Vimes made no attempt to hide the scowl on his face as he climbed the steps to the Oblong office. He wasn’t looking forward to this meeting. Vetinari had already made it clear how he felt about his and Carrot’s relationship. Another confrontation like the one they’d had when he’d found out about them, was not what he needed right now.
He shuddered as he recalled the way Vetinari had stood there that day and calmly advised him to end their relationship. He hadn’t been angry about it; he’d just smiled, in that sanctimonious way of his, as if splitting them up gave him some kind of perverse pleasure. He hadn’t been successful, of course; Carrot had put paid to that, but he'd always avoided the subject on subsequent visits to the palace. The subject was damn near unavoidable now though. Vetinari wouldn’t miss this chance to lecture him about how his reluctance to stop seeing Carrot had brought him nothing but trouble, and he had an awful feeling this meeting was about to turn into a repeat performance.
Vimes entered the anteroom and sat down. He stared at the wall, trying not to listen to the sounds of the hated clock. He could already feel the tension building inside him.
He’d never fully understood why Vetinari had been so against their relationship, since he’d been given to understand it wasn’t the actual idea Vetinari was averse to, just the fact that it was him.
What in the hells would he know about it anyway? he thought. He has no more feelings than a dead cat...
Drumknott appeared. “His Lordship said to go straight in, sir,” he said. “He’s been expecting you.”
I’ll bet he has, thought Vimes.
Vetinari was standing by the window when he entered. He turned when he heard Vimes come in, and immediately came across the room to meet him. His face was grave.
“Sir Samuel,” he said. “What’s all this about Captain Carrot being kidnapped? Some sort of hoax, surely?”
“I wish it were, sir,” said Vimes grimly, fishing in his pocket for the note. “But this arrived this morning, sir.” He handed the note to Vetinari. “I take it Captain Noakes has already informed you about it?”
“He mentioned it, certainly,” said Vetinari, taking it from him. “But he gave me scant details, I’m afraid. He said you would explain it to me when you got here.”
“There’s nothing to explain, sir. It’s all there in the note.”
Vimes waited as Vetinari unfolded the note and began to read it. His lips moved silently as his eyes skimmed across the page. Suddenly, he frowned and looked up; he stared straight ahead, seemingly at nothing.
Vimes braced himself.
“Who else has seen this note, commander?” said Vetinari abruptly.
“Only Captain Noakes, sir.”
The Patrician pursed his lips.
“He was the officer in charge when it arrived, sir,” said Vimes, feeling strangely as though he should defend Noakes’ actions. “Therefore, it was his job to open and read it.”
"I see. Well, as far as I can remember, commander, Captain Noakes is neither illiterate nor stupid.”
“No, sir, he’s far from it.”
“So, would you mind telling me what he made of this?”
“He seemed to think it was a ransom note, sir.”
Vetinari turned to face him.
Vimes sighed. “He doesn’t know anything, sir. He thinks the kidnappers have mistaken Carrot for a... a relative of mine. My son, perhaps.”
“Well, they’re not from around here, sir. So, that’s probably what they do think, since they can’t know about... well, they can’t possibly know anything else.”
Vetinari drummed his fingers on the note. “Aren’t you missing one small detail here, commander?”
Vimes rubbed his forehead. “I don’t know, sir,” he said wearily. “Am I?” I don’t need this, he thought. What I need now is a good night’s sleep; a few hours when I don’t have to worry about Carrot getting himself killed, or someone else finding out about us...
“Sir Samuel, while I fully appreciate how upset you might be under the circumstances—”
“I can see it’s already affecting your ability to think.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Sir Samuel, these people aren’t opportunists. This kidnapping has been planned.”
“And?” said Vimes, a little testily.
“And so if it’s been planned,” said Vetinari, in the tones of one talking to a child. “Then presumably these people have been watching Captain Carrot—”
“Oh, dear gods...”
“—And therefore, you too, Sir Samuel—”
“Oh, no, no...”
“—For weeks, or maybe even longer.”
Vimes closed his eyes. The worn-out cogs of his overloaded brain turned one revolution; reached a conclusion, and then slowly ground to a halt. He covered his face with his hands.
“They know,” he said.
He began to wonder what he’d ever done in his sorry life to deserve this; no one deserved this much grief. It would be a miracle if he got through the rest of the day with his sanity intact.
“Don’t...” said Vimes hoarsely, from behind his hands. “Please, just don’t...”
Vetinari waited. He allowed Vimes a few moments, and then, somewhat sympathetically, said, “I was about to ask what’s being done about this, Sir Samuel.”
Vimes took a long, quavering breath. “The truth is I can’t find him, sir,” he said, an edge of desperation creeping into his voice. “I’ve still got Angua out looking for him, but frankly, I think it’s a pretty hopeless task.” He let his hands fall from his face. “Whoever’s got him knows what they’re doing, sir, and that scares the hells out of me.”
He looked up.
It was then that Vetinari saw the depth of despair in his eyes; it was almost painful to see. He’d clearly underestimated Vimes’ feelings for the young man. He wondered how Vimes had managed to develop such an affinity with Carrot, since essentially, of course, they were opposites. In many ways, Captain Carrot was more like himself; a fact not entirely lost on him. He was aware that opposites could attract, and tempted as always to dwell on the possibilities of that fact, he once again dismissed the thought quickly...
“So, what happens now, Sir Samuel?” he said. “I take it you have some sort of plan?”
“Of sorts,” said Vimes. The truth was he didn’t have a plan, not yet; but he was working on it. “I intend to give them what they want,” he said. “I already have half the money, and the rest will be ready in about...” he glanced at his watch, “...six hours time.”
Vetinari shook his head sadly.
“The deadline was never a problem,” Vimes continued, ignoring him. “The only problem I have is making sure they hand him over. Look, I don’t care about the damned money, sir, I’d pay if it were ten times that amount.”
“You’re not going to trust these people, surely, Sir Samuel?”
“Of course I’m not!”
“Then why in heaven’s names are you—”
There was a rap on the door. Drumknott’s head appeared around it; he appeared flushed, and unusually flustered.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, milord,” he said. “But Captain Noakes is here, sir. He said he needed to speak with the commander.”
“Noakes?” said Vimes. “What’s he doing here?”
“He wouldn’t tell me, sir,” said Drumknott, clearly affronted. “He just said it was important.”
“Then what are you waiting for?” said Vimes. “Send him in, man!”
Drumknott hardly had time to move away from the door before Captain Noakes pushed his way past him. He was out of breath. Whatever it was he had to tell Vimes, he’d obviously decided it couldn’t wait and had legged it from the Yard to deliver the message himself.
“What is it, captain?” said Vimes.
“Another note, sir,” Noakes gasped.
“What?” Vimes felt the blood drain from his face. “We weren’t supposed to get another note until tomorrow!”
“No, sir, I know that...” Noakes held his side, trying to get his breath back. “That’s why I thought you should see it straight away, sir.” He swallowed hard and held out a small, rolled-up piece of paper.
Vimes took it. “What in the hells is this?” He felt his stomach knot.
He fumbled with the note. Suddenly his fingers felt like bananas and his hands were shaking. He swore under his breath. Finally, he opened it...
...and the tenuous strands that had been holding him together, edged another notch nearer to breaking point.
Vimes fell back clumsily into the nearest chair. “No...” he muttered. “No, this isn’t happening. Oh, dear gods, why are they doing this to me?” The note slipped from his hands and fell to the floor. “The time...” he muttered. “It’s not enough. Oh, dear gods, it’s not enough time!”
Vetinari bent down and picked up the note. He read it amid the sound of Vimes’ world falling apart around him.
The wording was unequivocal.
...We’ve wounded the kid and left him to bleed. In roughly 3 hours time he’ll go into shock; shortly after that he will die. You have the same amount of time to deliver the money, or never be told of his whereabouts...
The note was smeared with blood. Scrawled at the bottom were delivery instructions and the time at which the note had been written.
Vetinari looked up at the clock...
The note was already 26 minutes old.