The classic team role-playing game of conspiracy and strangeness
Fangs for the Memory – Chapter 4
The Castle Cnoiff, 2.55 am, Saturday 1st November 1997
In the small stone-walled library, all is panic and confusion. Gino's nerve breaks and he dives headlong for the aperture, leaping nimbly through it and at once dashing off up the stairs. Ferdinand too attempts to charge through the hole, although there is a brief moment of concern as he manages to get his leg wedged in it.
Kyle calmly saunters over, saying "Well we cannae wait around all day boys and girls, time to leave pronto!" and frees Ferdinand before climbing through himself.
Meanwhile Grace has darted back to the room with the five caskets in. She quickly scoops up a handful of the strange dark soil and crams it in her bag, spilling a good deal of it.
Stuart whips his camera out and, crouching to steady it on his knee, takes a shot with no flash down the length of the suite of rooms, so that the picture encompasses three of the five caskets (and the returning Grace). He is unsure as to how well it will come out: the exposure is rather long, and he has no tripod.
Ferdinand lurks by the entrance with a wicked-looking little stake in his hands. He mutters sharply "Run you fools, run!" and appears greatly relieved as Stuart and Grace eventually clamber through, as the footsteps start to approach the room. All three clumsily try to hook the picture back so that it covers the hole, and finally scatter like rats up the cold grey stairwell.
Meanwhile, back at the party, Paul is looking around puzzledly for the rest of his charges.
"We have to play for time!" Jeffrey hisses in Kris's ear, mugging furiously to signify a pun. Then he says loudly: "That sound like a marvellous game, Baron. I'm a bit of a dab hand at orange-passing – though I say it myself! – it's very popular with the kiddies at our parish fêtes, you know. I'd love to try this potato variant! I don't see why we can't stay a little while longer, do you Mr Crab? We are on holiday, after all. And I won't tell if you don't!"
Paul looks a little worriedly at his watch, but sighs and says "Well, Jeffrey, if you say so - but don't blame me if there's tears before bedtime!"
Kris has taken the Baron by the elbow, and is quizzing him intensively about the history of the castle. He eagerly starts on a lengthy exposition, as servants bearing potatoes emerge from every doorway to general applause.
Thanks to the clattering of many sets of feet on stone, it is impossible for those at the front of the fleeing group to tell if they are being pursued or not - but the absence of screams from behind them suggests a hopeful interpretation.
Kyle has paused on the steps, a distant look of - fear? awe? recollection? dread? - on his face, but Stuart and Grace cannon into him and sweep him up with them. He is muttering dimly under his breath.
The panicky flight gradually slows as everyone's heartbeat returns to something near normal (apart from Ferdinand, who is puffing as though he had been in a marathon). The five investigators find their way back to the revolving fireplace, and re-emerge into the light and warmth of the east tower.
Jeffrey breathes a sigh of relief as he sees his comrades enter the great banqueting hall. He had proved himself completely hopeless at potato-passing, for some reason unable to retain the tuber under his chin for even a brief instant, and had just now hissed at Kris "If they don't turn up soon, you'll have to faint to provide a distraction!"
Kris breaks off her conversation with the Baron, whose tale is just getting to the fifteenth century, and says to Paul "Well, I suppose it's time we were leaving."
Paul counts heads: everyone is gathered around him apart from Mike Richards.
Eventually the would-be bat-man is discovered curled up under the harpsichord. He is distinctly the worse for wear. Stuart is deputed to carry him back to the coach.
Jeffrey, his pectoral crucifix clearly on view, bids the Baron farewell, thanking him for his hospitality. The Baron cheerily shakes his hand and compliments him on his fine singing voice. Jeffrey jokes in response "I do weddings and bar mitzvahs too. Here's my card!"
As they head out through the great doors, each guest is given a small parcel containing a slice of cake, to take home.
No-one has been rude enough to comment on the cobwebs and dirt that liberally cover five members of the party.
The snow is extremely heavy now, and a cruel wind whips it into the party's faces as they struggle aboard the coach. Paul is busy with a shovel, digging packed snow away from the wheels.
Jeffrey remarks good-naturedly "That was some disappearing act! Anyone would think you didn't want to hear my song..."
Kris, who is looking very tired and snappy, threatens him with GBH if he should try to sing again.
Jeffrey is only momentarily hurt, as he knows Kris is under a lot of personal strain. He takes her aside and quietly says "If you ever need to talk about it, I'll be here for you."
Kyle suggests to Grace that she might check up on Janice when we get back. "Mike is too drunk to look in on her properly. We don't want any nasty surprises tomorrow morning." His manner is one of concern rather than paranoia, although he still seems extremely jumpy.
The journey back down to the village is absolutely terrifying for those who have not been indulging heavily in alcohol. Paul urges the coach gently along at barely more than walking pace, peering through the window into what is simply a solid mass of blowing snow. At several places the wheels spin uselessly, and at others the travellers can feel the whole mass of the coach slowly drifting sideways towards the edge of the road.
As the coach eases its way over the humpbacked bridge, Mike Richards vomits copiously over Stuart. It is a nasty luminous green colour: he must have been drinking the punch. Stuart foresees a difficult job getting it out of the fur of his werewolf outfit.
Mike starts slowly and quietly to sing 'The Engineer's Song', but cannot get past the first verse.
All are greatly relieved to eventually roll up outside the Kolnari Masza at last. Tomas has been waiting anxiously in the lobby, and rushes down to help Paul guide the party from coach to doorway. Snow in the yard is now a few feet deep in places.
Grace accompanies Mike back up to his room so as to check on Janice. She knocks gently, then opens the door. Janice is laid in bed on her back, sleeping, or at least snoring. As Mike stumbles in, knocking over a chair, she wakes sharply, calling "What? Who's that?" in a muffled, dopey voice.
"It's just me, Grace," says Grace reassuringly, "and your husband, back from the party."
"Has he been drinking?" Mike is trying unsuccessfully to take his trousers off.
Janice at once starts shouting at Mike. "You've got no consideration! Here I am laid here trying to get some sleep for once, and you come staggering in roaring drunk after a night with your stupid vampire friends - why don't you ever think about me for a change?"
Mike slurs "But I do love you, Janice, you know I do, really I do..." before falling over the end of the bed.
Grace, embarrassed, lets herself out of the room.
The party gather again at breakfast time, Stuart and Jeffrey the only ones who are in terribly good shape. All see that the snow is still coming down thick and fast, and drifts several feet deep fill the road outside.
Jeffrey has already been in to see Brian, in whose condition there is little change: he seems to have regained a little colour, but that is all.
Paul comes over to their table, with a long face. "Bad news, I'm afraid, people. The road out of the valley's closed, because of the snow. Looks like we're going to have to stop over here in Pfaawelt another day before we can carry on to Kwell Tower."
Stuart is regarding Paul suspiciously, and says "What's the forecast?"
Paul scratches his head. "Not good, Mr Winters. Snow might ease up later this afternoon, they think, but the road won't be cleared today whatever - they don't move that quickly round here! Not to worry, though, it means we've got another day in lovely Pfaawelt, which can't be bad, eh?"
"Could we perhaps pay another visit to the castle?" asks Grace brightly.
"Maybe, although I wouldn't fancy taking the coach up that road again!"
He wanders off to tell the rest of the group - which is just Anne and Amanda. The Richardses are not yet down, and there is still no sign of Brian Lewis.
Kyle, a look of concern on his face, calls Paul back. "What's going to happen about poor Brian? He needs a hospital!"
Paul spreads his hands helplessly. "Not a lot we can do, Mr McKenzie."
Kyle is incensed. "D'ye understand what ah'm saying man, one of your guests is in a coma, so far all we've seen is a local doctor. Yer think if a man fell into a coma in the glens he'd still be there two nights later? No bluidy way. He'd be in Perth or Glasgow General. And don't give me any wild remote crap: back at Shell we had a worker injured at a pumping station, he was flown straight into Lagos in less than three bloody hours!" A guilty look suddenly appears on his face, and he glances nervously at Grace.
"I'm afraid our travel insurance won't cover a helicopter, Mr McKenzie - even if they could take one out in this weather! Doctor Odorf says Brian's condition is stable, so we'll just have to pray for him - isn't that right, Reverend?" Paul looks to Jeffrey for support.
Over the coffee, Jeffrey is keen to clarify exactly why SITU sent them on this investigation.
"What were those three objectives SITU gave us? Find out whether there really are vampires in Transylvania, bring back the evidence, and test all those legendary methods of repelling them? Any ideas how we might do that? How can we be sure who the vampires are – if there are any at all? You found those coffins in the castle, but some people do sleep in coffins, you know... There's a couple in my parish who sleep in a coffin and drive a hearse. Bad taste, I know, but it doesn't prove they're vampires. Mind you, if the Baron is a bloodsucker of the night, he doesn't seem to be affected by garlic or crucifixes – and he even called on the name of our Lord in his toast at the party!" He shudders at the thought. "Short of actually witnessing him attacking someone, I'm at a loss as to what we might do."
"You know that those blood suckers are gonna be on to us now," says Kyle. "They know sure as hell that someone was there, 'specially seeing that young Gino put his foot through their expensive painting. The next guesthouse might not be so well prepared with fancy wood and stuff. If the Baron is a vampire, he was perfectly at home in the light yesterday, so they could be here even as we drink!"
"We should make enquiries re the five men in Vampire costumes - see if Paul or the villagers know who they are," Stuart says. "And we should find out if the Baron attends the church - and the Prants." The rest of the party note that he is prominently wearing a knobbly silver ring.
"Yes, the rumour that the Prants are werewolves sounds well worth pursuing," Kyle says with some relish.
"I plan to go to the wedding," Jeffrey says. "Does anyone want to join me? It might go with a bang," he muses, "considering what the Szolts had to say..."
Stuart borrows Ferdinand's mobile phone to make a report to SITU, but finds to his discomfiture that the signal is extremely bad. He has to shout into it, and he can barely hear the person at the other end. He explains that they have found coffins, and found garlic to be ineffective: what sort of evidence do SITU want for the existence of vampires? Bringing back a live one would be tricky, and getting a member of the party bitten by one probably risky. Would a blood sample be sufficient?
He thinks the answer is "Yes."
Kyle takes the phone as Stuart is about to hand it back to Ferdinand, and taps out the number that Siobhan gave him. "Mr Spencer, please."
The signal is terrible, and all he can hear is the receptionist at Robinson Hogg Coal saying "Hello? Hello?"
Kyle slams the phone shut frustratedly.
Later that morning the party head en masse for the Szolt-Prant wedding, borrowing snowshoes from Marta (she and Tomas are also going - in fact it looks like pretty much the whole village will be present, despite the weather.
The church is in fine fig, and the SITU team take up a pew at the rear on the groom's side - which is rather sparsely populated compared with the bride's.
Stuart heads to the front to greet the groom's family - his mother and sister, it looks like - and shakes each of them by the hand while saying in Hungarian "What a lovely day! My congratulations on your good health."
They seem flattered by his attention and respond politely, although both can be seen to wring their hands in pain briefly - Stuart has made sure that they got a good knuckleful of his ring.
There is something of an atmosphere of tension in the church. To the side of the pew in which the bride's mother is sat, together with the two Szolts Jeffrey spoke to at the party last night, there is a small knot of three youths in morning dress. They are darting hostile glances at the groom, a handsome young man clad in an ill-fitting dark suit. He and his best man, who looks very like him - perhaps a brother – are studiously ignoring them.
Mendelssohn's Wedding March strikes up (a great Hungarian piece of music), and the bride enters on her father's arm, kicking off snowshoes at the end of the aisle.
Everyone rises, and Reverend Lundekvam starts a lengthy speech in Hungarian. Stuart understand parts of it, which are just the usual sort of wedding sentiments. It is noticeable that the minister keeps glancing nervously at the three youths on the bride's side, and he keeps faltering.
There is a hymn, and then the minister starts the service proper, in Latin: Gino is the only one who can follow this closely. It is very similar to the Catholic version.
As Reverend Lundekvam starts on "If there be any who...", one of the youths leaps to his feet and calls out something in Hungarian. At once the church erupts into commotion, with screams, shrieks, people talking wildly to each other, sitting down rapidly or hiding under the pews.
The groom, Slek, responds in angry terms, waving his fist, and the bride shrieks and flings her bouquet furiously at the youth - presumably her brother Kidu.
The bride's father drags her to one side as Slek and his best man advance menacingly on the three youths. Kidu leaps forward, pulling a silver paper-knife from his jacket, and springs on Slek. At once there is a ferocious mêlée, in which all five roll around on the floor at Reverend Lundekvam's feet.
Jeffrey leaps to his feet and attempts to calm the situation down, but he is not heard above the hubbub (and probably wouldn't be understood even if he were audible).
The organist strikes a horrible series of discords, presumably trying to jar the combatants apart.
There is a sudden sharp pained cry from the struggle, and a horrid silence falls on the church.
Reverend Lundekvam is in tears at the altar, and a man whom Gino recognizes as Krist Snak pulls the brawlers to their feet one by one. The last one, Kidu, is deathly pale, and a wound in his chest is spreading blood rapidly.
Someone calls something out sharply, and there is a general movement to clear the church. The party find themselves standing, blinking, in the snow, with only Snak and the immediate families left inside.
The villagers remain outside the church, gathered into a knot, but from the hostile looks they get the SITU team gather it would be best were they to return to the Kolnari Masza.
It does not look as though there is going to be a reception.
Back at the guesthouse, Kyle, who is looking increasingly stressed, says to Jeffrey "You're minister at St Mungo's-in-the-Jewry? Isn't Mungo one of the Muppets or something? Never realized a great big purple monster with a high-pitched voice could become a saint – mind you, they let anyone into the church these days, eh?"
Jeffrey is trying to strike up a conversation about music with Gino. "Are you a country fan?"
A reflexive look of horror appears briefly on Gino's face before he can recompose it into its usual passivity. "Er, no, not really. I'm more of an football man."
"Have you ever been to Nashville? I'm hoping to visit next year – though I'll probably have to raid the collection plate, ho ho! What part of the States are you from?"
"From New York City."
"So good they had to name it twice! Do you get much country music there? Of course, I'm a fan of both kinds – country and western, ho ho!"
Stuart is once more chatting to his favourite waitress Danyi. "Do you get many vampires around here?"
She looks pale. "It is not good to talk of such things, Mr Winters."
"Why - I thought it was all just stories?"
Danyi glances carefully around to make sure she is unobserved before bending close to Stuart. "Mr Winters, because I like you I will tell you - do not go to the castle. It is a dangerous place. I will give you some advice. Smear fresh pine sap on your hands - that will keep off the undead. And if a friend of yours is bitten, cut off his feet - then when he rises he will not be able to pursue you!"
"I hope you can remember your way into the secret parts of the castle," Jeffrey says to the others over lunch. "We might need to go back there. I still think that we should get a scoop of that earth in the coffins – SITU might be interested in it..."
Gino concurs. "There might be other ways into the north tower, too - and what about the south tower? I could ride up there tonight on the scooter, but the road's rather dangerous."
Stuart calls the reluctant Danyi back. "How could I get access to the region's medical records?"
"I don't know!" She looks at him in puzzlement. "You could perhaps ask Doctor Odorf?"
Grace has gone back upstairs to check on Brian. He now appears to be sleeping normally, and is breathing properly.
She sits by the bed, and shortly, as if her presence made a difference, his eyelids flutter and he wakes.
"What... where am I?"
"You're all right," says Grace comfortingly. "We're still in Pfaawelt."
"I had the strangest dream, you can't imagine. A tall man with long, dark hair, and he called to me - and my heart came out of my chest and rushed to him, it left me lying here. Only it wasn't shaped like a heart, it was all long and thin and sort of snakey."
Grace frowns and strokes his forehead, and soon he is asleep again.
"Still snowing!" says Paul mournfully. "Well, you've got the rest of the day to yourselves, people, and probably most of tomorrow too at this rate."
The Kolnari Masza, 3 pm, Saturday 1st November 1997