If you think being born into Old Money makes a teenager’s life sweet, think again. For one thing, my parents are Vanpyres. The Vanpyre dynasty goes back to the Crusades for Pete’s sake - they make Old Money look like New White Trash. Then there are the names they gave us. They called me Curfew, which is way beyond random. My sisters didn’t exactly get off lightly either: they’re called Taffeta and Amphetamine. I mean with parents like that who needs parents?
Also, let’s face it, it’s difficult to look cool when you live in an English village called Little Titmongering. Even if you do spend quite a bit of time in New York and your Dad has a top-secret laboratory in the Dakotas that you’re not supposed to know about. More on that later. The Vanpyres are rolling in ill-gotten dough – my father is a banker (say no more), my mother an ex-model who’s had more face-lifts than a Pittsburgh slag heap. And they’re both as cold as ice. There ought to be a law against people like that producing children.
It goes without saying that we’re all complete fruitcakes. I spend a lot of time in my room playing computer games, which makes me seem normal, I guess, and reading books, which apparently makes me suspect. At least to adults, who seem to get nervous around anyone who thinks. They keep telling me I live in a fairy tale. They’re sort of right about that, but in the wrong way, which is somehow worse than just being wrong. You’ll see what I mean a bit further on.
My sisters are geniuses and spend most of their time misbehaving at their awful boarding school. They’re good at that. They also get good grades, which infuriates our parents, because it gives them so little to gripe about. I'm more the quiet, nerdy type. Which may be why I had the meltdown. That’s what everyone else is calling it anyhow. Personally, I don’t think I did have a meltdown. I think I saw the light. I mean in a world where the so-called real seems so unreal, how can we be sure that something isn’t real? Either way, this is my story of how we saved the world from a bunch of fallen angels – at least for the time being. With a little help from an Asian butler, some seriously cool multi-player computer games and a little (well a lot) of help from the planet Doon, better known as Kepler 186f. That planet really exists, by the way. It’s up to you whether you want to believe the rest. That’s where the quantum mechanics come in. We become what we believe, and the universe aligns itself around us. So whatever you choose to believe, it will define your world.
From a nearly invisible spot behind a knotted oak, Constables Gary Bummidge and Robbie La Touche enjoyed a secluded view of the village of Little Titmongering, a well-heeled village within easy commuting distance of London. Twinned with the German town of Rimming an der Oder, and with the French town of Hauteur Sur Lie, Little Titmongering was little in name only, easily outdoing its nearest neighbour, Nether Sodbury, in wealth and prestige. The first thing to strike you on your arrival at the village would be The Pretentiary, the titanic vicarage. It looked more like a stately home than the home of a clergyman and dwarfed the modest-looking church of St Wulfhild next door (St Wulfhild of Barking, to be precise).
Bummidge and La Touche slouched contentedly in their parked patrol car, munching on Cornish pasties washed down with Dandelion and Burdock soda from the village store just down the road. After their shift they would head for a pint or two at the village pub, The Delinquent Apostrophe. This was a free house with its own microbrewery. Little Titmongering boasted a total of three pubs. The Delinquent Apostrophe was regarded as the plebs' pub. It was frequented by anyone who appreciated real ale, which made it almost classless, and so far more suspect than if it were only plebeian. By contrast the other two watering holes – The Golden Handshake and The Double Standard – were shamelessly elitist. The favourite local brew at The Delinquent was an India Pale Ale known as Dog Collar, but mischievously nicknamed Cockfroth after the local vicar, the Reverend Melvyn Cockfroth, or even less charitably ‘Stuttering Cockfroth’, as the Reverend had a stammer.
Poor Cockfroth, 32 years old, slightly chubby and cherubic looking, was generally regarded as a bit of an interloper by Titmongerers. For generations, the incumbent at St. Wulfhild's had been a relative of the leading local family, the Smeghurst-Crunts. In the 19th century there had been a Reverend Peregrine Crunt, famous for his pulpit tirades against the seditious works of one Charles Dickens, who had the effrontery to suggest that the poverty of the poor might be someone's concern other than their own. One morning after sung Eucharist one of Crunt's parishioners had made the mistake of pointing out to him that Jesus had been a friend to the poor, the leprous and the destitute, and indeed, it had to be said, altogether rather subversive. This had proved too much for the poor Reverend, who had turned as purple as his bishop's cassock before dropping dead head first into a wreath of dahlias that had just been lovingly but anonymously laid on the grave of Lulu the Loose, the recently extinguished local prostitute, thus publicly marking the last ever occasion that she would be plunged on to on by a Titmongerer.
The Reverend Peregrine Crunt was succeeded by his nephew, the Reverend Eustace Crunt, who was as magnificently ineffectual as his predecessor had been excitable, much to the relief of his congregation. As every sensible person in Little Titmongering knew, and probably still knows, the main use of institutionalized religion is to make egotism seem respectable, and if possible even laudable. Until the arrival of Cockfroth there had been a Crunt at the vicarage for as long as anyone could remember. By Titmongering standards, therefore, the graduation from Crunt to Cockfroth had been a long stride indeed. Only an occasional fleeting glint in the Reverend’s jocular but keen eye would have alerted a close observer to the possibility that he was easily underestimated. Which was just how he liked it.
Bummidge and La Touche, locally nicknamed The Only Two Gay Cops in the Village, were not really gay at all, but coped well with the ribaldry, largely because they rarely had any crime to contend with, although this was about to change, as we shall see. They were somewhat of an odd pair to get on so well, though. Gary hailed from the fecund fields of Bummidge's farm just outside Nether Sodbury. Robbie, on the other hand, was the socially dislocated son of a bewildered stockbroker and his Labrador-breeding wife, who had seen their son get a First in English at Exeter before announcing his intention to join, of all things, the local police force. If he had announced his intention to join a Buddhist monastery in Tibet they could have at least consoled themselves with his discreet absence, but his uniformed and cheerful appearance at regular intervals around the village was a permanent embarrassment.
Gary and Robbie’s disparate social origins gave them a keen sense of the social dramas being lived out around their patrol car. As Gary had only just returned from a week's holiday in Ibiza, there was some catching up to do this lunchtime. Robbie had just polished off his Cornish pasty and was starting on the cheddar and pickled onion crisps when Gary nearly sprayed the front windscreen with Dandelion and Burdock.
"What?" asked Robbie, turning to his mate behind the wheel.
"I could've sworn I just saw a red Maserati go past with no driver in it!"
"Oh that!" retorted Robbie. "That's just Merv the Perv!"
"Merv the Perv!" repeated Gary, chuckling.
"Yeah, he's just rented Hoarcroft Manor for two months. Mervyn Grabstein – he's a big Hollywood producer. They’re shooting a film over at Pinewood. Or, should I say, little Hollywood producer. Short-arsed little bugger, looks like a bloody goblin with a hangover. Nearly shat myself the first time I saw him drive that car past!"
"OK," said Gary, "But why Merv the Perv?".
"Apparently made his fortune shooting porn films," answered Robbie, with a mouthful of Cheddar and pickled onion crisps. "But now he produces Hollywood blockbusters. Remember Death Drive 1 and 2? Or, what was it called... Cooper's Coup?"
"Right," said Gary. Then chuckling: "But if he's a porn buff then Little Titmongering would be the right place for him then, wouldn't it?"
"Got that right!" said Robbie, screwing up the packet with a loud rustle. "Oh by the way," he added, rescuing his bottle of D & B from under the car seat.
"Yes?" answered Gary.
"He's got a scary minder bloke in tow called Vern. Huge, mean-looking guy. Must be seven feet tall. I would NOT like to get on the wrong side of Vern!"
“Wouldn’t you now?” asked Gary.
“No, I wouldn’t!” said Robbie. “For one thing, I was standing next to him at the supermarket checkout the other day, and I noticed he has six fingers! Six fingers!”
“Creepy!” conceded Gary, before taking off the hand brake and setting off into town.
“Too right!” said Gary. “The local villagers call him Goliath!”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Bummidge and La Touche liked to finish lunch early so they could ease the patrol car quietly down the High Street and park it in front of Firball and Blandish, a local law firm. There they would wait for a pinkly flustered and dishevelled Amy Winterbottom, a very well-made dental hygienist, to emerge from Mr Firball's office on the first floor, where they had just had each other for lunch. On Tuesdays and Thursdays only though, as this was when Firball's partner Blandish had his regular lunchtime golf sessions. Bummidge and La Touche were in the habit of indulging in a little banter on these occasions about holes in one and holes at one, and so forth. The constables' amiable smirks were not lost on Amy, when she eventually emerged on to the High Street to continue her war on plaque at the surgery of De Pilo Pendet, the mouthwateringly gorgeous Valencian dentist who, unbeknown to Mr Firball, was also not aversed to a little Winterbottom now and again after a hard day's drilling.
On their way out of the High Street, their eye would be drawn to the imposing detached home, set back a little from the main road down a gravel drive, of Sir Aynall Fisher, the local Conservative MP for Little Titmongering. Bummidge and La Touche would alternately refer to the house as Chateau Haemorrhoid, or simply Piles.
The constables' next port of call was St. Titus's Prep School, which was positively begging to be called Saint Tight-Arse, and so it was. The Principal, one Priscilla Dyet, M.A., was a paragon of lean, breathless over-achievement and futile hyperactivity, thus striking exactly the right note for her staff and pupils, as well as ensuring tidal waves of demand for rehab, psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals. She did strike Bummidge and La Touche as a strangely genderless creature though. And not only them: at a valedictory service held at St. Wulfhild's the previous summer, Gary's sister Tracey had overheard an amused verger from Nether Sodbury describe Dyet as ‘the campest chap’ he had ever seen, thus successfully pulling off two jokes in one – not a feat for which vergers are generally renowned.
At St. Titus's, the young blossoms of Little Titmongering and Nether Sodbury would be tethered from the age of three upwards to heavy executive briefcases at least as big as themselves, and trussed up in stiff little uniforms bearing the school motto: Beati possidentes – Blessed are The Possessors, or to the more subversively inclined: Never Knock a Dental Plan.
Shielded by an overgrown hedgerow, Bummidge and La Touche would wait for the regular furtive appearance of Hartley Smeghurst, Head of History at St. Titus's and a distant relation of the Smeghurst-Crunts. Emerging a little frantically from the bushes at the edge of the playing fields, Smeghurst would retrieve a stash of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes from a hole in the brickwork and light up behind one of the tall brick pillars that marked the entrance to the driveway. Gary and Robbie could almost feel the surreptitious bliss of that first drag, his head back, his gaze turned to the clouds. During the lead-up to exams, even this might not prove enough, and he might retrieve a bottle of Black Label whisky from a hole he had dug beneath a pot of rhododendrons. Depending on how far advanced the revision sessions were, he might have to take two or even three swigs from it before returning the bottle to its man-made cave. He would then, to use La Touche's phrase, ‘do a Beethoven’, composing himself, so to speak, into a stance of ambling innocence, hands nonchalantly behind his back, strolling back on to the grounds and back into the fray. For every Hartley Smeghurst dragging and swigging near the driveway, there were a handful of Peggys, Daphnes, Ralphs and Bernards weeping in bathrooms, popping beta-blockers and quietly falling apart on a daily basis under the ruthlessly cheerful yet uncomprehending eye of Priscilla of the Sexless Countenance.
Last but not least on their tour of Little Titmongering, Bummidge and La Touche would pull up opposite the driveway of Succour Grange, which they privately referred to as ‘Suckers’ in homage to the Vanpyre family who had owned it for several generations. Over the months they had been working together they had come up with a fine list of alternative names for the Vanpyre mansion – Corpuscle Manor, Leukaemia Grange, Fangs, Sickle Cell Hall, Blood Bath House, Platelets and Chateau Anaemia had all had their day, but they had settled on Suckers - simple and to the point.
On this particular day, because Bummidge had just returned from his vacation, La Touche had to bring him up to speed on the comings and goings at Suckers. By this time on the third course of his packed lunch, the milk chocolate bar, La Touche remarked that Countess Verruca Vanpyre had been away for a week.
“Oh?” said Bummidge, wrestling with a mint wrapper.
“Yes, in hospital for an operation, apparently,” replied La Touche.
“Why, what was she having, a personality transplant?” jibed Bummidge.
Reluctantly clearing up the debris from their lunch, they started the car and moved on.
If you followed the road from Little Titmongering to Nether Sodbury, you would come to a little hump rising unexpectedly like an afterthought to the village of Crasslington Upstart, before plummeting out of this bucolic paradise into the housing estate on the outskirts of Nether Sodbury. Struggling to dominate this monotonous connurbation was the complex of Crushingham Academy, formerly Crushingham Comprehensive. Plonked on the landscape like a cadaver on a mortuary slab, Crushingham was fully equipped, and yet like a corpse conspicuously lacking all signs of life, and certainly intelligent life. This dreadful institution was where Gary’s sister Tracey Bummidge had the misfortune to be employed.
Presiding over the futile mental defibrillation of the local youth was Crushingham's Principal, Barker Winnett, B.Ed. of Dunstable, whose unofficial nicknames all revolved around excrement. In unwitting synchrony with this faecal perception of him, of which he was oblivious, Winnett would often sport a manure-coloured pin-striped suit, which helpfully accentuated the amorphous, bulging squatness of his frame. Out of the damp, mushy ashes of Crushingham Comprehensive, an ‘under-performing’ school, Crushingham Academy had risen on the turd-coloured wings of Barker Winnett. He had accomplished this feat by a combined strategy of incarcerating up to a third of his pupils at a time in detention rooms (at one point they almost ran out of space to detain them), and bullying his teachers into writing their pupils' GCSE coursework for them. In this way he managed to chalk up literate-looking examination results from cohorts of students who could barely speak in complete sentences, let alone write in them.
Winnett was for the most part monosyllabic. His favourite expression was "Job done!" The most frequent exception to his rigorous syllabic economy was “wanker!” - an expression which seemed to apply to virtually every student he met. Under duress, this might be extended to the four syllables of “stupid wanker!”, but he took care not to use this too often in case four syllables in a row might make him look too intellectual. Punctuation was another minefield, especially his apostrophes, which were either omitted altogether or pelted his texts with such intensity that his Powerpoints looked as if they had survived a bombardment of grapeshot.
His speech was an eerie reflection of his mind-set. His dropping of the letter H at the beginnings of words and after the letter T seemed to mirror his determination to stifle all aspiration, whatever its source, for his was the kingdom of standardization, and standardization is the enemy of aspiration. Likewise "–ing" endings were also frowned upon. They sounded much too pro-active to entrust to the young. After all, in a standardized world we cannot be allowed to retain control of our own ends.
Imagine the cognitive contortions triggered in Winnett's universe by the two school subjects that he pronounced "'Isstree" and "Lit-ritcha". The number of syllables alone was suspicious enough, but the real problem was that they require the skills of evaluation and, dare one say it, discernment. This all sounded much too much like thinking, which meant that the people who taught these subjects needed to be closely watched and, if possible, well and truly stomped on. At Crushingham, Gary Bummidge’s sister Tracey and her colleagues were subjected to humiliations that would make even some totalitarian regimes blush. Whereas the only gesture to the physical surveillance of students was a motion sensor in the bathrooms, the teachers were subjected to permanent video surveillance in all classrooms. The purpose of this surveillance was to ensure a) that they were always standing at the front of the class (the freedom to roam about the classroom while pursuing a train of thought was now outlawed (actually, so were trains of thought); b) that at no time would a teacher presume to park even a single buttock on a desk while talking to their students (can't have teachers feeling comfortable, obviously, and we certainly can’t afford to give the impression that teachers are on the same side as their students); c) that under no circumstances were teachers permitted to read aloud to students (potentially much too enjoyable for all parties) and d) that all teachers follow a rigidly prescriptive ratio of 80% writing to 20% active teaching during all lessons. As a result, the typical condition of the teaching staff was one of permanent demoralized exhaustion. Propped up by a raft of psycho-pharmaceuticals, and with bags under her eyes big enough to carry her students’ homework in, Tracey Bummidge had the privilege of working a minimum of seventy hours a week as 'Ed of Isstree' at Crushingham while only being paid for half the hours she worked. It was crucial to this workload that at least fifty percent of her work bear no relationship at all to the quality of teaching, and if anything worked to its detriment, which a cynical observer might be tempted to conclude was the whole point.
So it was that in the new 'standardized' version of history, the study of historical sources was now confined to deciding whether or not they were deemed 'true'. Evaluating the reliability of historical sources was now considered both suspect and unworkable. For one thing, it's a concept and therefore to be discouraged per se, and for another it contained such an orgy of syllables that from Winnett’s point of view it might as well be radioactive.
Constable Gary Bummidge’s sister Tracey was a marathon enthusiast and a natty dresser. Evidence of these two facts, in the form of a pair of honed and shapely legs, caught the attention of Barker Winnett’s deputy, Bev Alcock, or ‘Cocky Bev’ as she glanced out of a corridor window at break-time to see Tracey supervising in the playground. Barker and Bev, the Crushingham diumvirate, or ‘dumb-virate’ as Tracey liked to call them, were of one accord not only in their mechanisms of control, but also in their articulation of those mechanisms. Whereas Barker’s stock phrase was ‘wanker’, Bev’s, in a virtuoso meld of stupidity, speech impediment and de-aspiration, was ‘kwe’in’, that touching term of endearment that you and I would know as ‘cretin’. The trouble is, no matter how often you call your students wankers and cretins they never manage to be quite as dumb as you need them to be.
What really caught Bev’s eye on this occasion were the pink floral patterned tights which adorned Tracey’s shapely legs under the dusky pink two-piece suit that she was wearing that day. Those tights were enough to send Bev scurrying to Winnett’s office to report a dangerous outburst of exuberant colour. A brief, monosyllabic exchange took place, after which Bev Allcock strode back to the playground to ‘deal’ with Tracey. Bev, with her P.E. chest fully inflated, informed Tracey that she had been summoned to the Principal’s office regarding her manner of dress. The response was not quite what she expected. On being told that her tights did not conform to the school’s dress code for staff (manure brown pin-stripe, presumably) and that Winnett’s instruction was that she would have to change, Tracey found herself instantaneously in possession of a laser-focused, white-hot anger, which she now directed at Bev, who instinctively took a step backwards out of the corner of the playground before Tracey had even opened her mouth.
“I absolutely and categorically refuse to negotiate my mode of dress with you, with Barker, or with anyone at this school!” she retorted. “Oh, Oh! Oh!” bumbled the blanching Bev, before abandoning the field to a magnificently outraged Tracey and scurrying back to the Principal’s office. It was as easy as bursting a bubble. After all, all it takes is one little prick.
“Money is the root of all evil,” chuckled Count Moribund Vanpyre to Archie Firball his lawyer across the polished oak dining table of Succour Grange, surrounded by its handsome park on the outskirts of Little Titmongering. His Anglo-Asian butler slid the silver coffee service on to it before discreetly reversing himself out of the room.
Having long ago mastered the discipline of feeling all his emotions to the full while betraying none of them, the Vanpyres` servant of many years matched this deft bodily retreat with its mental counterpart – withdrawing into a private world of irony. He had not served in the Vanpyres` household for thirty and more years without becoming a meticulous observer of their characters and affairs.
“Typical,” he chuckled to himself from within his facial fortress. “He has the chutzpah to talk about money and evil, but gets the quotation wrong by leaving out the most important part of it!” As he carefully timed the top-up coffee brew in the kitchen and transferred it to an identical, pre-warmed pot that he already had waiting for the purpose, he mused on the subtle art of hijacking platitudes. “Love of money is the root of all evil, my dear Master, not money itself.”
“If that will be all, sir?” he enquired moments later, after a barely perceptible entrance with the top-up pot.
“Thank you,” answered Count Moribund Vanpyre, reaching for the pot, before suddenly thinking better of it.
“Er, Phuk Yu?”
“Any chance of a couple more slices of toast?”
“Right away sir,” answered the servant, and evaporated into the kitchen to fulfill the command.
Archie Firball, of the local law firm Firball and Blandish, smiled as he raised a gilt-edged porcelain coffee cup to his lips. Phuk Yu re-appeared with the toast in a couple of minutes, then glided out of the room.
“Worth his weight in gold, that man of yours, Mori,” he remarked. He still got a kick out of the contrast between the quiet gravitas of the man and the delightful incongruity of his name.
“And you really couldn`t persuade him to adopt a name like, well, Butler?” he chuckled.
“Not for love nor money,” mused Count Moribund, recalling his father’s interview with Phuk Yu, now over three decades ago, and the unswerving dignity of his future manservant`s statement: “I am the soul of obedience sir, but my name is my name.”
“But don’t you realize what your name means in English?” Count Moribund senior had protested. But: “My name, sir, is my name,” was the only response he could get out of the man, who in all other respects had a reputation that was beyond impeccable. Even as a young man he had had almost magical skills ascribed to him. And so this was one the few occasions in his life when Count Moribund Vanpyre experienced the ennobling sensation of gracious acquiescence. Clearly, as he himself well remembered appreciating at the time, there was no arguing with Phuk Yu.
Needless to say, the Vanpyres had no idea that their butler was from the planet Doon. The Vanpyres had been of interest to the Doonian Council for a long time. Phuk Yu was proud of having been educated in two cultures. It afforded him depth and perspective, and lent drive to his sense of irony. His maternal grandmother had explained to him that that his name ‘Fuk’ meant good fortune (no arguing with that), while ‘Yu’ was often translated as ‘bright’, or ‘universe’. A change of spelling was the only concession the Vanpyres` butler had been willing to make towards Anglophone convention. At least, the Vanpyres had sighed, his name didn`t have to look obscene.
The Count and his lawyer resumed their conversation. Draining his coffee cup and helping himself to another piece of toast, Firball sat back in his chair and looked the Count in the eye, while Fiscal, the Vanpyres` black Labrador, sniffed suspiciously round his ankles a couple of times before taking up residence on the Persian rug in front of the marble fireplace: “I think you`ll be pleased with how the Project is progressing,” he said.
“We have a new income stream, quite unconnected to the Research and Development of The Genetix Foundation and Vangard Biotech. We set up a new shell company based in the Cayman Islands, and are sending funds to a numbered bank account in Zurich. European monies are managed through Luxembourg. That keeps us under the radar as far as UK tax is concerned. The Biotech research lab in the Dakotas is running well.”
“Splendid,” commented Count Moribund, deftly mopping up a Seville orange marmalade spillage with his index finger. “And the new UK company itself?”
“Has been named Paydoe, and joins the swelling ranks of payday loan companies now systematically bleeding Joe Public dry, week by week. The first wave of TV commercials is scheduled for next month. The advertising psychology is tried and tested by now – treat the customers as you want them to behave - so like other companies out there we`ve gone for puppets and a catchy jingle. We treat them like children, they behave like children. We don`t really want to stand out, just be one of many. All very feel-good, lighthearted and entertaining, with the shortest possible small print screening of the 1,760% APR they will actually be paying.”
Firball went on: “We have also made progress on the virtual currency front - Altcoin. Virtual currencies are already proving their worth for money laundering. There were concerns about the reliability of Bitcoin to deal with large-scale off-grid funding of Genetix R & D and so forth. We’ve looked at a variety of alternative e-currencies out there, and have settled for E-coin. It’s relatively new, but our initial checks are showing it already to be something of a gold standard in credibility compared to other altcoin currencies. Our contact in China informs me that their three operatives currently control 80% of E-coin hashpower.”
“Eighty per cent of what power?” asked the Count.
“Hashpower, answered Firball. “That’s the rate at which the E-coin mining facility can decrypt the cryptographic hashes to get more currency.”
“Excellent,” replied the Count, brushing some toast crumbs off his Hermes jacket. “And in English, how much would that now be in what I still like to call real money?”
“It’s obscene,” Firball went on. “We could be talking trillions of dollars. And all completely and deliciously under the radar, thus protecting not only our assets, but also the anonymity of the people and organizations involved in the Genetix Project.
“Compared to the E-coin set-up, Paydoe is just a sideshow. But an important one. To simplify the complexities of funding different parts of the project, profits from Paydoe are being used mainly to fund what we might loosely term the PR aspect of the exercise.”
“Including Merv’s pro-mutant, pro-alien films and TV productions?”
“Exactly,” answered Firball. “Profits from Paydoe are being transferred via a suitably labyrinthine route to the Czech Republic. It`s basically the same model we used for safeguarding the one in Colombia years ago through your wife`s banana plantation in Costa Ladrinos for the drug barons. Essentially, in fact, it`s another Operation Banana. It was a successful model there, so there’s no reason it shouldn’t work this time as well.”
“If it ain`t broke, don`t fix it,” mumbled Count Moribund cheerily through a mouthful of toast.
“So now,” he chuckled in a moment of humorous insight, “we`ve finally got our genetic research and our drug enhancement operations fully operational, but with no chance of tracing one to the other?”
“Precisely,” affirmed Firball, reaching for the butter curls.
The Count chuckled, pouring himself another cup of coffee, reminiscing how far he had come since meeting the young Countess. Compared to the business deals he had been involved in back then, this seemed like world domination.
Two decades earlier, Countess Verruca Vanpyre, the petulant, narcissistic ex-model wife of Count Moribund, had been Miss Costa Ladrinos, beauty queen of a Central American republic. Used to being feted and pursued by rich and powerful men, the Countess had assumed that the Count’s motives were the same as everyone else’s – that he lusted after her beauty and wanted a lovely trophy wife on his arm. For her part she had chosen him out of all her suitors because of his irresistible combination of wealth and established status.
In fact, she could not have been more wrong. Although it was true that the Count found her physically attractive (who didn’t?), his real reasons for marrying her were more to do with what might be called breeding. In the genetic, rather than the social sense. By the time the Countess had realized the Count’s near obsession with breeding offspring – it had taken them three years to conceive the twins, and only then with fertility treatments, it was too late for her to have second thoughts. Countess Verruca resigned herself to playing with the cards she had dealt herself and to make full use of the money and status that her married allowed her.
The Count and Countess had three teenage children – Curfew their 15 year-old son and his older twin sisters, Taffeta and Amphetamine. Taffeta and Amphetamine were now assumed to be busy over-achieving at Our Lady of Ransom’s boarding school. Curfew was in his bedroom upstairs, off his tits.
In fairness it wasn`t Curfew’s fault. He had no idea he was off his tits. If his mate Luke had known how it would turn out, slipping an E into his drink two nights ago, he might have thought better of it.
Lying on a bed that was wet with sweat, every muscle in his body in an agonizing spasm of fear, Curfew was sure, like you are sure when you have been stabbed or shot, that he was in Hell. His terror was as visceral as if he were surrounded by a pack of ravening, slavering hyenas about to tear the living flesh off his bones. What he could see, all around his bed, everywhere he looked, were demonic beasts inside what seemed to be an adjacent but different space to the plane he occupied, rabid with rage that they could not reach him, and promising to devour him alive, piece by piece, very slowly. He thought this place might be what was known as the Abyss. It had a biblical, prophetic quality to it. Much worse than that, though, inside his head he could hear a silky, seductive, yet somehow even more terrifying voice, telling him over and over with sugary malice, “Just let go, Curfew, just let go, give in to it, and you will have peace.” He knew his very life was at stake. If he gave in, he would die, he was certain. This had been going on since he had – he could not remember how – got home just before midnight the night before last. But he felt as if he had been in this demonic place for centuries. The Abyss, and dark death, drew nearer and nearer, calling him to let himself fall into it…. He squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists, as tears of terror and rage poured down his face.
In the end, some tiny spark in his soul kindled the resolve: “No, no, NO! I`m not going to die, I`m not… I`m going to get through this and live…..”
“Odd, that,” he found himself thinking, an immeasurable time later, as if from a great distance away, as he tried to raise a body that felt a thousand years old off the sodden mattress. “I had no strength left – none. It was a tiny choice that saved me.” And then he passed out again. For how long he did not know.
When he woke up, he found he was thinking in Hebrew. Oddly, that didn`t seem odd. He opened his eyes, blinked twice as he looked around at his bedroom, this luxury designer hell-hole called Curfew`s Room at the Vanpyres` mansion, took a sharp inward breath as if to make sure he was still alive, and uttered the word neshekh, before bursting out laughing. And once he started laughing, he found he couldn`t stop. He knew in his bones, like you know that your mother loves you, or doesn`t, as the case may be, that his demons were as real as his mattress. Or even more so. He knew that his sanity was the interest payment on the deposit that had bought his family`s success.
Neshekh, neshekh, was the word drilling into his brain as he pulled on his two-day old sweaty T-shirt from the night before last, quickly adjusted the crotch of his boxer shorts and propelled himself off the bed with his gangly legs. He swayed for a couple of seconds as his blood pressure adapted. He didn`t even bother to look in his mirror. His eyesight was still blurry as he felt for the door-knob, flung open the door and made for the oak-floored gallery landing on the first floor of the mansion. The gallery was lined from floor to ceiling with books that had long been purely decorative in that household. “The story of our times,” Curfew thought, as he made for the other side of the gallery library, where he felt sure he had once seen what he was now looking for.
His shambling, nauseous, light-headed progress was punctuated by the discreet appearance of Phuk Yu, bearing an empty tray and a gently raised eyebrow. At the sight of Curfew in his present condition, most people would have screamed. He looked like a crazed ghost. His skin was grey and his eyes sunken into blackened sockets, his hair a greasy, sweat-matted exclamation mark projecting out of the top of his skull. He stank even from several paces away. Wisely, Phuk Yu paused in silence, both to take sober stock of the shambling catastrophe before him, and to give Curfew a chance to register his presence, as he could see from the look in Curfew`s eyes that he seemed to have been propelled into some alternative reality.
“Good morning,” said Phuk Yu, hoping that he sounded reassuring and familiar.
“Ahhh…” responded Curfew, whose sense of balance was not responding well to having his determined shamble across the landing interrupted.
“Would young sir care for something…..refreshing?’ Phuk Yu suggested, gearing himself for a quick ditching of the tray in case Curfew needed catching.
Curfew considered the request for a good few seconds.
“Jss,” he replied in what he hoped was English.
“Would that be orange juice, sir?” inquired Phuk Yu.
“Mm,” responded Curfew, quite pleased with his own eloquence.
“In your room, sir?’
“Mm,” came the response. Having grasped the gist, Phuk Yu saw little point in dragging out the exchange, and oiled noiselessly down the staircase towards the kitchen.
Swaying back and forth for a few seconds to achieve some fresh momentum, at the same time balancing himself by flapping his arms, Curfew fixed his sights on what he hoped was one of the middle shelves of the bookcase a few yards from him. By the time he got there, his vision was clearing a little, although his sense of unreality was just as strong as when he had first woken up.
He found the bilingual Hebrew copy of the Old Testament, a gift to his parents from the Bishop of Westbourne, at roughly eye level on the bookshelf, allowing for the stoop caused by his dizzy lurching, and searched the Index for the Book of Ezekiel, finding the chapter describing corruption in Jerusalem. Then, he found the word he was looking for – neshekh. In Chapter 22, verse 12, which describes the financial practices of corrupt Jerusalem, he read: “In you men have accepted bribes to shed blood, and they have exacted discount and interest on their loans. You have oppressed your fellows for gain, and you have forgotten me. This is the very word of the Lord.”
Curfew then looked down at a footnote explaining the Hebrew word for interest – neshekh, fiscal interest being an extension of its original verb root meaning – ‘to bite’. Like the slow rumbling tremor of an impending earthquake Curfew felt the seismic shudder of insight roll through his whole body. He was still in far too much of a mental stupor to ask himself how it was possible that he had woken up that morning suddenly able to understand Hebrew. After the demonic torture of the last forty-eight hours it would probably hardly have seemed relevant anyhow. Still holding the book in his two hands, he slid down on to the floor, shaking with laughter.
“So here we are,” he thought, “a powerful dynasty of bankers, merchants and brokers with a power base spanning five continents, rubbing shoulders with presidents and prime ministers, donating to charitable foundations, steering media corporations and making and breaking governments, and what do we really do? We bite people! And what are we called? Vanpyres!” For a few seconds he thought he might wet himself laughing, but found he didn’t care.
By the time Phuk Yu returned with a tall glass of iced orange juice a couple of minutes later, he would have been hard pushed to tell whether the tears pouring down Curfew`s pallid cheeks were tears of laughter or of pain.
“We`re doomed!” were all he heard Curfew whisper, leaning back against the book shelves, his eyes closed with exhaustion.
“He`s gone bananas,” thought Phuk Yu to himself, as he crooked his elbow and bent down to help Curfew up.
“So it`s the bananas all over again, Firball old chap, is it? We can`t lose,” said Count Moribund downstairs in the dining room, finishing off the dregs of his Costa Ladrinos coffee, just as his son Curfew was flicking open the book of Samuel and finding the story of how a young man called David managed to slay the Philistine giant Goliath.
“If only....,” he thought, just before making it into the bathroom to throw up.