To Catch a Thief - Part Two - A Shady Character (2 of 2)
Vimes took off and began the pursuit anew. As soon as he did, various parts of his body began to protest. He was certainly not a young man anymore, and the years, combined with the bacon sandwich were making this impromptu bolt through the city streets a less than pleasant affair. The cold air felt like icy water as he gulped it down, puffing his breath and pounding his arms, giving chase as best he could.
Physically, Vimes’ body was not enjoying itself.
Mentally, though, Vimes was loving every second of it.
To be on the streets, in the thick of it, that’s what real coppering was all about, thought Vimes as he got up to his optimum sprint. Just him and a lawbreaker, locked in the beautiful chase; in that moment everything else went away. Vimes’ knees threatened to pop out of his skin, and his chest felt like a smithy’s furnace, even with the air cold as steel, but as he thundered his way through the streets of the city – of his city – he wouldn’t have traded it for all the bacon sandwiches on the Disc, not even with a lifetime supply of crunchy bits.
This chap was fast, though.
Vimes narrowed his eyes and focussed, keeping the fleeing suspect in his sight. Whomever he was he was good, perhaps too good. Even in his youth Vimes wasn’t sure he’d be able to catch this slippery character. No, if he was going to get the better of this fellow he was going to need to think faster, even if he couldn’t run faster.
But then the thief made a fatal mistake.
He ran into the Shades.
Got you, sunshine.
Despite feeling massively out of breath, Vimes grinned. He knew the Shades better than the back of his hand – having been born and raised there – and the thief entering the oldest part of the oldest city on the Disc was akin to slapping the cuffs on himself. Vimes slowed to a jog and halted at the entrance to the Shades, scanning the streets before him and making some rapid mental calculations. He was being watched by a small girl who was sitting on the curb with a basket of pathetic, half-wilted flowers in front of her. Scrawled on a piece of wood were the words:
FLOURS FOR SAIL
Vimes looked from the girl to the streets of the Shades – redolent with long and dark shadows, thanks to the low winter sun – and then back at the girl. He started unbuttoning his breastplate.
‘Do me a favour, Miss. Keep an eye on these, please.’ Vimes laid his breastplate, badge, and helmet on the pavement next to the girl. The kind of pursuit this had now become called for more manoeuvrability than his full uniform was going to allow. The girl looked up at Vimes but said nothing. Vimes fished in the pouch on his belt and tossed the girl an AM Dollar coin. She caught it, looked at Vimes suspiciously, and bit on the coin, just in case.
‘Good girl,’ said Vimes.
‘Piss off, copper,’ said the girl, in a disarmingly sweet voice.
Vimes smiled at her.
Very good girl, he thought.
‘I’ll be back for those later,’ he said, as he took off into the Shades. ‘And there’ll be another Dollar in it for you if I don’t have to go down the shonky shop to buy them back.’ The girl stuck two fingers up at Vimes’ back as he disappeared around a corner. Then, she turned and laid a protective hand on the armour. The people of the Shades may have mistrusted authority in all its forms, but a Dollar was a Dollar, and being poor certainly didn’t mean being stupid.
Stripped of his policeman’s garb, Vimes breathed in the unmistakable aroma of the Shades and planned his route in his mind. The Shades was a city within a city, and if Ankh-Morpork was Sam Vimes’ city, then the Shades was his childhood playground.
Okay, my lad, he thought, as he peered around a corner, let’s see how good you really are.
Keeping to the shadows, Vimes moved through the ill-lit streets and dank back alleys that made up the Shades. Stopping here, he quickly and quietly vaulted over a low wall. Turning there, he lifted a loose fence panel and slipped on through. Things hadn’t changed much, if at all, since he was a child, and this played wonderfully into his hands. Whomever the thief was, Vimes was willing to bet the entire tea kitty that he didn’t know about all the shortcuts and secret ways that the Shades had to offer.
He was right.
As Vimes squeezed between two buildings, he heard running footsteps. Taking the long way around because of that big sinkhole at the end of Cockbill Street, are you, he thought.
Vimes worked his way quickly out from between the two buildings. He was standing in a small, filthy courtyard with high walls on every side. Without hesitation, Vimes moved to one of the walls and hoisted himself up it. Finding hand and footholds that his body instinctively knew were there, Vimes hauled himself on to the roof of a low building, giving him a view of the whole street below. He crouched low and squinted into the mass of shadows that made up the street. As he did so a grin spread across his face.
On the other side of the street, behind a rough wooden fence, Vimes could see a hunched figure between two of the uneven posts. Even with the low sun playing havoc with the shadows, Vimes knew he had his man. He was clearly resting after such exertion and didn’t realise that he was visible from his hiding place.
Vimes moved stealthily towards the opposite side of the roof and looked down. There should be – yes, there it was – a windowsill that stuck out just enough to get a foothold on. Swinging his legs over the edge of the roof, Vimes turned himself around and lowered his body down, his toes pointing, ready to feel stone underneath them. When they found it, he allowed his weight to ease on to the windowsill. His mind had cut back through the years to when he was a boy traversing these streets. He remembered that the drop from this windowsill was a fair distance when he was a boy. Not impossible, but it jolted like a bastard all the same when his feet used to hit the cobblestones. Now, though, a full-grown man, he was only a foot or so from the ground when he lowered himself from the windowsill.
The Shades don’t change, Vimes told himself. Only you change, and all you can do is hope it’s for the better.
Landing softly at street level, Vimes turned to face the fence on the other side of the road. He crouched instinctively and peered at the fence. Yes, the thief was still there. Probably going through his catch. The thought struck Vimes that he didn’t know what this chap had stolen, but that didn’t matter. The point was that he had stolen something, and he had run from him. You didn’t run from the Law unless you were guilty.
Moving low and quiet, Vimes trotted lightly across the street towards the fence, his heart beating hard in his chest. It felt like an age since he had gotten to chase a criminal, really chase one, and his body and mind tingled with the excitement. Putting his back against the splintery wood, Vimes held his breath. His fingers felt for the knothole that he knew was there, the knothole that would allow him to pull back the loose fence panel – there was one in every fence, and if there wasn’t, you made one – and surprise…
‘You’re under arrest!’ Vimes shouted, triumphantly, as he tore back the fence panel and darted through, springing out in front of…
Well, not nothing. Just behind the fence was a wig and a false beard, hung on a scarecrow’s cross. The tunic the thief had been wearing was draped over the cross as well, making for a poor imitation of the man Vimes felt sure he had cornered. Anger boiled in the Commander’s stomach as he looked around him. His body tensed, his fists clenched and ready to fight. Either he had just walked into a trap, or someone was having a bloody good laugh at his expense.
Vimes turned on the spot, scanning the area around him, waiting for an attack that never came. His ears strained for any sound that might indicate the thief was near, but there was nothing. Just Vimes’ own breathing that fogged in the chilly air. A breeze blew and caught the sweat that Vimes realised he was caked in. He suddenly felt very cold.
Very cold, and very, very angry.
He’d been tricked. Worse, he’d been tricked in his own backyard. The streets of the Shades had played witness to Vimes’ formative years and had taught him that to make it in that part of the city, and the city of Ankh-Morpork as a whole, you needed lightning wits and cast-iron nerves. As he resigned himself to the maddening truth that the thief had gotten away, while making him look like a blundering buffoon in the process, he felt as if he had let the city down. As if he had let the Law down.
Vimes trudged dispiritedly back to the flower girl, his body now making full use of the time to put in all the complaints that his brain had been too busy to register before. His legs felt like jelly, his chest was on fire, and his head was swimming.
But at least the girl hadn’t made off with his uniform.
‘Thank you, Miss,’ said Vimes, offering her a weak smile and tossing her the previously promised second Dollar. True to form, the girl bit this one, too. Vimes sullenly pulled his armour back on and was about to make his way back to Pseudopolis Yard when the flower girl stopped him.
‘Oi,’ she said, with the trademark absence of respect that all denizens of the Shades carried in the face of the Watch. ‘He left this for you.’
‘He? Who?’ Vimes frowned as the flower girl produced a small white card. Vimes took it and his pupils narrowed in barely suppressed rage as he read:
Better luck next time, Your Grace
* * *