among those prepared to back an outside chance. She'd hung a banner over the door. It read: It Could Be YOU. It couldn't happen. It shouldn't happen. But, you never knew . . . this time it might. Moist recognized that hope. It was how he'd made his living. You knew that the man running the Find The Lady game was going to win, you knew that people in distress didn't sell diamond rings for a fraction of their value, you knew that life generally handed you the sticky end of the stick, and you knew that the gods didn't pick some everyday undeserving tit out of the population and hand them a fortune. Except that, this time, you might be wrong, right? It might just happen, yes? And this was known as that greatest of treasures, which is Hope. It was a good way of getting poorer really very quickly, and staying poor. It could be you. But it wouldn't be. Now Moist von Lipwig headed along Attic Bee Street, towards the Lady Sybil Free Hospital. Heads turned as he went past. He'd never been off the front page for days, after all. He just had to hope that the winged hat and golden suit were the ultimate in furniture; people saw the gold, not the face. The hospital was still being built, as all hospitals are, but it had its own queue at the entrance. Moist dealt with that by ignoring it, and going straight in. There were, in the main hallway, people who looked like the kind of people whose job it is to say 'oi, you!' when other people just wander in, but Moist generated his personal 'I'm too important to be stopped' field and they never quite managed to frame the words. And, of course, once you got past the doorway demons of any organization people just assumed you had a right to be there, and gave you directions. Mr Groat was in a room by himself; a sign on the door said 'Do Not Enter', but Moist seldom bothered about that sort of thing. The old man was sitting up in bed, looking gloomy, but he beamed as soon as he saw Moist. 'Mr Lipwig! You're a sight for sore eyes, sir! Can you find out where they've hid my trousers? I told them I was fit as a flea, sir, but they went and hid my trousers! Help me out of here before they carry me away to another bath, sir. A bath, sir!'
'They have to carry you?' said Moist. 'Can't you walk, Tolliver?'
'Yessir, but I fights 'em, fights 'em, sir. A bath, sir? From wimmin? Oggling at my trumpet-and- skittles? I call that shameless! Everyone knows soap kills the natural effulgences, sir! Oh, sir! They're holdin' me pris'ner, sir! They gived me a trouserectomy, sir!'
'Please calm down, Mr Groat,' said Moist urgently. The old man had gone quite red in the face. 'You're all right, then?'
'Just a scratch, sir, look . . .' Groat unfastened the buttons of his nightshirt. 'See?' he said triumphantly. Moist nearly fainted. The banshee had tried to make a noughts-and-crosses board out of the man's chest. Someone else had stitched it neatly. 'Nice job of work, I'll give them that,' Groat said grudgingly. 'But I've got to be up and doing, sir, up and doing!'
'Are you sure you're all right?' said Moist, staring at the mess of scabs. 'Right as rain, sir. I told 'em, sir, if a banshee can't get at me through my chest protector, none of their damn invisible little biting demons are going to manage it. I bet it's all going wrong, sir, with Aggy bossing people around? I bet it is! I bet you really need me, right, sir?'
'Urn, yes,' said Moist. 'Are they giving you medicine?'
'Hah, they call it medicine, sir. They gave me a lot of ol' mumbo-pocus about it being wonderful stuff, but it's got neither taste nor smell, if you want my opinion. They say it'll do me good but I told 'em it's hard work that does me good, sir, not sitting in soapy water with young wimmin
lookin' at my rattle-and-flute. And they took my hair away! They called it unhygienic, sir! What a nerve! All right, it moves about a bit of its own accord, but that's only natural. I've had my hair a long time, sir. I'm used to its funny little ways!'
'Hwhat is going on here?' said a voice full of offended ownership. Moist turned. If one of the rules that should be passed on to a young man is 'don't get mixed up with crazy girls who smoke like a bellows', another one should be 'run away from any woman who pronounces “what” with two Hs'. This woman might have been two women. She certainly had the cubic capacity and, since she was dressed entirely in white, looked rather like an iceberg. But chillier. And with sails. And with a headdress starched to a cutting edge. Two smaller women stood behind and on either side of her, in definite danger of being crushed if she stepped backwards. 'I've come to see Mr Groat,' said Moist weakly, while Groat gibbered and pulled the bedclothes over his head. 'Quite impossible! I am the matron here, young man, and I must insist that you leave at once! Mr Groat is in an extremely unstable condition.'
'He seems fine to me,' said Moist. He had to admire the look the matron gave him. It suggested that Moist had just been found adhering to the sole of her shoe. He returned it with a chilly one of his own. 'Young man, his condition is extremely critical!' she snapped. 'I refuse to release him!'
'Madam, illness is not a crime!' said Moist. 'People are not released from hospital, they are discharged!' The matron drew herself up and out, and gave Moist a smile of triumph. 'That, young man, is hwhat we are afraid of!' Moist was sure doctors kept skeletons around to cow patients. Nyer, nyer, we know what you look like underneath . . . He quite approved, though. He had a certain fellow feeling. Places like the Lady Sybil were very rare these days, but Moist felt certain he could make a profitable career out of wearing a white robe, using long learned names for ailments like 'runny nose' and looking solemnly at things in bottles. On the other side of the desk, a Dr Lawn - he had his name on a plate on his desk, because doctors are very busy and can't remember everything - looked up from his notes on Tolliver Groat. 'It was quite interesting, Mr Lipwig. It was the first time I've ever had to operate to remove the patient's clothing,' he said. 'You don't happen to know what the poultice was made of, do you? He wouldn't tell us.'
'I believe it's layers of flannel, goose grease and bread pudding,' said Moist, staring around at the office. 'Bread pudding? Really bread pudding?'