||[May. 7th, 2005|06:38 pm]
Sam Vimes rubbed his temples and tried to ignore the storm outside. Ankh-Morpork didn't often get them; the Ramtops diffused most thunderheads before they reached the two cities. Thus, when it rained, it really rained. Carts filled with water as they skidded down the cobbles, the streets ran pink in the Shades, and in the lower parts of the cities citizens rowed their way to work. And, Vimes reflected, his cesspit came dangerously close to overflowing. Best to put a man on that*.|
The storm, however, was not what occupied his attention. The thunder rolling over the city like a clumsy, fat god made his headache worse, but it wasn't the source.
The source was the mousy, tiny man who squirmed under Vimes' bloodshot gaze. Vimes stared at him through his fingers.
"I have had three hours of sleep in the past two days, Mr..."
"Grimoir," he said weakly.
"Said his name was Cobble when we brought him in, sir," Fred Colon reproached. The man flinched.
"Haven't heard of a Cobble," Vimes said, tapping his chin. "Heard of a Grimoir, though. Owns Grim's Reapers down on Fleet Street, right Fred?" He glowered across the desk. "How very odd."
"Can't blame me for tryin', can you?" snapped the waste of life in the chair.
"Yes," growled Vimes, "I can." His glare continued. Cobble-cum-Grimoir tried, it seemed, to merge with his chair. "I've had three hours of sleep in the past two days. We've seen several murders--all unlicensed, Grimoir--on the eastern side, all clustered together. Many of them happened near the shop I'm told you run."
"Ain't my fault if some bastards get their kicks outside my store," came the pitiful response. Colon sniffed.
"Is when the bastards are using your weapons, Mr. Grimoir!" snapped Vimes, hand slamming on the desk. Grimoir jerked so violently the chair scuffed the floor. "The murders occur around your shop. The arrows have nicks from your forger. And the corpses are robbed blind--this is what's called a pattern, Grimoir, and when we find you at the end of that pattern with a dead man's bloody jewels in your hands I think it's your fault!"
Grimoir was staring. "My nicks?"
"Your nicks, yes," sighed Vimes, settling back in his chair. "Next time you try to set up an extortion ring without thieves' guild permission, I suggest you not provide the arrows along with the bows. Or follow your thugs to make sure they do their job right. Or check the victims yourself and keep their valuables in easy-to-spot places. Or do it at all." He smiled without mirth as Grimoir deflated in his chair. "Now what I am looking for from you, sir, is a signed confession and an implication of the others involved in your heinous crimes."
"Means 'bloody awful'," the commander grumbled. "Fred, take him to Angua, tell her he wishes to confess."
"I never said that!" cried Grimoir as Colon hauled him to his feet.
"Let Mr. Grimoir know that if he wishes to be released from custody we can give him a free lift to the Assassin and Thieves' Guilds," snapped Vimes, pulling out some paperwork. "In boxes, if necessary, when he goes to the latter."
Grimoir gibbered. He stumbled in front of Fred without another word.
Gods, what a day, thought Vimes, staring towards the clock. Three hours was a lie--he'd stolen away a few times to nap with Sybil and the baby--but today it certainly felt like three hours. If one more person said a word about the date, he'd go on a spree himself--
"Something for you, thur," said Igor. Vimes was proud of himself--he hardly flinched, eyes lazily traveling from the mass of paperwork on his desk to the mass of scar tissue, stitches, and surgical ingenuity standing in front of it.
"Oh?" Vimes asked weakly. "More mail from the black ribboners?"
"Something from me, thur," Igor replied.
Oh Gods. "What is it?"
One gnarled, scarred set of fingers grudgingly called a hand came forward, setting a dainty little cupcake, with blue frosting, down upon the desk. Vimes stared. There was a single unlit candle on top.
"Happy birthday, thur," Igor said cheerily (as cheerily as a faceful of stitches can manage, anyway). Before Vimes could finish wrapping his mind around the idea of Igor baking, the watch surgeon was gone. Vimes lifted the cupcake and gave it an experimental sniff. It smelled fine, looked fine. He studied it warily--everything seemed normal, but there was a certain wrongness about the thing.
Igor had once offered to mend the socks of the entire Night Watch. No one asked why; it was cheaper than going to a seamstress. When they received their socks again, there was an uncomfortably organic feel to them—too often it felt like the fabric was squirming in their boots. A watchman went down to ask Igor about it and hurried back up again, whimpering about bottled lightning and cotton spores. Without any fuss, the entire Watch bought new socks.
He shook his head and rose from his desk, making his way downstairs. "Captain---"
Every desk in the watchhouse was decorated by a festive blue cupcake. Most of the officers weren't in, but Nobby stood off in the corner, trying to light the one of the candles with a pathetic, sodden dogend. That the cigarette burned was something of a miracle of nature in itself; the candle sputtered once or twice, but never lit. He looked up and saluted as Vimes approached.
"Er, brought you something, sir!" Nobby said, nervous.
Vimes eyes the pathetic and slightly-squashed box beside Nobby Nobbs. "What is it?"
"It's real fresh, Mister Vimes. Got it from a bakery down the street and everything," Nobby said proudly.
Vimes studied him. "...You bought it?"
Nobby shifted uncomfortably. "Not bought as such, sir,” he admitted.
“I don’t want you stealing me things for my birthday, Nobby,” Vimes sighed.
“It weren’t one of the expensive ones!”
“Take it back, Nobby.”
“Nobby! Have we solved the mystery of the Quadrangle Fire?”
“Not yet, sir,” Nobby said, his train of thought skipping the rails.
“And have we found out who did in poor Miss Penniesworth off Gimlet Street?” Vimes barked, braving another step closer.**
“N-no, sir,” Nobby replied, shrinking against the wall.
“So about the only bloody mystery you can solve right now,” Vimes continued, “is…?”
“…what sort of trouble I’m into, sir?”
Vimes deflated. “I was going for ‘The Mystery of the Missing Cake’ or somesuch, Nobby, but that will do. Take the bloody thing back, will you? Or pay for it.”
Nobby did not sag. His normal posture was so poor, mere sagging would have been an improvement. He did, however, fold up slightly, and gave a miserable nod. "Right, sir," he grumbled. He set the cupcake down, hoisted the sodden box, and slunk out into the rain. Vimes listened to the sloshing of his boots grow quiet, then shut the door.
"Captain Carrot?" he called.
Carrot emerged from the locker room, blue frosting on his fingers. "Sir?" he replied, picking up a hankerchief off his desk. He peered at the commander quizzically while wiping off his hands--Vimes was gaping at him.
"You ate it?" Vimes asked, aghast.
"...yes, sir," Carrot answered. "Not up to snuff, really, but I have to give Igor credit for trying. A little too soft for me."
Vimes found himself nodding. Dwarven taste in bread was based less on making something soft and fluffy and more on something that could bash a troll to death.
"Shame about the candle, too."
"Candle?" repeated Vimes.
"Wouldn't light, sir. I guess it's all the moisture."
"But it...was all right?" Vimes asked, giving the rows of blue-topped cupcakes a wary, wandering glance.
"Oh, by our standards, certainly. Rather sweet, and I think the frosting's blueberry," Carrot answered cheerfully. "What did you need, Mister Vimes?"
"Ah? Oh, right..." Vimes felt unbalanced. The blue frosting now migrating from Carrot's fingers to the grubby kerchief were disconcerting enough, but the captain was the only watchman who hadn't said a word about his birthday. "...anything from the clacks today?"
"Not yet, sir," Carrot said, glancing towards the stacks of envelopes on his desk. "But you've got three telegrams from the Committee of Concerned Ankh-Morporkians, one from the Black Ribboners, and...fifteen, sir, from the Scrivener's Guild."
"Maybe they wanted to practice," sighed Carrot. "Oh, and Vetinari sent a runner by."
"The Patrician?" Vimes asked, taking a seat on a vacant desk. "Why?"
"Seems he had an urgent summons for you."
"What for?" Vimes asked. He knew what was coming.
"Birthday banquet, sir."
Vimes' world sank a little more. "Any word from Littlebottom on Penniesworth?"
"No, sir. She sent back some evidence for Igor to look at. Bloodstains, things like that. Perhaps you should talk to him."
Vimes nodded, rose, and started towards the basement.
Birthdays. Gods, birthdays! He'd learned to hate them a little more year by year, and despite Sybil's best efforts this one was no exception. Being a Duke and the richest man in Ankh-Morpork was well and good most of the year, but suddenly the invitations came like rain and he couldn't have a quiet smoke without a cheerful "Happy Birthday" or "You don't look a day over thirty!" shattering his tranquility. As he rounded the corner and stepped down the stairs, he finally took a bite of the cupcake and wondered if things could get any worse.***
Sometimes a flash of lightning is perfectly timed. As Vimes stepped into the muted light of the cellar, the sky outside crackled and the room was brilliantly lit.
There, in the center, was Igor, studying a festive blue cupcake.
There, beside Igor, was a bush of festive blue cupcakes.
It appeared to be growing.
"Ah, thur!" said Igor without looking up. "Did you enjoy the first batch?"
"...batch?" Vimes mumbled. He turned over the cupcake and peered at the bottom, which had--yes--a stem scar.
"I'm harvethting the thecond now," Igor continued. "Having thome trouble with the candles. But if I let them dry out enough to light, the fruit ith too dry to eat..."
The cupcake dropped. Vimes walked, somewhat mechanically, back upstairs. "Captain!" he shouted.
Carrot rose from his desk, another cupcake in his hand. "Sir?"
"I'm putting you in charge of the don't eat that!"
The cupcake hit the desk. Carrot looked at it guiltily. "Sorry, sir, but Wazzer is from Borogravia, and you know how they feel about the color blue, so I figured--"
"No, no, just...to hell with it. I'm putting you in charge of the Gimlet Street investigation." He started towards the door.
"Okay, sir, but..."
"No buts! And if Vetinari sends a messanger put the man in a bloody cell!"
"Where are you going, sir?"
"Home. For at least two hours."
Birthdays! He cursed them as he stepped into the rain and, casting a glare at the sputtering blue torch above the door, stalked down the slick cobbles. Hunching into his oilskin, he ignored the rain pouring down his scalp and focused on the warmth of his bed, his sleeping son, and the birthday 'surprise' Sybil had mentioned--
"Evening, your grace!" said the city's most persistent merchant. "Care for a pie?"
Vimes glared out of his coat at Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler, who stood over his grill, shielded by a pathetic and sodden umbrella.
"Evening, Throat. No."
Dibbler looked crestfallen. His grill steamed as it battled the rain. "You're sure? I've got specials laid out, sir. Absolutely no cat."
"Dibbler, do I look to you like a man who hungers for anything?"
"Oh, we all hunger for something, sir," Dibbler said expansively.
"Do I look, then, like a man who right now wants any of that pie?"
"...no, sir," he admitted, slouching over the grill. Then he brightened. "Tell you what! It's your birthday, isn't it?"
Vimes saw red. "Yes..."
"Terrific! Tell you what," continued Dibbler, salesman's instincts making him oblivious to what was essentially a lit fuse, "half-price on the specials, since you're fifty years young! And that's cutting me own--"
Something about the way this was said cut straight through the dollar signs in Dibbler's brain and shot ice down his spine. "Aye?" he managed.
"Leave me alone."
"Yessir," squeaked Throat. "Awful day for sales anyway. I'll just, um, I'll.." he trailed off and, without another word, scrambled down the road. Vimes made his way back up it, and didn't stop--or answer greetings--until he stood in front of his door.
Staring at an arrow.
It was one of the trademark, wicked-looking darts the Assassin's Guild used. Pinned to the door beneath it was a piece of paper, which read in cheerful and slightly blurred lettering, "Happy Birthday to Hys Grace Commander Vimes."
Hands nearly shaking, Vimes lit up a cigar, which the rain promptly put out.
Sometimes, he thought, you could hear the gods laughing.
The door swung open. There stood Sybil--minus, oddly, the baby, and minus, even more strangely, quite a lot of clothes.
"...Sam is..." he started inquiringly.
"With Willikins," she interrupted. "Come inside."
Vimes moved from punishing rain to dryness and (pleasantly cushy) warmth. The gods were probably still laughing, he reflected, but he hoped they'd have the decency to look the other way.
*While Vimes took a rugged view when it came to shaving, dressing, bathing, eating, and all the fineries of rich life, he'd been only too happy to leave tending the cesspit up to men hired for the purpose; as he saw it, he was waist-deep in shit for half the day as it was.
**Nobby’s scent was catching.
***No one is sure why, in all the years of human history, we have never learned to stop wondering if things can get any worse. The best we have acheived is "It doesn't get any better than this," which, being spoken almost exclusively by drunken fishermen, has lead to countless "What, really?"s, and numerous subsequent suicides.