Victoria Gousset, resplendent in the smallest bikini in the history of the universe, is sunning herself on the big stone-flagged terrace of Villa Parque, perched elegantly on a cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean. From her sun lounger, she can see the manly cliffs rising from the frothing ocean to the thrusting peaks above, and dotted with more luxury villas and quaint villages than she can count. She can count to six on a good day.
At Victoria’s side is a plumed cocktail, complete with a paper umbrella, which guarantees its authenticity as a very tasteful plumed cocktail.
The sun blesses her, a cool breeze caresses her and fortune grins idiotically upon her.
Everything is wonderful. She has just been kidnapped and is looking forward to a good long hostage drama in the sun.
‘Brilliant, isn’t it, Timmy.’
Timmy is the Greek god on the same terrace, the one with burnished bronze skin, blazing blond hair, incandescent teeth, and leopard print trunks that are even smaller than Victoria’s bikini. Timmy is currently toning his muscles by lifting a complete set of train wheels.
‘What’s brilliant, Victoria?’
‘The sun, the scenery, the luxury, the pampering; the sheer, gorgeous gorgeousness of this place.’
Timmy furrowed a moment. ‘Yeah, but what’s brilliant? What does the word mean? I’ve heard it before, but haven’t figured it out.’
Sigh. ‘Brilliant. Like you, Timothy. Don’t dwell on it, it’s come to you eventually.’
Timothy Adonis, Victoria’s personal assistant, employed at dramatic expense to do for Victoria; to do all the things Victoria was too rich to do, like make and take telephone calls, pick clothes off the floor, make tea, spread jam on toast, plump sofa cushions and pillows, frown uncomprehendingly at uncomplicated ideas, handle the boring practicalities of whatever, whatever, but mainly just do for Victoria.
He was hand-picked by Victoria herself after an exhaustive and exhausting process of phoning a local talent agency and scrutinising processions of the talent they had in stock. He hadn’t so far, in six months of employment, shown much aptitude for or understanding of many of the assigned tasks, and especially not doing for Victoria. He was, however, very, very good at frowning uncomprehendingly. And he was glowingly, effulgently gorgeous.
‘Oh, put that bloody train down and come and have a glass of steroids.’
‘Thank you very much, Victoria. Don’t mind if I do.’
‘Don’t you think it was terribly, terribly clever of me to kidnap myself? Not many people would have thought to do that, you know.’
‘Yes,’ said Timothy, struggling to keep up with the conversation.
‘Well. All this gorgeousness and cleverness comes at a price. I must write a ransom letter to my father to free myself. Don’t you think it just delicious irony that I’m writing a ransom letter to my own father to get him to pay money to free me from a kidnapping I’ve done to myself?’
‘Delicious? Yes, the drink is very nice, thank you. Could do with a few more umbrellas, but very nice all the same.’
Victoria opened up the pink laptop that perched on her pretty thighs.
‘Dear, Daddy,’ she began and paused thoughtfully. ‘Timmy. I’ve been designing lingerie again and I’ve had some of the designs made up. Let me show them to you later. I’ll model them myself.’
‘I’m sure they’re very nice, Victoria, but I’m afraid I don’t know much about lingerie. I only wear leopard-print trunks myself.’
‘Dear Daddy, I’ve just kidnapped your daughter …’ she typed.
‘Victoria, may I be so bold?’
‘Oh, you may be as bold as you like. In fact you are positively under positive orders to be as positively bold as you like.’ She put the laptop aside and wiggled in anticipation in her bikini.
‘Well, it seems to me that if you are kidnapped and your father pays a ransom and then you go home with all the ransom money, isn’t your father going to be a tiny bit — you know. Won’t he notice?’
‘Oh no, not at all. He’ll just be glad to see me, number one, and number two, there’s so much money sloshing around he won’t miss the odd billion here or there. He probably loses track of it himself. We once lost the entire economy of Tanzania down the back of the sofa.’
‘Didn’t she miss it?’
‘Miss her economy.’
‘Oh. I didn’t think to ask. Anyway, as I remember, I found it and spent the whole lot on crisps.’
So much for Timmy’s boldness. Victoria went back to her computer.
‘May I be bold again, Victoria?’
‘I should be so lucky.’
‘Why have you kidnapped yourself? After all, a lady of such privilege and fortune cannot lack for anything.’
‘Are you initiating a tiresomely unimaginative form of exposition, by any chance?’
‘Yes, Victoria, I believe I am.’
‘Oh. OK.’ Sigh.
She put down the computer again.
‘Well. Why have I kidnapped myself? Oh, pure spoiled venality I suppose. By venality I mean greed, not the embarrassing social disease.’
‘I’ve lost oodles and oodles of my pocket money gambling. I bet Atlantic City on Las Vegas and it came up Cayman Islands so that was that. Oh, and I wanted a fast car, a unicorn, a spaceship, attention, an exciting life, another unicorn, a new bicycle, the moon, a white elephant, electroshock therapy, fame, love, and a nice holiday away from the pressures of being rich. And above all, I want something else, but I can’t think what it is. Oh, yes. Above all I want oodles and oodles of attention. That’s what I really want.’
‘I told Daddy I wanted a Disney castle and you know what he said to me?’
‘No, silly. He said the most awful thing.’
‘The most awful thing? That is awful. How could he say that?’
‘He said “Yes.”’
‘Yah. He said “Yes”, just like that.’
‘What did he do that for?’
‘Well absolutely. Just “Yes” without a thought. I don’t suppose he was even listening. So then I said I wanted a Disney prince to go with the Disney castle and he said “Yes” again, so that clinched it. He doesn’t care about me. He would rather give me everything and then have me go away with a fictional ideal rather than actually say he loves me, so that’s that. I’m going to teach him a lesson and then take a whole planet worth of money, which I’ll spend on the Cayman islands, a Disney castle, a fast car, a unicorn, a spaceship, attention, an exciting life, another unicorn, a new bicycle, the moon, a white elephant, electroshock therapy, fame, love, and a nice holiday away from the pressures of being rich, and the other thing I want above all else, which I can’t put a name to right now. Oh, yes. Above all I want oodles and oodles of attention. That’s what I really want.’
‘Aren’t you having a nice holiday away from the pressures of being rich right now?’
‘Well this is gorgeous, isn’t it. But this is a kidnap so isn’t it a bit like work? I don’t know what work’s like but I suppose it to be a bit like this.’
She went back to composing the ransom note.
‘Dear Daddy, I’ve just kidnapped your daughter and I’m going to cut myself — her — into small pieces and mail the bits to you one at a time until I receive one million squillion pounds in your daughter’s bank account by sundowner time Tuesday.’
‘I don’t know what it is, Timmy, but something is not convincing me about this note.’
‘Perhaps you should say what you’ll use to cut yourself into small pieces to show you have thought about this seriously.’
‘Good idea. What does one use to cut me into small pieces?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t tried to cut you into small pieces. How about a knife and fork?’
‘Hmmm. Dear Daddy, I’ve just kidnapped your daughter and I’m going to cut herself into small pieces using a chef.’
‘You know, it still doesn’t sound right. Perhaps I should change the Daddy bit. In business don’t people use names like “sir” or “madam”?’
‘How about Sir-Madam?’
‘Timmy, what’s my father’s name?’
‘Who’s your father?’
‘Daddy’s my father.’
‘Is he? Then, his name is Sir Hades Gousset.’
‘Is it? He has the same last name as me. That’s tidy, I suppose. And “Sir”, so that’s a hint, I suppose.’
She tapped momentarily on the keyboard. ‘Oh bother, writing ransom notes is such hard work. I suppose that’s why there aren’t more of them. I’m exhausted already. All this finger tapping.’
‘Why don’t you record your message?’
‘What a good idea! A recording! How terribly dramatic too. We can use an orchestra and perhaps we can get the mp3 file to smoke and explode after Daddy has listened to it.’
‘That doesn’t sound impossible.’
‘Here we go. Dear Daddy Sir Hades Gousset, I have kidnapped your daughter, Victoria and she is going to cut me into small chef-sized bits and send them on a nice holiday in Disneyland.
‘Oh, dear, Timmy. That doesn’t sound very convincing again, does it. What can be wrong?’
‘Perhaps it’s the fact that you are addressing your father as your father and he is sure to recognise your voice. These details are likely to undermine the authenticity of the project.’
‘Timmy! You said “authenticity”! What’s got into you?’
They both looked dubiously at Timmy’s glass of steroids.
‘Do you think I ought to use more paper umbrellas next time?’
Sir Hades Gousset was in his lab testing underwear.
Sir Hades is one of the richest, most successful businessmen on the planet. Sir Hades Gousset is an underpants magnate. Sir Hades Gousset is big in underwear. In fact he is the biggest magnate in underwear in the world. Compared to Sir Hades, there are just no other big men in underpants. None to touch him anyway. In fact, Sir Hades Gousset is so big in underpants he is quite simply the biggest man in the world in anything.
Hades Gousset: King of the Undies World!
He who controls underpants controls the world. That’s what Sir Hades likes to say.
‘What is it every person needs?’ he demands at dinner parties, at official functions, on TV, at the speaker’s podium in the United Nations, speaker’s corner, and whenever, wherever he thinks he has an audience.
‘Food. Water. Shelter. Underpants. Without these basics, we can do nothing. Food and water mean nourishment and sustaining the body from within. Shelter means safety and security and sustaining the body from without. You may think shelter means the four walls that enclose us when we sleep. And that’s true. But we have a more fundamental sense of shelter and it’s usually to be found in our trousers. A shelter most basic. Essential shelter. Because even when we are in our walled space, our cave, or wherever we feel safe, we crave security at a more intimate level: the cosseting shelter only our undergarments can provide.
‘Underpants separate us from the animals. Our foundation wear is the base on which civilization is built. Why, I once lived with a tribe of nomads who were underpants averse. Did they have civilization? Did they build bridges or tall buildings or airplanes or free market economies? No, they had caravans and were arrested by the police.
You could say, and I do say: no pants, no life.’
And so it was that Sir Hades saw himself as providing an essential humanitarian service, extending civilization to all loins that craved it, while earning huge pots of dosh in the process.
‘I thought to myself a long time ago, that if you can provide the basics to people at an affordable price, you can be a very rich person while spreading the benefits of civilization.’
And his philosophy had amassed him a wealth bigger than the Himalayas.
‘This way, Sir Hades. The tests are about to begin.’ Dr Edwin Pickle, in white lab coat and saucer-like spectacles, directed Sir Hades to his sandbagged observation point within the vast hanger that was the site for the physical tests here at the facility formerly known as Porton Down, the famous top secret research centre, which Sir Hades has bought off a cash-strapped government thus saving the UK from economic ruin — again. On purchasing the Porton Down complex, Hades renamed it to fit in with his empire. Porton Down became Pants Down. Anyone who had dealings with or just knowledge of the place liked to use its original name.
Addressing the collection of technicians in the bunker, Sir Hades declaimed, ‘Ladies and gentlemen. We are making underwear history. We are no longer just providing the traditional function of underwear, which is shelter and catching drips. We are now on a mission to extend that concept of shelter to its logical consequence. We are about to introduce underpants and their wearers to the notions of protection, safety and rescue.’
There was really no need for Sir Hades to announce this to his technicians. They already knew. More than that, they had the task of taking Sir Hades’s dreams and making them a working reality. They had the task, as do workers everywhere, of doing the real work while the boss sat back and chewed cigars and thought up ever more delusional projects. But they were being paid oodles, so whatever.
‘Who’s up first, Pickle?’
‘The first test pilot is Felix Baumkuchen. He’s testing the flying underpants.’
‘Excellent. Make sure there’s a tot of brandy for the chap when he lands.’
‘Already taken care of, sir,’ beamed Pickle. His smile disconcertingly magnified by his saucer spectacles.
‘Flying underpants. Fantastic things. Imagine: you’re in the path of a runaway lorry: leap into the air and your underpants will fly you out of harm’s way. You find yourself on top of a suddenly erupting volcano: jump into the air and your underpants will fly you to safety. On the Alpine slopes, suddenly there’s an enormous avalanche: gather your fellows in your arms, jump into the sky and fly them all to safety.’
Sir Hades looked up into the steel spars of the ceiling through his binoculars and found Felix Baumkuchen on a high gantry and wearing nothing but a flying helmet and goggles and an enormous pair of grey Y-fronts.
Like Sir Hades far below, he was surrounded by busy technicians with tablets and flash goggles.
‘Look, here, Pickles, the wings on the pants are already deployed but the fellow hasn’t left the gantry yet.’
‘That’s right. Since this is the maiden flight, we thought we’d test the aerodynamics of the wings first for safety reasons.’
‘Say what, Mr Man? Nonsense! Perfectly safe. Launch with the wings in stowed position, because that’s the way they would normally be in an emergency. Deploy in the air, the way it will happen in a real emergency.’
‘Oh, do you really think that’s wise, Sir Hades? What if …’
‘I’m looking through these incredibly powerful binoculars and, you know, I don’t see any whats or ifs or buts anywhere. Stow those wings, like a good chap, eh?’
Pickles gave the order.
‘Are we ready now?’ he asked Sir Hades.
‘Yes, we jolly well are.’
‘Handing the comm to mission control,’ said Dr Pickle into the tiny mic attached to his ear.
‘Mission control acknowledging command of the comm,’ said the earnest crew-cut man standing next to him into his own tiny mic. ‘Commencing countdown. Three, two. one, Geronimo!’
Felix Baumkuchen leapt into the void like Buzz Lightyear and soared gracefully. The appearance of graceful soaring was an optical illusion brought on by holding your breath in anticipation of earning a big fat bonus. In reality, gravity was just getting a firm grip on Felix Baumkuchen before yanking him to the concrete floor a hundred metres below and depositing him there with a loud splat, and where the wings deployed.
‘Bugger. Back to the drawing board with that one,’ said Sir Hades.
The technicians exchanged alarmed looks, mouthed ‘Drawing board!’ at each other and made hurried notes on their tablets.
‘What about the brandy,’ asked Dr Pickle.
‘Hardy Perfection. One hundred and forty years. Cognac. Too good to waste. Pour it on him. I’m sure some will percolate in through the holes.
‘Next we have Buzz Adrenalin. He’s testing the parachuting underpants.’
‘Fantastic. The parachuting underpants. We all need those. Trapped at the pinnacle of a flaming skyscraper: simply leap to safety. In a doomed airplane plummeting to certain death: jump out the window with an armful of women and children and lower everyone to the ground. How about the suicide, tired of life? Decides to end it all by throwing himself off Lover’s Leap — but then halfway down he gets a text from his beloved begging reconciliation. Suddenly life is worth living again. He only need thrust his hand in his trousers and float to a happy ending. Let’s see these bloomers bloom!’
Sir Hades and all the technicians once again focussed their binos on the gantry, mission control went through the launch protocols — ‘Geronimo!’ — and again gravity did what gravity does best.
‘As before, Pickle. And one for me. Next?’
‘Next, sir, Flash Boredom.’
‘The bouncing underpants. Brilliant! Think of the mountaineer slipping from the embrace of his ropes and tumbling the sheer wall from a towering peak. He can simply inflate his underwear and bounce to the bottom. Caught on a level crossing with your foot jammed in the rail and a massive goods train barreling down on you? Inflate those pants to cushion the blow. Erm, erm, changing light bulbs on the rickety stepladder, a potentially bone snapping tumble will turn into a humorous bounce. Erm, erm …’ Sir Hades was running out of inspiration.
‘Our initial tests have shown that children can use inflated bouncing underpants as substitute space hoppers and thereby hours of innocent playground fun.’
‘Missing the point a bit,’ growled the mogul. ‘Underpants are supposed to be functional, not fun. I suppose we could re-brand the playground pants at a push. Let’s get on with it. I’ve a good feeling about these bouncers.’
The test pilot Flash Boredom seemed a bit reluctant to launch but a helpful prod from a flight technician with a broom soon had him airborne and straightaway after that, the cleaning staff had more mopping up to do.’
‘Let’s switch brandy, eh. That Spanish stuff, Orina de Bull, we picked up in Torremolinos, the stuff we use for cleaning the silver, will do. I’ll stick with the Perfection, though.’
Sir Hades was thoughtful. ‘Interesting test results this morning. I believe we’re on to something here. I say we combine the flight function, the parachute function and the bounce function in one set of underpants. It’ll be a mega seller. What do you say, Pickle? Good man. Get on it.’
Ms Hilda Titanium, personal assistant to Sir Hades, strode into the bunker carrying a large brown, padded envelope. Her presence instantly electrified the room. Eyewear steamed up. Eyes without wear steamed up.
Hilda Titanium was not just a personal assistant, she made the world go round. She made men’s heads spin. She was a force of nature; a force of nature in a sackcloth dress. The sackcloth dress was a health and safety precaution: if she were clad in any normal dress, men’s heads would spin off completely.
‘Sir Hades, sir. I have an urgent communication for you.’
‘Can’t it wait? We’re about to test the shark-repelling underpants. I’m looking forward to that. Important work, you know.’
‘You need to see this, sir.’
‘Oh, buggery bugger bags!’
‘If you’ll excuse us,’ Hilda told the personnel in the bunker who fled for the door as one, clenching their teeth and clutching themselves.
‘Sir, this was delivered a short while ago, addressed to you. As with all your mail, I took the liberty of opening it. There’s a note … and something else.’
Sir Hades read the note: “Sir Hades Gousset, esq., I hope you are well. Your daughter Victoria Gousset has been kidnapped. I enclose a thumb. Yours
sincerely faithfully sincerely, the Kidnapper.”
‘What? What? Victoria’s thumb? Who did this? What bastard barbarian has kidnapped my daughter and sent me her thumb? When I catch up with him, I’ll cut off more than his thumb —’
‘Sir Hades, thumb as in drive, not thumb as in opposable. Thumb as in USB digital storage device, not thumb as in pollex.’ Hilda held up the memory stick. It was an expensive model, nauseatingly pink and suffering a rash of sequins.
‘There’s an audio file on it. I rather suspect it will turn out to be a message of some sort pertaining to the abduction. A plea from Victoria, perhaps; proof that they have her and she is alive. It may contain ransom demands.’
‘When I catch up with the bastard who did this, I’ll cut off his pollices and feed them to him at great speed. Let’s listen to this damn recording then.’
Hilda plugged the drive into a lab laptop and opened the audio file.
The recording was of a female voice doing a bad impersonation of a man with a Germanic accent.
‘Hairy Sir Hades Gousset, guten morning —’ giggle ‘Ve haff your daughter, Victoria Gousset. If you do not cooperate viz all our demands, ve vill cut her into small pieces, ja, and feed her to herself —’ suppressed laughter — ‘vizout seasoning.’ More suppressed laughter. ‘Ze only vay to save her is to pay a squillion million spondooliks into a numbered Swiss bank account, which will be in Switzerland, and which will have a number. The number is on the accompanying note.’
Sir Hades scrutinised the paper in his hand but could see no number on either side.
‘You have until sundowner time tomorrow to comply or Victoria is sashimi. Woo ha ha ha ha!’ The recording closed with suppressed laughter.
At that moment, Hilda’s own personal assistant appeared in the bunker. ‘Ms Titanium, I’m terribly sorry to interrupt, but we have another package just like the first. I thought you’d like to see it right away.’
‘Thank you, Catshit.’ The package, which was indeed a plain, padded envelope like the original contained a note on a single sheet of paper.
“Hi. Sorry. Forgot to attach this with the first note,” it read.
And there followed a long number which apparently referred to an account at the Swiss Cottage, London, branch of Big Bank PLC.
With a fizz and a pop, the pink thumb drive went up in smoke and vapour.
‘Good Lord,’ exclaimed Sir Hades. ‘I didn’t know they could make a file do that.’
‘I don’t think they can, Sir Hades. I suspect the computer’s logic board has been contaminated with the chemicals you were using in the shark repelling underpants.’
Sir Hades stared at the now silent computer and then at the notes in his hand.
‘My daughter. My one and only daughter. Snatched by unspeakable villains. Stolen from the bosom of her family by evil, twisted minds. Her life threatened and used as a means of extorting honestly earned money from her doting father. Rapacious, callous, evil monsters clutching my pure and beautiful daughter.
‘That was Victoria herself, wasn’t it.
‘I’m afraid it was, Sir Hades,’ confirmed Hilda.
‘I’d know that crap German accent anywhere, and that imbecilic giggle she gets after a couple of cocktails. What the hell is she playing at? Do we have any idea where she is?’
‘Not at the moment. I’ll send the envelopes and note over to the forensic labs right away and let the white coats give them a good sniff.’
‘Now, where’s her wosserfeller, that dozy neanderthal, her assistant. Timpani Twonk, or whatever. Perhaps he can shed some light on this nonsense.’
‘Timothy Adonis. Catshit, can you track down Mr Adonis, for me?’
‘Yes, with due servility, Ms Titanium.’ Catshit tugged a forelock he carried around for the purpose and retreated into a corner of the room with his smart phone.
‘Good grief, Hilda. What has got into the girl?’
‘Oh, mindless greed, I would say, Sir Hades. And a degree of sociopathology that enables her to extort from her own father.’
‘Haven’t I always provided for her? Haven’t I given her everything she needed? Just the other day, she asked for a Disney castle, and I said yes. Which do you want? Tokyo, Paris, Florida or California? Shall I commission Mickey to make one for you himself? I understand he has dwarves just for that sort of thing.
‘She’s never been without undergarments, you know. They call undergarments foundation wear because they are the foundation of everything. No undergarments, no life. And she has had the best, the most snug, the wooliest underthings a father can provide.’
‘I know, dear Sir Hades. I know.’
Catshit scuttled out of his corner.
‘It is with utmost cringing that I interrupt again,’ he began.
‘Have you found Timothy?’
‘Yes, sir and milady. And I believe I have found Miss Victoria, too.’
‘Say what, Mr Man? You found my daughter in the short time it took me to get through that dreary, time-filling exposition in which I was compelled to sound self-pitying even though I’m not like that at all?’
‘Yes, your exultancy.’
‘Take a rise, Catshit!’
‘Oh thank you, sir. Which rise shall I take?’
‘Primrose Hill! Yes, take Primrose Hill. That’s a very nice rise.’
‘Thank you, Sir Hades, sir.’
‘But you still have to work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, Catshit,’ said Hilda. ‘And I’m going to begrudge you the salary I pay you for Christmas Day even though you won’t be working.’
‘I appreciate it, Ms Titanium. It shows you care.’
‘Right. Catshit. What have you got for us?’
‘Well, I couldn’t get Timmy at his office or on his mobile or at home, so I called his family. They said he was assisting Miss Victoria kidnap herself and they gave me the address he gave them in case of emergencies.’ Reading from a note: ‘Villa Parque, In the Sun, South of France.’
‘Will you be going in person, Sir Hades? Should I inform your wife? Would you like me to go on your behalf? Shall I summon the highly paid ex-special forces goons you keep for unconventional jobs?’
‘None of the above, Hilda, dear. I want to think on this a moment.’
Sir Hades Gousset is now the most important man on the planet. Almost all the residents of planet earth have entrusted their most intimate zones to his hands, so to speak. However, Sir Hades has not always been so exulted. What he has, whatever heights he has reached have been achieved by himself and himself alone. There was no leg up with a family fortune — he had no family. There was no old boy network from his school or college unless you needed needed a janitor or septic tank emptied. Sir Hades, you see, came from the most humble beginnings imaginable. He was born in a ditch. In Essex.
It is right and proper to point out at this point that ditches are neither a characteristic nor quality of Essex. Nor did his mother in her labour plod for hours around the county looking for a ditch in which to give birth. Nor was Hades’s mother thinking particularly about giving Hades humble beginnings. She wasn’t even thinking about giving birth. She was thinking, as she stumbled into the one and only ditch in Essex, about protecting her bottle of gin so that it didn’t get broken.
The bottle of gin survived long enough to be consumed by the mother of the infant Hades, who was born right there without his mother noticing or even remembering that she was with child.
When the bottle was empty and when Hades’s mother eventually regained consciousness, the woman climbed out of the ditch and was gone and that was that for Hades’s mother’s involvement in her child’s upbringing.
At first Hades was raised by the rats of the ditch. When cats took an interest in the rats and the rats moved involuntarily and temporarily up into the next rung of the food chain, the cats took over nursing the infant man-child and taught him to stop twitching his whiskers in such a vulgar, rodent-like manner. Dogs, Essex dogs, presumably, eventually moved in and the cats upped and went in search of inanimate objects to stare at. The dogs quickly taught Hades that there was no need for him to spend so much time licking his shoulders or hands when there were other parts of his anatomy he could lick with more obvious reward.
The dogs attracted humans: nomads of the music festival, road building and caravan park culture who taught him how to creatively style his hair using only mud to hold its shape.
Hades could not say he was happy. All Hades could say was “squeak”, “miaow”, and “woof.”
The nomads attracted the attention of the police, social services, Range Rover-driving land owners and animal protection agencies, who found a totally naked Hades running around with the nomads’ dogs. Hades became the object of a brief legal tussle between all the four interested parties. The social services and animal protection agencies each claimed they ought to take him into care. The social services argued that as a human-child, Hades was obviously their responsibility. The animal welfare people argued that he ought to be in a home for abused animals if not an actual zoo for careful study as a potentially new species. The police wanted to arrest him for his hairstyle and the Range Rover driving landowners thought he’d be good for target practice, or something for their hounds to practice on.
In the end DNA tests proved, quite improbably, that the young Hades thing was indeed human and so social services took over.
They placed him in a residence for orphans and abandoned children. The first thing that happened when he got there was a shower. Then a bath. Then another shower and a lot more dunking in the bath and vigorous scrubbing while the staff tried to find the child entombed in the dirt.
It was then that the transformative and defining event of Hades’s life occurred: the staff of the social services gave him, for the first time since exiting his mother’s womb in the Essex ditch, clothes. On top of the pile of new soft, clothes things was a pair of white, utilitarian, Y-fronts and it was these he tried on first. He had never experienced anything so clean and snug and reassuring. Hades stood in the middle of his small, bare socially-serviced room and stared down at the cotton that was comforting and protecting his loins.
There was no mirror in the room. There was no mirror in the room because some residents were inclined to smash them and then use the shards of glass to slash themselves or other people. So Hades simply stared at himself. Covered and tucked up thus he discovered security and belonging. He felt safe. Complete. He now no longer looked like an animal. He looked human. He was grateful to the rats and the cats and the dogs and the nomads for bringing him this far, but it was as if deep down he had always known he was different. The animals of course had no need for undies. They had fur and were all id. They hadn’t thought that the man-child might need anything around his loins — other than a tongue from the point of view of the dogs. And the nomads, although dressed, eschewed underwear on the grounds that it needed washing and changing, and, even worse, needed buying or stealing and they had a whole bunch of more pressing things to be not bothering with.
Hades now understood he was destined to wear underpants. His life started making sense to him — sense where before the possibility of sense had been an entirely absent concept, like family, love, Sunday roasts or quantum physics.
He put on the rest of the clothes and looked like a person at last. He walked the corridors of the orphanage with confidence and a new resolve in his step and admired himself in every reflective surface he could find. No matter how good he looked in his institutional sweats, it was what was underneath them that made him feel real.
It was at this home that another life-shaping experience occurred.
Just as the rats of Hades’s ditch attracted the cats, which attracted the dogs, which attracted the nomads, this institution full of young, vulnerable people attracted the kind of people who had uses for young vulnerable people. These individuals came from outside the orphanage but had ways of insinuating themselves within the community. Hades, as a new young and freshly scrubbed young thing with no particular command of human language to tell tales was of especial interest. One day a visitor managed to engineer, on some pretext or other, an hour or two alone with Hades. The visitor’s cries alerted the staff who had him rushed to hospital where he had his own fingers surgically removed from his own orifices.
Hades got into no trouble. Quite the opposite. He was awarded new, whiter, snugger underpants.
And so Hades made good progress at the orphanage. He was respected and did well in his classes.
There was only one spot of crap in the ointment. Coming to them with no history and no family, the staff were obliged to choose a name on behalf of the young Hades, and so they did.
But to choose a name? Well, traditionally, names reflected something about the bearer, their origin, their place in society, their qualities. Crazy Horse, named for the strength and virility of the noble equine; Carpenter, named for the practical skill of the artisan; Wood, dweller among trees; Page, a lowly lackey or a flunky, something to be dressed up and then kicked about by beings higher up the social pile; Bakewell, being from the place where the tarts were made; Squire, a manner of conception. The staff might have named Hades BornInADitchOfAWomanWhoWasTooPissedToNoticeSheWasEvenPregnant but that part of Hades’s history was unknown and so he was dubbed FeralUnwantedAndAbandonedFoundling. MarlonFeralUnwantedAndAbandonedFoundling.
Right away, Hades hated the name Marlon. It was affected. It was excruciatingly embarrassing being named after a film star.
And so the bullying began. The kids at the orphanage taunted him over being called Marlon. Shopkeepers, bus drivers, strangers, giggled when the heard his name. School registrars and post office workers guffawed. Eventually even the social services officials who had named him couldn’t help but join in the mocking.
However, Marlon, who had endured ditches and rats and cats and dogs and nomads and molesters was not going to passively accept this ridicule. He was after all, a wearer of underpants — clean underpants. The underpants gave him faith, and certainty and confidence; they gave him destiny; and it was through his robust, underthings-inspired responses to the teasing that a new name was born: Hades; the fiery one.
Under the rain of fire, the taunting stopped and in time the bruises healed.
Meanwhile, Hades excelled at school and quickly revealed a talent for all things scientific: maths, chemistry, physics, biology, and digesting institutional food. When these merged into an interest in fabrics and tolerances of various kinds of elastic, his fate and future were sealed.
And so it was to university and the beginning of the most spectacular career in anything the planet had ever seen.
A new start in life was as good as any time to get a new name. He would leave behind the ditch and the stigma of Marlon. He changed his name to Hades, and then, because he could, and because people had a problem spelling FeralUnwantedAndAbandonedFoundling, he adopted a new surname too: Gousset, because Gousset meant gusset, which best represented his vocation. And gousset was French for gusset, and the musicality and sophistication of a foreign language evoked a lofty ideal where plain old gusset evoked a creepy obsession.
And the rest, as they say, is to be explained on a later page.
And what of the ditch? It was eventually removed to a county — name withheld for legal reasons — with which it was more in character, its role in history, in the making of one of the most extraordinary characters in the annals of human stuff and wotsit, unknown to anyone but the readers of this history.
It is a beautiful evening at Villa Parque. It is a beautiful everything at Villa Parque. The moon is full and glorious and opalescent. A warm breeze carries the scent of bougainvillea and appalling wealth.
Timothy is juggling ancient stone statues. Life-size depictions of classical gods and fantastic young ladies in togas. He is practicing so that he can amuse Victoria with the trick later.
He is sure that Victoria wants nothing more than to see him juggling ancient stone statues.
Victoria emerges from the villa and on to the terrace. She is wearing a diaphanous negligee and flimsy, silky things. She stops and poses, hand on hip, in Timothy’s line of sight.
‘Hello,’ said Timothy. ‘Do you want to see me juggle? I was doing it with five statues before, but I accidentally tossed one in the ocean.’
‘Timmy. I told you before that I had been designing lingerie. Things my father has no interest in making. Well, this is one of my creations.’
Without taking his eyes off the spinning statues, Timothy said, ‘Nice colour. Suits you.’
‘There’s more in the collection. I’ll show you another.’
She went back inside the villa for a moment and emerged in another outfit. This time there was no negligee, but there was a lot of lace and frilly stuff and borderline transparency.
‘What do you think?’
‘Er. I’m not really a judge of fashion. My parents didn’t really wear lingerie. They wear clothes and wardrobes and stuff. Nice colour, though. Suits you.’
‘My father doesn’t like this stuff. He won’t let me manufacture it. We don’t agree on anything.
‘He just thinks underwear is about being sensible. That’s all he’s interested in, sensible underwear. Snug and warm and sensible and boring. You see, I always thought underwear was about sex. Sex, Timmy. I thought it was about softness and silkiness and sensuality and love and romantic things. And of course about catching drips but mostly about sex. But Daddy doesn’t see it like that at all. All he cares about is practicalities and money and owning things and owning people.
‘I’ll try on another set. No, it’s OK. There’s no need for me to go inside. I’ll change right here. I don’t mind. We’re all adults.’
She stepped out of her frilly, lacy things and stepped into others that were even frillier and lacier and more transparent and much, much smaller.
‘Oh, Timmy, don’t you just love sensuality and romance?’
‘I love juggling.’
‘Oh, Timmy, I love …’
‘I’m not much of a romantic, but my colleague is drooling all over himself. Lady, in terms of giving hints, you need a sledgehammer to get through to your man friend.’
Timothy lost control of the statues he was juggling which sailed in a beautifully orderly line over the parapet of the terrace and down to the ocean below.
Just behind Victoria two dark figures had emerged from the Villa. The moonlight, which one moment had seemed romantic and serene, now seemed sinister and tainted. Each of the newcomers carried evil-looking guns. The one who had spoken, the taller of the two, had a woman’s voice but wore a black ski mask. The one at her side was shorter and was also wearing a ski mask. Drool was indeed escaping, copiously, from the mouth hole.
The woman spoke. ‘Big man, don’t make a move. We’re not here for you, so if you behave you can get back to tossing your cabers or whatever it was you were doing. We’re here for the little lady. Get in the bag little lady.’
The speaker tossed a large overnight bag at Victoria’s feet.
‘You leave her —’
‘Stay where you are big man. You may look like Atlas himself, but I don’t think you’d stand up to a boo, would you.’
‘I said, leave her —’
Timothy screamed and leapt back in terror. He tripped on the balustrade of the terrace and plunged out of sight.
‘See,’ said the masked figure.
Victoria ran to the edge of the terrace and looked down but all she could see was the implacable waves slooshing around whitely on the black rocks below.
‘Timmy! Timmy!’ Turning to the intruders: ‘You’ve killed Timmy, you bastards!’
‘All part of the service, lady. Now get in the bag.’
‘You’re horrible and I’m not getting in your rotten bag.’
‘Your time has come, Maul. Put her in the bag.’
The shorter of the two said nothing and did nothing. More drool escaped from the mouth hole of the ski mask and contributed to the large pool already around the drooler’s feet.
‘Maul, I said put her in the bag.’ No response; more drool.
‘Maul!’ The woman kicked Maul in the buttocks.
‘I said put her in the bag.’
‘Oh, were you talking to me? Sorry. Didn’t realise.’
Now the hunched figure moved, wading out of the drool pool and squelching across the flagging to Victoria.
‘Go away you monster!’
Victoria grabbed the nearest thing which was her cocktail on the table and hurled it at Maul. It bounced off his head and made a mess on the stone floor.
She tried hitting him with a chair, which similarly bounced off his head.
The tall woman inspected her fingernails.
Once within arm’s reach, Maul simply picked up the furiously kicking and punching Victoria and carried her to the bag, into which he dumped her and zipped her.
‘Thank you, Maul. Let’s get going.’
‘One minute, Davinia,’ said Maul. He returned to the terrace table where he finished off Timmy’s glass of steroids. ‘Waste not want not.’
‘OK, let’s go now.’
Maul hauled the wriggling bag on to his shoulder. ‘And you don’t have to call me Maul, Davinia. It’s a bit like me calling you Flay. You can use my first name, you know. My name is Jeremy.’
‘Maul. You’ve left DNA all over the terrace. Very sloppy.’
‘Oh for flop’s sake.’ Maul dumped the bag, which screamed. He got down on all fours and slurped up the drool pool. Standing again, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand and asked, ‘Better now?’
‘Most people would have mopped up the drool. But not you.’
‘I’m not most people.’
‘And thank God for that. If you were most people I would have taken up a career in genocide.’
‘My daughter kidnapped? But who would do such a thing? Is she OK? Have they harmed her? Have you told the police?’
Persephone was taking the news of her daughter’s kidnapping well. She had screamed, run around the room, assaulted a servant with a lamp and upended a Louis XV side table decked with priceless vases.
‘We don’t know who did it, yes, she seems to be OK, and no, we haven’t told the police.’
‘Well, we should tell the police immediately.’
Persephone Gousset, Hades’s wife, Victoria’s mother, was a woman of extravagant proportions, extravagant emotions, and an equally extravagant taste in bling.
‘The kidnappers were most explicit about not contacting the police.’
‘Who cares what the kidnappers want? Get in touch with the police!’
‘I care very much what the kidnappers want. They have our daughter and they did say that if we didn’t comply, they would indeed harm her.’
‘They would cut her into small pieces and feed her to herself, unseasoned, was the exact threat, I believe, Mrs Gousset,’ said Catshit, Hilda Titanium’s personal assistant, very solemnly.
‘They threatened what?’ Shrieked Persephone.
Hilda took charge of her assistant. ‘Thank you very much, Catshit. You may now go bury yourself in the garden.’
‘Very good, milady.’
‘Next to the rhubarb, please. It thrives on fertiliser,’ put in Hades.
‘I’m on my way, sir.’
‘Oh, Hades, and you’re just standing there looking at me. Do something!’ She hurled a Byzantine figurine through the French window, which was closed.
‘Oh, I’m on it. I’m very much on it. Those kidnappers are going to regret tangling with me.’ Suppressing a giggle, Sir Hades went on his best business-like way with Hilda Titanium in tow.
Hilda Titanium and Sir Hades Gousset walked together through the expansive topiary back towards the main helicopter park of the family home. The topiary was an eery place to some, but Hades believed that carving bushes to recreate scenes of Hieronymus Bosch’s visions of Hell was salutary and morally instructive.
‘Did you really need to tell her?’ asked Hilda.
‘Oh, yes. Imagine: beloved daughter gets back from traumatic kidnapping event and says, hi, Mum, I’m back safe and sound, but it was a horrible ordeal, and Mum says, what was a horrible ordeal? And did your father know about this? There may be more terrible ways to die, but not many, and certainly none louder.’
‘How long do you intend to hold Victoria captive?’
‘Until she has learned the error of her ways. Kidnapping is not a game, it’s a serious crime. People have been killed, lives wrecked in kidnap situations. She obviously needs to become acquainted with reality. And to attempt to extort money from your own father when you already have everything you need … I would have to spank her soundly if I weren’t already scaring seven shades of fear out of her by letting her believe she has been kidnapped for real.’
‘And when she has learned her lesson?’
‘I’m not a complete monster. I’m on my way down there now to stage a dramatic rescue. I bound into the kidnappers’ den, and bound out again with the distressed damsel and into the glare of publicity. We all come up smelling of roses. I have the boys in the lab working on some new underwear for just such a mission. Could well turn into a new line. Double-oh pants, we might call it. Mission-in-Pants. Special Air Pants. Commando Pants. That sort of thing.’
‘I’m sure they’ll be very sensible pants.’
‘GPS. That’s the way to go. Built in GPS system so that you need never get lost. Could link it to a guidance system.’
‘Quite so. There are already such things as guided missiles. Why not guided pants? Plug in the GPS coordinates of your target and the smart elastic in the leggings will direct you without any need to look at a map or computer. Your eyes and ears and fighting arms will be free for other tasks. If you insist on going off course, the pants will alert you with a loud klaxon noise.’
‘I don’t suppose they’d be armour plated too, would they?’
‘Crikey! Kevlar. Carbon fibre. Not a problem.’
‘They’re what every soldier needs.’
‘Big market among boy scouts too, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘Is this entirely wise, Sir Hades? If I may be so bold as to wonder.’
‘GPS in your pants? If there were a short circuit, I suppose you might get a nasty shock but bunging some rubber in the compounds will sort that out.’
‘No, I mean faking the kidnapping of your daughter as a response to her faking her own kidnapping.’
‘Fighting fire with fire, you know.’
‘Well, I mean isn’t leaving her with Maul and Flay a bit risky? Maul isn’t the most intelligent person on the planet, and Flay isn’t the most humane.’
‘Maul and Flay? They wouldn’t dare bugger with me. They know I’d set Gnash and Er on them.’
‘Quite so. Is there anything I can do?’
‘I’ll say. You can round up the world’s press for me. My underpants will send you the coordinates to gather them once I’m on the move. Talking about fighting fire with fire, have I told you about my idea for flame retardant underpants?’
‘Actually, yes, and we manufactured them, if you remember. They had a problem with spontaneous combustion and we had to recall the entire line.’
‘I’m talking about different flame retardant underpants. The idea with these is that they don’t spontaneously catch fire.’
‘Now, there’s a clever idea.’
Persephone Gousset, gouging holes in the 18th century ceiling roses and cornices with an original Queen Anne chair, was tempted to call the police herself. But if, just if, the kidnappers did find out, there’s no knowing what they would do to Victoria. Well, she did know what they would do to Victoria, because they had told her through Catshit. They absolutely could not feed Victoria to herself. Her constitution was way too delicate to put up with that.
She would leave the police alone until she had a better idea of what was going on. It was clear that Hades wasn’t telling her something and that he had something up his sleeve. You didn’t become that big in underpants without not telling people a few things and without having something up your sleeve.
But what was he up to? She had never been in this sort of situation and was not sure how to proceed. Well, exceptional circumstances called for exceptionally odd people.
She needed snoopers to, to, to snoop around. Who were those fixers Hades liked to use? Gnash and Er? No, too indiscriminately violent. Hades used them when he needed a change in government or a continent shifted over a bit. Maul and Flay? Yes, those are the people he used when he wanted anything creepy done. Now where might she find their number?
Persephone had the servants find her laptop and smartphone in the wreckage of the room and when they were eventually recovered she set about scouring her contacts book. No Mauls or Flays there. She widened the search and eventually tracked them down on Facebook where they had a page. The status report on the page said that Maul and Flay were having a nice time in the south of France where they were holding a kidnap victim hostage. What a coincidence, thought Persephone, they were obviously the right kind of people to talk to and she congratulated herself on her intuition. She liked the page out of courtesy and copied their phone number.
Maul answered the phone.
‘I’m sorry to bother you. Am I speaking to Maul or Flay?’
‘Dunno. Are you?’
‘Well, I assume I’m speaking to one of you.’
‘Oh yes, there’s only one of me. Davinia was quite clear about that.’
Persephone felt she probably had the right number.
‘I assume I am speaking to Mr Maul because you don’t sound like a Ms Flay.’
‘Hold on.’ There was some rustling and a ripping sound.
‘I just checked my tattoo. Yes, I’m Maul.’
‘Excellent. Well, may I then engage you?’
Maul burst into tears. ‘That’s so beautiful! We’ve only just met, and electronically at that, and she’s proposing to me. Oh, yes! Yes! With all my heart, yes!’
‘This is most embarrassing, I’m sure. I didn’t mean engage in that sense, I meant in the sense of work. May I engage you to do a job for me? Hire you. Sorry about that.’
The tears ended immediately in one loud nasal slurping suck.
‘Oh. Of course. Why would anything nice happen to me? What do you want, then?’
‘My daughter has apparently been kidnapped and I’d like you to find out what you can about it. Discreetly.’
‘All right. I suppose so. We cost, you know. We ain’t frigging cheap. Nobody,’ he said gravely, ‘can accuse us of being cheap’
‘That’s fine. How much do you charge for a job like this?’
‘Whatever we always charge.’
‘That’ll be fine.’
‘So what do you want to know?’
‘My name is Persephone Gousset — perhaps you’ve heard of me.’
‘And my daughter is Victoria Gousset. She’s 22, extremely beautiful and intelligent and she was kidnapped a couple of days ago. And since you and Ms Flay are not unacquainted with the business of kidnapping, I was wondering whether you knew anything.’
‘Yes. I know a thing or two.’
‘Such as …’
‘I know that cats get wet in water and trees don’t grow upside down. If you want tomato ketchup from the bottle, take the top off first. It unscrews to either the left or the right. I forget which, so I might on occasion use an axe.’
‘I mean, do you know anything about my daughter’s kidnapping? I will pay for any information you have and pay a lot if you investigate her disappearance and perhaps find her.’
Sigh. ‘Why didn’t you say? What do you want to know?’
‘Well. I thought you might have heard something.’
‘Heard something? Like heard cries for help? Yes, I heard those.’
‘My god! Where did you hear them? When?’
‘At Villa Parque. When I was putting her in the bag. They don’t usually go quietly, you know, though the dead ones tend to be a bit quieter. I personally think it’s because they don’t like going in the bag. I quite like being in a bag myself so I never understood it, but there you go. Different strokes.’
‘You put my daughter in a bag?’
‘It’s a nice bag, but as I say, she didn’t like it. We generally put people in bags when we snatch them. It saves putting up with flailing arms and legs and all that, which get in the way terribly. I take it you ain’t never snatched anyone. And bags have carrying straps for carrying, which is handy. People generally don’t come with carrying straps, which is another reason a bag is useful.’
‘Well, you release her at once, do you hear? Let her go now!’
‘Why? Is there a change of plan? Sir Hades was very clear we shouldn’t let her go until he got here.’
‘My husband knows where Victoria is?’
‘I should say so. It was all his idea. He said that Victoria had been a naughty girl pretending that she had been kidnapped to make unreasonable demands on Walt Disney or something, and that Davinia and I should grab her from Villa Parque to put the righteous fear of kidnapping in her and that he would meet us here and pretend to rescue her and bound into the smell of roses or some such. It all sounded a bit technical to me.’
‘My husband kidnapped his own daughter to teach her a lesson about kidnapping?’
‘You are your husband’s wife, aren’t you? I’m surprised you didn’t know. It’s none of my business, but is there something your husband isn’t telling you?’
‘You seem like a nice intelligent young man. How would you like to hear a new pro — new business idea?’
When Maul emerged from the toilet, Flay noticed the phone in his hand.
‘Have you been talking on the telephone again, Maul? You know what I said about talking on the telephone.’
Maul inserted a big grubby finger in his nose and fished out a large, green disgusting thing.
‘Oh, yes. But I done good. I think you’re going to like this.’
And he popped the big, green disgusting thing into his mouth and chewed with relish.
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