The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Fangs for the Memory – Chapter 1
The Kolnari Masza, 5.30 pm, Thursday 30th October 1997
'Oh dear, oh dear!' exclaims Jeffrey , visibly distressed. 'Stand back everyone, let him have some air! I'll help you carry him inside, Mr Crab. Is there a doctor in the house?'
Grace and Gino rush over to the unconscious Brian Lewis, Grace putting her ear to his chest and Gino loosening his collar.
'His heart sounds normal,' says Grace, frowning, 'and his breathing's fine.'
Ferdinand looks across at Amanda Corridge, who was stood next to Brian at the moment of his collapse. He sees that she is holding nothing more threatening than her flight bag, and she appears as concerned and surprised as everyone else. Everyone except for Kyle, that is, who wanders over casually and says mischievously 'Better check that there's no wee tooth marks in 'is neck! Otherwise we'll have to go and find some vampires and give 'em a good kicking!'
In fact Gino has already taken the opportunity to quickly examine Brian's neck: he sees no puncture marks or wounds. He tries to peer further down the man's shirt, looking for other signs, but Paul Crab and Jeffrey take hold of Brian and carry him into the guesthouse, closely attended by Grace.
Stuart is gazing curiously around the group of tourists, but none is exhibiting any reaction other than what might be expected. He sees a maid, who is holding open the door of the guesthouse, make the sign of the Cross and mutter 'Bogou miou!'
Inside, a flustered unshaven-looking young man who appears to be the manager hustles Brian upstairs to his bed, while maids deal with the rest of the bemused tourists. The SITU operatives troop upstairs after their baggage.
All have been given single rooms – it appears that Fangs for the Memory are the only guests in the Kolnari Masza at present. This can hardly be the height of the tourist season.
Kyle, passing through the lobby, picks up a handful of brochures describing the tourist attractions of the regions. He flicks through them with some disappointment. It seems that the castle is the only real feature of interest in the area. He lays out a large map of Rumania and locates Pfaawelt. The village sits in a valley, with the castle at its head and the pass to the Klausenburg road at the other end: the valley walls are heavily forested. The clumps of closely-packed contour lines are not as close to the village as he would have liked.
He compares the rest of the planned itinerary with his map, and marks a couple of places where it might be possible to escape from the stroll to and from the coach park that seems to be all the tour has planned.
Stuart is carefully examining the windows of his room. They are sturdy enough as far as keeping out the bitter weather goes, but a determined person with a crowbar would not be long deterred. The same is true of the door. He unpacks his collection of silver jewellery and drapes it around his person.
Jeffrey rather nervously hangs his crucifix on the wall above the bed. He checks inside his bedside cabinet, and is relieved to find a battered bible there: not the Gideon edition he might have expected, but the Authorised Version. He flicks the pages, and it opens at Isaiah 24: 'Behold the Lord maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.'
Ferdinand comes out of his room looking disappointed, carrying his laptop computer. He sees a maid in the corridor, her dark hair tied up in a babushka. 'Is there anywhere I can plug this in? The phone in the room has some sort of funny foreign socket...'
'Of course, sir!' Her English is fluent but strongly accented. 'You can plug in manager's office, no problem!'
Ferdinand is slightly consoled to find that his mobile phone works well, thanks to the wonders of GSM. The signal breaks up from time to time, though, and he wonders about atmospheric conditions.
The SITU team meets up in the guesthouse's well-stocked bar. Gino expansively orders a round of slivovitz, the local (rather rough) plum brandy. He leans elegantly back in his chair and surveys the others. 'I suggest that we discuss our objectives here.'
Jeffrey says, leaning forward eagerly, 'Well, this seems to be predominantly a fact-finding mission. So let's begin by finding some facts on tomorrow's tour – albeit facts coloured by Baron Srelt's opinions!'
Grace, her hands folded neatly in her lap and her back ramrod straight, concurs. 'Observe, gather information. That's the way to approach it.' She has put her slivovitz aside after making a face.
'Perhaps we should try and have a scout around – get the feel of the place?' puts in Ferdinand, his long legs folded awkwardly under the small table. He flips a beermat up from the edge of the table but fails to catch it.
Kyle meanwhile is still at the bar, pleased to see that it stocks a range of Czech beers. 'A Staropramen, man – the dark, not the light. Och, make it two, why don't you, it'll save me coming up again in five minutes.' As he delves in his pocket for change he finds the tacky plastic bat Paul Crab gave him. He tosses it lightly in the bin with a chuckle. Recalling Paul's words at the airport, he says in mock menace 'Pin that "little beastie" to me and I'll see _you_!'
Gino says 'I'd be interested to learn if any of you have any theories about what may be going on here - conspiracies, that kind of thing. I can tell you that I'm a lawyer – I'm here because a client of mine thinks he's being persecuted by the supernatural. A _wealthy_ client.' He smiles. 'And, of course, I'm curious myself – the Latin blood, you know!'
Jeffrey nods sagely. 'Well, there most definitely are "strange things in Heaven and Earth" – that's for sure. I'm Reverend Fanlight – Jeffrey to my friends – and I've experience of such matters in my parish.' He turns to Kris, who has said nothing yet but is merely staring out through the bar's windows into the gentle snowfall. 'Now don't you worry about those vampires, young woman,' Jeffrey says. 'I have an insurance policy!' He whips out his crucifix and displays it prominently.
Then, to the mingled horror and surprise of the rest of the party, Jeffrey launches into a rousing chorus of that stirring old hymn 'The Old Rugged Cross', waving his hands to encourage the others to join in. The barman stops polishing glasses in order to watch, shaking his head. Jeffrey's enthusiasm is not matched by his command of pitch.
Dinner is a rather subdued affair, with Brian Lewis still not present. The SITU party sit together on one large table, as do the Richardses, the two ladies and Paul Crab. Stuart takes the opportunity to hold forth at length on the subject of vampirism and werewolvery: it is clear that he did some homework on the subject before leaving (unless the University of South London, where he obtained his degree, has an extremely flexible Politics syllabus). He has also learnt some Hungarian, and delights the waitress (who the party saw earlier as a chambermaid – all the staff here double up, and they seem to be related) with a few phrasebook sallies along the lines of 'Where are the lavatories?'
Kyle bumps clumsily into the table as he sits, knocking his knife to the floor, and straight away grabs for the wine list. 'There's no blood listed!' he says disappointedly, and settles for another beer.
Jeffrey and Stuart settle into a discussion on the needs of poor people for improved housing and social services. Stuart is disappointed to find that Jeffrey agrees with his opinions on progressive social policy, so he turns his argument round and starts putting the opposite view instead.
Gino, after the meal has been cleared away, beckons over the waitress, whose name is Danyi, for a chat. 'It must be good having all this extra tourism generated, just on the basis of some old wives' tales.'
She smiles. 'Yes, indeed, sir, good business. But there may be some truth to these tales – no? My aunt Marta, she saw a ghoul in the night, and it turned to stare at her heart – and she was dead within the fortnight, as the tale says. And you'll see that all the doors to the guesthouse are of yew wood – that's to keep off the werewolves. And since Tomas put those doors we've had no trouble with the foul beasts.' She crosses herself and spits accurately into the ashtray.
Gino raises his eyebrows slightly. 'So have there been many untoward deaths, or illnesses, in the village?'
'Oh yes, sir, many, many.' She looks around nervously. 'If you dream of the potato, that signifies death, without the ghost of a doubt.'
Gino ponders this one and then casually asks 'Is there anywhere I could borrow a scooter, or a cycle, for a night-time ride?'
'Krist Snak, at the old smithy, can probably hire you one.'
As the party leave they see that just the Richardses are left at their table, and they are carrying on what looks like a furious argument under their breath, Janice leaning forward accusingly, her face red with annoyance. She has her arms wrapped around her middle, and the party realize, seeing her out of her travelling clothes, that she is several months pregnant.
Before going to bed, Grace looks in on Brian Lewis. He is still unconscious, and his condition does not appear to have changed. She is puzzled: his symptoms tie in with no disease she knows. It is almost as though he is in a trance.
Paul Crab is there too, sat by the bed, alternately scratching his head and turning his cap in his hands. 'Bit of a facer, eh? Poor chap! I think we'll have to call in the local doctor in the morning, if he hasn't come round by then. Looks like poor old Brian'll miss the tour of the castle, anyway.'
'Does he have any unusual medical history?' asks Grace.
'Not that I know of: he didn't declare it on his insurance form, anyway!'
The next morning Jeffrey looks in on Brian, and sees that there has been no change. The manager Tomas, who speaks excellent English, tells him that the village physician, Dr Claus Odorf, has been summoned and will attend Brian while the others are on the tour of the castle Cnoiff.
The coach loads up, and Stuart asks Paul Crab whether he will be acting as translator himself.
'Oh, yes, I do all of that – proper Renaissance man, me! I speak the local parley-voo well enough, don't you worry, Mr Winters.'
The SITU team spread themselves around the other passengers as the coach pulls through Pfaawelt. Snow is still falling lightly, but it is not enough to prevent the villagers going about their business, looking most industrious.
The road runs alongside the fast-flowing River Krult, past the medieval-looking church, and between a large graveyard and a collection of touristy-looking shops, all with plastic bats, werewolf masks, bunches of garlic and red-lined opera capes dangling rather forlornly outside. 'We'll have the afternoon for shopping,' says Paul cheerily.
Kris has taken a seat next to Amanda Corridge and, pushing the hair back from her face, engages her neighbour in conversation. 'So, what brings you to Transylvania?'
'Hmm...?' Amanda, who is around Kris's age and wears a heavy woollen shawl pulled right up to her face, is staring out at th graveyard, where two men are struggling to break the iron-hard ground to dig a new grave. 'Oh! Well, it's the scenery, really – isn't this beautiful?' She gestures to include the forested mountains rising above them, and Kris has to admit that, if you like that sort of thing, it is rather spectacular.
Stuart meanwhile is sat behind the Richardses, leaning forward over the back of their seat so that his head is between theirs. Mike keeps breaking off from their conversation – which started on the subject of football teams – to ask questions of Paul. He is clearly very keen.
'You seem to be something of a vampire buff, Mike, is that right?' asks Stuart.
'That's a fact, Stuart my friend, and I won't deny it – will I, love?' He nudges his wife, who makes no response. 'We both just adore these old legends. Look – ' he shows Stuart a small bottle marked with a cross ' – holy water! From the font of Worcester Cathedral. Might come in handy, eh?'
'Just here on the left is the site of the first potato field in Pfaawelt,' announces Paul to the coach at large as they leave the village behind. 'They've got a tradition of never building on it: it's to lie rank and untended until eternity!' He laughs merrily.
'Yes,' continues Mike, 'this Fangs for the Memory tour is a real treat for Janice and me, a sort of special second honeymoon almost, isn't it my dear?'
Janice merely grunts.
Jeffrey is sat with Anne Cleavley, the other member of the tour, and is musing out loud. 'What fascinates people about vampires? Do we fear or desire their powers – or both? Who among us hasn't imagined, even envied, that state of shadowy non-life: the being that kills silently, without morals, without regret, beyond responsibility, stalking alone in the night...' He recovers himself and shudders. 'Well, I haven't, for a start.'
Anne looks at him admiringly: she is probably in her early forties, smartly dressed in a tweed suit and with an impression of capability. 'Do tell me more about your parish, Reverend, it sounds absolutely fascinating!'
The coach winds up a two-mile series of hairpins, its engine groaning stertorously, and Paul points up to the massive granite bulk frowning down above them. 'Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Castle Cnoiff!'
The castle is surrounded by a curtain wall, inside which rises a higher, rectangular walled courtyard guarded by three towers. The coach passes through the great gate and draws up before the easternmost tower.
Standing in the doorway, swathed in a long black cape, is a tall, elderly man, his sparse white hair swept backwards, his lean, cadaverous features set in a grin. His eyes are deep and piercing.. He approaches the coach, throwing his arms wide, and the party see that beneath his cape (which is lined with red silk) he wears on old-fashioned evening suit with tails and a frothy lace shirt. A number of medals and other insignia are pinned to his breast, and he wears the sash and sword of a heraldic order. His voice is deep, hollow and penetrating, without the trace of an accent. 'Welcome, my dear English friends, welcome to the Castle Cnoiff. I am Jacob Srelt, thirty-seventh Baron of that line, and for this morning my home is yours.'
Paul greets the Baron cheerily, and it is clear they know each other of old. Paul hands down the lady travellers to the Baron – his skin feels dry and cool – and with some relief the whole group goes into the hallway, out of the bitter cold. It is snowing rather more heavily now.
Kris walks along beside the Baron, looking up attentively at him – she is more animated than the party have hitherto seen her. 'Your family must have been in these parts for a very long time, Baron.'
'Many centuries, my dear: the first Srelt built his castle here more than eight hundred years ago.'
'You must know a great deal about the history of the area, then.'
He is seized with enthusiasm and begins a long disquisition, which to Kris's disappointment adds nothing of value to the account given to the party by SITU. He dwells movingly on the great potato depression of the seventeenth century: 'that accursed tuber! Would that we had remained ignorant of it.'
The tour winds about the castle, taking in a number of Srelt family portraits (all look very similar to the present Baron, even the women), suits of armour, antique firearms, copper warming-pans, great fireplaces, minstrels' galleries, chained libraries and the like. The party are moved on with some rapidity by the Baron and Paul, and cannot linger over anything. Periodically they pass out into the inner courtyard (which has a well) and back in through another entrance, but Gino, who is paying particular attention, realizes that they are only being shown a small proportion of the buildings: just the eastern tower and the buildings of the courtyard. The northern and southern towers are not touched, and in fact neither have any obvious entrances, which is distinctly curious as architectural features go.
Jeffrey asks Srelt if he knows anything of interest about the monastery of Grinst, a later stop on the tour. 'Can you shed any light on the strange stories I've heard about its history, Baron? I appreciate they're rather bizarre – not to say gruesome – but I've a parish newsletter to write, and you know what they say: good news is no news!'
'Ah, a man of the cloth,' smiles the Baron, showing an impressive mouthful of teeth (Jeffrey despite himself peeps at the canines, and is relieved to see that they are not unusually pointed). 'You should speak with our own priest in the village, Father Lundekvam: a wise and holy man. As for Grinst, its story is sad indeed: unless you think that the children the monk brings with him are a blessing! But the church there was deconsecrated a century ago, after the last priest died, and now the place is all but deserted.'
Stuart is at Jeffrey's side, and asks 'Have there been any sightings of vampires or werewolves here over recent years, then?' His camera is round his neck, and he has been periodically snapping interesting features of the castle.
Baron Srelt pauses, smiling again, and says easily 'Oh, such tales are for children, my friends, are they not? Your Mr Stoker, and your Miss Rice, they are the ones responsible for all this talk of vampires, are they not? You and I are grown men, no?'
Mike Richards, who has been in his element examining the historical curiosities of the castle, puts in 'Oh, no, Baron, that's what's so fascinating! Those beliefs are a lot older, I can tell you. Why, I'll bet you there's people down in the village – simple folk – who believe every word, like a spike on your roof stops a vampire bat landing on it, or sprinkle a powdered ghoul's thumbnail onto a field and it'll flourish for five years!'
'Maybe so,' replies the Baron with a certain crispness, 'but as an educated man I prefer not to encourage such foolishness.' He smiles again, and claps his hands together. 'But enough of this disputation. Our tour is at an end, but I've been greatly charmed by your visit, my dear friends – I hope I may call you that? It would give me the greatest of pleasure to invite you to return to the castle tonight, for an evening of entertainment. As you know, it is the eve of the feast of All Saints, and by tradition we Srelts hold a masked costume ball for the gentlefolk of the area. You are all invited to attend, to enjoy my hospitality, and to take part in the grand unmasking as the clock strikes midnight!'
On the way back down the mountain, Mike Richards is irrepressible about the Baron's kind offer. 'What costume do you think you'll wear, Kyle – you don't mind if I call you Kyle, do you? I know what I'll go as – see if you can guess – no, go on – Dracula! How about that? Wild, eh? I saw a costume hire place in the shops in the village, they should be able to kit us all out! I wonder who else'll be going.'
The coach pulls back up at the guesthouse in time for a late lunch. Paul explains that it will be available again this evening, leaving for the castle and the party at eight sharp. 'I'm driving, more's the pity, so I'm on the wagon tonight! Pity, I was hoping to get my chops round some of the Baron's crusted port – ha!'
A small, hunched, middle-aged man is leaving the hotel as the tour party enter. He recognizes Paul and draws him aside. From the black bag he carries, and the stethoscope around his neck, the party surmise him to be the doctor. They hear, in a strong accent, the words '... most puzzling ... coma ... blood pressure ... sodium channel ... adrenaline ...'
It seems that Brian Lewis has still not come round.
The Kolnari Masza, 2.15 pm, Friday 31st October 1997
Kyle: Kyle spreads his hands out before him nervously, remembering his days in Nigeria helping Shell exploit the Ogoni homeland. Fortunately Grace is from Kenya, on the other side of the continent, but no doubt she would be none too impressed by his service record. And as for what might happen if Stuart found out... he resolves to keep quiet about that area of his past.
Stuart: Before leaving England, Stuart does some subtle research on Caladyne Travel Insurance, visiting their premises in the City. The address is there, but there is no nameplate on the door: it looks like an unremarkable office building, quite large. He peers through the glass door to see a uniformed commissionaire sat at the desk: the whole building seems very secure, with toughened glass and a number of security cameras. He searches the records at Companies House, but is surprised to see no listing for Caladyne. Perhaps it's a partnership or sole trader operation, which do not have to be registered there (that would also explain the lack of nameplate). Time does not permit him to track down any former tourists with Fangs for the Memory.
Grace: Grace unpacks her assegai and looks at it grimly. She feels a bit silly, but... She ponders what she has learnt of the rest of the party. Ferdinand seems rather nervous, and Kyle something of a drunkard. Stuart appears little more than an over-opinionated young fool, like many students she has taught. Jeffrey clearly has a deep faith, which may sustain him: and Gino seems calm and capable. She shrugs: they can hardly be worse than the team with whom she was sent to Clachantyre.