All is darkness. Not the sort of darkness that precedes the light, but the deep darkness that precedes the concept of light.
Time passes. Come closer now.
Then, like the old woman emerging out of the picture puzzle, the turtle is there. Flippers the size of continents, eyes as big as moons, gazing ahead with Chelonian intent. Much human thought and debate has been devoted to what the turtle is pondering but as this has largely been done by people who don't get out much they still have a long way to go. Riding on the back of the turtle sit four elephants and on their backs rests the Discworld.
Even more debate has gone into why the universe chose to manifest itself in this way, and the only theory that has stood the test of time is the ultimate Because.
And perhaps, just perhaps, when someday someone breaks the universe down into its most fundamental particles, and there will always be someone who feels it's necessary to do this, they may find that humour underpins everything.
Time passes. Come closer now.
Below sprawls the glow of Ankh-Morpork - fetid, vibrant heart of the Discworld. A metropolis that defines the word teeming in the same way that off-milk defines rancid. A city that never sleeps, though this maybe to make sure your gold is still there in the morning.
Time passes. Come closer now.
There. In a dark alley in the darkest part of this city, The Shades, an area that appreciates and nurtures all the manifestations of darkness, staggers Jeremy Smyth-Browne. How he came to be here, drunk as a lord and lost as a promise, is beyond him. It was never his intent, but it was certainly the intent of others.
It is probably wise not to get too attached to him. He is about to die. This was also their intent.
'Oh, that feels so much better,' said Jeremy, shaking his suddenly clear head. Down the alleyway he sees a figure sidle into the deeper darkness. One of the benefits of a private school upbringing is to see the world through much better vocabulary, and Jeremy noted that the individual must have nefarious intent. If someone sidles then, by all literary conventions, they must be a nasty piece of work.
A TOTALLY CLEAR HEAD IS ONE POSITIVE SIDE EFFECT OF YOUR RECENT EXPERIENCE, said a hollow voice beside Jeremy. I'M A GLASS HALF FULL PERSON MYSELF, it adds.
Jeremy turns to see a tall figure whose dress sense brought a whole new meaning to the word austere. Jeremy had heard about the term 'new black'. This was old black and it would eat new black for breakfast.
'I'm sorry,' Jeremy replied with a frown, 'am I missing something?'
THAT IS A REMARKABLY ACCURATE OBSERVATION, the figure answered. WHEN YOU NOTICED THAT CHARACTER MUST HAVE NEFARIOUS INTENT, IT'S BETTER TO THINK OF THAT STATEMENT IN THE PAST TENSE.
AND ALSO TO LOOK DOWN.
'Oh,' said Jeremy numbly after a few moments, 'I guess that's me down there?'
Death didn't even bother to answer. Most questions Death had heard over the years were rhetorical by nature. Even the 'Why me?' question fitted that category nine times out of ten. Most people had a fair idea of 'why them'.
'But all I wanted to do was shine the light of truth on things,' said Jeremy.
YOU'D BE SURPRISED HOW MANY TIMES THE LISTED CAUSE OF DEATH IS THE LIGHT OF TRUTH. KNIVES AND SWORDS AND POISONS ARE JUST THE MEANS.
AND DON'T THINK HAVING RIGHT ON YOUR SIDE HELPS ALL THAT MUCH. HAVING WRONG SEEMS TO WORK JUST AS WELL.
'That all seems a little unfair, in the scheme of things,' said Jeremy.
IT CONTINUES TO ASTOUND ME THAT, DESPITE ALL EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY, YOU HUMANS STILL BELIEVE IN FAIRNESS AND EVEN A 'SCHEME'.
'You make it sound like a failing.'
SORRY. IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME. I JUST CAN'T SEEM TO GET THE TONE RIGHT. I ALWAYS SOUND TOO SERIOUS. I'M THINKING OF TAKING ELOCUTION CLASSES.
Jeremy would have to admit he hadn't given the afterlife much thought up until now, but if he had he doubted it would ever have featured a conversation like this one.
I ACTUALLY THINK YOUR BELIEFS ARE FASCINATING AND ADMIRABLE, EVEN IF MISGUIDED.
'So, what do you believe in?'
NOTHING. I DON'T BELIEVE IN ANYTHING. I DON'T HAVE TO. REALITY IS MORE THAN ENOUGH.
'Is there anything more than that?'
NOW THAT IS AN INTERESTING QUESTION. PERHAPS WE SHOULD WALK AND TALK. I UNDERSTAND WALKING DOES WONDERS FOR THE HEALTH.
And with that the newly dead and truly dead strolled down the alleyway and out of the world of men, and women.
A re-animated voice drifted back on the cool night air.
HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF THE SAYING WHAT GOES AROUND COMES AROUND?
There are small crimes and there are big crimes. And the nature of the world is such that the perpetrators of big crimes can, so to speak, get away with murder. This is not because big crimes are any more complex than small crimes - it's simply that a lot more people are involved. Sometimes whole economic systems and entire governments.
But sometimes a small crime, like murder, can open the door, just a crack, onto a big crime.
It takes a certain type of person to wrench that door open.
Sam Vimes gazed out his window on a city where somewhere there was always a crime unfolding. Vimes was a man of quite specific faiths, and his faith in the darker side of human nature was yet to let him down.
His eyes travelled out towards the edge of Ankh-Morpork, though this was getting harder to do these days, what with all the development occurring. The edge seemed to be moving hourly towards the horizon. You could say this about hustle and bustle - it was contagious. The city was a hive of construction activity but people forget that though hives may provide honey, they also bite back. He was opposed to all the development. He wasn't sure if this was because he was fundamentally against rampant growth or because he was fundamentally Sam Vimes, who was always suspicious of the opportunities that great opportunities provided.
Whoever coined the phrase crime doesn't pay was clearly not a copper and in Sam Vimes's book probably didn't live in the real world. In fact, when he gave into cynical thoughts, which was largely every moment of the working day (and he had a broad definition of working day), he suspected this was a saying created by criminals to keep the general community in the dark and competition down.
Behind him the stairs to his office squeaked and groaned. It has taken him some time to perfect their tune and now he could even recognise each individual walk. The emperors of the Agatean Empire had their nightingale floors. Vimes had nightingale stairs. And particularly thin walls.
'Come in Fred,' he called. 'Who's done what to whom, this time?'
He quietly cursed himself. Not so long ago, when he was still plain unknighted Sam Vimes, it would have been 'what to who.' His grammatical correctness felt like a class betrayal. Fred Colon, poster-child for Carbohydrates Monthly and a food pyramid in his own right, opened the door and entered. Fred was a career sergeant and, in a particular Colonesque way that combined luck and broadly good intentions with a rich vein of ignorance and narrow-mindedness, he was good at what he did. Sometimes Vimes could over-think things. Fred never suffered from this problem.
He had once, and only once, spent a sphincter-clenchingly short time acting as the commander. On those rare occasions when the suppressed memory of this rose to consciousness he would need to have a cup of tea and a good lie down.
'Morning Commander,' he said entering, 'how did the fancy dinner go last night?'
Vimes turned away from the window and sighed. 'You know, Fred, I think the hardest part of being a Duke in this city is attending those damned civic functions. Please give me a crime to clear my head and take away the taste in my mouth.'
He and Sybil had gone to the launch of the release of land downstream from the city. Everybody who was anybody had been there, though he preferred to think of it as Anybody Who Was a Total Knob was there. Besides, did that mean that those who weren't invited were nobodies? He preferred and trusted the company of nobodies every day of the week. Oh sure, some of the nobodies would rob you blind, but at least they were upfront about it. You could trust upfront criminals. You knew where you stood. It was the crocodiles that wore suits that you had to watch out for.
The new parcel of land released was called Ankh Heights in some sort of attempt at marketing what was previously swamp land with a small hill in the middle to justify the name. Still he thought, if you're living near the Ankh River after it's been through the alimentary system of all the city's residents the term High was hard to argue with.
Colon nodded in sympathy, though he wouldn't have minded being there himself and having that taste still in his mouth. Mrs Colon would have liked to be there with him too. She'd been telling him she wanted to move up in the world for some time now and there seemed to be a lot more opportunities to be somebody nowadays. Besides they usually had those canapee things at nights like that. They maybe small but it was amazing how many you could fit in your mouth at one time. He'd been invited to the occasional function when the guest list hadn't been carefully vetted and knew the prime place to be was near the kitchen doors when the plates came out. You only had to move to find a fresh drink.
'Nothing much to report,' he said. 'The usual licenced and unlicensed theft, and some poor sod got himself killed in the Shades last night. He was wandering there drunk and alone.'
Vimes smiled grimly. When it came to the top ways to commit suicide in Ankh Morpork wandering the Shades drunk and alone was right up there.
'Any idea who he was?' he asked.
Figuring out who was a corpse was never that easy in the Shades. Half the time the victim was penniless to begin with and certainly would become so if they lay in the Shades long enough. Even teeth, good ones at least, had a habit of leaving the body sometime after the last breath had.
'I asked around and it seems that a coach had been seen pulling up in Shamlegger Street and the Soon-to-be-Deceased was, according to witnesses, shoved out.'
'Any ID on the coach?'
'Well,' answered Colon, 'everyone said it was conspicuously unmarked and very black.' He then gave what he would have called a conspiratorial wink. Subtlety was not a word Colon understood and certainly couldn't spell and his wink looked more like the onset of a stroke. It didn't help that he persisted in blinking just to make sure his message had got across.
'The Mob in Black,' Vimes groaned. 'Great. So, this isn't a crime, it's a Crime.'
The Mob In Black had emerged on the scene in recent months. It had taken him a while to piece together a series of criminal acts that showed that there was another player in town, other than the Thieves' Guild and the Guild of Assassins. And then he'd starting hearing rumours about the Mob in Black. He hadn't figured out whether the MIB were a law unto themselves (a phrase he hated with a passion) or if they were working for some other group.
There were certainly some very unhappy guilds and some very dead people thanks to their arrival. Presumably some very happy people too, and they were the ones he was interested in 'speaking' to.
'Anything more about the victim that might help us narrow them down from the general group of the previously alive? Any distinguishing tattoos?'
Vimes was totally in favour of tattoo parlours and those hairdressers that made you look like a beaver had set up residence on your head and then died. It made his job so much easier.
'He's down in the morgue if you want to have a look', replied the Sergeant. 'The only thing that stood out for me was that he didn't smell half bad.'
That was notable. Anyone who wandered through the Shades and then chose to die there was likely to have acquired an ironclad aroma. Eau de cologne then, and a good one at that - and that meant money.
This case was starting to smell.
'Get Captain Angua to meet me there, and you'd better see who else is available, especially Cheery. The sillybuggers game is afoot.'
Somewhere in the dark and decidedly rich depths of the city a conversation was unfolding.
'It's done then?'
A nod from the shadows.
'He will be suitably distracted, unless a more permanent solution is required.'
'A seat at the table, as agreed.'
Beware of those who seek power over gold. Only the most foolish of crocodiles swim with them. And not for that long. Accessories before the fact can easily be turned into accessories afterwards. Crocodile skin is quite versatile.
'Cause of death?' Vimes asked 'Mossy' Lawn as he entered the morgue.
'Being there in the first place,' the doctor replied, 'though if you're wanting specifics blunt weapon trauma to the head would have done the trick. Very definitely. This wasn't a robbery with over-exuberant force. Someone wanted him very very dead.'
Angua and Cherry Littlebottom entered the room. Cheery, the Watch's forensics expert, made her way to the corpse with a perfunctory nod in the Captain's direction. You could say this for dwarfs, give them a job and they worked at it like ... well ... dwarfs. Give them a beer and an axe, on the other hand, and they might break into songs about gold and then try to remove random limbs in a light-hearted fashion, so it was important to keep their priorities right. Not that Vimes had any concerns with Cheery. He'd never seen her drunk and being openly female in dwarfish company meant you didn't get invited to many beer-drinking sessions.
'Look at his hands,' said Lawn as she approached. 'What do they tell you?'
'I thought Carrot might have come along too,' Vimes said to Angua as they watched Lawn and Cheery try to unpuzzle the corpse.
'He's not here,' she replied. 'He's gone to visit his parents. Remember the leave application forms you signed? And the report on outstanding administrative tasks you agreed to address?'
Angua was watching Vimes's face as she said this - and there it was. Just for a split second. Complete unadulterated guilt. Vimes could stare down a werewolf and take on an army but everyone in the Watch knew of his mortal dread of administration. Prior to the arrival of Carrot his approach to paperwork primarily involved seeing how long it took to compost. Besides anything important may start off as writing but would eventually end up as shouting. This was the Vimes Theory of Administrative Importance. Since he had joined the force the paperwork had begun to flow Carrot's way first, and then he'd bring the important ones to Commander Vimes. Carrot had never called it a Theory because he didn't need to. It just worked.
'Yes, of course,' he mumbled. 'Came round quickly didn't it?'
Bugger, he thought.
For most of his life the world had beaten into Vimes (usually in a very real sense) a rock-solid self-reliance. It had also driven him to drink and loneliness, so that while he may have been protecting himself, there wasn't much left there to protect. And certainly nothing to respect. But now everything was different. He was surrounded by a competent Watch team (and Fred and Nobby), had a wife who loved him and a child that waited for him to come home each night. They needed him, and he'd found that, little by little, he'd grown to need all of them.
'How long was it for again?' he said in quiet desperation. 'The detail seems to have slipped my mind.'
'Two weeks,' Angua replied.
Double bugger. That was a lot of time for the Wagon of Administration to plunge over the Cliff of Accountability and onto the Rocks of Explanation. Possibly then even, gods-help-us, rolling into the River of Audit. He shuddered.
'He's not a labourer, that's for sure,' said Cheery, breaking Vimes's mortifying train of thought. 'Hands way too smooth. But there's ink there on the fingertips, and callouses on the fingers of the right hand. There's also some numbers written on his wrist. Just random figures as far as I can tell.'
'Which means ...?' asked Lawn.
'He was a writer of sorts, but a well-fed one. He wasn't short of gold.'
'Angua, can you add some more colour?' Vimes asked.
Angua strode forward. Having a werewolf on the Watch may have its challenges but superhuman strength and an ability to track a fart through a bean factory were considerable compensations. She bent down and sniffed to corpse from top to toe, lingering in patches, and then she raised her head.
'That's quality ink on his fingers and the perfume could only come from Maison d'Ankh,' she said.
'Wonderful. Now we don't just have a Crime we've got a Someone,' said Vimes to the uncaring world in general.