and asked: "Where wash I?"
The last three times this had happened – within the past two minutes – Vimes had reminded him that he had been about to introduce himself, or that he wanted to explain how he had gotten to be interred inside this institution when the Watch's first retired officer after more than forty years of early deaths had been Sergeant Colon.
Vimes suspected that this shriveled-up husk of a human being might have been the last one to retire before those forty years, which would make him well past hundred now. He shuddered just imagining it. A century old, remembering nearly nothing of it all, unable to keep the thread of conversation and – he was almost certain – unable to remember his children's names. Just sitting there, drooling onto his chin, staring out of the window, day in, day out.
Vimes straightened and roughly brushed a mollifying hand off of his shoulder. The nurse gave him an injured look, but a moment later she was back to her expression of placidity that, he strongly suspected, was achieved through quality drugs.
So, this was what Offler's temples spent money on. Among other things.
He had seen many less commendable endeavours over his career, that went without saying, but no one would be locking up Samuel Vimes in a prison saturated with condescension for as long as he could go to the privy by himself.
A bell rang, announcing dinner, and more grey-clad nurses turned up from various doors and shadows to push wheelchairs or pull leashes. They were easily recognisable by the various pictures of birds (probably hand-drawn by the inmates, by the looks of them) on the fronts of their robes.
The shrunk up old ex-Watchman Vimes had tried to talk to was wheeled past him, nattering incoherently about soup and his lack of teeth.
"Come to see how the cast-offs live, Your Grace?" mockingly asked one of the young men, who possessed a single limb and even that seemed to miss a finger.
Vimes knew the face. He wouldn't have been able to remember his name if the man pointed a crossbow at his eye, but he knew that had been the mess in the Street of Alchemists. The Watch had lost six promising men and women on that day, only two of whom survived – this man and a girl who had decided to quit the service and become a half-blind goat shepherdess somewhere in the Ramtops.
"Been cast off myself," Vimes replied quietly, but by the time the man had already been wheeled away by a nurse that gave Vimes a filthier look than he had ever seen from a seamstress on a Shades' street corner.
"Don't say that, sir," begged a wet voice in the vicinity of his belt. "Please, don't say it. We… we couldn't…" Littlebottom broke off, discreetly wiped her nose into the corner of what looked like an expensive cotton handkerchief, and stashed the piece of fabric in some mysterious space under her armour.
Vimes didn't have a response to that. He figured that he knew how that invalided – invalidated – young man was feeling, with a few differences: Vimes was well past his twenties; he had had the chance to make something of himself before the house of cards had come crashing down; he still had all his limbs… and people remembered his name.
The idea that he should consider himself lucky made him pull out a cigar. The nurses were all occupied, anyway, so there was no one to glare at him for smoking near their precious lost existences.
"Let's go, Lieutenant," Vimes ordered and, even though he was a civilian now, it didn't even occur to Littlebottom to hesitate.
As the coach pulled away, Vimes discreetly pretended that he didn't notice Littlebottom sobbing into her handkerchief – and yes, it was huge and embroidered and one of the very few luxuries the perpetually single dwarf allowed herself.
Frankly, right now Vimes couldn't care less about Littlebottom beyond noting how very feminine – and eminently commendable – her compassion was.
His mind was full of impressions, all of them on the scale between horrifying and a sewer. He refused to imagine the rest of his days spent attending this institution, slipping further day after day, where a perpetually glaring or perpetually stoned nurse wiped his chin with an unwashed rag while behind him a couple of toothless granddads incoherently chattered on about their heydays and bragged about their grandchildren, eventually becoming one of those granddads – damn, don't let any Grandchild of his see him like that; rather let him become another intimidating portrait in the long line of the deceased Dukes of Ankh, no matter how repulsive that notion was…
There had to be a way to get out of this situation. He was sure there was a way. He just had to figure it out.
It was just another case: to keep Samuel Vimes out of the sodding hospice.
They thought they were being secretive about it, but the first time Cynthia demurely refused a glass of wine with her dinner, Vimes looked at his son's face and knew.
It presented a bit of a dilemma.
The second time Cynthia refused a glass of wine with her dinner, Vimes looked at his son's face and knew. And then he remembered that he had already known.
It was still a dilemma, but now he knew what he was going to decide and simply prevaricated, casting about for a way to excuse it to himself – and to Sybil, of course. Sybil was as patient with him as she had ever been with sick dragons, as if she somehow sensed that the end was nigh and tried to pack as much kindness into their little doomed lives as there was time for.
Vimes came by the Yard on one evening in the early autumn, ostensibly to issue an invitation to dinner to his son, but the habit of decades of being the Commander made him walk the circuit, stick his head into offices and greet the people he had trained from uniformed civilians into a competent armed force. With a great effort he even managed to not ask them about their work.
It wasn't any of his business. Anymore.
"Shur?" a polite voice spoke behind him.
Vimes jumped a little, and spun to glower at whoever had managed to sneak up on him.
It was Igor of the Flying Scalpel, familiarly called Nailed'im, because the Watch needed to reliably distinguish between its Igors. Aside from the fact that calling them 'One', 'Two' and 'Three' seemed disrespectful, the Igors themselves protested that treatment, and came up with the idea of receiving epithets based on the most extraordinary of their services.
"Word'sh gone around zhat you were vishiting," Nailed'im lisped, furtively checking the doors. No one seemed to be listening. "Zhere ish shomeshing I'd like to show you, shur."
Vimes let himself be led to the basement, where the Igors were set up. He had usually avoided this place whenever at all possible even when he had been in charge of it, so it seemed unfamiliar to him – but then, this was the Igor that had stitched up his side when he had gotten himself stabbed last, and the least he could do was listen, even when the chill and dampness crawled under his coat.
"Shee here?" Nailed'im pointed at one of the posters showing schematics of the insides of human bodies. The walls were covered with them wherever there was some free space in between cupboards and cabinets storing glassware, instruments and many, many jars with preserved specimens.
This poster in particular showed the placement of human organs. Someone seemed to have used it as dartboard. Vimes didn't want to know what had happened to that person, and how many jars they now resided in.
"Which sheemsh to be the problem? We can now cure almosht anything, shur, and if we can't, we can damn well replashe it." Igor's eyes gleamed with a bit of a crazy sheen – just mostly harmless enthusiasm.
Vimes gritted his teeth and pointed at the drawing's misshapen skull. Now what was the genius going to do? Offer to saw his head off?
"Brain? Hmm… brain…" Igor hesitated. "I have a couple shparesh here, shur. I could, you know, shwitch – jusht a quick in-and-out-" He slumped in defeat, all the worrying enthusiasm draining out of him in an instance. "No? Yesh, I shupposhe that you wouldn' ekshactly be yourshelf afterwardsh…" Igor of the Flying Scalpel looked down at his shoes – solid leather work with thick wooden soles, due to spending his days walking the laboratory floor – and awkwardly rubbed at a line of stitching demarking where his hairline should have been.
Vimes stared at him, a bit confused. He gritted his teeth; it wasn't that he disliked being confused. He hated it. Why couldn't the little patchwork of an idiot sew himself a tongue that didn't lisp-
"Dad," Young Sam said.
When had he come in?
Vimes scowled at the crown of Nailed'im's head.
"Dad, come on," Young Sam urged him, trying to keep his voice low, but losing none of its insistence. He put a hand on Vimes' shoulder.
Vimes jerked. He looked into his son's face – the boy was trying to hide his worry, but he had at least ten years to go yet before he was any good at it. Vimes wanted to protest that he hadn't gotten lost inside his own station, that he had come to Igor's laboratory on purpose, but Young Sam wasn't going to believe it anyway. In the end he nodded a couple of times, cleared his throat, and managed a half-hearted: "Thanks, Igor."
Then he, resentfully, allowed Young Sam to hustle him out of the Yard and into the street. The only reason why he consented to even get into the damn coach instead of walking home on his own two – still working, thank you very much – feet was that if the wrong person spoke to him right then, he might have strangled them.
Better, he thought, peering down through the translucent curtains at the people milling around, better to keep it inside.
Young Sam stuck his thumbnail between his teeth – a reflex leftover from his childhood and reappearing at times of great emotional upheaval – and watched the familiar King's Way move by.
"Where did this come from?" Vimes inquired, eyes slipping from the Times to the tea-cloth.
"There are embroidered violets. Sybil doesn't embroider. She has tried, but she doesn't have the genes for it.
"And the other girl… yes, that Castling one, with the big eyes and the quiet voice, she doesn't embroider either. She paints. Trees and birds and… stuff. People, sometimes."
Vimes turned the tea-cloth around. "It smells like soap, and there is a round imprint in the middle of it, left behind by a vase. Who would have brought me flowers?
"Whoever. Because, apparently, that is what people do for invalids."
"Cynthia inherited it from her mother's side of family," Sybil said. She sounded defeated.
Vimes looked at her, surprised. Then his attention returned to the newspaper. He read an article about the Watch apprehending the last of the kidnapping ring. Carrot and his ever-present shadow Angua were receiving some sort of commendation from the Patrician – not Vetinari, the new person – for their good work.
Vimes still wasn't sure if he was spitting mad at Angua or reluctantly grateful to her. She had, after all, handed him the solution to the problem. "From one expert on muzzling oneself to another – complete with the paw-print of approval from generations past."
Some days it felt like Castling was his only friend in the world. It was still one friend more than he had expected to end up with, but it upset him that he would leave behind anyone that would waste tears on him. He was a thing that had crawled out of the ditches of Morpork, and by natural law should have ended back in that place, not interred in some marble crypt with generations of nobility to keep his rotting corpse company. At least in the ditch, a corpse had its privacy.
Well, no, not really. But it had its comforting anonymity.
It bothered him greatly – the idea that Castling would cry.
His eyes strayed to the tea-cloth. It was pretty. Embroidered. Strange – Sybil didn't embroider (and if she ever had, there would have been dragons).
"Where did this come from?"
Vimes was not actually sleeping, and he stopped pretending he was when he heard the window open and close again, in close succession letting in and shutting out the rustle of wind and the distant sounds of the city.
He sat up in the bed and took a good, close look at his visitor. They did not usually go to the trouble of alerting their business to their presence, but he supposed that he was a bit of an unusual case. He only hoped that the businessman in question wasn't going to gloat.
The figure raised two arthritis-besieged hands, both pale and seemingly all knuckles, so noticeable in the darkness because the man – for it undoubtedly was a man – had not worn his gloves. Up for a bit of personal, hands-on revenge?
It was an action far removed from standard procedure, Vimes thought grimly, and spared a moment of regret for having a lucid moment right now. It would have all been far easier if he could have just cast a flummoxed gape into midair. That much less satisfaction for all those sharks that have been circling and waiting for him to stumble off the mortal coil.
The pale hands rose further up, undid a knot on a black ribbon, and pulled back the hood.
"…you?" Vimes breathed, genuinely shocked.
"I may be rusty, but I have never ceased being an assassin," replied Vetinari, with a hint of something that might have, conceivably, been uncharacteristic softness.
"Oh," Vimes said before he could stop himself.
This gave the whole scene an entirely different slant. He hadn't – hadn't expected this. He had been instrumental, but he had never considered himself important, and while his service had occasionally demanded personal touch from the arbiter himself, he had not thought his death would warrant such attention.
"Indeed," Vetinari replied.
Vimes laughed. It had been a long time since anyone had given him a cause to laugh. He wasn't sure how long, but that wasn't important anymore. He wondered where Vetinari had been all through it. What he had been doing. Whether he was training a new terrier to take over for Vimes, the way he switched from one Wuffles to another. The man was so partial to his dogs.
"Ironically…" Vimes admitted as the chuckles subsided, while Vetinari patiently waited, "I am glad you're here."
He was glad that he wasn't alone, was what he meant; that it wasn't some stranger on yet another impersonal inhumation or, worse, an old acquaintance bursting with schadenfreude – but he couldn't quite say that, and Vetinari knew it damn well anyway, so the only point of saying anything at all was… well, saying anything at all. People were supposed to do that at times like these, right?
"There is no irony in it," Vetinari retorted with deceptive casualty. He pulled out a throwing knife, gave it a long, contemplative look, and polished the blade with one of the many edges of the dashing black outer garment he was wearing. "Despite many years of effort, I have yet to become completely immune to sentiment."
"Suppose you don't let any witnesses to your sentimental side live?" Vimes suggested, and a moment later chuckled again, because there was the irony, finally.
"Exactly so," Vetinari agreed, and that was definitely humour in the crow's feet around his eyes.
Vimes grinned. "I'd say, tell that one to Sybil, but I wouldn't want her to know it was-"
His mouth stopped moving. He couldn't blink. Complete paralysis within seconds. He knew the name of the poison, only he didn't have the time to recall it because there was only a blurred impression of Vetinari stashing a blowpipe inside his garment, and then everything went dark.
He was becoming a corpse. Pity he wouldn't get to hear Willikins' reaction after finding him in the morning. That would teach him new language. Vimes hadn't left a lot of mess otherwise, because his mother had taught him to chug gin straight out of the bottle and keep his room tidy. Not a lot for Mercy to do. He had left his city pretty tidy, too; not literally of course, because it would take years of scrubbing to get all the muck out of the cobblestones, but at least they wouldn't be mucking out innocent blood. Carrot would manage fine – he has been doing it for a while now. He had Angua, and the rest of the crew. Cheery. And Detritus. And soon enough young Sam would graduate, and he would be the best damn Watchman this city would ever see. Cynthia would cry, but soon there would be a grandchild, a tiny little bundle of joy for her. And Sybil…
"Sybil already knows," Vetinari stated quietly – one more show of sentiment that would leave no witnesses behind, except for the most arbitrary, omnipresent witness.
When the darkness receded Vimes stood and detachedly noted the lack of any pain whatsoever, and a curious absence of the heretofore ever-present simmering anger.
Speaking of whom, Vimes glanced at the tall figure standing politely off by the convex shaving mirror, and gave a lackadaisical suggestion of salute. The greeting was met with a marginal acknowledging motion of the scythe.
Vetinari paused by Vimes' body, took back his dart and, after a short deliberation, closed the body's eyes. A damn decent job. Were they two different men, it could have been called a favour between friends, even.
After that, Vetinari took his leave, melting back into the shadows from whence he had come.
The scythe swished through the night air, splitting molecules along the way, and cut through a shiny blue string that had kept Vimes tethered to his corpse by a noose around his sock-clad ankle.
Out of habit, Vimes shook his foot to get rid of the bit of glowing string, like he would have once gotten rid of a piece of rubbish that had stuck to his boot after a stroll through some of the less meticulously swept alleys. He looked up and met a pair of glowing blue supernovas deep, deep inside otherwise empty eye-sockets. "Been dogging me a good long time, haven't you? I suppose sooner or later, you had to catch up."
And Death replied: INDEED.
The weather had hemmed and hawed all morning, and by the time the crowd had gathered and the ceremony could start, the ladies were using their umbrellas as parasols. The City Watch, in neat lines of officers standing at parade rest, blinded the onlookers when sunshine reflected off of their perfectly polished armour.
In a typical Ankh-Morporkian fashion, the mourning crowd did not outwardly differ from any celebrating or protesting crowd.
The unmistakable voice of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (or possibly his descendant, although no one has ever observed the switch if there was one) offered to the congregation his 'premium pork-buns', 'at a bargain' even though it was 'cutting-'is-own-throat'.
Sybil Ramkin stood, half-stoical and half-irate, behind a preemptive rampart consisting of her family, trusted servants, and what passed for close friends in her circles, which were basically those people who were not already plotting how to use Samuel Vimes' demise to further their own ends.
"It's crap," said a familiar voice from the midst of the Assassin's Guild's delegation. There was a heavily made-up girl, obnoxiously chewing a wad of something virulently pink, standing close to Downey – only separated from him by the barrier of a lawyer-like youth in a grey suit. She popped a pink bubble and licked its deflated remains off of her cheek. "'e was totally hawt for, like, an old dude."
Downey's forehead scrunched up and the vein in it throbbed with the effort to parse out his daughter's speech. Eventually, he gave in and looked to his grey-suited young personal assistant for a translation.
"The young Lady is expressing her sincere regrets for Lord Vimes' passing," Porbeagle said quietly, so as not to disturb the other mourners.
Downey's scowl gave way to a relieved expression, and he nodded gravely to indicate his agreement with the sentiment. He pulled a cigar out of the inner pocket of his third best black jacket and stuck it between his teeth, ignoring both the tautness of the tendons in Porbeagle's throat and his daughter's contemptuous sniff.
"Betcha Vimes didn't smoke like an effin' chimney," the girl grumbled.
She was wrong, Havelock mused with a moment's worth of fond exasperation and, perhaps, longing for the less arthritis-wrought days of his past. The days when Vimes wore his fist-shaped indent into the wall outside Havelock's office; when the few problems Havelock couldn't solve himself – or did not feel like solving himself – could be sorted out by pointing Vimes in the right direction and letting go of the chain. Those had been good days. Havelock had been the one who had orchestrated them: they had been days of the highest quality.
"His Grace, Samuel Vimes, Lord Ramkin, Duke of Ankh-" spoke Iron Mary, the first-ever named Vice Chief Priestess of the Blind Io. She spread her hands wide and let the dagger she held catch the sunrays in an admirably dramatic fashion, "-was a man of uttermost integrity and courage. His spirit – we are reliably informed – has departed the plane of living, and yet his legacy lives on through many of us here. His sense of justice and loyalty-"
Havelock went on perfunctorily listening to the self-evident and mostly trivial drivel the way he used to listen in on the Magistrate meetings before he had had seven eights of one of the Magistrate meetings defenestrated. The woman was not exactly lying, but Havelock found the entire procedure tedious, and wished that she would just cut the ram's throat so he could go back to the palace and drink a cup of tea.
Had he been inclined to do any mourning – and he was not saying that was the case; he was not a man prone to regrets or grief – he would have done it already.
"…and on the days of tragedy he stood stalwart…"
Havelock met Sybil's gaze.
Her eyes were red but dry. She gave him a tiny, brave nod, keeping her mouth pursed, since she had too much grace to thank him in words, for which he was privately grateful.
Havelock busied himself with people-watching until there was time to kill the apparently drugged ram, who gave absolutely no resistance and, judging by the missing patches of off-colour fur, had been at least two hoofs in a grave already. The beast went with nary a bleat, and the crowd began to disperse.
Miss Downey pulled away from Porbeagle just long enough to lay a lace-gloved hand on Sybil's elbow and tell her: "'sn effin' pity, such a cute ol' dude," which, judging by Sybil's confused look was not nearly intelligible enough to cause offence; then Young Sam was there, steering his Mother toward their coach and away from the variety of more and less sincere exclamations of sympathy from the cream of the metaphorical Ankh-Morporkian crop.
Havelock went on, noticed by the gawkers due to the regular knocks of his cane against the street, but fortunately still too intimidating to be freely approached.
He returned to his office and worked until sundown. Then he supped lightly, made a rare exception for a nightcap of absinthe in his late acquaintance's honour, and decided it was about time to retire for the night.
He licked his thumb, reached over, and snuffed out the candle.
A/N: To tell the truth, this makes me feel terribly helpless. People with faith can offer a prayer, but what can I do? Here is a person for whom I have the highest respect, one of my teachers, a leader and a visionary in many aspects of life, and as much as I would like to become a link in his safety chain or one of the support pillars for him, the best I can do is… wish him good luck?! Excuse me, but there is this huge bubble of pathetic, feckless, sad fury inside me, and I want to cry and rave and hate all those smarmy types who make the moral calls about what is right and what is wrong and deal with their pretty, clean abstract ideals, completely forgetting about the people.
The human, grimy, ill, mortal people, who still feel – and their agency is maybe being taken away from them, but it is not gone yet, and I will never agree with wrestling it away from them to force them into suffering in the name of morality.
Fuck morality. Go with kindness.