The Urban Safari: big game hunting in Ankh-Morpork

I thought this one was done and dusted. Then, thanks to reader Paprika7, I got my hands on a copy of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office Handbook (Yearbook and Diary 2007).

Post Office Regulations have a long, long Rule One which details the evolving story of how the situation with the snails in the post boxes were dealt with. This escalates from note 1(a), which apologises for the inconvenience and advises the public that mail from certain boxes may arrive damaged at its destination stamped with the message "Eaten By Snails". This escalates through 1(f) – "Mail may arrive damaged with an overstamping of Dribbled On By Toads" and 1(j) "defecated upon by Mongeese" to "Snake Venom, Deadly On Contact, Handle with Care". It is possibly at this point that Vetinari intervened and requested the Post Office employed a consultant herpetologist.

Prologue:- (from Making Money, by Terry Pratchett, pp18-19)

"Look, I can explain" said Moist von Lipwig.

Lord Vetinari lifted an eyebrow…

"Pray do," he said, leaning back.

"We got a bit carried away" said Moist. "We were a bit too creative in our thinking. We encouraged mongooses to breed in the posting boxes to keep down the snakes…"

Lord Vetinari said nothing.

"Er… which, admittedly, we introduced into the posting boxes to reduce the number of toads…"

Lord Vetinari repeated himself.

"Er... which, it is true, staff put in the posting boxes to reduce the numbers of snails…

Lord Vetinari remained unvocal.

"Er…. These, I must in fairness point out, got into the boxes of their own accord, in order to eat the glue on the stamps." said Moist, aware that he was beginning to burble.

Well, at least you were saved the trouble of having to introduce them yourselves" said Lord Vetinari, cheerfully. (1)

"But as I recall, we've had this conversation before, Postmaster. The situation has escalated to the point where many postboxes in the city are now , ah, no-go areas for either Post Office staff or members of the public seeking to post a letter. What I propose is that the Post Office employs specialist professional help to reclaim its postboxes and make them fit for the purpose again. And I know the very people who can be approached to take on the task. I understand a postbox on Zephyr Street suffers from a serpent which was misidentified as a Klatchian Melon Snake, a placid vegetarian species which by preference bites only large melons. Apparently, it grew up on a diet of toads into a particularly fine specimen of what is either a Howondalandian Spitting Mamba, one bite from which can kill a bull elephant, or else a Banded Brown Rumba, capable of felling a fully grown Djel crocodile. I consider we need a skilled herpetologist. And herpetology being only one among her other accomplishments, I think I know exactly where to find her…"

The Assassins' Guild School, Filigree Street, Ankh-Morpork

Student Exercise Book

Name: the Right Hon. Andreanna Petley

Form: Two Raven

Subject: Nature Studies

Teacher:- Miss Smith-Rhodes

My first impressions of my class and my teacher:-

Right at the start of term when we had our first Class, Miss Smith-Rhodes asked us what we thought Nature Studies was going to be about, and she chose Marianna Selachii to answer. And Marianna said, please miss, we did this in first school, where Miss Jones had some stick insects in a jar, and we came back from hols and there was only one left and it was bigger and fatter than the rest, and we had this gerbil in a cage but it died, and we went out on Nature Trails walking in the park to pick up nuts and leaves and conkers and things to arrange prettily in the Nature Corner.

And Miss Smith-Rhodes nodded and said, yes, we will be keeping animals , and we will have our own Nature Corner, and we most certainly will be going out on Nature Trails, but they will be ones of my own devising. And you will learn that Nature is a thing of eternal surprise and astonishment which requires you to have an appropriate degree of concentration and focus at all times.

And then she broke off because Brian Smegleigh-Prepousse was passing a note to his equally grotty friend James Diggleby on the back row, and she cracked her whip, the one she wears at her waist, really really fast, we hardly saw her hand move, and it pulled the note out of his fingers, and up to the front of the class. And she read it, and she tutted, and then she called Brian up to the front and made him read it out loud so we could all share the joke!. She said Morporkian isn't her first language and she's always keen to learn more, so could he explain what he meant by Miss Smith-Rhodes is dead fit? I know I'm fit, she said, I can run fifteen miles under a desert sun with a full pack and weapons load. And inhume somebody at the end. And I do not understand the meaning of this next phrase. Is it to do with woodwork? she asked. Please explain, I'm not up to speed with this Morporkian idiom. And after she'd taken him to tiny little pieces, we knew we had a good teacher, and we were going to love Nature Studies!

The Dark Council of the Assassins' Guild

Filigree Street


From the desk of the Guild Master

To:- Lord Vetinari, Lady de Meserole, Council Members

c/c all School Teachers

Senior Assassins

Following consultations with the Patrician, the Guild has been convinced that there is some merit in the idea that outside professional business, we should seek to present a friendly image to the population at large and do what we can to be good and concerned citizens.

This is, after all, in keeping with the concept of noblesse oblige by which we live our lives.

If anyone has any reasonable and valid suggestions as to how the Guild might usefully be seen to be, for instance, performing Good Works and acting as conspicuously good citizens in the community, do not hesitate to submit these for my consideration. After all, we are law-abiding members of the community at all times and it may be useful, from a public relations point of view, to be seen as such.

With thanks


Student Exercise Book

Name: the Right Hon. Andreanna Petley

Form: Two Raven

Subject: Nature Studies

Teacher:- Miss Smith-Rhodes

Voluntary class work, Saturday afternoon:-

We went out with all necessary tools and equipment to help the Post Office sort out a problem with its mailboxes. We were all looking forward to a practical exercise, and Miss Smith-Rhodes introduced us to Mr Wee Mad Arthur, who was going to assist, and told us we should be sure to do as he said, as he was very experienced in this sort of work. The school Matron, Miss Igorina, also attended, with a box of common and special antidotes, just in case. Although Brian Smegleigh-Prepousse was clumsy and stupid enough to get himself bitten and needed attention quickly, Miss Smith-Rhodes absolutely forbade Matron Igorina from cutting his arm off. He was the only casualty.

"Aye, weel, whit's the pey, miss?"

Johanna Smith-Rhodes looked down at Wee Mad Arthur with distaste tinged with amusement.

"You cen submit an itemised invoice to the Post Office." she said. "They're peying the bill for this job. Discuss the metter with Mister Von Lipwig. If it helps, I'm doing this pro bono, end my pupils heve ell given up a Seturdey efternoon to be here. You erre the only one expecting pey for this!"

"Ye dinnae haif have a funny accent, lassie!" Wee Mad Arthur observed.

"Well, I could sey the same ebout you!" she replied.

Miss Smith-Rhodes is Howondalandian. A White Howondalandian. Although she has been living in Ankh-Morpork for nearly ten years now, time in which some of the certainties of life at home, concerning humans of other races and sentient beings of other species, have crumbled somewhat. On a recent visit Home, for instance, her family picked her up for the way she treated the black servants: Johanna has learnt to say please before an instruction, and thank you afterwards, even to black-skinned people. It would never have occurred to her had she not been living in Ankh-Morpork. Apparently, treating them as if they were real people only spoils the blecks. Johanna disagreed: common courtesy, even to servants, gets better service. She even felt vaguely disgusted at her family's unthinking reflex racism, even though it was a racism she had been brought up into, and which she carried to the big city with her, and had had to painfully unlearn. Then she paused and realised: this is an Ankh-Morpork attitude. I've been living here so long I'm going native, she thought.

And here she was, on Zephyr Street, cheerfully negotiating with a gnome.

Pull back the camera a little, and regard Johanna Smith-Rhodes. She is a couple of months shy of twenty-nine years old, and has been teaching at the Assassin's School for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she had undergone a gruelling and intense training course to obtain full Assassin status, followed by a slightly more sedate Post-Graduate Certificate of Education to qualify her to teach. She is five feet six inches tall, and has a body which suitably experienced and motivated observers (2) have classed as "stunning" and "perfect".

Uniquely among Assassins' School teachers, she does not wear black. Her clothing is the standard Howondalandian bush uniform of khaki tunic, loose trousers, and brown knee-boots. She carries the wicked rhinoceros-hide sjaembok whip at her right hip, a weapon in which she is expert. As her students know to their cost, it can pick an illicit note out of an errant student's fingers from twenty feet away, leaving nothing behind but a sting. A broad brown leather belt supports various sheathed knives as well as pouches and pockets, the content of which a wise person does not enquire about. A Sam Browne cross-belt carries further pouches, and a bush machete, rather than a sword, completes her set of personal weapons. The only concessions to Assassin chic are the purple teaching sash, and a broad black band on her khaki bush-hat, which conceals her mane of glorious red hair. Freckled and girlish, she looks apparently no older than many of her older pupils. But appearances deceive. (3)

Miss Smith-Rhodes clapped her hands.

"Let's get sterted! Mr Bates, you heve the keys?"

The elderly postman stepped reluctantly forward and knuckled his forehead. He had to be here: Deputy-Postmaster Groat had insisted. Only a Post Office employee could unlock the boxes and handle the mail. It was Regulations. He agreed: nobody should break the Regulations, for whatever reason, or where would we be? But given what was inside some of the boxes, he wished he was somewhere else.

"Right here, miss," he said.

"Good! You'll be eble to collect your mail and get it on your cart, when we're finished."

He nodded, gloomily, and produced a clipboard. He consulted it.

"Just mongooses in this one, ma'am. Possibly some living toads, though I doubt it."

Johanna nodded, and drew on a pair of very thick shoulder-length gauntlets. She flexed her fingers.

"Miss Petley. Miss Acle-Brandon. Stend by with cages, if you please." She nodded to Mr Bates.

"Now!" she said, and he inserted a key and unlocked the door, leaping sharply aside.

Johanna took a second to assess the situation as angry chittering noises flew up at her. Then she lunged in and grabbed.

"You take the ennimel with resolution and determination!" she shouted to the class, displaying a large adult mongoose that was determinedly trying to bite a hole in her right gauntlet.

"One hend underneath the body! One at the beck of the neck! Do NOT place yourself enywherre near the teeth!"

She shook it to get it to dislodge its bite on her gauntlet, and dropped it into the cage Fiona Acle-Brandon was holding.

"Close and lock the door. Good. Now load it on the cert!"

Fiona ran to do as she was told, holding a wildly jumping cage in which an angry animal was butting and biting to break out.

"A fine exemple of the Howondalandian Red Mongoose, which I know from experience et Home to be – most of the time – hermless to people. Elthough we see this is a nursing mother with cubs. I cen count seven. Who wishes to retrieve them?" Several girl pupils ran forward. Even though they were Assassin school pupils, they shared the universal twelve-year-old female love of baby animals.

"We must reunite these with their mother so she is happier." Johanna said. "Remember, wear the gauntlets. Even the bebbies cen bite! Hendle them with cere and caution. I'm gled we found them. They would heve run out of food in there and sterved. Beck at the Guild, we cen edd them to the menagerie, and you will see to it their needs are met."

Wee Mad Arthur looked on approvingly.

"Nice work, lassie! I ken ye have experience of this kind of thing?"

"Es a girl, I spent my summers at the T'set'se National Park learning all about handling enimels . The Rengers were very good teachers! End et home, we sometimes hed problems on the family ferm, with the usual sort of wild enimels."

"Ah. Ye mean meeces and rats and bunny rabbits?"

"The ones the lions and leopards and hyenas hed not eaten, yes. End elephants. End the bewilderbeeste!"

Wee Mad Arthur looked at her appraisingly.

"I bet the pest controllers in your country are rare heerrd men! Me, I just does rats and wasps and the like. So you sometimes got a plague of lions, lassie?"

"The older and sick ones, lions thet could not run down their usual prey, sometimes ceme to the townships and took a native. In those circumstances we hed to kill. A meneater is bed news!"

She paused, aware the class were listening intently.

"End I will teach you ebout large cats in due course. But we only kill enimels in extreme circumstences end with great reluctence. If lions or leopards strayed onto our fermlend or tried to stalk our ferm enimels, we elways sought to cepture them end release them in the wild, a long wey ewey. And I will show you elso how this is done!"

"So nae trophy heids on the wall, then? The sort that look as if a gey big lion's eatin' its way intae the living room wall?"

Johanna smiled.

"No, Mr Arthur. We heve progressed in the lest couple of centuries! These days, Howondaland conserves its wildlife!"

Mr Bates coughed. She remembered.

"You mey do your duty now, Mr Bates. But.. wear gloves. And perheps the Post Office should send a clean-up squad, to, er, senitize the inside of the box?"

She left Bates industriously shovelling mail into a sack, including that which had recently been used as bedding by a family of mongeese.

"I'll leave it to Frank and Dave (4) to make sense of this lot!" he grumbled as he shovelled. Finally he was finished.

"Right, miss. According to the clipboard, the next ones are a bit trickier. Corner of Zephyr and Higg's Alley on the Upper Broadway side. Contains large poisonous snake, apparently."

Johanna nodded.

"Cless, I will deal with this one. You will observe. I require the following equipment from the cert…"

Johanna donned a full-face mask in black leather which left nominal eye-holes and breathing apertures. Over this, she wore a set of glass-lensed goggles, which she'd acquired from a witches' supply store. Apparently indispensable for broomstick pilots, she'd seen an alternative use for them.

Mr Bates, es you open the door, move VERY quickly ewey" she requested. "And I want NOBODY to stend in direct line with the open door! The creature in here is one I know from home. Its preferred method of defence is to spit venom et the eyes of anything thet threatens it. I will seek to cepture it in the noose. Mr Bradley, when I call for you to give me a venom jar, you will provide it swiftly and smartly into my hend. Miss Omnius, Miss Partington, Mr Smeghleigh, you will step forward and provide ective essistance when I call for it. Be edvised, this is a large and powerful enimel and will take more than one person to subdue it. Mr Pegley, Miss Oulton-Broad, you will stend by with the large herpetology tenk, and be prepared to close and seal it instantly the creature is inside! Miss Igorina, if enything goes wrong, you require entidote number five. Inject 100cc into the vein closest to the site of the bite, end then get me to the Lady Sybil. Thenk you."

For an elderly man, Bates could move very quickly. As the door swung open and he ducked aside, Johanna took in a huge uncoiling snake, banded in green and red. Its head reared up and she ducked, as the shot of venom flew over her shoulder to splatter harmlessly on the pavement. She heard frightened squeals from behind her and a cry of "Crivvens!"

She caught it just below the neck in her left hand, aiming its head away from her. Her right hand slipped the noose over its head, then slipped down onto the handle to draw it tight. She dragged it bodily out of the postbox, calling for her named students to grab and subdue the thrashing of its long muscled body. Finally, six students were holding the serpent more-or-less straight.

Fourteen feet, she thought. What was it living on?

"Venom jar, please. Thenk you."

She gripped the serpent behind its head and encouraged it to bite through the thin latex covering the glass jar. Venom squirted into the container, oily and greenish-yellow. She triggered the bite reflex again and again until she was sure its venom sacs were empty. This used up two jars, both of which she carefully sealed and labelled.

"Why em I doing this?" she asked the class.

"To get it to empty its venom out so it's reasonably harmless, miss?"

"Good enswer. Other reasons?"

As the class was stumped, she provided them.

"Mr Mericet esked me if I could provide some mamba venom for him. So one jar goes to his Poisons lab. A second jar goes to the Lady Sybil's tropical diseases unit, who will prepare more entidote from it. Now let's get this beauty into the tenk. One, two, three, CLOSE! Now SEAL!"

Mr Bates, gloved to the shoulder, gingerly cleared out another mailbox that was now open for normal business again. A small audience of interested Ankh-Morpork people had gathered to watch the show. Johanna went over to a local shopkeeper, pointed out the spilled poison that was burning a permanent mark into the paving slab, and suggested a bucket of water or two be used to flush it into the gutter. As nobody argues with an Assassin, least of all one who has just wrangled a fourteen-foot venomous serpent, the water appeared with great speed.

"As a cless essignment, you might went to design end build a hebitet for this snake. It must be escape-proof, it must simulate the creature's natural environment – if you are stuck, see me, I'm from the seme country – end it must ellow for feeding and watering and occasionally cleaning it out. We cen use the largest herpetology tenk in the Menegerie for this."

They moved onto their next assignment, trailed by an interested audience.

"Mr Bates?"

He read from the clipboard.

"No longer any toads or snails, ma'am, but apparently a King Cobra, female, nursing a clutch of eggs."

"The mongoose didn't get the snake?"

"No, ma'am. By all accounts it was young and overconfident. She killed and ate it."

"Did you hear that, cless? The mongoose is normally the essessin to the cobra. This one eccepted the contrect to inhume the cobra. But it was overconfident. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, miss!" the class chorused.

"Good. End now, considering the denger of overconfidence, we must plen our strategy. Mr Arthur, I may need you here. I em wondering if some of those eggs may not have hetched."

Wee Mad Arthur nodded. He asked how many eigs a cobra lays in the one go.

"Up to thirty" Johanna said. "So there could be a lot of snakes in this box. I really do not went eny to escape!"

"Aye, weel" said wee Mad Arthur. "Provided I stay clear of the teeth, I'm alright, aye? And yon wee wurrrms is only three or four inches long? Bring 'em on, lassie!"

A strange light lit up in the gnome's eyes.

"Always something new tae learrrn when it comes to pest control, aye!"

"I'll deal with the mother" Johanna said. "Es before, class, I went people on stendby with herpetology tenks. Miss Igorina, the eppropriate entidote is Number Two. Fifty cc's in the vein nearest the bite, end then to the Lady Sybil."

"I'll have a thretcher ready" Igorina said. "And the two fathtetht runnerth in the clath to carry it".

Johanna tried to manoever an angled mirror on a stick in through the letter-slot to see what was in there. Something inside hissed and she glimpsed a large cowled serpent for a moment, before the pole was wrenched from her hand. She paused and reflected. She issued catching-nooses to several students, with instructions.

As before, she went in wearing the face-mask and flying goggles.

"Everybody ready? Do not forget. The young mey be new out of the egg, but they are venomous from birth. Do not be over-confident because these ere newly-hetched!"

She took a deep breath.

Mr Bates! One, two, three, GO!"

As the door swung open, a frozen tableau, stilled in the unaccustomed light, met their eyes. There was a single adult cobra, rearing up and darting its head towards Johanna in a threatening mode. She wielded the noose expertly, catching it just below the cowl, lifting the four-foot creature up and out of the mailbox. But the twenty or thirty young ones posed more of a threat.

"Well, HELLO!" roared Wee Mad Arthur. "Come tae DADDY!"

With that war cry, the gnome was in there, darting around with unbelievable speed and agility, and as far as Johanna could tell, closing the mouths of the young cobras with the strength of his arms clamping their jaws closed, whilst head-butting them to render them docile.

"Take that, ye wee scunner of a worrrrm that y'are!"

She sighed and shook her head, instructing the students to lift the stunned cobras out of the box and drop them into a tank.

And I hope he's only stunned them, she thought. I'd quite like a breeding population at the School. If only because older and set-in-their-ways senior Assassins are grumbling at the money invested in my animal handling facility, and they're loudly asking what benefit the Guild is going to get from becoming environmentally conscious. If I can supply Mericet and T'Malia with venom on demand, and have ample left over to sell to the wizards for their verdammte hexes, that answers the question and keeps my Department in a budget. And frees me up to teach as I see fit.

Remembering, she swiftly milked the mother cobra into another set of venom jars. She got Bradley to screw lids on and mark them up, then wrangled Mother into a tank.

A good teacher should give the impression they are watching their students at all times. This is usually managed by intelligent prediction of how a given student is likely to respond in any given situation. But it asks a lot, of even the best teacher, to manage this whilst simultaneously handling a lethally poisonous snake, which calls for concentration and focus.

Thus, she missed Brian Smegleigh-Prepousse losing his nerve when the stunned baby cobra he was handling awoke in his hand with a nasty headache and a desire to play catch-up. He should have been holding it behind the head, not halfway down the body, as he discovered to his cost. And he should have been wearing gloves.

Johanna and Igorina got to him together. His hand was already swelling up.

"Idiot boy!" she cursed, reaching for her waist-pouch for something with a razor edge. "Well, I'm efraid you'll be cerrying a scar for the rest of your life!"

As Johanna cut into the bite site and widened the wound to let the blood flow, wishing there were a non-black-ribboner vampire nearby (5), Igorina filled a syringe, then tried to raise a vein in his arm. She found it, inserted the needle, and injected.

"Get thet snake!" she shouted, noticing the cobra that had bitten the boy was loose.

Andreanna Petley caught it in a noose, and Johanna nodded approval at her technique. A city cab pulled up at the verge. It was an advantage of attracting an audience: something had gone wrong, and even in Ankh-Morpork, there were public-minded citizens who would offer to help.

"Get the young man to hospital, miss?"

Johanna passed over a couple of dollars, and Brian Smegleigh was loaded aboard, half-conscious, with Virginia Omnius offering to escort. Johanna thanked her: Miss Omnius was quiet and sensible and could be relied on.

"Tropical Diseases, et the Lady Sybil. Cobra bite. 50cc of entidote edministered. Hurry!" she shouted. The cab pulled off.

She took a deep breath and called the class together.

"Now see what heppens when you lose focus? When you fail to concentrate? Thet wes OVERCONFIDENCE! Do not let thet happen to YOU!"

After that, the rest of the afternoon's run was anticlimactic: another seven mongeese, a couple of brace of harmless grass snakes, and, to Wee Mad Arthur's professional delight, a mailbox that had been colonised by rats. Johanna graciously let him pile his kills on the cart so he could trade them in at Gimlet's: it was on their way home, after all.

She exhaled, the day's excitement over, for now. They had to transfer their catches to pens, runs and tanks at the Animal Handling Unit, and she had her venom samples to drop off and then to check on that verdammte boy at the Lady Sybil; but it hadn't been a bad day. Not a bad day at all.

"Errr… miss?" the elderly postman asked, diffidently.

"Yes, Mr Bates?" Johanna asked, pleasantly.

The older man shuffled.

"Err… some of the postboxes on the riverside walks and the waterfronts, miss. Err…"

"Go on?" she invited him.

"You know the big floods last winter?"

"Ja, I remember."

"We got lobsters, miss. Big ones. And other things. From out the river. Err.."

Johanna nodded and called her class together. This was going to be a long afternoon...

Student Exercise Book

Name: the Right Hon. Andreanna Petley

Form: Two Raven

Subject: Nature Studies

Teacher:- Miss Smith-Rhodes

Voluntary class work, Saturday afternoon:-

Nature trails with Miss Smith-Rhodes are really exciting, and there's a lot to do, and we collect some really interesting samples of Nature to bring back to the Animal Handling Unit (which some people nickname the Nature Corner, but they're idiots).

Brian Smegleigh-Prepousse should get better and keep the use of his arm and be back in class soon, worse luck, and Doctor Lawn said it was only quick action by Miss Smith-Rhodes and Igorina that saved him from worse. If a snake bit me, I'd feel better for knowing they're about!

Miss is talking about a summer school in Howondaland in the long hols and I really, really, want to go, please please please!

(At this point a note in red ink says "we will see, Andreanna. Thank you for the kind compliments, but they'll get you no extra marks! J S-R")

(1) The dialogue in Making Money is correct up till this point. But I've diverged from this point on… Additional details garnered from the text of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office Handbook (Yearbook and Diary 2007).

(2) Such as her room-mate during training, Alice Band, a woman uniquely qualified to make such a judgement.

(3) But if you've read my long story The Graduation Class you'd know all this. Miss Smith-Rhodes is – just about – a canonical character in the Discworld. Terry invented her name and a few other details so she could be a teacher at the Assassins' Guild School. But in the canon she's just a name and a job description/location, and hasn't had even the smallest speaking part yet. I've fleshed her out a bit, loosely based on a lovely Afrikaaner girl I knew who was from out in the sticks in Natal/Zululand.

(4) Frank and Dave are the Dead Letter department at the Post Office and by default get all the difficult mail. A sackful soiled by mongeese should be easy for them… (see Making Money)

(5) Vampires were popular in Howondaland for their readiness to assist snake bite victims by sucking the blood out. This was held to be mutually beneficial by both parties, vampires being immune to the poison and considering it gave blood an interesting new taste. Indeed, this adds a whole new layer of meaning to the word "snakebite", as in "I'll have a pint of snakebite, please". (6)

(6) For non-British readers: in British pubs, a "snakebite" is a revolting-sounding cocktail of a half pint of cider and a half-pint of lager in the same pint glass. Some drinkers of a gothic persuasion might request a shot of blackcurrant cordial ("snakebite and black") which gives the resulting drink a queasily venuous-blood-like aspect.