Chapter 1 Chapter 1
Fox Petty-Squabble flopped onto the sofa in the penthouse suite of the Neverwrinkle Hotel. It was the summer holidays—or at least it was supposed to be—but rather than heading to the seaside, or relaxing with a barbecue in their garden, the Petty-Squabble family had descended upon the sleepy village of Mizzlegurg in the Bavarian countryside for a business trip.
Although originally from England, Gertrude and Bernard Petty-Squabble had moved their family to Germany shortly after Fox and her twin brother, Fibber, had been born. Bernard had a very wealthy German ancestor, a duke called Great-Uncle Rudolph, and when he passed away, the Petty-Squabbles found themselves inheriting his enormous mansion in Munich because they were his only living relatives. Bickery Towers was one of the biggest and grandest houses in all of Europe, which was just as well because being bigger and grander than everyone else mattered enormously to Mr. and Mrs. Petty-Squabble. So much so that they filled every summer holiday (and indeed every Christmas and Easter holiday too) with business meetings, because making heaps of cash was, to them, the only way to ensure they remained more important than everybody else.
And so, as today marked the start of the twins’ summer holiday, the Petty-Squabbles had all set off from Bickery Towers that morning, complete with matching luggage, matching business suits, and matching scowls, before bullying their way through the day—as was their custom. The family motto, etched in gold across the trunk of their car, was:
DO NOT BE AFRAID
Then, in smaller letters below this:
TO STAMP ALL OVER OTHER PEOPLE’S FEELINGS.
Gertrude Petty and Bernard Squabble had been living by this code for as long as they could remember, and it had made them very rich indeed. Even before the move to Bickery Towers eleven years ago, Gertrude was running one of the world’s leading antiaging skincare lines, Petty Pampering, and Bernard was the founder of Squabble Sauces, a global corporation that claimed to make cooking sauces that did all sorts of improbable things like reduce tiredness and increase intelligence. In reality, neither the skincare products nor the sauces actually fulfilled any of their bold promises. The Petty-Squabble empire was built on lies. But bullies and liars often go from strength to strength until someone is brave enough to take them down.
Needless to say, no one was brave enough to take the Petty-Squabbles down the day they left for Mizzlegurg, for they were very much in a stamping sort of mood. The family’s long-suffering driver, Hans Underboot, took the brunt of it first. Mrs. Petty took it upon herself to dock his pay every time he obeyed the speed limit or got stuck in traffic, because she had an appointment at the Neverwrinkle Hotel that she really didn’t want to miss. Then, upon arrival at the hotel, Mr. Squabble clouted the porter round the head when he asked if the family had had an enjoyable journey because that was clearly none of his business. And Fox sneered at every single person who crossed her path—the receptionist who smiled too much, the waiter who asked too many questions at lunch, and the pool attendant whose mustache was “stupid”—purely because that was how she had been raised to behave. To be kind was to be weak and to be weak was to be stamped on by everyone, which, admittedly, did not sound ideal to Fox.
Only Fibber had held back on the stamping. In fact, Fox had noticed that her brother had been unusually quiet since the end of term a few weeks ago. Suspiciously quiet, she thought.
Fox and Fibber were twins, not that you would have known it to look at them. Fibber was tall with sleek dark hair, like their mother, while Fox was short with a tumble of red hair, which had come from their father. But, though they might not have looked alike, they had one thing in common: a sharp tongue. And the only thing the twins liked more than insulting strangers was being horrid to one another, especially if it meant that they could show their sibling up in front of their mother and father.
This interfamily competitiveness had been handed down to the twins from their parents. For, while Gertrude and Bernard ultimately wanted to amass one giant Petty-Squabble fortune, they valued rivalry over romance. Working against family members, rather than with them, added a competitive edge to moneymaking schemes and got you richer quicker, as far as Gerturde and Bernard were concerned. And so they were constantly seeking sly ways to get one up on each other, and this rivalry overshadowed every aspect of Fox and Fibber’s relationship too.
Moments after the twins’ birth, Fox had given Fibber a black eye for being born three minutes sooner than her, and that was to set the tone for the rivalry to come. When they were barely a year old, Fibber knocked over Fox’s crib back in Bickery Towers when his parents weren’t looking. Fox then retaliated by biting the head off Fibber’s favorite teddy, and Fibber had fought back by flicking the brake off Fox’s baby carriage the next day, which very nearly sent his sister hurtling under a truck racing down their street.
The Petty-Squabble parents delighted in these feuds and even named their children in such a way as to heighten the sense of conflict: Fibber because they hoped he’d turn out to be a brilliant liar (which he did), and Fox because they hoped she’d turn out to be as sly as the animal itself (which she didn’t, because being impulsive makes it near impossible to be sly). Even outside their home—in the local neighborhood and at school—Fox and Fibber’s arguments had earned them the title “the Bickery Twins.” So this sibling rivalry, fueled by their parents and widely accepted by everyone else, went on—through early childhood, preschool, and school—reaching a peak a few months ago when Fibber tricked Fox into flushing her homework down the toilet, causing Fox to dangle her brother by his ankles from a fifth-floor window in Bickery Towers (to the cheers of their parents down below).
But Fox was uneasy. Since the dangling incident, Fibber hadn’t tricked or cheated or—his favorite—lied to his parents to get his sister into trouble. For months, she had waited for her brother to fight back, but instead Fibber had remained uncharacteristically quiet and thoughtful. So now, as they sat together in the hotel suite booked by their parents, Fox watched him with narrowed eyes. He was sitting in an armchair opposite her, his briefcase parked by his feet and a pad of paper open on his lap. Fox craned her neck to see what he was up to, but he inched his pad higher to shield the page from her.
Fox plucked at her braid. “What are you scribbling about?”
Fibber didn’t look up. He didn’t stop writing either. Fox was used to her brother’s calm, collected manner when he was stamping all over other people’s feelings, but she had always found it easy to bait Fibber into bickering with her when it was just the two of them alone together. These newfound silences were starting to unnerve her, because Petty-Squabbles who were silent were usually plotting something. Like the aforementioned Great-Uncle Rudolph, who apparently hadn’t said a word for forty-three years, then announced he was digging a tunnel from Munich to London so that he could kidnap the queen and hold her hostage for an unreasonable sum of money. Great-Uncle Rudolph had gotten as far as Poland before realizing he had been digging in the wrong direction; he was then silent for another forty-three years, for different reasons.
Fox tried to conjure up some mutinous moneymaking thoughts of her own, but she couldn’t help feeling that kidnappings, robberies, and large-scale revolutions might be more effective when performed with other people. And Fox was very much a solo act, both at school (where avoiding being stamped on meant insulting classmates and teachers on a daily basis) and at home (where conversations were limited to business, smiling was frowned upon, and hugging was completely out of the question).
Fox pulled off her tie, wedged it down the side of the sofa, then looked across at her brother again. “You’re working on the Petty Pampering business plan, aren’t you?”
There was an edge to her voice now because she knew that if Fibber was putting in the hours attempting to rebrand the Petty Pampering products, it meant she should be doing the same for Squabble Sauces. The twins knew that both companies were based on lies, but there was too much at stake to start messing around with the truth. Customers had slowly but surely been starting to realize they’d been duped, and now profits were falling and contracts were being dropped, which was why the twins spent every holiday traipsing round luxury hotels while their parents tried to persuade the spas and restaurants to stock their products.
But Fox and Fibber weren’t brought along on these trips because Gertrude and Bernard couldn’t bear to be parted from their children. Oh no. They were here to work. Their parents had cornered them at the end of first grade and informed the twins that only one of them would inherit the Petty-Squabble empire; if Fox came up with a way to save Squabble Sauces, it would be her, but if Fibber swept in and rescued Petty Pampering first, it would be him. So, just like that, the rivalry between the siblings deepened.
And Gertrude and Bernard didn’t stop there. To spur Fox on to recover the family fortune as quickly as possible, her parents frequently told her that Fibber’s cunning lies would, eventually, be the key to his success. While at the same time (unbeknownst to Fox) her parents goaded Fibber into believing that Fox really was sly enough to rebuild the Petty-Squabble empire without him even noticing and would push him out in the process. This meant that the twins were always jealous of each other and constantly convinced that their parents loved one more than the other. So they had grown up in the firm and somewhat terrifying knowledge that they were rivals, not siblings.
In truth, Gertrude and Bernard didn’t care which child saved the family fortune. The only reason they had had children in the first place was in the hope that one of them might eventually make them lots of cash. Indeed, when Fox had asked her father what would happen to the child who didn’t inherit the Petty-Squabble empire, his response—“They will be packaged up, mailed somewhere very far away, like Antarctica, and politely wished all the very best”—had not been altogether reassuring.
Fox reached inside her blazer pocket for her phone and began tapping away in the notes section.
“Just opening my list of secret, and utterly brilliant, ways to save Squabble Sauces,” she muttered, loudly enough for her brother to hear.
Fibber looked up briefly, then carried on writing.
Fox tapped away with a smirk. “Just adding in a few more winning thoughts to clinch the deal.”
Which was entirely untrue. There was no list of breathtaking ideas that would save the dwindling Petty-Squabble empire. Fox knew all the right words to bluff her way through the weekly family business meetings—“expenditure,” “capital,” “profit margin,” “asset”—but she had no idea what any of these terms actually meant. And she was absolutely hopeless at strategic thinking.
For a moment, Fox felt the weight of something dark and unlovely shifting inside her. Fibber was a businessman-in-the-making. He was clever and smooth-talking—he could fool even the most intelligent grown-ups with his silky lies—and although at school he was far too arrogant to feel the need to make friends, he had, this term, endeared himself to a teacher, Mrs. Scribble, with whom he now took extra lessons during lunch break because she sensed in him some “hidden potential.”
The darkness inside Fox flinched. No one had ever thought that she was special. That she had “potential.” What was she good at? Too much of a solo act to be picked for the sports teams, not bright enough to achieve top grades, and not nearly popular enough to be picked for Head of School in sixth grade next term. Everyone in her class seemed to be good at something, even the really quiet ones who (much to Fox’s annoyance) looked perfectly ordinary, but ended up being fabulous at spelling, feverishly fast on ice skates, or shockingly good at the clarinet.
Fox had concluded some years ago that her obvious lack of talent was what made her unlovable to her parents. Stamping on other people’s feelings every day was all very well—after all, Fox didn’t fancy being kind, because being weak, as well as talentless, would only add to her misery—but the heart is a fragile thing, and sometimes people assume that the best way to keep theirs safe is to build a wall round it. And that was just what Fox had done. Hers was a very high wall that had grown up over the years without her truly realizing because it made dealing with being unlovable ever so slightly easier.
She stole a look at Fibber. Was he quieter than usual because he had, finally—and perhaps predictably—come up with a way to save the family fortune? Maybe he was just moments away from announcing his triumph. Fox contemplated her options. She could pin Fibber down, snatch his business plan, then—she thought fast—eat it? Or was it time to do a Great-Uncle Rudolph (without the tunnel drama): grab the plan and hold it hostage until Fibber agreed to say that he and Fox had come up with all the ideas together?
Before Fox could do either, the door to the penthouse suite opened. In stormed Gertrude Petty, wearing a white bathrobe, white slippers, and a white towel twisted up over her hair. She was wearing so much white she looked uncannily like a meringue, while behind her, red-haired and red-faced, was Bernard Petty resembling a volcano rammed into a business suit.
Bernard flung the door shut. Then he and his wife eyed their children with the kind of look that is usually only reserved for traffic wardens and large spiders. Fox gulped. She knew all too well that when her parents barged into a room like this, it was never good news.…