“I wonder if I made the word 'plain' clear enough?” said Captain Vimes.
“It's what I wear outside work, guv,” said Nobby reproachfully.
“Sir,” corrected Sergeant Colon.
“My voice is in plain clothes too,” said Nobby. “Initiative, that is.”
Vimes walked slowly around the corporal.
“And your plain clothes do not cause old women to faint and small boys to run after you in the street?” he said.
Nobby shifted uneasily. He wasn't at home with irony.
“No, sir, guv,” he said. “It's all the go, this style.”
This was broadly true. There was a current fad in Ankh for big, feathered hats, ruffs, slashed doublets with gold frogging, flared pantaloons and boots with ornamental spurs. The trouble was, Vimes reflected, that most of the fashion-conscious had more body to go between these component bits, whereas all that could be said of Corporal Nobbs was that he was in there somewhere.
It might be advantageous. After all, absolutely no-one would ever believe, when they saw him coming down the street, that here was a member of the Watch trying to look inconspicuous.
It occurred to Vimes that he knew absolutely nothing about Nobbs outside working hours. He couldn't even remember where the man lived. All these years he'd known the man and he'd never realised that, in his secret private life, Corporal Nobbs was a bit of a peacock. A very short peacock, it was true, a peacock that had been hit repeatedly with something heavy, perhaps, but a peacock nonetheless. It just went to show, you never could tell.
He brought his attention back to the business in hand.
“I want you two,” he said to Nobbs and Colon, “to mingle unobtrusively, or obtrusively in your case, Corporal Nobbs, with people tonight and, er, see if you can detect anything unusual.”
“Unusual like what?” said the sergeant.
Vimes hesitated. He wasn't exactly sure himself. '' Anything,“ he said, ” pertinent.''
“Ah.” The sergeant nodded wisely. “Pertinent. Right.”
There was an awkward silence.
“Maybe people have seen weird things,” said Captain Vimes. “Or perhaps there have been unexplained fires. Or footprints. You know,” he finished, desperately, “signs of dragons.”
“You mean, like, piles of gold what have been slept on,” said the sergeant.
“And virgins being chained to rocks,” said Nobbs, knowingly.
“I can see you're experts,” sighed Vimes. “Just do the best you can.”
“This mingling,” said Sergeant Colon delicately, “it would involve going into taverns and drinking and similar, would it?”
“To a certain extent,” said Vimes.
“Ah,” said the sergeant, happily.
“Right you are, sir.”
“And at your own expense.”
“But before you go,” said the captain, “do either of you know anyone who might know anything about dragons? Apart from sleeping on gold and the bit with the young women, I mean.”
“Wizards would,” volunteered Nobby.
“Apart from wizards,” said Vimes firmly. You couldn't trust wizards. Every guard knew you couldn't trust wizards. They were even worse than civilians.
Colon thought about it. “There's always Lady Ramkin,” he said. “Lives in Scoone Avenue. Breeds swamp dragons. You know, the little buggers people keep as pets?”
“Oh, her,” said Vimes gloomily. “I think I've seen her around. The one with the 'Whinny If You Love Dragons' sticker on the back of her carriage?”
“That's her. She's mental,” said Sergeant Colon.
“What do you want me to do, sir?” said Carrot.
“Er. You have the most important job,” said Vimes hurriedly. “I want you to stay here and watch the office.”
Carrot's face broadened in a slow, unbelieving grin.
“You mean I'm left in charge, sir?” he said.
“In a manner of speaking,” said Vimes. “But you're not allowed to arrest anyone, understand?” he added quickly.
“Not even if they're breaking the law, sir?”
“Not even then. Just make a note of it.”
“I'll read my book, then,” said Carrot. "And polish my helmet.''
“Good boy,” said the captain. It should be safe enough, he thought. No-one ever comes in here, not even to report a lost dog. No-one ever thinks about the Watch. You'd have to be really out of touch to go to the Watch for help, he thought bitterly.
Scoone Avenue was a wide, tree-lined, and incredibly select part of Ankh, high enough above the river to be away from its all-pervading smell. People in Scoone Avenue had old money, which was supposed to be much better than new money, although Captain Vimes had never had enough of either to spot the difference. People in Scoone Avenue had their own personal bodyguards. People in Scoone Avenue were said to be so aloof they wouldn't even talk to the gods. This was a slight slander. They would talk to gods, if they were well-bred gods of decent family.
Lady Ramkin's house was not hard to find. It commanded an outcrop that gave it a magnificent view of the city, if that was your idea of a good time. There were stone dragons on the gatepost, and the gardens had an unkempt overgrown look. Statues of Ramkins long gone loomed up out of the greenery. Most of them had swords and were covered in ivy up to the neck.
Vimes sensed that this was not because the garden's owner was too poor to do anything about it, but rather that the garden's owner thought there were much more important things than ancestors, which was a pretty unusual point of view for an aristocrat.
They also apparently thought that there were more important things than property repair. When he rang the bell of the rather pleasant old house itself, in the middle of a flourishing rhododendron forest, several bits of the plaster facade fell off.
That seemed to be the only effect, except that something round the back of the house started to howl. Some things.
It started to rain again. After a while Vimes felt the dignity of his position and cautiously edged around the building, keeping well back in case anything else collapsed.
He reached a heavy wooden gate in a heavy wooden wall. In contrast with the general decrepitude of the rest of the place, it seemed comparatively new and very solid.
He knocked. This caused another fusillade of strange whistling noises.
The door opened. Something dreadful loomed over him.
“Ah, good man. Do you know anything about mating?” it boomed.
It was quiet and warm in the Watch House. Carrot listened to the hissing of sand in the hourglass and concentrated on buffing up his breastplate. Centuries of tarnish had given up under his cheerful onslaught. It gleamed.
You knew where you were with a shiny breastplate. The strangeness of the city, where they had all these laws and concentrated on ignoring them, was too much for him. But a shiny breastplate was a breastplate well shined.
The door opened. He peered across the top of the ancient desk. There was no-one there.
He tried a few more industrious rubs.
There was the vague sound of someone who had got fed up with waiting. Two purple-fingernailed hands grasped the edge of the desk, and the Librarian's face rose slowly into view like an early-morning coconut.
“Oook,” he said.
Carrot stared. It had been explained to him carefully that, contrary to appearances, laws governing the animal kingdom did not apply to the Librarian. On the other hand, the Librarian himself was never very interested in obeying the laws governing the human kingdom, either. He was one of those little anomalies you have to build around.
“Hallo,” said Carrot uncertainly. (“Don't call him 'boy' or pat him, that always gets him annoyed.”)
The Librarian prodded the desk with a long, many-jointed finger.
The Librarian rolled his eyes. It was strange, he felt, that so-called intelligent dogs, horses and dolphins never had any difficulty indicating to humans the vital news of the moment, e.g., that the three children were lost in the cave, or the train was about to take the line leading to the bridge that had been washed away or similar, while he, only a handful of chromosomes away from wearing a vest, found it difficult to persuade the average human to come in out of the rain. You just couldn't talk to some people.
“Oook!” he said, and beckoned.
“I can't leave the office,” said Carrot. “I've had Orders.”
The Librarian's upper lip rolled back like a blind.
“Is that a smile?” said Carrot. The Librarian shook his head.
“Someone hasn't committed a crime, have they?” said Carrot.
“A bad crime?”
“Worse than murder?”
“Eeek!” The Librarian knuckled over to the door and bounced up and down urgently.
Carrot gulped. Orders were orders, yes, but this was something else. The people in this city were capable of anything.
He buckled on his breastplate, screwed his sparkling helmet on to his head, and strode towards the door.
Then he remembered his responsibilities. He went back to the desk, found a scrap of paper, and painstakingly wrote: Out Fighting Crime, Pleass Call Again Later. Thankyou.
And then he went out on to the streets, untarnished and unafraid.
The Supreme Grand Master raised his arms. “Brethren,” he said, “let us begin ...” It was so easy. All you had to do was channel that great septic reservoir of jealousy and cringing resentment that the Brothers had in such abundance, harness their dreadful mundane unpleasantness which had a force greater in its way than roaring evil, and then open your own mind . . .
. . . into the place where the dragons went.
Vimes found himself grabbed by the arm and pulled inside. The heavy door shut behind him with a definite click.
“It's Lord Mountjoy Gayscale Talonthrust III of Ankh,” said the apparition, which was dressed in huge and fearsomely-padded armour. “You know, I really don't think he can cut the mustard.”
“He can't?” said Vimes, backing away.
“It really needs two of you.”
“It does, doesn't it,” whispered Vimes, his shoulder blades trying to carve their way out through the fence.
“Could you oblige?” boomed the thing.
“Oh, don't be squeamish, man. You just have to help him up into the air. It's me who has the tricky part. I know it's cruel, but if he can't manage it tonight then he's for the choppy-chop. Survival of the fittest and all that, don't you know.”
Captain Vimes managed to get a grip on himself. He was clearly in the presence of some sex-crazed would-be murderess, insofar as any gender could be determined under the strange lumpy garments. If it wasn't female, then references to “it's me who has the tricky part” gave rise to mental images that would haunt him for some time to come. He knew the rich did things differently, but this was going too far.
“Madam,” he said coldly, “I am an officer of the Watch and I must warn you that the course of action you are suggesting breaks the laws of the city-” and also of several of the more strait-laced gods, he added silently-“and I must advise you that his Lordship should be released unharmed immediately-”