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Terry Pratchett is one of the most popular authors writing today. He lives behind a keyboard in Wiltshire and says he ‘doesn’t want to get a life, because it feels as though he’s trying to lead three already’. He was appointed OBE in 1998. He is the author of the phenomenally successful Discworld series and his trilogy for young readers, The Bromeliad, is scheduled to be adapted into a spectacular animated movie. His first Discworld novel for children, The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents, was awarded the 2001 Carnegie Medal.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
In which our Hero experiences Hope, the Greatest Gift — The Bacon Sandwich of Regret — Sombre Reflections on Capital Punishment from the Hangman — Famous Last Words — Our Hero Dies — Angels, conversations about — Inadvisability of Misplaced Offers regarding Broomsticks — An Unexpected Ride — A World Free of Honest Men — A Man on the Hop — There is Always a Choice
They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man's mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that it is in a body that, in the morning, is going to be hanged.
The man going to be hanged had been named Moist von Lipwig by doting if unwise parents, but he was not going to embarrass the name, in so far as that was still possible, by being hung under it. To the world in general, and particularly on that bit of it known as the death warrant, he was Albert Spangler.
And he took a more positive approach to the situation and had concentrated his mind on the prospect of not being hanged in the morning, and most particularly on the prospect of removing all the crumbling mortar from around a stone in his cell wall with a spoon. So far the work had taken him five weeks, and reduced the spoon to something like a nail file. Fortunately, no one ever came to change the bedding here, or else they would have discovered the world's heaviest mattress. It was the large and heavy stone that was currently the object of his attentions, and at some point a huge staple had been hammered into it as an anchor for manacles.
Moist sat down facing the wall, gripped the iron ring in both hands, braced his legs against the stones on either side, and heaved.
His shoulders caught fire and a red mist filled his vision but the block slid out, with a faint and inappropriate tinkling noise. Moist managed to ease it away from the hole and peered inside.
At the far end was another block, and the mortar around it looked suspiciously strong and fresh.
Just in front of it was a new spoon. It was shiny.
As he studied it, he heard the clapping behind him. He turned his head, tendons twanging a little riff of agony, and saw several of the warders watching him through the bars.
'Well done, Mr Spangler!' said one of them. 'Ron here owes me five dollars! I told him you were a sticker! He's a sticker, I said!'
'You set this up, did you, Mr Wilkinson?' said Moist weakly, watching the glint of light on the spoon.
'Oh, not us, sir. Lord Vetinari's orders. He insists that all condemned prisoners should be offered the prospect of freedom.'
'Freedom? But there's a damn great stone through there!'
'Yes, there is that, sir, yes, there is that,' said the warder. 'It's only the prospect, you see. Not actual free freedom as such. Hah, that'd be a bit daft, eh?'
'I suppose so, yes,' said Moist. He didn't say 'you bastards.' The warders had treated him quite civilly this past six weeks, and he made a point of getting on with people. He was very, very good at it. People skills were part of his stock-in-trade; they were nearly the whole of it. Besides, these people had big sticks. So, speaking carefully, he added: 'Some people might consider this cruel, Mr Wilkinson.'
'Yes, sir, we asked him about that, sir, but he said no, it wasn't. He said it provided-' his forehead wrinkled '-occ-you-pay-shun-all ther-rap-py, healthy exercise, prevented moping and offered that greatest of all treasures which is Hope, sir.'
'Hope,' muttered Moist glumly.
'Not upset, are you, sir?'
'Upset? Why should I be upset, Mr Wilkinson?'
'Only the last bloke we had in this cell, he managed to get down that drain, sir. Very small man. Very agile.'
Moist looked at the little grid in the floor. He'd dismissed it out of hand. 'Does it lead to the river?' he said.
The warder grinned. 'You'd think so, wouldn't you? He was really upset when we fished him out. Nice to see you've entered into the spirit of the thing, sir. You've been an example to all of us, sir, the way you kept going. Stuffing all the dust in your mattress? Very clever, very tidy. Very neat. It's really cheered us up, having you in here. By the way, Mrs Wilkinson says ta very much for the fruit basket. Very posh, it is. It's got kumquats, even!'
'Don't mention it, Mr Wilkinson.'
'The Warden was a bit green about the kumquats 'cos he only got dates in his, but I told him, sir, that fruit baskets is like life: until you've got the pineapple off'f the top you never know what's underneath. He says thank you, too.'
'Glad he liked it, Mr Wilkinson,' said Moist absent-mindedly. Several of his former landladies had brought in presents for 'the poor confused boy', and Moist always invested in generosity. A career like his was all about style, after all.
'On that general subject, sir,' said Mr Wilkinson, 'me and the lads were wondering if you might like to unburden yourself, at this point in time, on the subject of the whereabouts of the place where the location of the spot is where, not to beat about the bush, you hid all that money you stole . . .?'
The jail went silent. Even the cockroaches were listening.
'No, I couldn't do that, Mr Wilkinson,' said Moist loudly, after a decent pause for dramatic effect. He tapped his jacket pocket, held up a finger and winked. The warders grinned back.
'We understand totally, sir. Now I'd get some rest if I was you, sir, 'cos we're hanging you in half an hour,' said Mr Wilkinson.
'Hey, don't I get breakfast?'
'Breakfast isn't until seven o'clock, sir,' said the warder reproachfully. 'But, tell you what, I'll do you a bacon sandwich. 'cos it's you, Mr Spangler.'
And now it was a few minutes before dawn and it was him being led down the short corridor and out into the little room under the scaffold. Moist realized he was looking at himself from a distance, as if part of himself was floating outside his body like a child's balloon ready, as it were, for him to let go of the string.
The room was lit by light coming through cracks in the scaffold floor above, and significantly from around the edges of the large trapdoor. The hinges of said door were being carefully oiled by a man in a hood.
He stopped when he saw the party arrive and said, 'Good morning, Mr Spangler.' He raised the hood helpfully. 'It's me, sir, Daniel "One Drop" Trooper. I am your executioner for today, sir. Don't you worry, sir. I've hanged dozens of people. We'll soon have you out of here.'
'Is it true that if a man isn't hanged after three attempts he's reprieved, Dan?' said Moist, as the executioner carefully wiped his hands on a rag.
'So I've heard, sir, so I've heard. But they don't call me One Drop for nothing, sir. And will sir be having the black bag today?'
'Will it help?'
'Some people think it makes them look more dashing, sir. And it stops that pop-eyed look. It's more a crowd thing, really. Quite a big one out there this morning. Nice piece about you in the Times yesterday, I thought. All them people saying what a nice young man you were, and everything. Er . . . would you mind signing the rope beforehand, sir? I mean, I won't have a chance to ask you afterwards, eh?'
'Signing the rope?' said Moist.
'Yessir,' said the hangman. 'It's sort of traditional. There's a lot of people out there who buy old rope. Specialist collectors, you could say. A bit strange, but it takes all sorts, eh? Worth more signed, of course.' He flourished a length of stout rope. 'I've got a special pen that signs on rope. One signature every couple of inches? Straightforward signature, no dedication needed. Worth money to me, sir. I'd be very grateful.'
'So grateful that you won't hang me, then?' said Moist, taking the pen. This got an appreciative laugh. Mr Trooper watched him sign along the length, nodding happily.
'Well done, sir, that's my pension plan you're signing there. Now . . . are we ready, everyone?'
'Not me!' said Moist quickly, to another round of general amusement.
'You're a card, Mr Spangler,' said Mr Wilkinson. 'It won't be the same without you around, and that's the truth.'
'Not for me, at any rate,' said Moist. This was, once again, treated like rapier wit. Moist sighed. 'Do you really think all this deters crime, Mr Trooper?' he said.
'Well, in the generality of things I'd say it's hard to tell, given that it's hard to find evidence of crimes not committed,' said the hangman, giving the trapdoor a final rattle. 'But in the specificality, sir, I'd say it's very efficacious.'
'Meaning what?' said Moist.
'Meaning I've never seen someone up here more'n once, sir. Shall we go?'
There was a stir when they climbed up into the chilly morning air, followed by a few boos and even some applause. People were strange like that. Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief. Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.
Moist stared ahead while the roll call of his crimes was read out. He couldn't help feeling that it was so unfair. He'd never so much as tapped someone on the head. He'd never even broken down a door. He had picked locks on occasion, but he'd always locked them again behind him. Apart from all those repossessions, bankruptcies and sudden insolvencies, what had he actually done that was bad, as such? He'd only been moving numbers around.
'Nice crowd turned out today,' said Mr Trooper, tossing the end of the rope over the beam and busying himself with knots. 'Lot of press, too. What Gallows? covers 'em all, o' course, and there's the Times and the Pseudopolis Herald, prob'ly because of that bank what collapsed there, and I heard there's a man from the Sto Plains Dealer, too. Very good financial section - I always keep an eye on the used rope prices. Looks like a lot of people want to see you dead, sir.'
Moist was aware that a black coach had drawn up at the rear of the crowd. There was no coat of arms on the door, unless you were in on the secret, which was that Lord Vetinari's coat of arms featured a sable shield. Black on black. You had to admit that the bastard had style-
'Huh? What?' he said, in response to a nudge.
'I asked if you have any last words, Mr Spangler?' said the hangman. 'It's customary. I wonder if you might have thought of any?'
'I wasn't actually expecting to die,' said Moist. And that was it. He really hadn't, until now. He'd been certain that something would turn up.
'Good one, sir,' said Mr Wilkinson. 'We'll go with that, shall we?'
Moist narrowed his eyes. The curtain on a coach window had twitched. The coach door had opened. Hope, that greatest of all treasures, ventured a little glitter.
'No, they're not my actual last words,' he said. 'Er . . . let me think . . .' A slight, clerk-like figure was descending from the coach.
'Er . . . it's not as bad a thing I do now . . . er . . .' Aha, it all made some kind of sense now. Vetinari was out to scare him, that was it. That would be just like the man, from what Moist had heard. There was going to be a reprieve!
'I . . . er . . . I . . .'
Down below, the clerk was having difficulty getting through the press of people. 'Do you mind speeding up a bit, Mr Spangler?' said the hangman. 'Fair's fair, eh?'
'I want to get it right,' said Moist haughtily, watching the clerk negotiate his way around a large troll.
'Yes, but there's a limit, sir,' said the hangman, annoyed at this breach of etiquette. 'Otherwise you could go ah, er, um for days! Short and sweet, sir, that's the style.'
'Right, right,' said Spangler. 'Er . . . oh, look, see that man there? Waving at you?'
The hangman glanced down at the clerk, who'd struggled to the front of the crowd.
'I bring a message from Lord Vetinari!' the man shouted.
'Right!' said Moist.
'He says to get on with it, it's long past dawn!' said the clerk.
'Oh,' said Moist, staring at the black coach. That damn Vetinari had a warder's sense of humour, too.
'Come on, Mr Spangler, you don't want me to get into trouble, do you?' said the hangman, patting him on the shoulder. 'Just a few words, and then we can all get on with our lives. Present company excepted, obviously.'
So this was it. It was, in some strange way, rather liberating. You didn't have to fear the worst that could happen any more, because this was it, and it was nearly over. The warder had been right. What you had to do in this life was get past the pineapple, Moist told himself. It was big and sharp and knobbly, but there might be peaches underneath. It was a myth to live by and so, right now, totally useless.
'In that case,' said Moist von Lipwig, 'I commend my soul to any god that can find it.'
'Nice,' said the hangman, and pulled the lever.
Albert Spangler died.
It was generally agreed that they had been good last words.
'Ah, Mr Lipwig,' said a distant voice, getting closer. 'I see you are awake. And still alive, at the present time.'
There was a slight inflection to that last phrase which told Moist that the length of the present time was entirely in the gift of the speaker.
He opened his eyes. He was sitting in a comfortable chair. At a desk opposite him, sitting with his hands steepled reflectively in front of his pursed lips, was Havelock, Lord Vetinari, under whose idiosyncratically despotic rule Ankh-Morpork had become the city where, for some reason, everyone wanted to live. An ancient animal sense also told Moist that other people were standing behind the comfortable chair, and that it could be extremely uncomfortable should he make any sudden movements. But they couldn't be as terrible as the thin, black-robed man with the fussy little beard and the pianist's hands who was watching him.
'Shall I tell you about angels, Mr Lipwig?' said the Patrician pleasantly. 'I know two interesting facts about them.'
Moist grunted. There were no obvious escape routes in front of him, and turning round was out of the question. His neck ached horribly.
'Oh, yes. You were hanged,' said Vetinari. 'A very precise science, hanging. Mr Trooper is a master. The slippage and thickness of the rope, whether the knot is placed here rather than there, the relationship between weight and distance . . . oh, I'm sure the man could write a book. You were hanged to within half an inch of your life, I understand. Only an expert standing right next to you would have spotted that, and in this case the expert was our friend Mr Trooper. No, Albert Spangler is dead, Mr Lipwig. Three hundred people would swear they saw him die.' He leaned forward. 'And so, appropriately, it is of angels I wish to talk to you now.'
Moist managed a grunt.
'The first interesting thing about angels, Mr Lipwig, is that sometimes, very rarely, at a point in a man's career where he has made such a foul and tangled mess of his life that death appears to be the only sensible option, an angel appears to him, or, I should say, unto him, and offers him a chance to go back to the moment when it all went wrong, and this time do it right. Mr Lipwig, I should like you to think of me as . . . an angel.'
Moist stared. He'd felt the snap of the rope, the choke of the noose! He'd seen the blackness welling up! He'd died!
'I'm offering you a job, Mr Lipwig. Albert Spangler is buried, but Mr Lipwig has a future. It may, of course, be a very short one, if h...
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