Hogfather Page 2

floorboards haven't. Other little arrangements which I will not specify seem to have been bypassed. That severely limits the possibilities. I really doubt that you are a ghost and gods generally do not announce themselves so politely. You could, of course, be Death, but I don't believe he bothers with such niceties and, besides, I am feeling quite well. Hmm!’ Something hovered in the air in front of his desk. 'My teeth are in fine condition so you are unlikely to be the Tooth Fairy. I've always found that a stiff brandy before bedtime quite does away with the need for the Sandman. And, since I can carry a tune quite well, I suspect I'm not likely to attract the attention of Old Man Trouble. Hmm.' The figure drifted a little nearer. 'I suppose a gnome could get through a mousehole, but I have traps down,' Downey went on. 'Bogeymen can walk through walls but would be very loath to reveal themselves. Really, you have me at a loss. Hmm?' And then he looked up. A grey robe hung in the air. It appeared to be occupied, in that it had a shape, although the occupant was not visible. The prickly feeling crept over Downey that the occupant wasn't invisible, merely not, in any physical sense, there at all. 'Good evening,' he said. The robe said, Good evening, Lord Downey. His brain registered the words. His ears swore they hadn't heard them. But you did not become head of the Assassins' Guild by taking fright easily. Besides, the thing wasn't frightening. It was, thought Downey, astonishingly dull. If monotonous drabness could take on a shape, this would be the shape it would choose. 'You appear to be a spectre,' he said. Our nature is not a matter for discussion, arrived in his head. We offer you a commission. 'You wish someone inhumed?' said Downey. Brought to an end. Downey considered this. It was not as unusual as it appeared. There were precedents. Anyone could buy the services of the Guild. Several zombies had, in the past, employed the Guild to settle scores with their murderers. In fact the Guild, he liked to think practised the ultimate democracy. You didn't need intelligence, social position, beauty or charm to hire it. You just needed money which, unlike the other stuff, was available to everyone. Except for the poor, of course, but there was no helping some people. 'Brought to an end...' That was an odd way of putting it. 'We can-' he began. The payment will reflect the difficulty of the task. 'Our scale of fees-' The payment will be three million dollars. Downey sat back. That was four times higher than any fee yet earned by any member of the Guild, and that had been a special family rate, including overnight guests. 'No questions asked, I assume?' he said, buying time. No questions answered. 'But does the suggested fee represent the difficulty involved? The client is heavily guarded?' Not guarded at all. But almost certainly impossible to delete with conventional weapons. Downey nodded. This was not necessarily a big problem, he said to himself. The Guild had amassed quite a few unconventional weapons over the years. Delete? An unusual way of putting it ... 'We like to know for whom we are working, he said.

We are sure you do. 'I mean that we need to know your name. Or names. In strict client confidentiality, of course. We have to write something down in our files.' You may think of us as ... the Auditors. 'Really? What is it you audit?' Everything. 'I think we need to know something about you.' We are the people with three million dollars. Downey took the point, although he didn't like it. Three million dollars could buy a lot of no questions. 'Really?' he said. 'In the circumstances, since you are a new client, I think we would like payment in advance.' As you wish. The gold is now in your vaults. 'You mean that it will shortly be in our vaults,' said Downey. No. It has always been in your vaults. We know this because we have just put it there. Downey watched the empty hood for a moment, and then without shifting his gaze he reached out and picked up the speaking tube. 'Mr Winvoe?' he said, after whistling into it. 'Ah. Good. Tell me, how much do we have in our vaults at the moment? Oh, approximately. To the nearest million, say.' He held the tube away from his ear for a moment, and then spoke into it again. 'Well, be a good chap and check anyway, will you?' He hung up the tube and placed his hands flat on the desk in front of him. 'Can I offer you a drink while we wait?' he said. Yes. We believe so. Downey stood up with some relief and walked over to his large drinks cabinet. His hand hovered over the Guild's ardent and valuable tantalus, with its labelled decanters of Mur, Nig, Trop and Yksihw. 3 'And what would you like to drink?' he said, wondering where the Auditor kept its mouth. His hand hovered for just a moment over the smallest decanter, marked Nosiop. We do not drink. 'But you did just say I could offer you a drink ... ' Indeed. We judge you fully capable of performing that action. 'Ah.'Downey's hand hesitated over the whisky decanter, and then he thought better of it. At that point, the speaking tube whistled. 'Yes, Mr Winvoe? Really? Indeed? I myself have frequently found loose change under sofa cushions, it's amazing how it mou ... No, no, I wasn't being ... Yes, I did have some reason to ... No, no blame attaches to you in any ... No, I could hardly see how it ... Yes, go and have a rest, what a good idea. Thank you.' He hung up the tube again. The cowl hadn't moved. 'We will need to know where, when and, of course, who,' he said, after a moment. The cowl nodded. The location is not on any map. We would like the task to be completed within the week. This is essential. As for the who... A drawing appeared on Downey's desk and in his head arrived the words: Let us call him the Fat Man. 'Is this a joke?' said Downey. 3 It's a sad and terrible thing that high-born folk really have thought that the servants would be totally fooled if spirits were put into decanters that were cunningly labelled backwards. And also throughout history the more politically conscious butler has taken it on trust, and with rather more justification, that his employers will not notice if the whisky is topped up with eniru.

We do not joke. No, you don't, do you, Downey thought. He drummed his fingers. 'There are many who would say this... person does not exist,' he said. He must exist. How else could you so readily recognize his picture? And many are in correspondence with him. 'Well, yes, of course, in a sense he exists… In a sense everything exists. It is cessation of existence that concerns us here. 'Finding him would be a little difficult.' You will find persons on any street who can tell you his approximate address. 'Yes, of course,' said Downey, wondering why anyone would call them 'persons'. It was an odd usage. 'But, as you say, I doubt that they could give a map reference. And even then, how could the . . . the Fat Man be inhumed? A glass of poisoned sherry, perhaps?' The cowl had no face to crack a smile. You misunderstand the nature of employment, it said in Downey's head. He bridled at this. Assassins were never employed. They were engaged or retained or commissioned, but never employed. Only servants were employed. 'What is it that I misunderstand, exactly?' he said. We pay. You find the ways and means. The cowl began to fade. 'How can I contact you?' said Downey. We will contact you. We know where you are. We know where everyone is. The figure vanished. At the same moment the door was flung open to reveal the distraught figure of Mr Winvoe, the Guild Treasurer. 'Excuse me, my lord, but I really had to come up!' He flung some discs on the desk. 'Look at them!' Downey carefully picked up a golden circle. It looked like a small coin, but - 'No denomination!' said Winvoe. 'No heads, no tails, no milling! It's just a blank disc! They're all just blank discs!' Downey opened his mouth to say, 'Valueless?' He realized that he was half hoping that this was the case. If they, whoever they were, had paid in worthless metal then there wasn't even the glimmering of a contract. But he could see this wasn't the case. Assassins learned to recognize money early in their careers. 'Blank discs,' he said, 'of pure gold.' Winvoe nodded mutely. 'That,' said Downey, 'will do nicely.'

'It must be magical!' said Winvoe. 'And we never accept magical money!' Downey bounced the coin on the desk a couple of times. It made a satisfyingly rich thunking noise. It wasn't magical. Magical money would look real, because its whole purpose was to deceive. But this didn't need to ape something as human and adulterated as mere currency. This is gold, it told his fingers. Take it or leave it. Downey sat and thought, while Winvoe stood and worried. 'We'll take it,' he said. 'But-'

'Thank you, Mr Winvoe. That is my decision,' said Downey. He stared into space for a while, and then smiled. 'Is Mister Teatime still in the building?' Winvoe stood back. 'I thought the council had agreed to dismiss him,' he said stiffly. 'After that business with---'

'Mister Teatime does not see the world in quite the same way as other people,' said Downey, picking up the picture from his desk and looking at it thoughtfully. 'Well, indeed, I think that is certainly true.'

'Please send him up.' The Guild attracted all sorts of people, Downey reflected. He found himself wondering how it had come to attract Winvoe, for one thing. It was hard to imagine him stabbing anyone in the heart in case he got blood on the victim's wallet. Whereas Mister Teatime... The problem was that the Guild took young boys and gave them a splendid education and incidentally taught them how to kill, cleanly and dispassionately, for money and for the good of society, or at least that part of society that had money, and what other kind of society was there? But very occasionally you found you'd got someone like Mister Teatime, to whom the money was merely a distraction. Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant mind, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvellous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken. Mister Teatime enjoyed himself too much. And other people, also. Downey had privately decided that some time soon Mister Teatime was going to meet with an accident. Like many people with no actual morals, Lord Downey did have standards, and Teatime repelled him. Assassination was a careful game, usually played against people who knew the rules themselves or at least could afford the services of those who did. There was considerable satisfaction in a clean kill. What there wasn't supposed to be was pleasure in a messy one. That sort of thing led to talk. On the other hand, Teatime's corkscrew of a mind was exactly the tool to deal with something like this. And if he didn't ... well, that was hardly Downey's fault, was it? He turned his attention to the paperwork for a while. It was amazing how the stuff mounted up. But you had to deal with it. It wasn't as though they were murderers, after all... There was a knock at the door. He pushed the paperwork aside and sat back. 'Come in, Mister Teatime,' he said. It never hurt to put the other fellow slightly in awe of you. In fact the door was opened by one of the Guild's servants, carefully balancing a tea tray. 'Ah, Carter,' said Lord Downey, recovering magnificently. 'Just put it on the table over there, will you?'

'Yes, sir,' said Carter. He turned and nodded. 'Sorry, sir, I will go and fetch another cup directly, sir.'


'For your visitor, sir.'

'What visitor? Oh, when Mister Teati-' He stopped. He turned. There was a young man sitting on the hearthrug, playing with the dogs. 'Mister Teatime!'

'It's pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh, sir,' said Teatime, with just a hint of reproach. 'Everyone gets it wrong, sir.'

'How did you do that?'

'Pretty well, sir. I got mildly scorched on the last few feet, of course.' There were some lumps of soot on the hearthrug. Downey realized he'd heard them fall, but that hadn't been particularly extraordinary. No one could get down the chimney. There was a heavy grid firmly in place near the top of the flue. 'But there's a blocked-in fireplace behind the old library,' said Teatime, apparently reading his thoughts. 'The flues connect, under the bars. It was really a stroll, sir.'

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