To Catch a Thief - Part Six - A Formal Affair (1 of 4)
‘I’m sorry,’ said Lord Vetinari. ‘But what was that again?’ The Patrician looked out at a sea of angry faces. Well, not a sea exactly. More like a small pond. But they were angry, nonetheless. A small angry pond, all clutching pieces of paper. Vetinari’s cool questioning tone put the asker ill at ease. They shuffled uncomfortably in their seat before continuing.
‘I merely said, my Lord, that something really must be done.’
‘Quite so,’ said the Patrician, inclining his head in a barely imperceptible nod. The faces around the table looked somewhat hopeful. They needed Vetinari on side. Without him, they were sunk.
‘This is nothing short of extortion!’ said another occupant of the table, waving their piece of paper angrily in the air. ‘The very idea! And the amounts being demanded? I’d admire the man’s sand if I weren’t so livid at the infernal cheek of it all!’
‘What makes you think that it’s a man?’ asked a woman sat next to him. The man looked somewhat derailed for a moment.
‘What? Oh, you know, figure of speech.’
‘No, I don’t know,’ said the woman, one of the Selachii family. ‘Pray, elaborate.’ The man, a relatively recent addition to Ankh-Morpork’s upper echelons (part of the upwardly mobile merchant classes) knew all too well of the Selachii’s connections with the Assassin’s Guild, and decided that, in this moment, a debate on gender politics was not a wise career move.
He fell silent.
‘What say you, Lord Rust?’ said Vetinari, cutting over the petty bickering that threatened to envelope proceedings. ‘I would have expected you to be far more… vocal on a matter such as this.’ Rust, sat directly opposite the Patrician, looked startled for the briefest moment. He had been looking at his hands, gently massaging one of his fingers in an absentminded sort of way. He recovered in an instant and laid a hand on his piece of paper that was lying, face down, in front of him.
‘Absolutely unacceptable, I’m sure,’ said Rust, looking at the gathered faces who were now all turned to him. ‘This blackguard must be stopped.’
‘And he will be,’ said Vetinari. ‘Stopped.’ The two men looked at each other for a moment, their gazes challenging one another for supremacy.
Rust spoke first.
‘I have every faith that this is so,’ he said.
‘Of course you do,’ said Vetinari, seemingly satisfied. ‘Now, I appreciate that you are all concerned about the intentions of our elusive friend, but I assure that matters are most in hand.’
Someone raised their hand to speak, but Lord Vetinari waved them away.
‘But for now, I advise business as usual. Monetary gains aside, this… misguided individual is clearly attempting to rule through fear. Trust me when I say that this is no easy task. So, I implore you to go about your normal routines. I, for one, hope to see you all at Lady Margolotta’s ball this coming Saturday. Nothing shows a united front better than a city’s best and brightest refusing to kowtow to criminal demands.’
A few people around the table mumbled words of agreement.
‘Excellent. Then, please do not let me detain you.’ Lord Vetinari rose from his seat and stood, fingers resting on the polished tabletop, sending a message that was as clear as day that the meeting was unquestionably over. Those around the table took their pieces of paper and stood to leave. As they filed out, Lord Rust’s and the Patrician’s gazes locked again, for the briefest moment.
* * *
‘No, sir,’ said Angua, her arms folded across her chest. The squad was back in the briefing room, and Captain Angua sat resolutely in front of her commanding officer, telling him no.
‘Captain, I…’ Vimes began.
‘’I’m sorry, sir, but I left Überwald to get away from all of that. You’ve been there. You’ve met my family. You know what they’re like. I know we have a case, but I can’t do it. I… just can’t.’ An uncomfortable silence followed in which no one wanted to meet each other’s gaze. Angua stared fixedly at her feet, a slight frown on her face. Vimes looked a little confused, which was mixed in with the anger that was still bubbling from being jibed by the thief, again. And Carrot looked concerned at the woman he loved and the contemporary he respected.
Eventually, Vimes shook himself free of the silence and spoke.
‘Angua,’ he said – everyone in the room looked at him; Vimes hardly ever called anyone by their first names – ‘I’m not saying this is going to be a walk in the park, no offence meant, and I don’t like it any more than you do. But this’ – Vimes picked up the small white card that the thief had left in his cell – ‘means that we know where our man will be striking next.’ Vimes turned the card over to reveal that the message left for him was written on the back of an elegant-looking invitation. ‘And this means that I need a plus one!’
Vimes slammed the invitation on to the briefing room desk and looked hard at his captain.
‘What about Lady Ramkin, sir?’ asked Angua, desperate to get out of this any way she knew how.
‘Sybil is busy that night,’ grumbled Vimes. ‘Dragon fundraiser, or something.’
‘But…’ began Angua.
‘Would you like to try and tell her she has to miss it to help us with a case, hmmm?’
‘No, sir,’ said Angua, looking again at her feet.
‘Neither would I,’ said Vimes, feeling as if he were on somewhat firmer ground now.
‘But, why me, sir?’ said Angua. She was embarrassed at how much of a whine there was in her voice.
‘Because like it or not, Captain, this is a world that you know, and right now that’s more valuable to me than anything. I don’t fit in with nobby society, never have, never will, but this…thing’ – he spat the word with no small amount of disdain – ‘is being thrown by Lady Margolotta. Of Überwald! And I can’t think of another officer I’d rather have with me in such a viper’s nest of snobbery and falseness than you, Captain.’
Angua said nothing. She knew she’d lost. One of the things that she respected about Commander Vimes was the way he never gave up. It was admirable, even when it was pointed at her. She hung her head for a moment.
‘Okay, sir. I’ll do it.’
Vimes nodded. It was not lost on him what he was asking of Angua, and he showed his appreciation the only way he knew how in that situation: he patted her on the shoulder before returning to address the rest of the room.
‘Right, listen up. This could be our best chance of catching our man in the act, but it’s got to be done proper.’ Vimes picked up the invitation again and waved the side with the taunting message on it in front of him. ‘He’s expecting us to be there. Whoever this lad is he’s not stupid, so commit your orders to memory. Is that clear?’
‘Yes, sir!’ chorused the squad.
‘Okay, here’s what I want you to do.’
* * *
Vimes’ orders were given, and a plan was laid out. Time rolled on in the immutable way that it does and before too long the evening of the grand ball had arrived. Vimes sat in his dressing room at Ramkin House while Willikins laid out his most hated formal dress. It was the traditional garb of the Duke of Ankh, a title he both possessed and reviled. He was sat with his best breastplate on his knees, polishing it to a Carrot-level shine. The badge design laid into the breastplate said Commander Ankh-Morpork City Watch. He stared fixedly at it as he buffed the metal again and again.
Willikins finished laying out his master’s clothes and stood facing him. He didn’t say a word, which caused Vimes to buff faster and faster until he finally slapped the chamois down on to the breastplate and looked up.
‘Damn it, man, you have the loudest silences of anyone I’ve ever known!’
‘Sir?’ Willikins raised his eyebrows slightly.
‘Come on, out with it. What’s on your mind?’
‘Begging your pardon, sir, but the attire of the Duke of Ankh does not require the addition of armour.’
‘Well, it bloody well does now! snapped Vimes. ‘I may have to be the sodding Duke of Ankh to get invited to a highfaluting affair such as this, but as soon as I’m in there I’m damn well the Commander of the City Watch!’
‘Very good, sir. In that case I will fetch the good polish.’
* * *
At the same time as Vimes was dressing for the evening, Captain Angua occupied one of the many other bedrooms of Ramkin House. She walked critically along a line of ball gowns and evening dresses that had been hastily collated by Sybil, borrowed from various friends, friends’ daughters, friends’ nieces, etc. One of Lady Sybil’s few handmaidens stood trembling in the corner, having hung all the dresses and gowns up for Angua’s inspection. Some people in the city knew that Angua was a werewolf, others had only heard stories. Whichever it was for this poor girl she seemed to be trying to meld with the wall that she was pressing herself again. Angua looked irritably over her shoulder at the terrified creature.
‘It’s okay, you can go. I can dress myself.’ The girl gave a rapid-fire curtsey and practically bolted from the room. Angua turned her attention back to the assembled finery and selected an elegant, if somewhat slinky number with a slit partway up the leg. She reasoned if the evening was going to go the way Commander Vimes suspected then there would probably be running involved. This way, she had a ready-made tear to work on to make movement easier, should she need it.
Angua put on the dress, cursing the world she was about to begrudgingly re-enter.
* * *
While Sam Vimes polished his breastplate and Captain Angua slipped into her dress, Lord Havelock Vetinari selected his most appropriate black outfit for the evening’s festivities. Then, because it was a special occasion, he opened a small drawer in his expansive wardrobe and pulled out an ornate little silver cloak pin. The head was a deep red. He held it up to his throat and smiled.
Emerging from his dressing room, Vetinari was greeted by Drumknott. He was carrying a ledger.
‘I presume the accounts are all in order?’ asked the Patrician. He really didn’t need to ask; he knew the answer already. But it was good to keep the staff busy.
‘Yes, my Lord,’ said Drumknott, as he nodded. ‘Payments have been made as you requested, in the amounts specified.’
‘Very good,’ said Vetinari. He smiled to himself and turned to face his secretary. ‘Because I am closing that account.’
* * *
Gods, I hate it already, thought Vimes, as he stepped into the main ballroom, Captain Angua on his arm, looking as impeccable as she was annoyed. Vimes’ breastplate gleamed while his anger broiled and churned in his guts.
‘The Duke of Ankh,’ shouted the footman, whose job it was to noisily announce the arrival of the city’s supposed best and brightest. ‘Sir Samuel Vimes! And…’ The footman paused as he looked at Angua. She scowled at him, causing him to turn away very quickly.
‘And his companion,’ he finished, lamely.
Gods, I really hate it.
Vimes and Angua made their way reluctantly into the ballroom, avoiding gazes wherever possible. Vimes could feel his fists itching, and Angua’s grip on his arm was getting painful.
‘Watch yourself, Captain,’ he said, quietly. Angua looked at what she was doing and relaxed her grip. Vimes felt a sudden savage pleasure in the knowledge that he was probably the only person in the room with a plus one who could rip someone’s throat out without breaking a sweat.
‘Ah, Commander Vimes.’
Well, maybe except her.
Vimes turned around to see Lady Margolotta smiling brightly at him.
He swallowed hard. Angua’s grip resumed its prior tightness, and then doubled.
‘Your Ladyship,’ said Vimes, wincing slightly as Angua’s fingers dug in. Lady Margolotta looked a gothic vision: sleek raven hair; pearlescent skin; deep plum lips. For the briefest of seconds, Vimes had the most fleeting of thoughts of jacking it all in, of pledging undying devotion to this beauteous creature before him and following her to the ends of the Disc. The moment passed as quick as a neuron fires in the brain, and Vimes pressed on with the job at hand.
‘So good of you to come,’ said Lady Margolotta, her voice like the most exquisite morning frost. ‘Captain Angua, a pleasure.’ Again, Vimes felt painful pressure on his arm. He shook himself free before his forearm was snapped in two. He was all too aware of the centuries-long antagonism between vampires and werewolves, and while much progress had been made in recent years, he positioned himself carefully to not be too close to striking distance just in case either of the two beautifully deadly creatures decided to resurrect their age-old differences.
‘Your Ladyship,’ said Angua, evenly.
‘So,’ said Lady Margolotta with an appraising look in her eye. ‘Are your men all in place, Commander?’
Vimes looked at her, surprised. She smiled.
Angua scowled again.
‘Oh, come now, Ankh-Morpork is far too small a place for news not to travel even to my ears. I have heard about this daring young thief that has you currently so occupied.’
Vimes said nothing. On the one hand he was really annoyed that what he had felt was a rather good plan had seemingly been so easily figured out, but on the other he wasn’t surprised in the least. Thinking he could keep anything secret in this city was foolish.
The fact that Lady Margolotta looked amused didn’t help matters either.
‘We have reason to believe that the thief is going to strike again. Here, tonight.’
‘Oh?’ Lady Margolotta raised her perfectly sculpted eyebrows with mild interest.
‘So, we are taking every precaution to ensure that, if he does try anything, we will catch him red-handed.’
‘That’s excellent, Commander,’ said Lady Margolotta, smiling some more. ‘But you needn’t worry. I hear this thief is bold, but do you really think he would be misguided enough to encroach here?’
‘I wouldn’t put it past him,’ said Vimes. ‘He has already stolen from the Patrician, the Assassin’s Guild, and my own office at Pseudopolis Yard.’
‘Indeed?’ Lady Margolotta almost looked impressed. ‘My my. And is that why you have the charming Captain Angua on your arm instead of your equally charming wife, Commander?’
Vimes swallowed. She really was captivatingly beautiful.
‘Lady Sybil sends her apologies,’ said Vimes. ‘But she’s hosting a benefit for swamp dragons this evening.’
‘Ah yes, of course.’ Lady Margolotta nodded ever so slightly, never breaking eye contact with Vimes. ‘Her devotion to her cause is truly admirable. Do send her my regards.’
‘I will,’ said Vimes, returning the nod.
‘Lord Havelock Vetinari!’ shouted the footman at the main door. ‘Patrician of Ankh-Morpork, benevolent ruler of our fair city, figurehead of…’
‘Yes yes, that will do,’ said Vetinari, leaving the footman hanging in mid-accolade. He strode across the room, directly to where Vimes, Angua and Lady Margolotta were standing.
Oh great, thought Vimes. This is just getting better and better.
‘Your Ladyship,’ said Vetinari, as he bowed to Lady Margolotta. Vimes noticed a smile play across her lips that was a good deal warmer than the one she had greeted him and Angua with. It was gone in an instant, and Vetinari turned his cool gaze on to Vimes.
‘And Commander Vimes, splendid.’ Vetinari took in the shining breastplate and smiled. ‘All ready for action, I see?’