To Catch a Thief - Part Six - A Formal Affair (2 of 4)
‘Sir.’ Vimes had adopted his stock pose that he occupied when treating with Vetinari in his office. Even though he was on duty and on a case, he knew that he was doing it on their turf and not his.
‘And Captain Angua,’ said Vetinari, extending a gloved hand to her. ‘May I say that you are looking lovely this evening.’
‘Thank you, your Lordship,’ said Angua awkwardly, as her hand was shaken by the Patrician of the city.
‘Doesn’t she, though?’ said Lady Margolotta, agreeing. ‘The City Watch uniform does not do her justice.’ Angua felt a hotness in her skin that threatened to become a blush, but she willed it into submission. The day a werewolf blushed in front of a vampire was the day they might as well all sit up and beg for treats.
Lady Margolotta turned her attention back to Lord Vetinari.
‘I must commend your officers on their dedication, Havelock. Stationing their entire squad at strategic points throughout my humble home, just to protect our little get together.’ The use of the Patrician’s first name hung in the air like a lead weight, at least for Vimes and Angua. Everyone knew what the Patrician’s first name was, but no one used it, ever. Vimes sometimes wondered if his parents – assuming he had had any – had simply called him Vetinari…or your Lordship.
‘And their inventiveness must be praised as well,’ Lady Margolotta went on. ‘Your dear Commander here is convinced that we are in danger of being beset by this courageous young thief who has so quickly become the talk of the town.’
She smiled at the assembled guests around her.
‘I wouldn’t call what he is doing courageous,’ said Vimes before he could stop himself.
Again, the smile.
Again, the raise of an eyebrow.
‘Wouldn’t you?’ said Lady Margolotta, sweetly.
‘No, I wouldn’t,’ said Vimes, flatly.
‘But as you say, Commander,’ said Lady Margolotta, silkily. ‘This intrepid young thief has managed to steal from some of the most dangerous corners of the city. Dangerous for a law-breaker, at any rate, begging both your pardons.’ She nodded again, ever so slightly, at two of the men the thief had stolen from.
‘Intrepid or not,’ said Vimes, the Duty reinforcing every word. ‘Courageous or not, he has broken the law. I will catch him, and when I do, I will throw the book at him!’
Both of Lady Margolotta’s eyebrows raised this time.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Her expression was one of confusion, but there was something in her eyes, something else. Vimes noticed it, but Angua really noticed it. It was predatory. It was visceral. It was gone as quick as it came, but it had been there. Angua frowned slightly and looked at Vimes to see if he had seen the same thing as her. This train of thought was interrupted by Lord Vetinari.
‘It is a figure of speech, your Ladyship,’ he said, his gaze flitting between Lady Margolotta and Vimes. ‘Commander Vimes does not intend to literally throw a book at the thief, or anyone, as far as I know.’ He looked at Vimes for a moment, almost as if he expected him to contradict him and state that he would throw whatever he liked at whomever he liked, but Vimes said nothing.
‘Commander Vimes merely meant that once he catches our elusive young thief he will, like he would with any law-breaker, charge them to the very letter of the law. Is that not so, Commander?’
‘Sir.’ Lady Margolotta smiled and Vimes had the strangest sensation that he had just avoided something potentially unpleasant, maybe even dangerous.
‘So, tell me, Commander,’ she said. ‘Who is the rather strapping young man trying so valiantly to pass himself off as a wine waiter?’
Vimes didn’t need to look around. He knew who she meant.
‘That’s Captain Carrot, your Ladyship.’
‘Ah yes, the Dwarf,’ she said, knowingly. Vimes felt Angua tense beside him. If there was one thing that would tip her over the edge, Vimes thought, it would be a little jab at her boyfriend. He prayed to the god of coppers everywhere that things could remain civil, at least between these two.
‘And, the rightful king of Ankh-Morpork, if my genealogy is correct.’ The conversation stopped dead in its tracks. Vimes, Angua and Vetinari all looked at Lady Margolotta as if she had just sprouted another head. She seemed to find this very amusing.
‘Oh, come now,’ she said, almost laughing. ‘It is hardly a secret, if you know where to look.’ She seemed to be enjoying herself immensely at bringing up a topic that people generally didn’t talk about, either because they didn’t believe it, or they didn’t know about it. Lord Vetinari certainly seemed to know about it, judging by the expression on his face. This made Lady Margolotta smile even more.
‘I wouldn’t worry yourself, Havelock. As I understand it our esteemed Captain Carrot is most happy being a Watchman.’ She slipped her hand into the crook of the Patrician’s arm and smiled. Vimes and Angua suddenly felt as if they were intruding on something that they shouldn’t.
‘We should be circulating,’ he said, awkwardly. ‘Keeping our eyes out for anything suspicious.’
‘The honourable Lord Rust!’
The voice of the footman cut through the room. Vimes looked across at the door and saw the elderly aristocrat walking directly towards them.
Great, thought Vimes.
Vetinari seemed pleased, however.
‘Ah, Lord Rust,’ he said with a dangerous brightness to his voice. ‘So good of you to come.’
Rust looked a little put out, but decades of having the proper manners drilled into him maintained control.
‘Your Lordship,’ he said, tersely. ‘Your Ladyship.’ Rust bowed to Lady Margolotta. As he stood, he caught sight of Vimes.
Rust didn’t even bother looking in Angua’s direction.
‘Your journey here was a pleasant one, I trust?’ said Vetinari. Vimes was starting to feel a little worried. Vetinari was verging on being nice.
What was going on?
Rust looked at those around him before answering.
‘Very comfortable, thank you.’ He seemed on edge, ill at ease. ‘But really you did not have to send one of your carriages to collect me. I could have made my own way here.’
‘Not at all,’ said Vetinari, genially. ‘It was my pleasure. I understand that it is your driver’s afternoon off, and Lady Margolotta has spared no expense on this wonderful event. I really would be most remiss if you had been unable to attend.’
Lord Rust frowned slightly while attempting to maintain the normal air of polite nobbiness that set Vimes’ teeth on edge.
‘How…how did you know that it was my driver’s afternoon off?’ he asked.
Lord Vetinari smiled.
It was a knowing smile, Vimes noticed. Instinctively, he took a slight step backwards, as if to get out of the blast-zone.
‘I pride myself on knowing all that goes on in the city, your Lordship,’ said Vetinari, smoothly.
Rust’s frown turned, momentarily, into raised eyebrows. They were back down in a second.
‘Yes, well, thank you for thinking of me.’
‘Oh, I assure you, your Lordship,’ said Vetinari, meaningfully. ‘I have been thinking a great deal of late.’
The two men looked at each other. It wasn’t overly hot in the ballroom, but looking at Rust, Vimes got the distinct impression that he was growing rather hot under the collar. There was a definite tension in the air, and Vimes’ copper senses were sitting up and taking notice. Ordinarily, he had no time at all for the petty squabbles of Ankh-Morpork’s aristocracy, but this felt different.
This felt important.
Vimes watched both men with increased scrutiny, trying to fathom what was going on.
His train of thought was cut short, though, by Lady Margolotta.
‘Would anyone care for a drink?’ She hailed a passing waiter and as Vimes continued to look at both Rust and Vetinari, a young man with a tray of glasses approached them.
‘Commander?’ said Lady Margolotta, as she took a glass of the deepest red wine Vimes had ever seen.
At least he hoped it was wine.
‘No, thank you,’ said Vimes.
‘Do not worry, Commander,’ said Lady Margolotta with an indulgent smile. ‘Havelock is not the only one who knows what goes on in this city.’
Vimes looked at her quizzically.
Lady Margolotta continued to smile.
‘I am aware that you no longer drink, Commander. So, I have made special provisions for you.’ She reached with her free hand for a glass at the far end of the tray.
‘Here,’ she said, offering Vimes the glass. ‘One hundred percent alcohol-free. You have my word.’ Vimes partway reached for the glass but stopped. Part of his copper’s brain was screaming at him to not be so bloody stupid, but his eyes had met with Lady Margolotta’s again. It was there again, still as brief, but there, nonetheless. That pull that, if he allowed it to, would have him swilling down the contents of every wine cellar in the city if it would please the woman in front of him. He scrutinised the eyes for a moment and saw not the animal but the Lady, a seemingly genuine desire to accommodate her guests.
Vimes took the drink.
‘A toast,’ said Lady Margolotta, smiling still. ‘To this marvellous city and all who dwell within it.’ The small group of people – each with drinks in hand – raised their glasses to the toast and drank. Vimes moved his gaze from Lady Margolotta to the waiter who stood patiently, waiting for the empty glasses.
Their eyes met.
Vimes’ eyes narrowed.
The waiter’s eyes…
They looked just like…
Of all the nerve!
In an ear-splitting moment, Vimes threw down his glass and shot his arm out, closing his fingers around the upper arm of the waiter. Oddly, the muscle under Vimes’ grip didn’t even tense.
As if he’d been expecting this.
‘You’re under arrest, m’laddo!’ The words erupted from Vimes’ mouth with no attempt to conceal the triumph. He had done it. He’d caught the cheeky bugger with his hand firmly in the till.
But the waiter – or thief – didn’t resist.
That wasn’t what Vimes was expecting.
Vimes looked into the thief’s eyes.
The thief smiled.
Vimes then looked at Vetinari.
And it hit him. Like the force of a cannonball.
Scratch that. Like the force of a cannonball, followed, rather promptly, by the cannon.
Lord Vetinari nodded, ever so slightly.
It was as if someone had let all the air out of Sam Vimes. He relaxed his grip and let his hand fall to his side with a depressing little thud. Captain Angua looked at her Commander in stunned amazement. All around them the ball was proceeding as planned, but within this small knot of people, the world was unravelling.
It was the waiter who spoke first.
‘Well, aren’t you going to introduce me…father?’ The waiter gave his tray to an unexpecting member of the serving staff, who took it with a look of mild confusion on their face, while the waiter removed what had, up until that point, been a rather impressively done false nose and forehead. The rubber makeup cast aside, the waiter – the thief – stood before the small cluster of people, his identity revealed at last.
This time it was Lord Rust who had spoken. The old aristocrat looked apoplectic with rage. He was pointing a shaking finger at the young man in front of him, who merely smiled.
‘Me,’ he said.
‘Is something wrong, your Lordship?’ asked the Patrician, who looked mildly amused by the proceedings.
Lord Rust could barely speak. He managed to choke out the words: ‘You’re here? And he knows?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Vetinari.
‘Surprise,’ said the thief, still smiling.
As if someone had put the air back into Vimes, he jerked himself out of the stupor this situation had knocked him into and found his voice again.
‘I’m sorry, but what on the Disc is going on?’ Almost as if he had forgotten he was surrounded by a room full of people, Lord Vetinari looked at Vimes as if he had only just entered the room. He recovered in a heartbeat and walked over to stand next to the young man, who was still smiling.
‘Commander, allow me the pleasure of introducing you to my son, Clarence.’
‘Hi,’ said Clarence, giving Vimes a little wave.
‘Clarence?’ Vimes said it before he had time to stop his mouth.
‘Yes, Clarence,’ said Vetinari, who did not seem to find anything funny about this whatsoever, allowing the unspoken that neither should anyone else to sink in.
‘But…but…’ said Vimes, not knowing where to start to unpack this dragon-sized piece of information that had just settled itself on to his shoulders.
‘Allow me to explain,’ said Vetinari.
‘What’s to explain?’ cut in Lord Rust, now pointing his shaking finger at the Patrician instead. ‘The truth is out! You, our so-called benevolent leader, has had a child! Out of wedlock!’
‘Yes, I have,’ said Vetinari, with a dangerous level of calmness to his voice. ‘Your point being?’ Lord Rust looked wildly around him. This was not supposed to happen. This was not how it was supposed to go. He looked at the assembled masses attending the ball. He suddenly felt hot and cornered, His lips felt dry. The skin on his forehead felt too tight.
He was trapped.
Time to make a break for it. With an agility that belied his age, Lord Rust moved swiftly, standing quickly on a chair and then on to one of the tables, giving him an unobscured view of the ballroom.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please?’ Lord Rust was bellowing at the top of his lungs. Even over the background noise of the chamber music and the small talk of so many people he could be heard. Vimes caught sight of Captain Carrot moving through the crowd.
Once the old aristocrat had the room, he continued. Some of his confidence returning, he seemed to warm to being in the spotlight.
‘I would have you at this time draw your eyes to the young man standing with the Patrician of our fair city.’ Lord Rust allowed a moment for people to crane their necks to get a look at who he was talking about.
‘As I am sure you are all aware, Ankh-Morpork has recently been at the mercy of a master criminal. A master criminal who has struck with impunity at the very core of our hearths and hearts.’ Vimes stared at Lord Rust as he went on. The old snake was enjoying himself now, whatever he was up to.
‘Well, it may interest you to know,’ continued Lord Rust. ‘That not a moment ago our intrepid Commander Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch apprehended the thief – that very man there - after a painstaking investigation.’