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Nice town you've got here! Check it out!
Okay, we're going now. Bye-ee!
We're just passing through.

Sitting on his own in an alcove, out of the pub's mainstream of circulation, gave him quite a good feeling of luxurious laziness. It was just past lunchtime and Pete Astor had nothing to do for the next few hours. He was in that inactive period before all the panic of getting a gig started. His current role was lead guitarist with Intoxicant, a second-rank, Black Magic Rock band. They were out on tour playing support for the Railhead Raiders, a first-rank, Death Metal Band, which was similarly loud and musically intense but in a quite subtly different direction, according to the music press.
   There were two women sitting at a table at the other side of a broad alcove in one of the pub's side walls. Astor had an idea that they were weighing him up. One of them was dressed up in office work-clothes and lots of make-up. She looked as if she might break if she bent a little too much. The other was dressed more casually in jeans and a denim jacket, no make-up and she hadn't bothered brushing her hair for a while. Astor wondered if they had recognized a famous rock star but he was feeling too idle to move closer and introduce himself. He had on-the-road-itis.
   Intoxicant had been travelling for three weeks and they were due to perform another couple of dozen times before anyone got a break. All the major hassles of gearing up for a long period of travelling were behind them. All the mistakes and omissions were behind them. They were in a smooth period now. Everything had shaken into place and everyone on the tour, bands and crew alike, had fixed routines to follow, which saved them from having to think too hard.
   Astor had blagged the gig for his band, no matter what their manager said. He knew the Railhead Raiders' leader and they had an understanding. Both he and Jimmy Rail were over the forty-hill and they had been in several bands together over the years. In common with others of their generation, they operated a mutual survival plan. The guy who was up gave a helping hand to the guy who was lower down, knowing that their positions could be reversed without warning.
   The Raiders were the hot band of the moment, making lots of money before their bubble burst. Intoxicant were good but they were not perceived as good enough to give the headliners serious competition. Pete Astor's musical partners were still grateful to get the exposure, even if they were compiling lists of people to snub when they reached the top themselves.
   At forty-two and six feet one inches tall, Astor was older and taller than any of the others by at least ten years and two inches. He had blue eyes, like Syd Melchior, the lead singer, and a paler shade of blond hair. The depigmented, white strands of old age tended to give his hair a somewhat bleached and unnatural shading.
   He was in the band to give it musical credibility. Twenty-five years in the music business had turned him into an expert guitarist, a competent drummer and a handy man to have on keyboards in an emergency. He had been up and down the greasy pole in various bands under various names. He had learned how to enjoy being on top of the heap, and when he was between bands, he was content to earn a good living playing sessions or acting as a side-man on tours, helping to fill up the musical sound without getting in the way of the current stars.
   The brunette office-worker had started to sneak glances at her watch. She was around thirty, not bad looking and wearing quite a wide wedding ring with a pattern cut into the surface and an engagement ring with a sizeable stone. Both caught the light when she tilted her left wrist to look at a gold-coloured watch. Her friend, perhaps slightly older and looking more crumpled, didn't seem to care what time it was. If anything, she was looking at Astor more often than the office-worker.
   Astor was pleased to note that she was the better-looking of the pair. The office-worker had a brittle charm and she looked the type to have every last thing in her life fully organized. Her friend looked a more relaxed and friendly type all together. Given the choice, the friend got Astor's vote for a one-night stand.
   Perhaps they had seen his picture in the Manchester Evening News, Astor reflected. The tour had received quite a fair amount of free advertising on the editorial pages. There had been space between the paid advertisements for photographs of the support act as well as the headliners. Unusually, Astor had been at the front of the pictures. The band's manager saw Pete Astor as unhealthy competition to his own influence over the three younger members of Intoxicant and he usually tried to keep Astor in the background when he was around.
   It was somewhat unusual for Pete Astor to be in a band for longer than about six months. The young, or younger, punks usually decided that they had become competent enough musicians not to need him after a copying and learning period of that length. Or Astor decided that he could no longer stand them and/or the manager.
   The Intoxicant crew were somewhat different in that they were all around thirty and they had been up and down the greasy pole at least a couple of times. They were seasoned enough to recognize the value of Astor's musical talents and his connections. Despite their manager's efforts to push him over to the sidelines, they recognized that their best musical material was all composed and/or arranged by Pete Astor.
   As a young adult of the Computer Age, Astor had made an investment in learning to play a laptop computer as well as a guitar. His computer held a program which let him write down music and print it out, and it also acted as a database for tunes. Given that there is a finite number of ways of arranging performable musical notes, and that not all of them are pleasing to the ear, Astor used his computer as both a riff-generator and a database of out-of-copyright material. He had no intention of letting some musical shark claim a share of his royalties and copyright fees on the strength of an accusation of plagiarism. He was always careful to nail down origin and attribution data for all of his work.
   But on that slightly damp, summer Wednesday afternoon, creating new music was a long way from his thoughts. He was enjoying sitting in a pub, surrounded by people but on his own, and just doing nothing.
   The tour had hit Manchester the previous day and it was playing two nights at the Parker Event Centre, the city's grand indoor arena, which had been built for an Olympic games that never came with money screwed out of government and National Lottery coffers in the cause of 'creating jobs'.
   Tuesday had been the continuous string of minor hassles of arriving in a new place, finding the way to the hotel then locating the venue, setting up equipment, sound checks, messing about, getting things working and finally, almost as an afterthought, the gig. The following day was usually devoted to doing the same things tens or hundreds of miles away. This Wednesday was unusual in that everything, more or less, was sorted out. The tour crew still had tasks to perform but the musicians had done most of theirs.
   The office-worker looked pointedly at her watch then finished her drink. Her goodbye was quite hasty. Astor watched her go then looked back at the other woman. Their eyes met and lingered.
   The woman picked up her drink and slid along the bench seat to Astor's table. "Hi! I'm sure I know you, but I can't remember where we met."
   "Me too," said Astor, playing along.
   "Is that your name or what you do for a living?"
   "No, I thought it was yours."
   "Close. It's Astor."
   "How's Astor close to Stoker?" The woman frowned, ready to move away if he was making fun of her.
   "I was standing next to Blood Axe Stoker in the picture."
   "Oh, right," the woman broke into a smile of recognition. "You were on telly last night. You're in that band..."
   "It's not called that! Is it?"
   "Intoxicant, if you want to be formal. Like I said, I was standing next to Mr. Stoker, the drummer, in the photo in the evening paper. Which you seem not to have seen. I suppose I was standing next to him for the TV interviews too."
   "Which one was he?"
   "The one with the red hair half way down his back and the fake hand-grenades full of vodka clipped to his jacket."
   "Oh, right! I'm Bee. Short for Belinda, by the way."
   "Please to meet you, Bee. I'm Pete."
   "If you're not the drummer you must play the guitar."
   "Well deduced, Sherlock."
   "I thought your concert was last night?"
   "We're doing two nights by popular demand."
   "Oh, sorry. I'm not going to many concerts at the moment. All I know about the music scene is what I see on telly."
   "Gone off it, have you? The music business? Because it's totally crap compared to twenty years ago?"
   "More I can't afford it." Belinda pulled a mournful face. "I got divorced last year and I lost my job five weeks ago. So my social life is kaput."
   "So you've not shacked up with a rich drug-dealer? Someone told me Manchester's full of them."
   "Well, you'd know that, being in the music business. I've been here ten years now but I can't say I've met any drug dealers, rich or otherwise."
   "So what are you doing tonight?"
   "Baby-sitting, probably, to earn a few quid on the side; if some bloke who's been on telly doesn't invite me backstage at his gig tonight."
   "Could you bear to be dragged away from it?" laughed Astor. "Your baby-sitting?"
   "Try me."
   "Yes, you've got the look of someone who's pissed off with things big-time."
   "If you'd had a morning like mine, you'd be totally pissed off with things."
   "Would you feel better with another drink? What is it?"
   "I'm slumming it on halves of lager."
   "Wouldn't you rather have something better?"
   "What, like a champagne cocktail?"
   "If you want one," Astor said casually.
   "Do you mean that? Or are you going to nip out the door and dump someone with expensive tastes?"
   "Spend it when you've got it. That's my motto."
   "Maybe I shouldn't drink any more before I get something to eat."
   "So why don't you have a glass of the decent wine and a sandwich? Or a burger?"
   "A burger sounds lovely. If you're sure you don't mind?"
   Astor collected their empty glasses and headed for the bar. He returned with a tray bearing a glass of red wine, a burger with all the trimmings and another brandy and apple juice for himself. Belinda attacked the burger with enthusiasm. It was a rare treat.
   "So you're not a veggie?" said Astor.
   Belinda shook her head, her mouth full.
   "Amazing how many people go into a veggie phase these days. Especially women..." A line of thought began to develop. Astor took a small loose-leaf binder and a felt-tip pen from his jacket pocket.
   Belinda carried on with the burger while he sketched out a riff on the music paper at the back of the binder. The music master at his school had discovered that he had perfect pitch; that he could tell that a musical note was being played at the right frequency or name a note when it was played on a correctly tuned instrument.
   That discovery had led to piano lessons, a place in the school choir and a formal education at a college of music. Astor had been seduced from the Classical side of things by the lure of quick money to be made in the popular music field and the limited availability of work for the qualified Classical performer.
   "Your next hit?" Belinda remarked when he returned the notebook to his pocket.
   "Depends if I keep it or sell it to someone else," Astor said. "I'll just stick it on my M-Track for a while and see if anyone salutes it."
   "Stick it on your what?"
   "My Music-Track. It's a sort of a personal sound-track to my life. In my head. Like a film sound-track. Or Radio Pete."
   "Oh! And what's on it?"
   "Mostly rock music, my own and other people's, and sometimes it's Classical if I hear something that catches my attention. But mainly, it's rehashes of music I can remember and sketches for new ideas. Which is why I always carry a pen and a notebook with ordinary lines and music paper pages to sketch good ideas. The same way writers grab bits of their Word-Track."
   "How strange!"
   "Creative people are very weird. How's your burger?"
   "Great for someone who's been living on cornflakes and apples. And so's the wine."
   "So you're feeling recovered from your difficult morning?"
   "What did they do to you, anyway?"
   "I was at the Job Shop and I had some silly young cow trying to tell me I should take a job packing biscuits because that's all she had for someone of my qualifications. Bloody cheek!"
   "Why, what are your qualifications?"
   "Typing and shorthand. Word processing. Filing things so people can find them again. Files on paper and in a computer. Running an office generally. I've even done some tele-sales. You know, selling over the phone."
   "So you do skilled manual work? Like playing a guitar?"
    "Highly skilled. That's probably why I blew up when the bitch threatened to cut off my so-called job-seeker's allowance."
   "What, did you duff her up?" grinned Astor.
   "Nearly. I gave her a really hard time and insisted on seeing a properly qualified person, not the office junior. And I made sure everyone around knew I thought she was totally useless. Her boss got quite shirty with me; until I started asking who her boss is so I could make a complaint. I waved my copy of the Jobseeker's Charter at her."
   "They've probably had to have counselling after that, the office junior and her boss. Advice on how to deal with extreme emotional stress from stroppy punters."
   "I bloody well hope so," laughed Belinda. "I know, I felt a hell of a lot better after telling them what a bunch of useless sods they are. It made a nice change from listening to them telling me what a mess I'm making of getting another job."
   "So, are you giving me a guided tour of your home town?"
   "What, Manchester? I don't live here, you know. I just come here every so often to torture myself, looking at all the stuff I can't buy in the shops."
   "So let's both go on a voyage of exploration."
   They started their look around from the pub on the edge of the city centre heading outwards into the suburbs. It was an overcast but warm July day. Pete Astor put a pair of shades on to satisfy Belinda's expectations of how a rock star should behave. He chose the polarized pair, which had a very light tint, in preference to the mirrored, Mafia-style wraparounds.
   After about an hour, they came across a second-hand bookshop in a side street. Astor just glanced at the books set out on a table in front of the display window. He knew that they were just junk, which could be stolen or rained on without causing the shopkeeper any financial damage. They were just a form of shop sign. Anything decent would be inside. He opened the door and waved Belinda inside.
   "I used to read a lot when I was at school," she remarked. "I just watch the telly these days. Or I did before it went back to the rental shop. There's no point in having one if you're out a lot, baby-sitting."
   "Looking for anything in particular?" said the shopkeeper, who was a shortish, grey-haired man in a brown dustcoat.
   "Old science fiction mags from the Thirties to the Sixties. And SF paperbacks up to the Seventies," Astor told him.
   "I don't handle the magazines, but you'll find the books down that corridor, the second room along."
   "Great!" Astor headed round the counter to a doorway. "Brilliant fire-trap, this," he added to Belinda as they entered the back room.
   "I should have guessed you'd be interested in sci-fi," she said. "Lots of people in your business are. Someone in the office used to get Music Mirror and I used to read the star interviews. When I worked in an office."
   "All part of the image of being out of the mainstream of life. And all the classics of the Sixties and Seventies are coming on the market now as people who bought them new croak and their heirs get shot of them. Why pay a fiver for a crap modern paperback when you can get real quality for fifty pee?"
   "Why, indeed?" Belinda agreed.
   "Yes, indeed! Yes, indeedy!"
   "Found something?"
   "I used to have a copy of this about a million years ago but some bastard ripped it off."
   "Wasp," Belinda read from the cover.
   "One of Eric Frank Russell's classics. And if it's my lucky day, I'll find a copy of Next of Kin, too. That got ripped off a million years ago, too."
   "What are these classics about? Spaceships and so on?"
   "Not really. More psychological warfare."
   "Sort of Star Wars stuff?"
   "Not really. Wasp is based on the premise that a tiny wasp can make a relatively huge man in a car drive off a cliff if he concentrates on swatting the wasp instead of looking where he's going. It's all about sabotage and destroying morale on an enemy planet. Next of Kin is about convincing aliens running a prison planet that humans have a non-material associated being, which gets nasty when someone messes them around."
   "Really?" Belinda didn't sound impressed. "Take a piece of bent copper wire . . . and conquer the universe. Does that sound familiar?"
   "It's what it says on this copy of Next of Kin. Look at that! It cost two and six." Belinda offered the book to Astor.
   He opened it and looked at the publishing history. "This edition came out in nineteen sixty-two."
   "I wasn't even born then."
   "Have you ever seen a halfcrown?"
   "Not recently. I know it was about the size of an old fifty pee, which is what the book costs now, but I don't really know what they look like."
   "Four times the cover price, but still a dead bargain. Good place, this. Anything you fancy?"
   "I used to read a lot of detective stories. And the horror stuff. And things like James Bond."
   "But no science fiction? Because science is for boys?"
   "Could be."
   "Ah, right! Here's some collections of SF short stories. Good stuff for the tour bus, these."
   "You read on the tour bus, do you?"
   "When we're not sleeping or boozing or filling ourselves up with dangerous pharmaceuticals. Or playing these hand-held computer games."
   "Do you do that? Play those games?"
   "Not me, I can't be bothered. I'd rather have my M-Track and a good book. And a bottle of decent Scotch."
   "Can I give you a hand with those?" Belinda took charge of a dozen of the books and conveyed them to the counter in the front part of the shop.
   "Ah, you've found something interesting?" said the man in the grey dustcoat.
   "I don't think he's finished looking yet," said Belinda. "He's a bit of a serial book-buyer. Can I leave these here for the moment?"
   "Yes, of course."
   Belinda found Astor sorting through a carton in the other back room. "They've got some crime fiction in here," he told her. "If you fancy anything, feel free to indulge yourself. Reading material for the tour bus just goes on expenses. And it all comes out of the pockets of the bunch of Japs who own the recording company."
   "If you're sure?" Belinda was willing to be persuaded.
   She spotted a couple of novels by Elizabeth Ferris and set off in pursuit of more of the same. The hardback novels tended to be in alphabetical order, but the floor-to-ceiling shelf unit of paperbacks had been well shuffled at random.
   "Wow, gosh! Look at this," breathed Astor. "Instant credibility!"
   "What is?"
   "Looks just like an old book on magic. Must be some sort of a reproduction edition. Or a total fake. Still it's just the sort of thing we could pirate ideas from for the next album sleeve or a poster."
   "Are you allowed to have hardbacks?" Belinda had noticed a new Jayne Gaynor horror detective novel that still had a clean and intact dust jacket.
   "Yes, if you're only paying second-hand price for them."
   "This one's four quid?"
   "No problem for my rich Japs."
   Astor turned to the front of his book on magic. There was no price in the top corner of the first page. None of the books in the carton had a price. He assumed that they were an unsorted lot from an auction. He took out his propelling pencil and wrote £4 in the light hand used in other books. Then he changed it to £4.50. That seemed to be a fairer price based on what was being charged for other books of the same size and condition.
   "How are we doing?" he asked Belinda.
   "These should keep me going for a while." She was holding half a dozen paperbacks and four hardbacks.
   A telephone began to ring as they were piling books on the counter. The shopkeeper disappeared into his tiny office, leaving a teenage girl assistant to add up the prices in the rest of the books. Astor kept his smile at a relentless level while the girl tapped figures into a calculator. She was too busy making sure that she registered every book to make any check on the titles. Astor parted with three £10 notes and left the shop with two carrier bags of thin plastic, which were just about equal to the strain of their load.
   "You reckon you got a bargain with your magic book?" Belinda asked with a grin when they were outside.
   Astor shrugged. "Doubt it. If it was worth much more than I paid for it, it wouldn't have been grotting about in that box."
   "Where now?"
   "Back to the hotel, now. I don't fancy lugging these carrier bags around all afternoon. And I'm sure you'd like to have a look at the unorganized chaos behind the scenes at the gig."
   "Is that what all your pick-ups want?"
   "Usually. People like to get a look at bits of the world they're normally excluded from."
   "Sounds good to me," said Belinda.
   "Well, well. There's a taxi."
   Astor waved a carrier bag of books at a cruising black cab. The driver seemed surprised to pick up a fare in such an unpromising area. He whisked them around the edge of the city centre to the exhibition and sports complex on the far side of inner Manchester. During the journey, the driver gave most of his attention to Bee. He had never heard of either Peter Astor or his band. If the cabby ever told Guess who I had in the back of my cab stories, Astor was unlikely to get a mention, even after he became famous.
   The band's manager had tried to get Intoxicant known as a group of individuals, who shared a common musical bond. He had started well with Blood Axe Stoker, the Wild One, and Syd Melchior, the Ambitious One, who was going right to the top and beyond. The notion had come to pieces when he had reached Dexie Jordan, the Laid-Back One, and then Pete Astor, the Other Laid-Back One. Intoxicant was currently between recognition strategies but thriving.

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 No trees were consumed by Farrago & Farrago and Henry T. Smith Productions, 10/12 SK6 4EG, UK in creating this material for Jon A. Gored. Sole © Jon A. Gored, 2001.
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