The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Fangs for the Memory – Chapter 2
The Kolnari Masza, 2.15 pm, Friday 31st October 1997
As one, Kyle, Stuart and Jeffrey swarm around the surprised doctor. Kyle takes him by the elbow and draws him gently towards the group of tourists. 'Doctor, would ye be kind enough to tell us what ails our good friend?' His ironic tone conceals any genuine concern he may be feeling.
'Have you ever seen anything like it before?' puts in Stuart.
The doctor scratches his head defensively. 'No indeed, a most puzzling case and quite new to me. I fear the poor gentleman is in a coma. You are his friends?'
Jeffrey is very disturbed to hear this latest news. 'A coma... oh dear, that sounds serious... Still, where there's life, there's hope. This reminds of a poor girl of my parish back home. She was hit by a car and laid in a coma for six months with no sign of life at all. Then we learned that she was a big fan of East 17 - that's a popular music group,' he explains for the benefit of the older members of the party (ie Grace) and the American, Gino, 'and so we played a cassette tape recording of one of their songs by the side of her hospital bed. Day and night we played it, without rest. I can still hear every word.' He closes his own eyes beatifically, but much to everyone's relief doesn't burst into "I want to love you while my belly rumbles" himself. 'Then on the fifth day, she opened her eyes. What a wonderful moment... She went on to make a full recovery, you'll be glad to know...' He pauses, blinking, momentarily confused. 'Umm... anyway, the point is: if we could somehow find out what Mr Lewis's favourite song is, maybe I could sing it for him?'
Kyle, wincing, swiftly changes the subject. 'What do you propose to do about it, doctor? Where's the nearest hospital?'
'My plan is to leave it for tonight – perhaps the reverend gentleman might indeed like to sing over him, it can't do any harm I suppose – and then if there is no improvement by morning we will have to take him to the hospital at Klausenburg.' He draws his overcoat together against the light flurry of snow, and heads off down the steps.
'And what's this thing about potatoes?' calls Kyle after him.
Doctor Odorf merely shudders heavily, making a dismissive – or possibly apotropaic – gesture with his hand.
Ferdinand has been studying the faces of the other tourists, to see if any of them react strangely to the doctor, but none seem to be anything other than surprised and concerned – give or take a trace of ghoulish relish on the face of Mike Richards.
'Come on now, let's not stand around out here in the snow all day, or we'll all be needing the doctor!' cries Paul Crab, waving the tourists through the door which Tomas has been patiently holding open all this time. One by one they file in, glad to be in the warmth of the Kolnari Masza's lobby.
Kyle pauses by Paul. 'Have you had many health problems before on your tourist trips?'
'No, not at all: this is a very healthy climate, here – lovely fresh air!' He seems a trifle hurt at the suggestion.
'I could help you contact his next of kin,' volunteers Jeffrey. 'You have enough to worry about, Mr Crab – please, let me help.'
'Well, Reverend, that's very kind of you, but it's just a matter of a phone call back to base, fortunately: they'll look after all that for me! We'll soon get sorted, don't you worry.'
He claps his hands together enthusiastically. 'Now then, what about sorting out those costumes for this evening!'
At Kyle's suggestion, the seven SITU operatives gather together in the hotel bar to discuss strategy. 'Gino, did ye manage to go on your midnight scooter ride, did ye see any foul beasties?'
Gino smiles gently. 'I've not been able to try it yet: perhaps tonight.'
'Tell me if ye see any good windows to climb in. If it's sneaking into towers, you can count me in – it'll be the only decent bit of vertical ascent I'll get this trip, all this wimpy, hand-rail, flat ground stuff.' He swallows the remainder of his beer and calls for another one. 'I specced out the local geology – it's all granite round here, no limestone, so there's not even any decent caves.'
Ferdinand appears a little nervous, and concerned about the night's proceedings. 'We need to be prepared for anything tonight – ' he mutters. 'There's something about unmask, unmask and the red death... I can't really remember. I would suggest that we stick together tonight – empty bladders in advance, and stock up on garlic and crucifixes.'
'Yes,' agrees Jeffrey, 'If there _are_ vampires up at the castle, this would be the ideal time to try out some of those old vampire repellents as SITU asked. I should be able to get hold of some crosses and holy water for each of us. But who wants to carry the garlic?'
There is the sound of raised voices from over by the bar – the Richardses, apparently discussing whether Janice can have a drink or not. As the party nosily look over at the couple, Mike waves cheerfully to them.
Kyle makes a revolted face. 'That Mike Richards is on this trip because he's a complete git, and as a complete git it is his mission in life to be a total pain in the arse to the whole of humanity. It was our unfortunate deal in the card game of life to have in the same country as us. Perhaps if enough of us can convince him to go as Dracula, we could try throwing him off the north tower and see if he glides – what d'ye think?'
'What else do we need to do before leaving this evening?' asks Ferdinand, twiddling a pencil between his fingers.
Stuart has been chatting to the waitress, attempting simultaneously to turn on the charm and to improve his Hungarian. He turns round. 'Grace, you're good at sounding medically knowledgeable – why don't you make sure the doctor takes a blood sample from Brian and sends it off for analysis?'
'Very well, and I was going to suggest that Jeffrey pop in on Father Lundekvam, and Gino on Krist Snak at the smithy,' says Grace.
'Good idea,' chips in Kris supportively.
'Stuart,' calls Kyle, 'That mighty flash camera of yours, is it Polaroid – like instant results? Is there, for example, a great big void where the Baron should be?' He sketches the shape of the void Stuart might expect to see, with one wobbly finger.
'No, but I expect I can get it developed somewhere in the village.' He turns to the waitress and rattles off a swift sentence in Hungarian.
She laughs embarassedly, putting a hand over her mouth, and corrects one of the words he used before answering.
'Danyi says that the blacksmith develops films – can you check him out, Gino, if you're going there, see if he looks up to it?' At the rate Stuart has been snapping – including a number of pictures of his fellow operatives – he will tie up a small processing lab for some time.
Kyle straightens up, tossing his last beer bottle into the heap on the table. 'Right then, people, I'm off to the graveyard to look for some undead and zombies down the graveyard. If any of ye're up to it, why not come along? Grace, do ye know the local lingo – do ye fancy coming along?'
Grace looks a little doubtful but assents. Jeffrey eagerly joins them. 'I can visit Reverend Lundekvam at the same time' he says happily.
The graveyard is a cold and windswept place, the small stand of yews that shield it from the village failing to keep any of the chill breeze off. The snow is still falling, and it's no longer possible to see Castle Cnoiff at the head of the valley.
The two gravediggers are still hard at work, this time in another part of the graveyard. The grave they were working on this morning stands empty, a dark scar in the white ground. Jeffrey heads into the church, leaving Kyle and Grace to start scraping snow off gravestones.
'Look, here's one for Mikkel Prant, 1984 – I wonder if there's any other Prants here?' says Grace, kneeling in her tweeds beside a cluster of small stones.
'Mm, here's some – no "Jurgend", though,' Kyle calls over.
He hears the crunch of snow, and looks up to find the two gravediggers are standing over him, with angry expressions. One barks something in Hungarian, waving his pickaxe fiercely.
Kyle decides discretion to be the better part of valour, and he and Grace back off, making placatory gestures.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey is wandering up the aisle of the church. It's an old Moravian basilica-style building, of the type he knows to have been popular in Hungary during the sixteenth century, although he would not have expected to find the design so far east.
There are a large number of flowers around the church – chrysanthemums and gypsophila mostly – and from the presence of a marriage register on a table bear the altar he guesses the church is being prepared for a wedding on the morrow.
'Can I help you, sir?' A faint and delicate voice hails him from the direction of the vestry. It is a thin, middle-aged man in a soutane, with a thick mat of greying curly hair and a devout expression.
'Reverend Lundekvam? I'm Reverend Jeffrey Fanlight, from London.' Jeffrey offers his hand – the other's is slender and weak.
'How pleasant to meet a fellow fisher of men – hmm? Are you here on holiday, Reverend Fanlight?'
'Oh, Jeffrey, please. Yes, I'm most interested in your local history here – such a lot of fascinating tales!'
Reverend Lundekvam looks rather disparaging. 'Indeed, some of the people here are quite mired in foolish superstition, despite the daily evidence of the Lord's great works.'
'I've heard some bizarre stories already, actually – vampires, werewolves, the monk of Grinst, and so forth...'
'Reverend, I'm surprised to hear such words coming from your lips. I'll have none of that paganistic talk in this church! This area is steeped in sin, that much is certain, but none of these fanciful legends merit any attention. They are simply the tales of sinners working the works of the Dark One, and our duty as Christians is to stop our ears to their blandishments!'
Jeffrey feels it wise to change the subject. 'I see you're expecting a wedding here?' He indicates the flowers.
Lundekvam's stern expression breaks into a smile. 'Yes, two of our most devout young people. Young Slek Prant is taking Credella Szolt to bride. An occasion of great rejoicing for the whole village.'
'Prant? I remember that name – any relation to Jurgend Prant, the baby who disappeared in 1952?'
'Yes,' says Lundekvam sorrowfully, 'that was this man's father's brother. A very sad occasion. The foolish villagers claimed the baby had been taken by werewolves – gypsies, more like, if you ask me. And there are those still who hold it against the Prants that they let one of their number go in such a way. Why, people have even said to me that they will... ha! Let them try, the word of the Lord is stronger than they are.' He is starting to look a little edgy. 'Anyway, I must be about my duties... Evensong, you know.' He bids Jeffrey farewell and slips off, glancing behind him.
Jeffrey takes the opportunity to look around the church, but finds nothing he would not expect to see: no secret doors. He helps himself to a bottle-full of holy water from the font, and leaves the church.
Back at the guesthouse, Kyle tries to ring his girlfriend Siobhan. At first he tries the phone on the reception desk, but there is no signal at all. Tomas, tutting, says that the lines must be down again: 'half a grodny of snow, and the telephone company is making excuses! You wouldn't think it snowed here six months of the year, would you?'
So Kyle tracks down Ferdinand and borrows his cellphone. Ferdinand is forced to overhear embarassedly as Kyle pours a string of Scottish endearments into the receiver. The signal is none too good, and Ferdinand wonders whether it might be better up out of the valley. Siobhan has little of significance to relate: she has been asked to supervise the school Christmas play, and has chosen to put on a version of Braveheart. As she is about to hang up she adds 'Oh, and some guy was asking for you the other day – someone from Robinson Hogg Coal, in Yorkshire, a Mr Spencer.'
The man's name does not ring a bell with Kyle, but the company is horribly familiar: he sits on Ferdinand's bed staring at his hands for a while, trying to stop them from shaking.
Meanwhile Ferdinand, who has been joined by Grace, raises 'Caladyne Travel Insurance' on the phone. He would have prepared to send an email, so that he could encode the message with his PGP key, but he has no email address for SITU. He tells them what has been learned so far (which doesn't take very long), and asks them to check up on Brian Lewis's medical and travel history, and for some general information on his background.
'Will do, Mr Bingley,' says the Caladyne operative.
'And while you're at it, perhaps you should check up on the other tour party members too,' adds Grace. 'How secure is that telephone?' she asks Ferdinand as he folds it up.
'Fairly,' he says, fumbling with the catch.
After Grace and Kyle have left, Ferdinand searches the Internet obsessively for the quotation he half-remembered. He finds that it is from Edgar Allan Poe's 'Masque of the Red Death': '"Unmask! Unmask!" But it was no mask, and the Red Death was upon them.'
Gino, Kyle, Stuart and Grace head back down the main street towards the small parade of tourist shops. They are depressed by how unfriendly many of the villagers seem: not to the extent of snatching children out of their path, but definitely more hostile than welcoming.
Fortunately the proprietor of the costume shop, a middle-aged lady in gypsy dress, is effusive enough to make up for these disappointments. She swiftly rustles up a werewolf costume for Stuart.
'I'll be a zombie,' says Kyle, 'although that part might be too easy for me – too much like a Friday night drinking session, ye ken!' He seems to have cheered up again, perhaps thanks to the two cans of Newcastle Brown he necked before coming out.
Grace is rather more difficult to provide for – her dark skin makes the traditional vampire look seem too much like hard work. In the end she settles for the costume of a voodoo priestess, picking up a dead chicken at the butcher's. She also looks for more detailed maps of the area and a guidebook in English, but is unable to find any such thing: the tourist industry here is woefully provided-for.
Gino selects a monk's habit, and then heads for the smithy.
Krist Snak is a burly fellow in his late twenties, who is underneath the bonnet of an old Polski-Fiat. His title of smith seems to be a traditional rather than a functional one: no anvil can be seen.
'You American? Clint Eastwood! Bruce Willis! You want buy fine car? Cadillac!'
Gino explains his mission.
'Sure, American, I hire you fine scooter, you want Vespa, Lambretta? Very cheap.'
It is agreed that Gino will come and pick up the scooter when he needs it.
There is a small film-processing unit here in the smithy, and to Gino's none-too-expert eye it looks reasonable enough. The sign promises 'One Hour Only Film!'
Kris has collared Tomas's wife, Marta, in the corridor outside the dining-room. 'Could I possibly borrow some clothes from you, for the costume ball tonight? Traditional clothes...'
Marta looks a bit surprised but also pleased. She takes Kris to her own rooms – chucking out Tomas, who is lounging on the bed in his vest eating crisps – and they spend an hour or so trying on clothes. At the end of it Kris is happy that she makes a convincing Hungarian peasant woman, although she is less confident about carrying out any of the vivacious rustic dances Marta demonstrates for her.
After dinner, Stuart waits rather self-consciously in his werewolf garb for the other tourists to emerge. Squeals of excitement from upstairs indicate that they will not be long. Paul is also there.
'How long have you been in these parts, Paul – Transylvania, I mean?'
'Oh, long enough to know my way around, as you might say – twelve years now, I reckon. I used to work on coach tours in Belgium, and this is a lot better, I can tell you. That was all schoolkids and yobs out for a booze-up. On this tour we get a much nicer class of person, more intelligent, you know.'
'So what made you come here?'
'Well, as I say, I was fed up in my old racket, and I saw the ad – Fangs for the Memory had just set up, and they wanted a likely lad – which I was, then, if you can imagine! – to do some scouting around for a good route and then to work as courier and driver. It's a fine job, because I'm my own boss out here, pretty much – and they trust me to take care of the punters!'
There is a jingling noise as Jeffrey descends the stairs. He is resplendent in rhinestones, cowboy hat and fringed leather trousers, and he is carrying his guitar.
'Kenny Rogers is my party piece, you might say,' he tells Stuart and Paul, as they look on amazed. 'I once won second prize at the parish fête fancy dress contest. It was quite embarrassing, really, because I organized the event. The Bishop made me give the prize back, though I'm sure the parishioners wouldn't have minded if I'd kept it.' He strikes a chord and sings 'Lady, I am your knight in shining armour, and I love you / Let me take you in my arms and make you mine...'
'I'll go out and get the coach warmed up,' mutters Paul.
As the group gathers outside the guest house, Jeffrey approaches Paul and says: 'Mr Crab, why don't you let me drive? I'm not much of a drinking man myself so I don't mind staying on the wagon while you enjoy yourself? Or would that cause problems where your insurance is concerned?'
Paul thinks for a minute. 'Well, that's a very kind offer, Reverend, but I really don't think I can take you up on it – I'm responsible for your safety, you see, and while I'm sure you're a capable and experienced driver, slinging this beast around those hairpin curves in the dark isn't the same as taking the parish minibus down to Clacton! With this bad weather, I think the roads'll be pretty treacherous: I'm putting chains on.'
Mike Richards leaps down the steps of the guesthouse, his cape billowing theatrically, but the effect is rather spoilt as he slips on landing. Pretending it didn't happen, he springs upright again. 'Here, I got us all some garlic, in case we suffer "unwelcome attentions" – sling it round your neck!' He hands everyone a large bulb of garlic.
Janice is nowhere to be seen, but the two other members of the tour appear next: Amanda as the Bride of Frankenstein, rather unconvincing, and Anne (presumably) wrapped all in bandages as a mummy.
'What have you come as?' Mike asks Ferdinand.
'Isn't it obvious?' he says, indicating his clothing.
Jeffrey whiles away the trip chatting to his fellow operatives. There is little enough to see outside now it is dark: the snow is rather heavier and the coach has some difficulty in places. He tells them all about a column he runs in his parish newsletter, entitled 'Strange but True': 'It was what I learnt from editing that that gave me the curiosity to join SITU and find out more. What made you join? Have any of you ever had any 'strange' experiences?' He adds, 'I haven't myself, but maybe this tour will change that!'
Stuart, who is rather suited by his costume, folds his arms forcefully. Now, while we're at the castle, I think that everyone should attempt to remain in sight of at least one other party member; and someone should keep an eye on the Baron.'
'I'm happy to chat to him,' says Jeffrey. He displays his plastic bat badge prominently. 'I know it wouldn't be the height of fashion back home, but there's no point in upsetting Mr Crab needlessly, is there?'
As the coach pulls into the castle courtyard, crushing the snow which is now a few inches deep, the massive wooden doors open and light and music spill out. Traditionally-clad Magyar peasants help the tourists from the coach and usher them into the great hall, which has been cheerfully decorated with streamers and balloons. A gypsy band is fiddling away frantically on a small podium, and around fifty guests, all fantastically clad and masked, are standing drinking and chatting around them.
It seems that the guests who are here represent a good selection of the local notables, Paul assures the party. A man clad as St Sebastian comes over and greets the tourists: it is the Baron. He has a remarkably good physique for a man his age, although his skin is very pale. He holds a blood-red devil mask in front of his face. 'Welcome, one and all! Try some of my punch, or of this delightful port, and make yourselves at home. These are my dearest friends, as are you now, and I wish you to love each other.'
Jeffrey starts to mingle at once, sipping at a glass of delicious port – it has far more body than any he has previously tasted. The punch is a luminous green and rather less appealing-looking.
Kyle has a generous glass of punch, but he too only sips at it. When no-one is looking he tips it into a suit of armour that stands nearby. 'Sup on that, chummy!'
Grace, brandishing a wicked-looking assegai and trailing around her chicken, falls into conversation with a middle-aged couple dressed as Antony and Cleopatra. They tell her that their niece is due to be married in the morning, 'all being well, and if my fool nephew Kidu doesn't get his way.' Grace nods as if she understands perfectly.
It seems that everyone here speaks English reasonably well. Kyle chats to a youngish man dressed as Pierrot about climbing in the area. It seems there are some good rockfaces not far from Croln, E5 or thereabouts.
Stuart is trying to size up opportunities to sneak away and explore the hidden parts of the castle. He reckons that he shouldn't have too much trouble: the guests are milling around rather, and the Baron is busy most of the time. There would be the danger of running into a servant: they pop up every now and then from the unlikeliest of places, bearing food and drink.
Kyle approached the Baron, who is in muttered conversation with a group of five serious-looking people all dressed as vampires. He politely turns away to face Kyle, and they disperse.
'I'm fascinated by your family's history, Baron. Can you tell me any more about it – your parents, or have you any brothers and sisters?'
'Oh, there have always been Srelts here, you know. My dear parents were taken from me thirty years ago now, in a sleighing accident: they rest now in the chapel. I have a sister, yes, Eleonora, the lady over there dressed as Maria Theresa von Habsburg, and there are her husband, the Count Bakwerdz, and their two sons.' He indicates a small group cheering the musicians on. Eleonora is a statuesque woman of around the Baron's age, her husband a distinguished-looking if rather fat man, and the sons both in their twenties, dressed as gorillas.
Kyle persists, 'Coming by the churchyard, I was sorry to see a grave being dug – who was it?'
The Baron chuckles. 'Oh, no-one's died recently. I believe they dig graves now, before the ground gets too hard, so that if someone dies in the next month or so they can save time – you see? It may be that there's someone sick in the village, or some old person who isn't expected to last till Christmas.' He laughs, rather callously.
Kris finds Paul stood mournfully over in the shadows, holding a glass of tomato juice. 'I put Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco in it, then I can pretend it's a Bloody Mary.'
'What's the plan for the rest of the evening?'
'Well, it's – what – eleven now, I guess you'll just mingle and chat for the next hour – then there'll be the grand unmasking, and the fun'll really start. The Baron's a great fan of party games – the forfeits he comes up with! – and he'll have something extra special planned, you be sure. Then around three I come and scrape you all up and load you back into the coach! We leave for Kwell Tower after lunch tomorrow, so you've got another morning in Pfaawelt.'
The Castle Cnoiff, 11 pm, Friday 31st October 1997
Stuart: You cast your mind back to think who was sitting with Brian on the coach. He had no immediate neighbour, but the Richardses were across the aisle from him and Anne was sat behind him.
Ferdinand: You prepare some pointed pieces of wood and conceal them about your person before heading out to the party, together with phone and list of useful numbers.