When Dirk Cjelli (formerly known as Svlad Cjelli) leaves the pub, he is met by the cool air of a dark evening, which is soon joined by the unshakable feeling that something is watching him. There is nothing sinister immediately visible, though, so Dirk sets out into the night. He shoves his hands into his pockets and crosses the still, deserted street. If he is going to be followed, at least he knows where the follower is going.
He rounds the corner. The cobblestone is bathed in an eerie yellow light from the streetlamps, and it soon illuminates the dim outline of a figure. It is either hunched over or very short, and it is moving with great speed across a series of lawns down the way from Dirk. Apparently it had not attempted to follow him at all. It is overwhelmingly suspicious, though, so Dirk begins to follow it. Catching up proves quicker than first anticipated, as the figure is soon stalled by the devastating teamwork of a tall fence and gravity. Dirk approaches with due caution, before recognizing the shoes currently dangling at chest-level. Oh, great.
"Hullo Mander," he says. The feet flail about for a moment, and his roommate drops to the ground.
"Gently! Good God, man, you nearly gave me a heart attack."
"Is everything alright?"
Mander, after some apparent consideration, does not appear sheepish. "There are strange things about tonight," he says in a stage whisper. "I was followed, just barely managed to lose 'em."
"I don't know," Mander says. "But their accents! They were almost like-"
Mander stops. His eyes drift upward, from Dirk's eyes to his Transylvanian vampire spy hat, and back again. His face becomes the very picture of relief.
"Oh, no," mutters Dirk. Mander takes a step forward to grasp Dirk's shoulders.
"Dirk," says Mander. They share what Mander clearly believes is a look of understanding, and then Dirk's shoulders are released. "Right," says Mander. He turns around and rummages about in the bushes lining the base of his fence, and returns with a thin, pointy stick.
"Right," he says again. "Let's go."
They set off into the night. It isn't terribly far removed from Dirk's original plan, anyway. He just hadn't planned on company.
the red hat story (take four)
Nobody has ever actually come right out and asked Dirk about the origins of his hat, which has been a little disappointing, truthfully. He has been diligently working on spreading a new rumour (the most recent in a long line) in which his hat plays a starring role. It goes like this:
"Apparently," says the hapless rumour-spreader, usually the invaluable and incredibly gullible Steve Mander, roommate extraordinaire, "the hat was commissioned and custom-made in Dirk's - home-land. You know. Transylvania. And here's the thing - it's not just any hat."
Eye-rolling generally ensues at this point in the story, because anyone with eyes can see that Dirk's hat is definitely not just any hat. It's fairly obvious. It's enormous, and red, and moves about his head as though of its own volition, creating the illusion that Dirk is always looking straight ahead, regardless of whether he actually is or not. It's a hat with personality.
"Nononono, let me finish," Mander (or the like) continues hurriedly. "It's a spy hat. Because there is a war! A war between two powerful vampire clans in Transylvania and Dirk's family is caught right up in the middle of it."
"And his hat... spies on people? Because it certainly doesn't make him inconspicuous," the inevitable naysayer pipes up. "Rather the opposite, I fancy."
"Yeah, see, that's the thing," the speculator replies. "It's a wossname, a misdirection. While everyone's busy gawping at the hat the wearer can do whatever he pleases, can't he? Who's going to notice what Dirk's doing with his hands when the hat's looming in your face? And anyway, it's more than a - a camouflage." This is getting to the good part of the story, so a good storyteller tends to drop his voice at this point to force the listeners closer, creating a more secretive and evocative atmosphere. "I hear it's full of vampire spy stuff. Like - listening devices and such. And stakes and weapons. All in the hat, 'cos who's going to look in a hat?
"And what Dirk does is waft about alleys at night with his spy hat, gathering information from seedy-type characters that lurk in the dark so that he can - uh. Fight the evil vampire clan! Clans. Scary people, anyway."
* * *
Dirk's original plan had involved returning to the dorm room late at night, covered in mist and the smells of the street, and looking tight-lipped and harried. Mander would likely pretend to be asleep and then spend the entire next day excitedly and discretely telling everyone on campus that Dirk had been out all night in his vampire spy red hat and dark coat. Having Mander actually out with him is a bit more direct than he likes and carries far more risk, but it also has far more potential for vast personal gain.
Dirk really likes vast personal gain.
"You lived with your mum and dad in Transylvania, yeah?" Mander asks as they skulk through some nicely middle-class streets. Dirk makes a noncommittal noise that Mander probably takes as an affirmative. "Are they still there with your siblings? If you, ah, have siblings, I don't believe I've ever asked. Any brothers and sisters?"
Dirk suddenly feels unwell, like there's a little box in the back of his mind that normally sits quietly but is currently ringing all sorts of alarm bells that say, "DANGER DANGER. GO NO FURTHER."
Mander looks worried. "Dirk?" he prods, eyes wide. He grips Dirk's arm and pulls him under the yellow glow of a streetlight. "You've gone all pasty. You all right?"
Dirk shrugs off Mander's hand in one jerky, uncoordinated movement. "No. I mean yes, I'm all right. No, I haven't got any siblings, no sisters. My parents are still- ah- Oh goodness!" Dirk adds, in desperate mock horror. "What is that shadow over there?"
As it happens, the shadow is not some sort of hideous garden ornament, but rather something with large pointy teeth that looks suspiciously like a -
the red hat story (take 3)
"-and they eventually worked out how to get him out of the bathroom, but it took hours to to do, him shouting the whole time. I nearly-" Roger holds up a hand, struggling to breathe through a fit of drunken giggles, "I nearly died laughing."
Everyone gathered at the table laughs with him, clinking glasses and calling for another round. Conversation temporarily lulls, until a big beast of a man named Jim turns to Dirk and says, "I don't think I've ever seen you without that hat on."
Dirk acquires a napkin from the center of the table, and begins absently folding it. "Oh?" he says, sounding the sort of nonchalant people only are when they are hiding something. Secretly, he is relieved - if he had been made to sit through one more 'no wait, I should have mentioned, he was in the middle of a divorce!' he would be forced give up for the night and make an exit.
Jim narrows his eyes and motions towards his own, reasonably large skull. "Is there something wrong with your head, man?"
It is not the opportunity Dirk has been waiting for. The table erupts with renewed laughter. Roger says, "My cousin once shaved his head, but - wait, wait, he was a carpenter, right? And-"
Dirk excuses himself. Clearly the current rumour - the hat was a gift from unnamed Transylvanian royalty - has not really caught on yet. Perhaps it never will. This happens, sometimes. Occasionally, the stories he creates are not quite what people want to hear and they never really take hold.
* * *
"I'm so glad I found you before the vampires found me again," Mander gasps once they've stopped running. He's clutching his stake like a lifeline and hopping nervously from one foot to another.
"Don't be ridiculous," Dirk pants dismissively, as he always does when presented with his rumours. Unfortunately it's a far more difficult to be dismissive when something has just attempted to eat you, but he makes a valiant attempt. "That was not a vampire. Just because people say something doesn't mean it's true." He is aware of the hypocrisy inherent in making that statement; this is, in fact, precisely what Dirk believes. Over the years he has come to realize that oftentimes the truth can become whatever the majority of people decide it is.
Obviously this has had some unforeseen consequences, but really, how could he have predicted vampires?
"Riiiight," Mander says, scrunching up his eyes in an attempt to wink, and then taps his nose knowingly. "No vampire clans here."
Dirk sighs. "All right, we must be only a few more blocks away from dorm. If we cut across-"
"Dirk," says Mander. "Dirk Dirk."
"What?" Dirk asks, whirling about so that his coat billows out behind him in a very pleasing manner. The hat bobs on his head.
Mander points one trembling finger back the way they came. There is a shadow looming at the last corner in a disquieting sort of manner. Whatever it is, it's lurking far more effectively than Dirk has ever managed. "I think someone's following us, Dirk." Mander pauses. "Or should I say, something?"
Dirk looks up at the sky in great exasperation. "STOP IT," he says, as firmly as he knows how, and then they're off again.
the red hat story (take two)
"What's with this giant box?" Andy asks, kicking it a little.
"Well, it's not mine," Mander says, glancing up from his unpacking. "Must be my roommate's."
"Oh, that's a hat box," Peter says, brightly. The other two give him a suspicious look. "My grandmum has loads of hats," he says defensively. "Anyway, that must be for the infamous red hat. Not that Cjelli's ever not wearing it, of course."
"What's the deal with that hat, anyway?" Andy wonders.
"Oh," Mander says immediately and enthusiastically, "I heard he got it in the mail! From an anonymous sender! And I mean, who wears an enormous red hat that you got anonymously in the mail, right, but Svlad - Dirk, sorry, he gets this, like, psychic vision, right? And it tells him he has to wear the hat because there's gonna be this - this event and if he's not wearing the hat then everything goes horribly wrong!"
"That's a load of bollocks," Andy says immediately.
"But -" Mander says, looking at Peter for support.
Peter shrugs. "Gotta say, mate, that sounds pretty ridiculous."
"...Yeah," Mander says. "I guess."
* * *
Dirk Cjelli is beginning to suspect some things about the nature of the universe, i.e. that it has it in for him. Or possibly it just loves him a lot and wants him to be happy, and is setting about showing him this in the most creepy and frustrating ways possible.
See Exhibit A, which appears to consist of distressingly realistic vampires, for evidence of this.
Exhibit A is why Dirk is currently hoofing it down a dark alley in the middle of the night. Exhibit A is why Dirk is simultaneously getting far more exercise and self-reflection than can possibly be healthy.
Exhibit A is why Dirk is honestly beginning to feel seriously concerned about the direction his life appears to be taking, and Dirk is not particularly given to any sort of in-depth self-reflection. He prefers to stop when he gets to the metaphorical equivalent of molding chunks of cold leftover pizza hidden under the couch cushions, and leave everything else lurking in the murky depths of his - well, he actually can't decide if he believes in the concept of a soul.
Dirk isn't always sure whether he believes in yesterday, for that matter. Suffice to say, however, that he suspects there are nasty bits bobbing about in whatever metaphysical construct he believes in today and he would far rather ignore them, thanks ever so much.
He truly despises these opportunities to "grow as a person" and indulge in self-reflection, Dirk self-reflects, and so mostly he just chooses not to.
"Here," whispers Mander. He is fiddling with the back gate of some terribly enthusiastic gardener. "We cut through here." It becomes increasingly apparent that the only fruit of Mander's labour will be groans and cursing.
"Move over," says Dirk, and he kicks the whole thing in.
They are halfway up the walkway when Dirk glances at the skyline. There is a figure perched atop the roof two houses down, hunched over the edge, and looking at them. He grabs a handful of Mander's coat and hauls him in a different direction. They abscond across a series of gardens, trying to make as little noise as possible and failing miserably.
"Oh God," says Mander as he tramples the foliage.
When Dirk throws a quick look over his shoulder, the crouching figure is gone. This does not make him feel any better. They continue to run, and don't bother stopping until Dirk's legs throw down their cards and Mander points east, cackling.
"Look!" cries Mander. He throws him arms upward to the heavens, while a gloriously red sunrise spreads slowly across the eastern sky. "We made it."
"What a lovely sunrise," Dirk says, desperately clinging to the comfort of his usual response, which is to deny, deny, deny. "How nice that we were both able to stay outside and watch it." He continues to scan the skyline, doubt warring with gibbering panic in his mind.
"Listen, Dirk," Mander says, stepping closer. His voice drops into a whisper. "I won't tell anyone about tonight -" Which means it will be all over campus in approximately forty-two minutes - "But I just wanted to say - thanks. What an - an incredible experience. And this is your life!"
"God help me," Dirk says, absently horrified, and then, "How about some breakfast, then?"
"Oh, yes," Mander says, eagerly. "Let me buy you breakfast, Dirk, all right?"
And that is how Dirk stumbles upon the idea of trading excellent meals for whatever his particular... talents... can provide. The rest, as they say, is history.
the red hat story (take one)
On a grey, dismal day precisely like many others in every respect but for the awful, terrible event that Dirk has decided he no longer remembers, Svlad Cjelli steps into a dusty little corner shop full of wonderful, exciting items. There are ships in discoloured glass bottles, capes of varying sizes and materials; walking sticks with animal heads on the handles and brooches with suspicious rust-coloured stains on the pins. And a hat. It is the most amazing hat that Svlad has ever seen, and when he puts it on his head, it covers up all the unfathomable hurts that the day has presented to him.
This is the first hat story, but it can no longer be said to be the true one, precisely.