"You want me to look for a cow." Vimes kept his voice neutral, searching for the joke in the sentence, a man waiting for a punchline.
With the Patrician, there rarely seemed to be one, or if there was he wasn't sharing.
"I'm sorry, sir, I don't understand. Has this cow come to Ankh Morpork for a reason? If it's looking for... for streets paved with grass, it's not likely to have much luck here." It would have more of chance, perhaps, of finding the river paved with grass. Covered with something green, in any case.
"No, Commander, I don't believe you do." Vetinari wasn't laughing. He leaned forward in his chair, hands steepled. "This is not just any cow. Apparently it was here from Lancre for a show of some kind and escaped. I am told it is prime breeding stock worth.." He checked his notes briefly before locking eyes with Vimes again. "...two thousand Morpork dollars."
Two thousand Morpork dollars? Most of the buildings in the city weren't worth that much. Suddenly, it wasn't a joke any more. "That's some prime beef," Vimes said weakly.
"Two thousand Morpork dollars which, as the owner of the arena where the show was to be hosted and the civic sponsors of the event, the City will be expected to pay to Lancre. Of course, we will argue, we will try to convince them that this is not our responsibility but I am not minded, Commander, for Ankh Morpork to become known as a place where exhibits frequently go missing. Even if this particular exhibit is more likely to be viewed by some as a living breathing roast dinner."
"Yessir." Vimes' mind was still spinning that a cow -- any cow -- could be that valuable to people. For the sake of the gods, if it had ended up in the Shades it wasn't likely to be more than shoe leather and full stomachs by now! You could certainly find easy enough where it had been -- just find the people who weren't prepared to eat even Dibbler's stuff if it came free and put something in their stomachs.
The Patrician nodded, and settled back, seemingly satisfied that his message had been conveyed. "Find the cow, Commander. Or Lancre may decide that this is an opportunity worth milking."
It took Vimes a moment to realise that he had been supposed to laugh that time. He didn't bother.
His first thought had been to get Sergeant Angua following the scent of the creature. It wasn't as though a cow would think to cover its tracks and cows were at least distinctive in their smell. He hadn't expected Angua to give him an awkward, uncomfortable look.
"What is it, Sergeant?" He knew that look by now. "Surely a cow isn't too difficult to smell? It's not as though you have to pick it out in an identity parade. How many cows can there be in this city?"
"Harder that you might think, sir," Angua said, apology in her voice. "There's cow -- well, bits of cow all over the city." She glanced down, meaningfully, towards his boots. "How many people in the city do you think wear leather shoes, sir?"
"Ah." He followed her gaze -- shiny black boots which were firmly taken away by Willikins every night and returned every morning. Sybil objected to cardboard soles. "But surely a live cow is different?"
"To some extent." Still, she looked uncomfortable. "The thing is.. you've got to think of a cow as just.. a really big chicken, sir. It's not like hunting people -- even as a wolf, some part of me knows there's a brain in there. A cow is just.. meat. A lot of meat, bloody and juicy.."
For a moment, Vimes pictured telling Vetinari that one of the guards had eaten a priceless cow. It was not a pretty picture. "I don't suppose you have enough coins to leave in the.. barn?"
"A sergeant's pay doesn't really reach to that, sir," she said, straight-faced. "Sorry."
"I'll ask the rest of the Guard to search." Vimes was defeated. "It's not as though a cow in Ankh Morpork won't look out of place. How hard can it be?"
Afterwards, he knew that had been the wrong thing to say. In Ankh Morpork, such a question was like painting a target on your chest, asking the world to make it as hard as they possibly could.
And now, he was stuck in some nightmarish children's book, vowing to never again criticise how anyone got confused trying to Find Their Cow. He'd never truly believed how stupid people could be about finding a cow until he'd asked the guards.
Where's the cow? Is that the cow?
"No, Sergeant Stronginthearm. That is a very large rat. They don't have many cows in Uberwald, do they? No, I thought not. That is not the cow. Yes, you may save it for your lunch."
Where's the cow? Is that the cow?
"No, Colon, that is a doughnut. Cows have legs, and are very rarely covered in powdered sugar. That is not the cow."
Where's the cow? Is that the cow?
"No, Nobby, that is a cart filled with small but valuable objects. That is not the cow. Put them back, please. Now, Nobby!"
Where's the cow? Is that the cow?
"No, Igor. That's... well, I don't know what it is but you very clearly just made it. It has six legs. No, I don't care if it's more meat. That is not the cow.
After he'd been brought a dog ("Yes, Detritus, I know it has two and two legs. It goes "wuff". That is not the cow.") Vimes gave up, and headed for the door.
"Where are you going, sir?" Carrot asked, as he pushed past Nobby who was carrying a bag containing -- oh gods, was that fillet steak? The Patrician wasn't going to be happy.
"To get.. further information," Vimes said. "Tell everyone I'll be back in an hour. We need a briefing."
"You're home early, dear," Lady Sybil observed, a dragon under each arm as he walked into the yard. "Nothing wrong, I hope?"
"No, dear," Vimes assured, and he was glad of that. Problems which sent him home from the office usually involved threats to his family. At least cows, however inconvenient, usually did very little more threatening than fart. "Just picking up something to take back to the office."
"Cow!" Young Sam, spotting the book tucked under his father's arm, toddled over for a closer look. Vimes picked him up, careful not to dislodge the small helmet fastened tightly over his downy hair. Even toddlers needed protective clothing if they were going to spend time around dragons. "Mine cow!"
"I'm just borrowing it," he assured his son, feeling the familiar warmth blossom in his chest as Young Sam nestled into him. "I'll be back to read it later, I promise."
"Cow," the boy insisted, and Vimes wished for a moment he could stay, read the book in the sunshine of the afternoon rather than the dimming light of the evening. But, work called, and by now, doubtless, Nobby Nobbs had picked up enough good steak to feed the entire guardhouse for a year. He had to get back.
"Cow later," he promised instead, setting Young Sam down regretfully. "I'll be back."
"This is a cow," he announced later, holding the book up to a briefing room full of scowling officers where they usually had gritty discussion on apprehending murderers or foiling conspiracies and the necessity of Captain Carrot's exhortation for them to "Be careful out there" had reached the level of superstitious legend.. "It has four legs. It has horns - no, not the type that honk. It does not -- are you paying attention, Nobby? -- glitter. Sometimes it brings milk. Usually it goes "moo". It does not go 'cluck'. It does not go 'quack'. It does not, let me be quite clear, go 'neigh'. Are there any questions? Why are you sniggering, Sergeant Stronginthearm?"
It took a moment for him to realise that he had been doing the noises. These things happened when you were a parent. The reading ritual was ingrained in his head enough that the words just flowed without thought or inhibition.
Enough scowling ensured that it would be never be mentioned again -- at least not to his face -- and he passed the book around, promising that anyone who did damage to the much-loved pages would face him, or worse, could explain themselves personally to Young Sam. He wasn't sure which threat got the book back to him in immaculate condition, but clearly one of them did the trick.
Later, when Sergeant Detritus brought in an indignant and protesting pantomime cow, he considered giving up. Especially when Nobby suggested eating it anyway.
"Cow!" Young Sam announced when he got home, clinging to the bars of his cot. Already, Vimes noted through the warm softness which always accompanied Six O Clock, he was growing too big for it. Too soon he would be climbing up and out, to freedom and the numerous perils of Outside.
"I brought it back, see?" he said, displaying the book. Today though, even that did not seem to be enough to hold Young Sam's attention. He squirmed, seeming desperate to heave himself up, and out of his soft bed. Vimes picked him up, held him close and warm.
"Coooow!" Almost a wail this time, trying to throw himself out of his father's arms to reach the window. Curious, Vimes carried him over, looking out to see what had him so excited.
Oh. Oh, well that would explain it.
"Sybil, dear," he called, still staring out of the window, "how long has there been a cow in our garden?"
"All day, dear," Sybil called back. "Someone brought it in this morning. They said that they knew it wasn't a dragon, but we were probably the closest option they had."
"There's Mine cow!" Young Sam crowed triumphantly, if a little inaccurately, and clapped his hands.
"It would seem your detective skills run in the family, Commander," Vetinari said coolly.
"Yessir," Vimes said woodenly, trying to look like a man who was not standing next to a cow, in the middle of the Patrician's palace, with a two year old attached to it. In the end, the only way to get it out of the gardens had been to bring Young Sam too. There were going to be tears when the farming show finally left Ankh Morpork.
Everyone was carefully not looking at the steaming heap of dung a foot or so behind them. Cows have no sense of grandeur or propriety. A cat may look at a king, but apparently a cow could crap in front of a Patrician and spawn a uniquely Ankh Morpokian proverb.
"Congratulations to the young gentleman would seem to be in order." The Patrician, much to Vimes' surprise, actually seemed a little nervous. It seemed the dictator of the city was not so used to small children. "Of course, it is difficult to reward one so young, but perhaps a new book in return for the cow." So that he will let go of it, went unsaid. "I understand he is a.. dedicated young reader."
"Mine cow," Young Sam said with some suspicion, but he did release the animal's leg to reach for the book with small grubby hands.
Vimes sneaked a look at the cover. The Kitten Which Got Lost was written in shiny almost-gold print above a picture of a fluffy white cat. No doubt another enthralling storyline awaited.
"Say thank you," he prompted, a parent's instinct cutting in.
Young Sam hugged the book to his chest, bestowing a beaming smile on the Patrician. Young children could look truly angelic when they chose and behave with the manners of the saints.
And sometimes, of course, they failed entirely.