Noakes stepped out onto Short Street. He looked at his hands; they were shaking. He clasped them together and stared down the street. The usual drunken stragglers were still milling around, wandering up from The Mended Drum. But apart from them, the rest of the city appeared to be asleep. He knew it was late, and the commander would probably be in bed, but... he hadn't ever had another choice.
He couldn't allow Carrot to leave. It would cost the commander far more than an officer if he did. Besides, what sort of man would he be, if he put himself before the integrity of the Watch?
Noakes began making his way towards Vimes' house.
He couldn't understand why Carrot was leaving. Not when he still cared for the commander. The boy obviously meant well, but he was misguided. You didn't give up on something just because things were difficult; if something was important to you, then you should be prepared to fight for it. Carrot was young; he still had a lot to learn. And one of the things he would discover was that, sometimes, personal and important amounted to the same thing...
He found it odd that Carrot suspected something between the commander and himself. Heaven knows where he'd gotten that idea. Although, it was understandable, given the circumstances. And it didn't really matter; it'd brought things to a head, and it wasn't the first time he'd been floored. But he was pretty sure someone was influencing Carrot. Someone had to have told him about the commander's concern over his kidnapping for a start. There's no way Carrot could have known that. And looking back, it wasn't hard to remember who'd been there. A certain hand on someone's shoulder also sprang to mind...
Noakes realized that the part of his brain still in Watchman mode had caused him to notice a small group of people up ahead. Four men and a woman were larking about. At least, the men appeared to be having fun. Something about the woman's expression, however, told him the scene wasn't all it at first appeared...
Instinctively, he moved closer.
The woman spotted him. She eyed him critically, as if appraising him. Apparently satisfied, she then seemed to make a decision. "Ah, here's my boyfriend now," she said loudly. "I told you he wouldn't be long."
Four faces turned towards Noakes.
He recognized the sort immediately; they trailed past his window every night. Emboldened by alcohol and no strangers to trouble, they were every woman's nightmare. And every man's too, if he got on the wrong side of them. The woman was looking at him expectantly.
"Everything all right?" he said.
The smallest of the four, the mouthpiece, Noakes decided, stepped up to him. "Of course. Why shouldn't it be? We was just inquiring whether your young lady needed any help getting home."
Noakes glanced at the three goons standing behind him. They were murmuring in agreement and nodding, clearly allowing someone else to do the thinking. One of them was watching Noakes intently, as if he recognized him. He hoped it wasn't someone who'd spent a night too many in the cells and was still bearing a grudge.
"Well, I thank you for your concern," said Noakes, gently taking the woman's arm. "But I think I can manage." He shepherded the woman away, risking a quick glance at the goon who'd been staring; he'd leaned across to his companion and was now whispering to him. Both men now had their eyes fixed on him.
The woman gripped Noakes' hand; whether it was for assurance or appearance, he wasn't sure.
They managed a few steps.
"You know, it ain't gentlemanly leaving a lady standing around for so long," said someone behind him.
Noakes' stomach turned to lead.
"I'll take your advice," he said, attempting to move forward. But there was movement on either side of him.
"It's a dangerous place, the streets, see. Especially for ladies."
The one Noakes had nicknamed 'mouthpiece' stepped out in front of him.
"Well, I can assure you this particular lady will be safe with me," said Noakes.
Mouthpiece grinned. "Oh, I've no doubts about that. Any lady would be safe with you, I expect."
The grip on Noakes' hand tightened; behind them, someone sniggered.
"Look, why don't you just let us go home?" said the woman. "What's wrong with you people?"
"Nothing wrong with us, Miss," said Mouthpiece. "But you might want to take more care in choosing your boyfriends."
The woman gave Noakes a sideways glance. "What are you talking about?" she said. "What's wrong with the one I have?"
Mouthpiece leaned forward and thrust his chin in Noakes' face.
"He's a faggot," he said.
Noakes winced; but the words didn't cut him half as much as the look the woman gave him.
She pulled away.
Noakes closed his eyes.
Mouthpiece grinned. "That's right, Miss, you run along now. You don't want to be seen with the likes of him." He cracked his knuckles.
Noakes felt the woman looking at him and sensed her hesitation. He didn't look at her. "Go," he said softly.
She turned and fled.
Noakes looked up. Lights began winking off along the street, reminding him not only of the late hour, but also of how alone he was. But there was no fear in his eyes, only sadness. Experience told him there was only two ways this could go. He could either stay and talk, or he could stay and fight. He had time for neither.
"I'll bet he fights just like a woman," quipped Mouthpiece. The comment was greeted by howls of laughter.
"Shouldn't be a problem for you, then," said Noakes quietly. "Since you normally pick on ladies."
The ensuing laughter was quickly silenced by a sharp look from Mouthpiece. He turned to face Noakes.
"You have a lot of lip, Faggot," he snarled.
"And you have a dirty mouth," said Noakes.
A blade flashed in the dark.
The goons stepped back.
Mouthpiece made a few elaborate gestures with the blade.
"Don't wave that thing at me unless you intend using it," said Noakes quietly.
Noakes sidestepped easily and knocked the weapon from his hand. His fist found the man's stomach and then an elbow to the ear left him rolling on the ground in agony. Noakes kicked the blade away and turned to face the others. "Now, I'd really like to stay and play with you," he said coldly. "But unfortunately, I'm a busy man. So why don't you just run along now, and let me go about my business?"
The goons looked at each other. There was general murmuring, and two of them made to leave.
But the last one was watching the ground behind Noakes.
Noakes knew what he was looking at; he'd already heard Mouthpiece struggling to get up.
Stay down... he thought.
But the man was determined; he'd lost face in front of the goons, and he was livid.
The goons who'd been leaving came back...
"What are you waiting for?" yelled Mouthpiece. "There's only one of him! He's not even arm—"
The man hadn't been quite to his feet, but Noakes was able to overcome his scruples about hitting a downed man, and struck him hard on the chin.
There was silence.
But Noakes knew he'd only postponed the inevitable.
Now, the goons were thinking...
And then they rushed him.
At the end of Short Street, the woman slowed to a halt and glanced back. The man who had stopped to help her was fighting valiantly, but it was clear he couldn't hold out. Even as she watched, two of the men held his arms while another pummelled him mercilessly. She looked around in desperation, hoping someone would step in, but Short Street was deserted.
She saw the man go down, and knew what would follow.
So she ran on, unable to help and unwilling to watch...
Finally secure in his tatty office chair, Vimes sat and stared into space...
The clock on the wall said: 5:32 a.m.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd come to work this early. But then, he couldn't remember the last time he'd woken up in the Patrician's bed wearing nothing more than black silk pyjamas...
The good news was that it had cured his hangover instantly.
The bad news was that he couldn't quite remember how he'd got there...
He'd been drinking; he knew that much, and he knew why, and he wasn't about to start mulling that over again. He wasn't up to it. Not yet.
Beyond that, though, all he could remember was his anger.
Gods, did he remember his anger...
He'd gone to the palace and told the Patrician exactly what he thought of him. All the emotions he'd bottled up for so long, suddenly finding an outlet. Gods, he'd exploded, hadn't he?
And he'd expected a decent fight...
But what had the Patrician done? He'd undressed him and put him to bed.
He was pretty sure that had been done for Sybil's benefit. And he was actually grateful for that; it was one thing to hurt him, it was quite another to hurt Sybil. But he had a sneaking suspicion he hadn't even begun to pay for this yet...
It suddenly occurred to him that it might have been Drumknott who'd undressed him. He wondered how badly he'd upset him with his outburst, and what a vengeful clerk might be capable of, when left alone with a sleeping, but above all naked, individual...
He tried desperately not to think about paper knives.
No, far better to focus on the Watch rota...
The clock on the wall said: 5:55 a.m.
Noakes was on early this morning, wasn't he?
Vimes felt a sudden twinge of annoyance. Any other day Noakes would have been here by now, he normally arrived way before his shift was due. It was typical that on the one morning he would have liked someone to talk to, Noakes had decided to arrive dead on ti—
The door suddenly flew open and Cheery burst in.
"Oh, sir! Thank gods you're here! You have to come quickly!"
"Why? What's wrong?"
"Officer down, sir!"
Vimes flew out of his chair. "Oh, gods... Who?"
"Captain Noakes, sir. He's been creamed!"
"What? When? What happened?"
"I-I'm not sure, sir."
"Well, hasn't anyone asked him? What did he say?"
"He didn't say anything, sir. He can't talk!"