Vimes didn't wait until the palace guards showed up on the steps of his house. He left the copy of the Ankh-Morpork Times - Weekend Edition on the kitchen table and stepped out the door early, long before young Sam could wake and rouse the whole place with one of his morning tantrums. The nursemaid assured them that it was just a phase the boy was going through. Vimes himself thought that it was Young Sam's objection to being pampered and dressed up in the regal-looking clothes that seemed to be mandatory even for little dukes. Sybil knew about his opinion on the matter, but she chalked it up to wishful thinking and chose not to comment on it. She was considerate like that.
The air outside was neither cold nor warm, but something in the middle. Vimes had never liked the middle ground. Apart from the specific coat-versus-no-coat dilemma, which was more of a nuisance to him these days than he cared to admit, middle ground generally couldn't be trusted. It was neither here nor there.
At least there was one adjective that could be safely applied to the air hovering in the streets: it was damp. Fog was swirling low, disturbed frequently by inconspicuously slinking figures. Should the economy abruptly develop a market for inconspicuously slinking figures, Ankh-Morpork would surely grow to be the main exporter: "They thrive in twilight, shift away from the sun, hide in darkness! They're mysterious to the extreme! Get your own today!" The slinking figures owned the streets at this time of night (or day, depending on who you asked), when the shadier portion of the city's hard-working citizens had already turned in and the usual morning bustle hadn't quite started yet.
Vimes knew the quiet was just an in-between, another lie, more middle ground. He knew this as surely as he could identify his current location as Scuttlebutt Lane by the sharp-edged cobblestones under his boots. The city almost seemed peaceful like this, and the peace appeared entirely maintainable. Yes, he recognized a delusion when it kicked him in the face, but sometimes it was nice to dream.
The guards at the front gate saluted and let him wander into the palace on his own, no questions asked. There would certainly be questions asked later, though, by Vimes himself, and they would contain expressions like "impostor", and "concealed weapons", and "full body search", with a side order of "nobles are citizens like everyone else".
He met Drumknott at the top of the stairs, where the clerk was carefully balancing a tray filled with what Vimes suspected was Lord Vetinari's breakfast. There wasn't much need for careful balancing. The Patrician was rumored to never indulge in anything, including basic foods, and Vimes had seen no evidence to the contrary so far.
"I believe I have an appointment with the Patrician," Vimes said.
This was news to Drumknott, of course, but his eyes lingered on the copy of the Times that was placed on the tray next to a plate containing a single piece of dry toast. He said, "You may very well have."
Vimes wondered if Lord Vetinari took kindly to Drumknott reading his paper first.
"If you would wait a few minutes, your Grace," Drumknott said.
It wasn't a question and therefore didn't need answering. Vimes followed him along the corridor, into the waiting room and settled down in one of the chairs in front of the Oblong Office. The door closed behind Drumknott and left the room in--
Not in silence.
Silence would have been bliss.
Lord Vetinari had replaced the damn clock again.
The new one had a dark green face and silver arms that ended in pointy arrows. It tic-tiiic-tocked in a different kind of irregular and unpredictable rhythm than the ones before had. How that was even possible went beyond Vimes' understanding of-- well, any and all things to do with rhythm.
The continuing switch between anticipation and disappointment, between expecting a 'tic' and getting a 'toc', and getting it just that tiny fraction too late-- After a few minutes, it made anyone wish their brains would finally leak out their ears, if only so that, with their ears full of brain matter, they at least wouldn't have to hear the tic-toc-tooocking anymore.
And you didn't get used to it. After years of exposure, Vimes still hadn't.
The new clock wasn't any less torturous. Vimes fully expected it to suffer from even quicker unfortunate material fatigue in critical places than its predecessors had.
In Vimes' experience, it paid to know how to be stealthy. It also paid to know Cheerie Longbottom and her collection of ominous smelly jars and tiny brushes.
Lady Sybil was the one who had once told him in no uncertain terms that he was supposed to find himself a hobby, something that he would enjoy doing besides work, something interesting that would help him relax. Vimes had found clockworks. They weren't particularly interesting, not really, not at all, quite boring actually, but they were a hobby, nobody could argue that.
And it was very relaxing these days, waiting in front of the Oblong Office, listening for the first grinding sounds that would precede blissful silence. It usually took at least a month of slow corrosion, but the feeling of gleeful satisfaction was well worth the wait.
Lord Vetinari always got a new clock, with different and increasingly complicated mechanisms which, by now, needed more than a couple of minutes to figure out even for the trained eye. And so it was due to the "handy and easy-to-use, even for you, insert name here" built-in iconographer that Vimes' new GooseberryTM continued to survive. It rested in his pocket, handy and easy-to-use as promised, and, really, what could it hurt to pry the new clock open and take a look? He would be waiting for a while.
At some point, Vimes had found that The Clock Affair was a challenge he couldn't back out on, even if (or possibly because) plausible deniability was getting harder and harder to achieve. He wasn't sure how he felt about this.
When the door to the Oblong Office opened again to reveal Drumknott, Vimes was back in the chair, looking inconspicuous, with three iconographed pictures hidden away in his pocket.
"He has time for you now, your Grace," Drumknott said and held the door open for him.
"Vimes," Lord Vetinari said, which could have been a greeting but didn't sound like one.
"Sir," Vimes answered and stepped into the room.
The Patrician was seated behind his desk, his eyes following Vimes' entrance. The piece of toast wasn't anywhere in sight anymore, but Lord Vetinari hadn't finished his tea yet. The cup was sitting on the desk next to the inkwell, steam rising from it in lazy swirls.
"Have a seat," Lord Vetinari said, effectively preventing any kind of formal salute or standing-to-attention Vimes might have planned. The Patrician seemed to have grown to barely tolerate such formalities when it came to Vimes. Maybe the blatant insincerity in the perfectly executed supposedly respectful gesture annoyed him. Not that the Patrician was easily annoyed. Or if he was, no one could tell. There was a joke going round the city that Vetinari had misplaced all his facial expressions in early childhood, except for the completely blank one and the one with the raised eyebrow. Another version of this story speculated that he had sold them as a special-offer package in combination with his soul. Neither tale was entirely without merit, if you asked Vimes.
He sat down in the chair in front of the desk as requested. It was as uncomfortable as a padded chair could possibly be.
"How is your family? I trust everyone is well?" Vetinari inquired. He always did that, striking up an innocuous conversation before striking out to drive home whatever point he wanted to make in a subtle manner. The Patrician was a big fan of subtlety. If there was a club for that somewhere, Lord Vetinari would deserve to be its president. And Vimes would firmly decline any offers of membership. Subtlety was for people with time on their hands, not for those who dealt with the kind of individuals that had fresh blood on theirs.
Vimes had cultivated his own brand of blank expression to go with His Lordship's subtle approach a long time ago.
"Yes, sir. Lady Sybil and Young Sam are doing fine. Thank you for asking, sir."
"I'm pleased to hear that," said Lord Vetinari.
Vimes waited. He watched Lord Vetinari smooth a hand over the front page of the Times that was spread out on the desk, watched him study it for a moment. He knew what the Patrician was seeing. The front page read, in bold letters, "WATCH RECRUITS CRIMINALS", and a little smaller, beneath, "ARE WE STILL SAFE IN OUR CITY?"
That morning, in the privacy of his kitchen over a mug of Willikins' coffee, Vimes had snorted at the headline. What was that supposed to mean, "still"? When had anyone ever been safe in Ankh-Morpork? Or anywhere else?
The Patrician looked up to meet his eyes. "Does the watch employ criminals now, Commander?"
An expectant silence followed.
Vimes added, "Apart from Nobby Nobbs, sir."
"Ah, yes. Corporal Nobbs, who has never officially been convicted of any crime. 'Officially' being the key word in the sentence."
"Matter of cost and benefit, sir."
"No doubt about it," the Patrician agreed, then paused thoughtfully. "You're making a surprisingly-- economic point, Commander."
Vimes barely managed not to pull a face. Yes, it had happened. He'd contracted it. The Disease. Apparently you couldn't command a large body of policemen without picking up bits and pieces of management training and leadership skills along the way, whether you wanted to or not. Sometimes it felt like he wasn't commanding so much as managing these days. Unfortunately there seemed to be no cure for The Disease Called Corporate Thinking. He was certain he'd contracted it by memo. That was reason enough to start burning the damn things upon arrival.
"Won't happen again, sir," he said.
"Oh, don't stop on my account, Vimes. It is my opinion that a firm grasp on the basics of economics can be helpful when it comes to understanding a person's motivations."
That was a fancy way of saying "people are greedy and find new ways to obtain money every day", and Vimes knew that already.
"Numbers aren't really my cup of tea, sir."
"The field of economics is more about general principles than actual numbers. You will surely agree that the difference is significant."
Maybe, Vimes thought, but principles weren't any better than numbers. Sometimes even his own were more than he could handle.
"I would have to take your word for it, sir."
Lord Vetinari sighed the sigh of the savant giving up on the philistine. For a moment his eyes rested on a spot next to his tea cup. Vimes looked and then wished he hadn't. He told himself that the small metal pieces that were lying there, easily identifiable as cogwheels, were not a sufficient reason to be unsettled. Certainly not. Even if some of them were glinting more than others in the candlelight.
"Why is it that Mister Glyfen of the Times is of the impression that we would allow individuals with a criminal record to join the civic service?" the Patrician asked.
"A misunderstanding, sir."
"There is no truth to it," Lord Vetinari said. It wasn't phrased as a question, but this wasn't Vimes' first ride around this particular park.
"No, sir," he answered.
"The watch didn't take on new recruits recently."
"Oh no, we did. Took on a new recruit yesterday, sir."
"But he is not a criminal."
"She. She's a female recruit, sir."
Lord Vetinari leaned back in his chair and pressed his fingertips together, his forefingers resting against his lips. Vimes wouldn't bet his life on it, but he had begun to interpret the gesture as a show of frustration. He really hoped that he himself hadn't developed any tells for suppressed amusement. The Patrician would be the kind of person to spot them.
"And does this woman have a criminal history?" Lord Vetinari asked very pointedly.
"No, sir. Lance-Constable Perp's record is clean as a whistle, near as we could determine."
There was only the slightest hesitation before the Patrician repeated, "Lance-Constable Perp."
"Yes, sir. Probably Perp. Dedicated young woman. Lots of team spirit." He cursed inwardly at his own choice of words. This was another symptom of The Disease Called Corporate Thinking. 'Team spirit' was one of those expressions that no one really needed, but someone had felt the burning desire to invent anyway. In the past, coppers had watched out for each other, had kept each other up and running, with no need to give this kind of respectable behavior a fancy name.
"Probably Perp," Lord Vetinari repeated after a beat of silence.
"That is her name?"
"So she told me."
"Oh dear," the Patrician said. "Does she have siblings, by any chance?"
"Four, she said."
There was another pause, a long one, then the Patrician said, "Do I need to ask, Vimes?"
And to think that Sybil had deemed this meeting a stressful way to start a Sunday morning.
"Possibly, Maybe, Certainly and Jonathan, sir," Vimes said, carefully not smiling.
"Jonathan," Lord Vetinari repeated, much to Vimes' relief. It was the name he'd latched onto during the interview as well, completely disregarding the fact that it was the only sane choice in the collection. Perp didn't mind. Unsurprisingly, she'd heard it all before.
"I-- see," Lord Vetinari said.
Vimes doubted that. It had been a lengthy story about lots of daughters, the desperate wish for a son and a tragic lack of creativity (or an excess of it, depending on your perspective) when it came to naming children.
"Let me summarize," the Patrician said. "A woman named Probably Perp joined the watch. Someone thought this would make for a funny story, which got told and re-told on a number of occasions. When it reached Mister Glyfen of the Times, the main character had turned into a convicted criminal, which indeed did make for an exciting story. Mister Glyfen is inexperienced enough to have foregone the double checking, and ambitious enough to have put the story into writing immediately, before anyone else could do so."
"So it would appear, sir."
Lord Vetinari dusted off his raised-eyebrow expression and put it on.
"You're enjoying this, aren't you, Vimes?"
"Wouldn't dream of it, sir."
There wasn't any steam rising from the Patrician's tea anymore. Lord Vetinari reached for the cup and took a sip anyway. It figured that a man who generally ordered his toast dry wouldn't be picky about the temperature of his drink.
The Patrician watched him over the rim of the cup. The weight of His Lordship's full attention might have made many a diplomat and guild official quiver, but not Vimes. Vetinari should know that by now. Maybe he did, because he leaned forward to set the tea down and pick up one of the cogwheels from the desk. Oh. Vimes had gladly forgotten about the corroded cogwheels.
"It seems I won't be needing these then," Lord Vetinari said, inspecting the tiny metal piece of machinery between his thumb and forefinger closely. "Since there is obviously no need for a metaphorical representation of small, defective parts and their possibly disastrous effects on a big scale."
"Obviously not," Vimes agreed.
Lord Vetinari was watching Vimes' face again, but didn't say anything else.
"Is that all I wanted to discuss with you today?" Vimes finally asked.
"There is one other matter." The Patrician leaned back in his chair, as relaxed as Vimes had ever seen him, which wasn't saying much. "I fear the clock in the waiting room will need another replacement in the near future."
Vimes tried his best to make sure his blank expression stayed firmly fixed in place. Lord Vetinari had never mentioned the high throughput of rhythmically challenged waiting room clocks in Vimes' presence before.
"Ah," was all he could think to say.
"I understand Drumknott had some difficulty dealing with Mister Stuck of the Cunning Artificiers regarding our most recent order. You wouldn't happen to know anyone with the skills to construct a new clock?"
Vimes hesitated a fraction too long. "I can ask around," he offered.
"I would appreciate the effort."
Lord Vetinari set the cogwheel down on the desk, right next to his half-empty cup of cold tea. His expression gave nothing away, no matter how hard Vimes was looking for clues. It used to be easier, tweaking the truth in the Patrician's presence. How did Vetinari know?
He was supposed to say something now. The first halfway sensible thing that sprang to mind turned out to be a question. "Is it allowed to tick regularly?"
"I'd prefer it not to," said Lord Vetinari. "Since hardly anything does."
How was Vimes supposed to argue with that?
He wasn't going to try.
He would go home. He would kiss his wife, because she was a blessing. He would hug his son, because he was a gift. He and Young Sam would combine forces and try putting square yellow pegs into round green holes for a while, until Young Sam would grow tired. Old Sam would tuck him in for a nap, and then he would climb the stairs to the first floor, head into the second room on the right, which was not a workshop or anything like that at all, no matter what Sybil liked to call it whenever she brought him coffee and kissed his smiling lips in a gesture that was part affection and part "I told you so". He would sit down at the workbench he didn't actually own, open the drawer that didn't really exist and pull out the drawings he had certainly never put any effort into making.
And then he'd build a damn clock.
He was a busy man, but--
He'd make time.