The MGC returns? C1

It was a sunny spring morning in the Domestic Science demonstration room and student kitchen. The air was full of the warm, somewhat comforting, smells of pastry being made and kneaded and rolled, with the teacher's demonstration batch already sending its warm homely smell out to permeate the air.

Miss Sanderson- Reeves moved like a combination of angel and hawk among the thirty student Assassins, observing all as she went, offering a word of advice here, a rolled eye and a "tcch!" there at some minor act of omission or inanity, moving with the ease and confidence conferred by thirty years as a teacher. Her class of eleven-year old first year pupils, white aprons fastened over their uniforms, bent to their allocated assignment, but watched her warily

A spare and slender woman with what had once been brunette hair now fading to grey, their teacher wore the approved black, her purple teaching sash partly obscured by the apron with its logo Never trust a skinny chef! . Originally meant as one sort of not-very-funny-to-begin-with joke, on the spare and skinny Miss Sanderson-Reeves it meant something else entirely. She had been, after all, a renowned amateur poisoner before being invited to, ah, legitimise the situation, by formally joining the Assassins' Guild. And cookery had been a favourite method of hers for distributing some rather unorthodox food additives. The pupils were rather disappointed that she did not propose to go into the more professionally interesting aspects of food preparation until at least the third year.

"Before you learn how to cook badly, you must first know how to cook well!" she had proclaimed. "You only realise what you can get away with once you have mastered the basics. And you may rest assured that I will school you in those basic principles of good cooking!"

Christiana Selachii had raised a hand then. Joan had nodded, knowing by intelligent deduction what the question was going to be. Pupil from one of the richest most noble families, subject as proletarian as Domestic Science…

"Please, miss. What's the point of this? I mean, we don't need to do this. It's wasting time! Back home, we've got servants to cook for us."

Joan nodded, having picked up the hidden sub-message of At best, Daddy might employ you as assistant Cook, and you'd be a long way beneath the butler or the senior housemaid. She also noted several dissident cries of approval. She nodded.

"Didn't you read the name on the gate when you were enrolled at this school, miss Selachii?" she inquired. "This is the Assassins' School. We seek to turn out not just socially competent young people who can hold their own at any level of society – and consider that phrase for all its meanings, if you please. This School also turns out self-reliant members of society. Some of you will go on to take the Black Syllabus and become fully licenced Assassins. You will, almost certainly, end up in places from time to time where no cooked food is available. Where there are no servants to prepare it for you. Where whether you eat or go hungry is up to you, and nobody else. You will, most assuredly, then see the value in the basic skills you will learn in this classroom!"

She paused, to let it sink in.

"And you will see the wisdom of these words, Miss Selachii, when the time comes for Miss Smith-Rhodes or Miss Band to take you out on Wilderness Survival classes. Miss Smith-Rhodes in particular stresses the virtues, to the Assassin, of travelling fast, travelling light, and not being overly encumbered with too great a weight of food rations. She will, no doubt, teach you that if you can only carry limited weight, most of it will be in the form of weapons, ammunition, and necessary equipment. Food is what you find, or trap, on the trail, over the two or three days you will be out in the wilds. Happily, I do not have to teach you how to trap it or humanely slaughter it. But what you learn here in my classroom will mean – if you are paying attention – that at least you will not have to eat it raw."

Joan smiled benignly at her class.

"And now we've sorted that out, we can jolly well do some basic baking! Copy this down: one pound of white plain flour…"

And now the pastry-making was well advanced. Joan stalked her classroom, watching, advising, chiding. Then she stopped dead.

"Miss Lympe-Sandgate!" she thundered, extending an accusing arm, finger pointed. The class stopped dead. "When did you last clean your fingernails, girl?"

The object of her attention trembled. Joan continued.

"We may be the Assassins' Guild. I myself occasionally assist in the Poisons department if Mr Mericet needs a cover teacher. In the fullness of time I will be demonstrating the inhumation potential inherent in even the most basic kitchen. I did not, however, expect to see it today! There is a world of difference, Miss Lympne-Sandgate, between coldly and deliberately carrying out a planned and prepared inhumation by means of poisoning the client's lunch. And doing it randomly and haphazardly, through the means of mixing his pastry with hands as mucky as yours. Throw those ingredients away, at once, then go to the scullery where you will find running water and a nail-brush! Then do not return to my classroom until your fingernails are completely clean!"

She stilled a rising snigger in the classroom by loudly announcing

"And that goes for all of you! Is that clearly understood? In fact, I will examine all your fingernails, and woe betide anyone else who is in an unclean condition!" "

The girl is in Tump House, Joan thought. I'd better discreetly tell Alice one of hers is falling short on acceptable hygiene. Bit of a slight cheesy whiff there, too. There's always one who thinks soap is a sort of foul-tasting cheese, in every First Year.

"Yes, Miss!" the shout came back.

Joan nodded, and relaxed her fierce gaze. Then she added:

"Bring it to the front, Miss Hastings-Rye. Thank you so much."

The something was a copy of the Tanty Bugle, Ankh-Morpork's premier penny-dreadful, a crime reportage magazine about murders, attempted murders, slayings and poisonings, the more 'orrible the better. Standard practice at the Guild was to confiscate it where seen in the possession of a pupil, although a skilled teacher like Emmanuelle Lapoignard Les Deux-Épées was perfectly capable of making a class discussion out of it. (2)

Ah well, something to read in the staffroom later…

And she stowed it away in her bag, with a stern admonition to her pupil that nobody gets to be an Assassin by reading about the supposed doings of untrained amateur killers who only succeed in getting arrested by the City Watch. And before anyone who thinks they know anything about me raises the obvious, I was arrested by the Assassins' Guild in my old life, I hope that's clearly understood?

The class continued, pastry was baked and in some cases burnt, allowing Joan to liken the results to those of the old King of Lancre who fell asleep, and thus incurred the wrath of the terrible old lady whose cooking he had spoilt. (2)

After fifteen minutes of tidying and oven-cleaning – Joan insisted on this in her students, that however highly born they were, they could still jolly well clear up after themselves – the morning break bell rang.

Gratefully, she pushed her way through the throng of students to the Staffroom, and helped herself to a mug of tea. She registered, with distaste, that in common with teachers' common rooms the Multiverse over, that at the Assassins' Guild School also carried a perma-fog of cigarette smoke, and the dominant smells were those of tweed, sweat and nicotine.

She made her way to the non-smoker's corner of the staffroom, a bay window recess where a window had pointedly been thrown open and her colleague Alice Band was glaring at anyone even seeming to suggest that it should be closed again. Johanna Smith-Rhodes was sitting at her ease in the window recess, booted legs drawn up in front of her. Alice and Johanna made room for Joan, and the three of them compared their mornings.

"How is it" Alice complained, "that the name Venturi, Rust or Selachii on the class roll is shorthand for Highly bred idiot with half a brain cell?"

Johanna snorted. "Mine's en Eorle!" she said. "Seems to think you deal with a lion by beshing it on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper end speaking very loudly and firmly to it!"

"Shouldn't worry, m'dear." Joan said. "Some things, even a lion would find indigestible. Too thick and stodgy! Like half this city's noble children. Mine's a Selachii. I'll give you two guesses as to what she said!"

"Why do I need to learn how to cook, when my family employs servants for that sort of thing?" mused Alice.

"Oh, you've heard it, then?"

"No, just good guesswork. Rich pupil, plebeian subject. Is that the latest Bugle you've got there?"

Joan unfolded it. The Tanty Bugle had one of its largest circulations, had it but known it, in the staffroom at the Assassins' School. Even if it was a professionally critical readership, like the orchestra conductor who would go to somebody else's performance and heckle.

"Whet's the headline?" Johanna asked, leaning forward. They read the headline.

"Oh, my goodness…" said Alice.

Die hemel, Arse en tweernen! said Johanna, with feeling.

Joan just looked shocked.

THE RETURN OF THE MARRIAGE GUIDANCE COUNSELLOR?

The Bugle has learnt that in the past six months, no less than five men who have died in mysterious circumstances in the City of Ankh-Morpork may be the victims of the same serial killer! Criminologists studying unsolved murders in the Ankh-Morpork area have discovered a common thread linking the otherwise random slayings. All have been by poison and all the victims have had charges of wife-beating, child-abuse or of otherwise perpetrating domestic assault. This was the modus operandum of the serial killer known only as the Marriage Guidance Counsellor who disappeared over four years ago, believed to have been trapped, tried, and executed by the Assassins' Guild, as is their right in cases of freelance Assassination carried out outside Guild auspices… is she back? Is it true? The moral of the story, gentlemen, is that you should be loving and kind to your wife. Or the dark equalizing avenger called the Marriage Guidance counsellor may come looking for you

(On other pages! The MGC's reign of terror and her twenty-four known victims. Pages 4-14 inclusive. We revisit the hellish years that made men afraid to go out alone!)

"Joan, this can't be right. You were the Marriage Guidance Counsellor, before the Guild got you!" Alice said.

"Of course it isn't right. I only got eighteen, but they always persist in making it twenty-four!" Joan said, weakly.

"Joan, please tell me you haven't been…you know, feeling the old urge egain?" Johanna said, eyes wide.

Joan shook her head, smiling. She looked around her. She wasn't the only Tanty Bugle reader in the staffroom, by any means.

"No. Honestly and emphatically no!" she said, reasserting her usual firmness. "Vetinari made it an absolute condition of my getting parole. If I ever sterilised again, outside a legitimate Guild contract, the City would have no option other than to activate my death sentence. Lord Downey was bound to police that."

"But somebody is. And they're using your name!" said Alice.

Joan nodded. She looked around her, at the tableau presented by off-duty Guild teachers going about their private and public preoccupations. There was Bill Bradlifudd, the bluff and genial young Boys' Games Master, on the face of it talking PE department business with Emmanuelle-Marie Lapoignard Les Deux-Épées (Swords, bladed weapons, metalwork, some Girls' PE). With its usual subcurrent of for nearly five years now I've been trying to get into your bed, Emmie, for a really deep departmental conference on physical activity! Matched with Alors! How I wish I could oblige! But I make it a rule to keep my lovers and my career absolutely separate, cher Bill, although it flatters me that you try so hard! And both of them smoking, a fine example in Physical Education tutors.

There was Grune di Nivor and the Compte de Yoyo, arms flying animatedly in some discussion on Edificeering, she supposed. Doktor von Ubersetzer, the music master, engrossed in a score.

And Lady T'Malia (Political Expediency) bearing down on her like a ship in a healthy trade wind, right down to creaking of sails and mainstays.

"Joan, my dear!" she announced. Then lowered her voice. "I'm so sorry, but you have an appointment to see the Master. I'm sure no blame attaches to you!"

"She will be back?" Alice Band asked, anxiously.

"Of course, Alice! Sometimes… you know when Commander Vimes puts out a Press release to the Times to the effect that someone is helping the Watch with their inquiries? And most of the time that's taken as shorthand for "We've got the blighter who dunnit, but the snag is they haven't confessed yet?" Well, this is the other sort of "helping the Guild with its inquiries". Nothing more, nothing less, nothing presumed, and nothing accused. Please put that message out, ladies?"

T'Malia and Joan left the staffroom together, Joan hideously aware she was the subject of many discreet glances and outright stares, but keeping her chin defiantly up.

"I'm so sorry, Joan. You must be mortified." T'Malia said. "But hopefully we can sort this wretched mess out quickly, and get back to normal. I will, of course, circulate the word that you are blameless." She paused, and whispered, anxiously, "You are blameless, aren't you?"

Joan sighed. And it had started off as such a good morning…

T'Malia knoced at the forbidding black oak door of the Master's study.

"Enter!" called Lord Downey.

They entered. Joan found herself sitting alone on the far side of the Master's desk, poised between the four granite pillars. Again, she wondered about the one with the blade-shaped hole in it, running neatly from front to back, at roughly heart-height. Nobody ever wanted to talk about that very much.

Behind the desk was Lord Downey, maintaining his look of a concerned parish priest or a kindly schoolmaster. T'Malia took a seat to his right. To his left and right were people yet to be introduced to her, two Assassins and a seeming civilian, a slightly built fair-haired young man with a modest moustache. She'd met him before somewhere…

"So kind of you to make time for me, Miss Sanderson-Reeves" Dowwney said, affably. Sherry? Perhaps not. Too early in the day, perhaps? Almond slice? Ah, I forgot for a moment your particular teaching speciality. Of course not. You bake them all the time with advanced pupils!"

T'Malia coughed, delicately.

"Of course, my Lady" Downey said. "Business in hand. I believe you have previously met Inspector André Loudweather of the Cable Street Particulars? "

Joan shook hands with André, who courteously rose to her. Of course. He'd been here with Vimes. That other interview in this office, nearly five years before.

"And these Senior Assassins are perhaps best identified to you as Mr Smith and Mr Jones. They are from Department QCIC. You have heard of it?"

Joan nodded. Like all other graduate Assassins, she had heard of the ultra-secret QCIC , the Guild's internal police, answerable only to the Dark Council.

"Quis custodiet ipses custodes. Who guards the guards? Q.C.I.C.."

Downey nodded. "They ensure compliance with the Concordat and the rules of Assassination. Their job became more important after the Teatime debacle several Hogswatches ago. If a member were ever to claim a fictitious or fraudulent contract fee with intent to earn money on false pretences, they would deal with administering due punishment. And when you and twenty-nine others were gathered in by the Guild five years ago as the nucleus of an accelerated training programme for mature entrants, who do you think gathered evidence? Put together reports? Traced long-cold trails to find clues pointing to specific individuals? And then located those individuals, and brought them to this office for the same sort of generous offer that was once made to you? "

Joan nodded. It fitted.

"In your case, of course, we were assisted by Lord Vetinari, who persuaded myself and Commander Vimes to sign what is now called the Downey-Vimes Accord. This set out ground rules for murder investigations in Ankh-Morpork. Just as the vast majority of Vice cases in this city are within the accepted jurisdiction of the Seamstresses' Guild and the Watch only have right of investigation in limited circumstances, I sought for a similar accommodation with the Watch concerning murder and homicide. On behalf of the Guild, I conceded that the overwhelming majority of murders, manslaughters and suicides are reflectively tawdry things, of little professional interest to us, and should remain within the purview of the Watch. However, just occasionally, an amateur inhumationist arises, who carries out their annulments with skill and style and a certain pride in the quality of their work. The essence of the Downey-Vimes Accord is that this Guild has an equal interest in tracking down and detaining the perpetrators of such interesting cancellations.

"And once detained, the civic law was set aside, where it applied, so that the person so detained could be offered the opportunity of redeeming themselves by becoming a fully-licenced Guild member. Especially in those cases where money has been proven to have changed hands between a person commissioning an inhumation, and the non-Guild freelance carrying it out. This was, after all, how we identified you as an extraordinarily capable and stylish contract killer, and with the aid of the Cable Street Particulars, QCIC's investigation brought you to this office. I need only add that they would also have been charged with delivering the sentence upon you, should you have refused our offer to you."

Downey smiled.

"I hear the Marriage Guidance Counsellor has returned from the grave and, as before, is wreaking vengeance on behalf of wronged wives and abused children. The press believes her score to be five, ah, sterilizations. Our joint investigations make it seven, perhaps eight. Inspector?"

"Thank you, sir." said André. "Having had an opportunity to compare files with the gentlemen of the QCIC, I can safely say that Miss Sanderson-Reeves is not a suspect. For one thing, it doesn't fit her current profile, of one who is still under a suspended death sentence from the city, held in abeyance for so long as she remains a useful and productive member of the Assassins' Guild. She simply has too much to lose by returning to her former career.

"Secondly, two of the dead men already have Assassins' Guild contracts out on them. Miss Sanderson-Reeves could have dealt with them in the normal, legally correct, manner, and claimed the fees, as is her right as an Assassin. I'm assured the fees remain unclaimed. So this is not the work of a licenced Assassin."

"Nil mortifi, sine lucre!" chanted Downey and the two QCIC men.

"Indeed, sir. And the clincher is that Miss Sanderson-Reeves can be demonstrated to have been elsewhere on the dates of six of the eight murders. So she is not a suspect."

"I'm very glad to hear it!" Joan said, indignantly.

"So. Not only has somebody had the brass cheek to appropriate my old working name. They've actually diddled me out of two contract fees that I'd have relished taking! Now that's adding insult to injury!"

"I'm so glad you feel that way, Miss Sanderson-Reeves. Now, having firmly established your innocence in this matter, I have a proposition to put to you. Out there is an noficial, unlicenced Assassin who has so far serially inhumed eight times. The balance of probabilities is that she – perhaps a he, although I doubt it – is taking money in return for these inhumations. She has taken your name and is working under your old modus operandum."

Downey paused, and steepled his fingers.

"In addition to QCIC and the CSP, I would like to ask you to add your skills to the hunt. This is a serial killer who thinks and acts like you did. I want you to go out there, think like her, outwit her, and find her. At any time, both the investigating bodies will give you full access to their files Anything new you discover can be disclosed to either.

"Oh, and Joan. This isn't the only such investigation currently going on. I'm hoping to be running another Mature Students' Entry Class next autumn. If you can, bring her in alive, so I can make her the standard offer. In the fullness of time, I'm going to be asking you and the other lady members of staff to assist in teaching the new Mature Students' class. But that's a few months away yet."

Downey rose from the desk and escorted her to the door.

"I do apologise for the inconvenience. I will, of course, ensure the Guild family realises that you are not a suspect in this case. And I thank you very much for your assistance, Joan".


(1) ("Now, mes élèves, can you tell me where ze Dyslexic Alphabet Killer went wrong, so that he suffered the misfortune of being arrested by ze Watch? I can perfectly assure you that le Gendarmerie de Quirm are completely incapable of locating le cul even with both hands and a strong hint…")

(2) After being thoroughly beaten with her stick, he had decided nothing could be as terrifying and painful, ever again, and led a previously beaten Army out to settle accounts with those bloody Hublanders.