Earning your Keep

Holdhard and Vanquish are forensic accountants. Some consider them to be the leading practitioners of their art, others put forward competitors for consideration, but in this matter I am agnostic. I meet these people with the same courtesy as I greet anybody else. If I have to make an unfavourable comment I would point out that they are slow to support the finer arts. After all when was the last time they hired a poet?

But this is by the by. They had acquired new premises and there were matters that needed resolving. Obviously they are most unlikely to come to me for solutions, but they wanted somebody reliable with a solid grounding in practical matters. This whole episode might never have come to my attention save for the fact that Vanquish had studied at Dame Ralash’s school for ‘young maidens of humble family up to the age of thirteen.’ So, it appears, had our Incumbent.

Now Dame Ralash inculcated a strong sense of loyalty among ‘her girls.’ Indeed the good dame herself was always quick to support them. Should one ‘fall pregnant’; when she came to break the news to her father, rather than introducing him to her admirer, she would take with her Dame Ralash. This most formidable lady would bring the somewhat bemused father up-to-date with programmes undertaken, options explored and suitable positions found. Most men who have faced that treatment have admitted to me that they merely nodded weakly, agreed, and supplied such cash as Dame Ralash considered necessary.

So when Vanquish, as one old girl, mentioned her problem to The Incumbent, as another old girl, the Incumbent merely gestured to Laxey who was busy with something else, and commanded, “Deal with the matter.”

Laxey made his way to the new premises and methodically worked through various issues. To be honest, some of the things he did were simple Temple Warden work. He merely had to glare, in a manner both grim and foreboding, for people to suddenly discover their own answers to apparently insoluble problems. But there were matters where his previous experience was useful

Holdhard and Vanquish had chosen their new premises with care. Obviously forensic accountants make enemies. Especially the good ones. So it makes sense for your offices to be secure. In this case the new offices were in the basement of a large block. There was one formal entrance, which was particularly grand. Whilst the door itself was plain enough, (save for the heavy iron bolts,) above it, protruding from the wall, was a machicolation. Similarly once through the door, if you had been invited, you passed under the raised portcullis. Then if you chanced to look up at the ceiling, you might see the doorman looking down at you through the murder holes. But this sort of thing is to be expected.

There were two other entrances, but these were two vaulted chambers which at one end led out from the basement offices to a light well. They weren’t too dark or forbidding, if the far doors were left open they were merely a little gloomy. Indeed even with the doors closed a little light could come in through glass bricks let into the ceiling. It was these two chambers that were initially one of the problems Laxey had to solve, but which eventually provided a solution as well.

Frankly they were a little damp for storage. Still given the thickness of the doors, they could be used to hold people securely, Thus bad payers and witnesses for future court cases were always conveniently at hand. Indeed once Laxey had a heavy grill installed at both ends, not only were they made yet more secure, but the occupiers were no longer able to pound on the doors, thus disturbing the labours of the partners.

Now you might ask, how many people does the average firm of forensic accountants need to house in such security. To be honest the answer is very few. But once you have the facility, others learn about it and may wish to avail themselves of it.

Obviously if one of your better customers has somebody they urgently need incarcerating, it’s a pretty poor job when you cannot accommodate them. Indeed much good will can be won in this manner. The problem comes when people get busy and forget things, caught up as they are with all the hectic demands of a modern business. Thus occasionally Holdhard or Vanquish would have to pen a regretful letter, along the lines of

‘As much as I dislike trespassing on your time in this busy season, it has been brought to my notice that you have neglected to feed your bad debtors. Again.’

There is no easy way to write such a letter, the risk of giving offence often means it gets put off for a week or so until it is certain that the intended recipient has obviously forgotten.

Now Holdhard and Vanquish were not heartless. They maintained an excellent kitchen, which enabled them to both feed their staff and also to entertain clients. But alas the very quality of the kitchen worked against there being much in the way of scraps to throw to forgotten debtors.

Still, the mention of the kitchen brings me to the other major problem. The office was set in the basement and thus was below ground level. So where did the washing up water go? This is where considerable ingenuity had been exercised in the past. There was a hand pump. This was connected to both privy and to the kitchen. Anything from the privy was pumped up to the privy tank on the next floor. This was cunningly placed so a night soil collector could back his lead lined ‘brown water’ tank under the nozzle and just let the tank fill. An excellent system.

It did have a failing. You paid by the cart load to have this material disposed of. Previous inhabitants of this basement had jibbed at the idea of having to pay that sort of money just to dispose of a bit of washing up water. So during one of the city’s public holidays they had had a pipe run up through the outside wall, all the way to the roof. There was a nozzle disguised as a gargoyle and when you got the water to a suitable pressure, a valve opened and the gargoyle spewed out a fine mist of water which settled slowly and invisibly on the street far below. Indeed if you turned the secret valve, you could also pump the liquid fraction from the night soil tank out through the nozzle as well. I can well imagine this led to significant savings.

But unfortunately the simple hand-pump failed. Parts were difficult to get, everything was the wrong size, and most plumbers would merely suck in between their teeth and make comments like, “You don’t see many of these nowadays.” As always, nobody had the parts, you couldn’t get a reliable tradesman for love or money, and it looked as if the various materials would have to be carried up the stairs in buckets and poured, expensively, into the night soil tank for collection.

It was here that Laxey’s experience proved so useful. A friend of a friend had a treadmill they didn’t need. Whilst having the various valves renewed did add to the price, at least they could get it fitted that week. Not only that but it solved the problem of the forgotten debtors. Suddenly they had a useful role to fulfil. Once or even twice a day, a debtor could be released into the treadmill chamber. They could pump all the unwanted materials into the appropriate location, and would then be rewarded with a hearty repast of porridge, stew, and small beer. Indeed thanks to the pressure generated by the treadmill, when the liquid was forced out of the mouth of the gargoyle many floors above, it came out in such a fine mist it was impossible to see from the street. Even in daylight or when it wasn’t raining. Thus there were also savings in the cost of night soil collections as well.


Should you want to know more of life in Port Naain

As a reviewer commented, “

Maljie and Tallis start by taking action to protect their incumbent from being involuntarily removed from her post in order to serve the ambitions of Battass Droom. They then have to go on to protect each other from being elected Patriarch, which is, by definition, a job best done by somebody who does NOT want the appointment.

The efforts to achieve their aims become steadily more and more tortuous, including an attempt to delay a key meeting by employing such diverse methods as elaborate food poisoning and a trebuchet with an unusual payload, a race against time involving a one way balloon ride and having, temporarily, two Patriarchs (or are they non-Patriarchs?) with too much time on their hands.

Along the way, Jim takes delight in lampooning bureaucracy and its devotees, with some jaw-dropping moments that challenge the way things work. What would be non sequiturs anywhere else are hilariously believable in Port Naain and make you consider “real life” in a new light.

Do NOT read this book anywhere that full volume belly laughs are not socially acceptable.”

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