If we could dream forever,
Could we resist the lotus path,
Knowing it can only echo shadows gone before?
Pete Astor was old enough to remember when a half-hour programme on BBC radio or television had lasted thirty minutes, when ITV had been the only home for adverts. When he switched on a television at eight-fifteen for the Saturday film, he was surprised for a moment to find the lottery draw still going on. Then he remembered that time is just a notional concept as far as the BBC is concerned. The tedious round of self-promotion between the programmes lasts just as long as any ITV commercial break, if not longer, and it gives the viewer the same opportunity to go for a leak or put the kettle on.
Out of idle curiosity, he looked at the display of numbers already selected. 39, 26, 41 and 40 were all showing. 18, his compressed Number of the Beast, was the next to roll down the chute. Astor watched in disbelief as 13 followed it. He missed the bonus number, but he wasn't interested in it anyway.
You're tripping, fella, he told himself.
The knowledge that he might have become seriously rich was easily pushed aside. It was all a fantasy, totally unreal. Even more unreal than the all-action, shoot-'em-up film that distracted him for a couple of hours. He found another film of the same genre just starting on ITV and let it take him through to half-past midnight. Then he went to bed.
He heard Wendy coming up the stairs as he was drifting off to sleep. No doubt she and Jeff had enjoyed a night out in the pub and a leisurely screw in the back of her van. Wendy wasn't a sad bastard who watched telly on a Saturday night. She made a point of getting out and enjoyed herself, the way all forty-three-year-old teenagers-in-spirit are supposed to do.
Astor bought a copy of The Observer the next morning as part of the process of finding out what was going on in the world after his five weeks on the road. Touring is a very introspective occupation and the outside world intrudes only for big wars and major disasters. Nobody tends to be too interested in newspapers or news bulletins on the radio and television. Astor returned home to find several strangers lurking around the house. Wendy, he assumed, was having a strategy meeting and plotting to frustrate some bureaucrat's efforts to improve the environment and enrich the local builders. Astor retired to his recording studio and music room with the paper and a mug of coffee.
The lottery had attracted more comment than usual because it was a roll-over jackpot week and there had been very heavy betting in anticipation of big wins. The lottery organizers had confirmed that there was just one winner of the major prize, either an individual or a syndicate, they didn't know which, and that whoever had won could expect to pick up a handsome twenty-six point two million pounds.
Astor wrote £26,200,000 in the bottom margin of the newspaper. It looked an extremely impressive sum. Just to be certain, he looked out his printed ticket and compared the list of numbers with those in the newspaper. He was still a winner. He considered doing what it said on the back of the ticket and filling in his name and address in the space provided before going to the newsagent to claim his prize, just for a laugh.
The paper contained a picture flanked by two articles about the lottery. One piece was by an envious bastard, who insisted that no one person could be trusted with so much money and that she certainly would never want to be stuck with such an enormous responsibility. The other article was by someone saying good luck to the winner.
The picture showed a mountain of cash in a vault of the Royal Bank of Scotland's headquarters in Edinburgh. £26.2 million looked a very impressive sight. It gave Astor ideas. He decided to explore them from a phone box with a pocketful of change to stop anyone with a sneaky disposition from doing a 1471 and finding out his home number and then his address.
On Monday morning, Astor took an early shuttle flight from Gatwick to Edinburgh. There, he rented a van that looked big enough and drove to the bank. He had declined all earlier opportunities to identify himself to underlings by name or address. He was content to let them call him Mr. X while insisting on his right to anonymity.
A suit-and-tie from the lottery company tried to persuade him to get the publicity thing over and done with in one fairly painlessly burst. Astor thanked him but turned down the opportunity. When he had surrendered the winning ticket for checking, which involved parting with his name and address as part of a scheme to stop money laundering and other criminal practices, he declined the opportunity to open an account with the Royal Bank of Scotland. No one believed that he was serious when he dropped his bomb-shell.
Astor announced that he had a van with him and he wanted the cash. What seemed like an endless discussion with lottery company suits-and-ties followed before he was allowed to drive the van into an enclosed yard. A fork-lift truck brought pallets of money out to him; just like cartons of baked beans, as one offended bank official put it. Astor signed a receipt, gave the loaders a bundle of notes as a tip and drove off leaving the rest gaping.
Driving a van full of money south to join the motorway system was an unreal experience. He expected to find himself surrounded by a posse of journalists and camera crews at any moment. He felt sure that someone in the gang at the bank had taken the van's number and leaked it to the eager press. Staying on the road and keeping clear of other motorists seemed to demand about ten per cent more attention than he had available.
He reached the outskirts Manchester before he realized that he had no clear idea of where he was going or what he was going to do with the money. The obvious thing was to lock it up somewhere. In the end, he decided that his own garage would do for the moment. He wasn't planning to hang on to the mountain of cash for too long, only to have a bit a fun with it first.
He wondered idly what would happen if someone broke into the garage aiming to steal the van. Or if the van was immobilized, its contents. Just how much of twenty-six million pounds could thieves shift quietly, he asked himself? And if he lost it, was it just easy-come, easy-go and could he win the next rolled-over jackpot just as easily?
If he found himself being followed by wise-guy journalists, Astor realized, it would be nice to get the Others to lay down a thick belt of fog so that he could escape in it. Unfortunately, that seemed not to be the way the Others worked. Kiron had given him the impression that small interactions with his world were possible but major events were out of the question. And driving while under the influence of Charm so that he could talk to Kiron wasn't a good idea.
Perhaps the degree of manipulation was related to the amount of energy produced by the human agent. A few lousy concerts was worth the effort of manipulating a few numbered balls. Perhaps it took an event like the conclusion of the Gulf War against Iraq to make it worth the Others' while to fix something complex like arranging for a particular team to win the football Premiership title.
Half- to three-quarter-hour breaks at the Washington-Birley services on the A1(M) then Woodall and Toddington on the M1 helped to divide his long journey south into manageable chunks. His dashboard clock was showing 7:35 when he stopped in his own drive at long last. A brief spell of musical motors brought his own car out of the garage and put the van out of sight. Astor rented vans occasionally to move equipment around. Wendy would be satisfied with that explanation. His house-sitter would never suspect that her own modest vehicle was parked next to a fortune. Astor applied the security device which linked clutch and steering wheel. Then he went into the house to wash and collapse. After all that driving, he felt filthy as well as rich.
That evening's television news and the next day's newspapers were full of stories about the lottery winner who had taken the cash. It was common knowledge that a rented van had been used, and there were coy hints that some journalists knew which firm it belonged to, but no one seemed to know the registration number, which would allow the van to be traced back to the depot from which it had been rented and a source of clues to the identity of the person renting it.
Astor assumed that hackers would be trying to get into rental company databases so that they could claim the prize for identifying the big winner. He also realized that even if he was identified as someone who had rented a van in Edinburgh, still having it in his possession, parked in his garage, would suggest that he was not the big winner. After all, who in his right mind would leave twenty-six million pounds unprotected in a rented van in an ordinary garage?
The telephone rang as Astor was completing a leisurely breakfast at nine-thirty. Ed Stegley was on the line again. "Not too early for you, then?" he remarked. "I didn't get you out of bed?"
"Actually, there's a phone beside my bed," Astor admitted. "But I'm in the kitchen now. So what can I do you for, Ed?"
"Are you interested in working this afternoon and evening? And the same again on Thursday?"
"When, where and what guitars do you want?" Astor asked automatically. His watch told him that it was Tuesday.
"Don't you want to know who you're doing it for, Pete?"
"Why, what difference does it make? I turn up, I play, I get paid. Then I sod off home whoever it is."
"God! Aren't you the true professional!" laughed Ed.
"I ought to be after twenty-odd years in this racket."
Astor found himself struggling with alternate realities. In one of them, he was filthy rich with twenty-six million quid in his garage. In the other, he was a working musician who had just been offered the opportunity to make some money. The second reality seemed much more real than the first.
He solved the problem by sharing the reality problem while taking the opportunity to deliver a present. He had not mentioned his lottery win to Wendy because he had been wondering what to get for her that she would appreciate. Eventually, he had come to the conclusion that Wendy was the sort of person who is content with what she has. She was happy with her old van and she would not want a new one. She seemed happy enough sharing his house, which meant being the sole occupant most of the time – even to the extent that some of the neighbours thought that she owned the place and Pete Astor was just an occasional visitor.
Although it seemed vulgar, Astor could think of nothing better to give her than cash because it would give Wendy opportunities; either to enrich her personal life in some chosen way or to play Lady Muck and portion it out to her various good causes. Wendy was in her bedroom with the bed covered with pieces of paper when Astor tracked her down. It was her system for trying to work out how much money she had and which bills needed paying first.
"Told you you should have taken that grand when it was on offer," Astor remarked.
"Don't start, Pete," sighed Wendy. "God! I hate doing this."
"This is for you, by the way." Astor placed a brand new executive briefcase on a vacant corner of the duvet.
"Oh!" Wendy said doubtfully.
"I mean what's in it rather than just the briefcase." Astor added when she just looked at her present.
Wendy popped the catches open and raised the lid. A solid mass of banknotes in plastic wrappers confronted her. "What the bloody hell ...?"
"Guess who won the lottery."
"Does that look like a joke?"
Wendy put on a comical expression of blank, open-mouthed amazement.
"And it's all a big secret, by the way. Okay?"
"Well, yes. You mean this is real?"
"Two million quid, to save you the bother of counting it. I'd have made it more but that's all I could fit in this rather smart briefcase. I thought you'd have less trouble unloading it in twenties rather than fifties."
"Two million?" said Wendy blankly.
"I couldn't think of anything to buy that you really needed. So I thought I'd drop that problem on you."
"Some problem!" laughed Wendy. "I don't know what to say."
"Well, humble thanks. You'll be my friend for life. You won't ever moan about the noise from my wild parties. I'm on for a shag whenever I want one..," Astor listed with a grin.
"Well, yes, all of that. You really won the lottery, Pete?"
"Either that, or I robbed the Royal Bank of Scotland."
"As you say, wow!" grinned Astor.
"So when does the Ferrari arrive?"
"What do I want with a bloody Eyetie car? Especially after they got me fired off a tour by bootlegging me. Do you want to see the rest? It's in that van in the garage."
"You've got twenty-six million quid in a van in the garage?" Wendy gave him another comical, open-mouthed stare of utter disbelief.
"Less your couple of million."
"I don't believe you."
"Come and look."
Wendy inspected the money then returned to the house wearing a stunned expression. She could not believe that Pete Astor had left twenty-four million pounds in untraceable cash unguarded in the garage. Neither could she believe that she had just abandoned the two million pounds that he had given her while she went to look at the larger sum. Her contact with reality had been severed neatly. Astor, in contrast, was feeling back in touch with reality again and able to think clearly about going out to work that afternoon.
"By the way," Astor added as Wendy was staring blankly at her briefcase again, "where do I send your old man's share?"
"I think he's on the move at the moment." Wendy dug about in a drawer and came up with a postcard showing bottles of wine. "Yes, he's in France. Letter to follow."
"What about your mum? Are you going to get a private eye to track her down now you're rich?"
"I don't think I'd recognize her after thirty years. And I'm not sure I'd have that much to say to her."
"Not even to unload all the pain and hurt of being deprived of a mother for all those years? And the guilt of being abandoned?"
"I know their split-up was nothing to do with me, so it doesn't bothered me. And I reckon our dads, yours and mine between them, did a pretty good job of giving us a happy childhood."
"You could have your picture in the papers. And some journalist writing a load of old tosh about your reunion."
"I don't want my picture in the papers, thanks very much."
"Oh, well, if that's your attitude, I'll go and do some work."
"You're going to carry on working for the likes of that idiot Hellen D'? With all that money?"
"I know, I need my brains tested. But broke or filthy rich, I'm a musician, Wezzer. It's what I do."
"Have a good time, then, if it's humanly possible," laughed Wendy. "And if you don't, I suppose you can always buy up the recording label and sack anyone who's giving you aggro."
"Interesting thought," laughed Astor.
Wednesday's morning papers were dominated by a press release issued by fax from a withheld phone number. The alleged source was the Margaret Thatcher Memorial Monetarist Foundation. The £26 million lottery jackpot, the press release claimed, had been burnt to take it out of circulation and reduce the National Debt. Broadsheets treated the fax as a humorous item. Tabloids were full of hysteria over the waste of all that lovely money. Their editorial line was that people shouldn't enter the lottery if they don't want the money.
That message was still being repeated ad nauseam on radio phone-in programmes as Astor headed west at the wheel of his car on Thursday morning. The idea had occurred to him during a coffee break at his session the previous afternoon. The group of musicians had been discussing totally pointless things to do with a massive lottery win, not suspecting that one of their number still had a garage full of cash.
Clive Astor, Pete's father, was one of Nature's improvisers, a man who could scrape along on very little and enjoy being creative for its own sake. He was a natural hippie, who had been denied the privilege of being able to turn on, tune in and drop out until well into his middle years.
Shedding his wife via the divorce had been a blessed relief to him. He had been able to sell the family house and move into comfortable digs with his son. Clive Astor had never been too thrilled by the prospect of owning his own home on the grounds that it represented a lot of frozen capital.
With his expenses reduced, he had been able to take a succession of creative jobs that were as long on job satisfaction as they were short on payment. He was currently managing a small craft workshop in Taunton, where traditional skills were put on show for the entertainment of tourists and to give local councillors a sense of building on local history and preserving their past in an active way.
Just dropping in on his father unannounced was no problem. Clive Astor encouraged informality. With his straggling, white hair, the moustache stained yellow by the smoke from his pipe of home-grown, herbal tobacco and his generally battered work-clothes, he looked the embodiment of the artisan. He was a couple of years past the official retirement age but making money and making arrangements for the future had never been high on his list of priorities. Clive Astor had always been a man in search of the space to please himself. Now, he was quite content to work on and draw a fairly respectable salary as an alternative to vegetating on a basic old age pension.
When his son let himself in to the small office at the craft centre, laden with a medium-size carton and a briefcase, Clive Astor looked up from a set of sketches, smiled and said, "Yo, Pete! Fix yourself some coffee. I'll be with you when I've sorted this lot out."
Astor dumped a briefcase on the corner of the desk and turned to the table with the electric kettle and a collection of mugs. He always felt that get-togethers with his father were something of a being-cool contest, in which the first one to show surprise lost all credibility. For once, he knew that he was going to win heavily.
Astor took a coffee-maker out of the carton and extracted two mugs from dead space. He filled the coffee-maker with water and spooned in ground coffee from a smoked-glass jar. Then he switched the machine on, lit a cigarette and found himself a chair. Clive Astor looked up from his sketches when he heard unfamiliar slurping noises. His frown became a look of surprise when he identified the source of the noises and the smell of coffee.
"You flash git!" he told his son with a broad grin. "Instant not good enough for you any more?"
"It's a present," Astor said. "I've decided instant's not good enough for you, either."
"You do know the price of coffee for one of those things?"
"That's why I brought you that." Astor nodded to the briefcase.
"What, a year's supply?" laughed his father. "You must be doing bloody well for yourself. Are you top of the charts, or something?"
"In a manner of speaking. And you'll find there's a lot more than a year's supply of coffee."
Intrigued, Clive Astor abandoned the sketches and laid the briefcase flat on his desk. He just stared at the contents when he opened it, unable to put a meaning to what he could see. "What the phuck have you done? Robbed a phucking bank?" he asked at last.
"That's typical of a bloody parent," scoffed Astor. "It doesn't occur to them that their kid might have won the lottery. Oh, no, they have to think the worst. ‘Oh, my God! The phucking kid's robbed a phucking bank! Panic!!!'" After the rehearsal with his Wendy, Astor felt a strong sense of déjà vu.
"You won the lottery?"
"Someone has to."
"You actually won the notional robbery?"
"I actually won twenty-six million quid, yes. You've got a couple of million of it there."
"Phucking hell, Peter!"
"Go on, admit it, I've blown your cool," grinned Astor.
"You can say that again."
"Well, you've always drummed into me the importance of gaining your freedom to do what the hell you like. I think you'll agreed that represents freedom with a capital F."
"And there's more if you need it."
"I think it's going to take quite a long time to spend this. I'm glad to see my investment in you was a sound one, son. I never realized you could get two million quid into such a small space. The Great Train Robbers had to drag that much away in lorries."
"That's the difference between used, old-size pound notes and the new, sawn-off twenties. And I thought getting it this way would be better for your credibility," Astor added.
"How do you mean?" his father asked with a frown.
"When you spend it, you can say you're being sponsored by a Colombian drugs baron and he insists on cash."
"I can't get over this. Being fabulously rich so suddenly."
"Speaking as someone who never pays a bill till he gets the final demand?"
"And not always then, either," Clive Astor said with a wry smile.
"Not if your priorities don't agree with theirs?"
"Did I say thanks, by the way?"
"Who cares? I think the coffee's ready. Want to try some?"
Clive Astor nodded. "I suppose I'd better get used to it. I suppose it's not something terribly right-on, like an overpriced blend grown by Nicaraguan peasants?"
"Actually, I think it may be Colombian." Astor poured into the new mugs, which had printed fractal designs.
"Nice mugs. Obviously designed by someone on acid."
"I thought you'd like them."
"What about your mother? I don't think she'd appreciate having two million quid in cash on the premises. She'd be scared all the neighbours would rush round to dish out a collective mugging."
"I've decided just to send her a cheque. She'll only spend a little bit and keep most of it in the bank so she can live on the interest. She's a committed capitalist."
Astor assumed that his father would use most of his windfall for ‘investment in people', but in a worthy way; unlike the trouble-making that his son Pete had in mind when he was not producing energy for Kiron. Pete Astor hoped that the cash might encourage his father to be more bolshy.
Clive Astor was well known for just walking away from people and leaving them flat when they really started to bug him; but only when the gesture didn't involve compromising someone else. Astor Senior had an old-fashioned sense of responsibility grafted uncomfortably on to his hippiedom. Having the cash to compensate people who might lose out otherwise might make him less inclined to put up with personal aggro, his son hoped.
Clive Astor took out a bundle of notes and tucked it into the inside pocket of his ancient black leather jacket. Then he closed the briefcase. "I think I'd better find something a bit less flash to keep this in. Someone might nick the briefcase and find out it's his lucky day."
"Wise move," nodded Pete. "By the way, have you heard from Wendy's dad recently? I've got another couple of million in a parking orbit for him."
"I had a card from him the other week. He's in France."
"Yeah, I got that much from Wendy."
"Actually, I think he's lying low at the moment. He was in on a deal that went rotten. JC being a bit too trusting for his own good. I think he got out fairly intact but a lot of others didn't."
"Oh, well, no doubt he'll turn up in due course. Hello, is that burglars on the way in?"
The craft workshop was a barn-like building with a enclosed promenade and work-units on either side of it. The office lay at the summit of an ornamental iron staircase. Heavy footsteps were approaching up the staircase.
"Probably just one of the gang in search of a free cup of coffee. Yep, I was right," Clive Astor added as a woman in a bulky pullover and jeans let herself into the office.
"Hello," she said to Peter Astor with a smile of genuine welcome. "Are you a new recruit?"
"Erika, you've not met my son, have you?" said Clive Astor. "Pete, this is Erika, who's my significant other."
"Pleased to meet you," said Astor.
"Hello, Pete. Hey, what's that?"
"Pete's brought me a coffee machine," said Clive Astor. "I think he's started flogging stuff from a catalogue. And the stuff it makes is surprisingly drinkable to someone used to instant."
Erica poured coffee into one of the older range of mugs and added a single spoonful of sugar. "Is that what you're having to do since you got sacked off the tour?"
"Sacked off what tour?" said Clive Astor.
"I bet you've not heard about the drug-bust either." Pete Astor settled back in his chair to relate the great bootlegging saga. It was typical of his father not to have heard about his problems. Clive Astor was usually too busy doing other things to open a newspaper.
During the course of their catching up, Pete learned that Erika was a Czech from the Sudetenland border region. He suspected that she was an illegal immigrant, or a visa-overstayer at the very least. Unlike his mother, his father had never remarried. Clive Astor had never been much of a committing sort – even less so since the divorce.
Clive had introduced his son to a succession of girlfriends over the years, most of them with a fairly exotic background. Clive enjoyed the company of unusual people. One of them, the mother of his daughter and Pete's younger half-sister, was Hungarian and she had been another illegal immigrant into a predecessor of the European Union.
Erika was in her early fifties, about mid-way in age between father and son, and a very cheerful, energetic sort. She spoke fluent English with just a trace of an accent and she seemed intelligent and well educated, which she would have to be to keep up with Clive Astor, who could devour and sort vast amounts of information about a topic that interested him. He also he liked someone around who could give him a good, authoritative argument.
When Astor started back for Warleigh in the late evening, intending to drive as far into the night as he had to, he felt that he had found a good home for part of Kiron's bounty. It was time now to start thinking about how to put the bulk of it to similar good use before Kiron started to get restless.
On Friday morning, after his working Thursday, Astor went to his bank and asked to see the manager. He wanted to discuss the security arrangements available to someone making a large cash deposit. He was shown into the presence of a young-looking woman, who seemed to be not a day over thirty-five and far too junior to be in charge of a whole bank. Her smile of welcome froze in place when Astor mentioned that he had millions of pounds in a van. He unloaded several bundles of walking-about money onto her desk as samples.
One of the staff brought him a cup of coffee while the manager telephoned her head office and relayed the news that Astor was prepared to drive his van to a secure location, where it could be unloaded. They chatted about interest rates on various savings and business accounts, touched on pensions and made almost incidental arrangements for a huge increase in Astor's VISA card credit limit.
The call-back came. There was still a look of bewilderment on Mrs. Backton's face when she shook his hand at the end of their conference and Astor left her office. Nobody seemed to be paying any special attention when he drove the hired van toward London, heading for a main cash-reception and distribution depot in Camberwell.
Unloading and checking the mountain of cash took an hour and a half. Astor enjoyed watching the activity and the bank staff pretending to be oh, so cool and uninterested in the presence of so much spending money. His next stop was a local office of the van rental service, where he paid for another week's use of his vehicle.
As he drove away, he wondered if some opportunist clerk was getting on the phone to one of the tabloids to report a sighting of a van rented in Edinburgh immediately before the great lottery cash withdrawal. Any door-stepping journalists hot on the trail of a big story would be disappointed now.
Having a receipt in his pocket for most of the cash was no substitute for physical ownership of £26,000,000 he realized. With that much actual currency available, he could have kept the rented van on a permanent basis and just popped into the garage to break open a packet of notes when he needed to pay any bills. And when he croaked, there would be a big surprise waiting for whoever had the job of tidying up his affairs –or not, as Wendy would get that job.
But now that he had had his fun, Astor told himself, he had to buckle down to the task of earning all that bread. What he needed was his own venue for staging concerts and some semi-permanent publicity machine. The first task, could be turned over to some lucky firm of estate agents. The second would require deep thinking.
The telephone was ringing when he got home. As most of the morning had gone, Astor made an intelligent guess as to who the caller could be. He lifted the receiver and said, "Hi, Mom," instead of giving his number.
"Peter? What's going on?" said his mother's voice.
"Going on where?"
"This cheque you've sent me."
"Didn't I explain it in the letter? I hope your phone's not bugged."
"You really did win the lottery?"
"Yes, and I've put the cash in the bank now, so you can present the cheque."
"Are you serious about all this?"
"Hey, listen, why don't you just pay the cheque in? And then call me a liar if it bounces?"
"You won the lottery, Peter?"
"I wish you wouldn't keep saying that, Mom. It's supposed to be a secret."
"You really won the lottery?"
"I can't believe it."
"What, you don't believe your son has the intelligence to put six marks on a piece of paper? Thanks, Mom!"
"I can't believe he's had the luck to win all that money."
"Someone's got to win it. Why not me?"
"I don't know what to say."
"Why not, 'Bye for now, Peter, I'm just dashing off to the bank to pay the cheque in? I think that covers everything."
"Are you coming up here? I want to thank you in person. We'll all want to."
"Not for a while. Twenty-six million quid takes a hell of a lot spending."
"God, what are you buying? A fleet of Ferraris?"
"No, a fleet of Rolls-Royces."
"I won't get a serious answer out of you in this mood, will I?"
"Doubt it. Why don't you just get out a pencil and a piece of paper and make a list of things to spend your millions on? That's what it's for, spending."
"I might just do that."
"And don't forget, it's a secret. I don't want to be door-stepped by tabloid hacks. Or to find myself under siege by the local brigade of burglars."
"Yes, that did happened to one winner, didn't it?"
"And it could happen to you, too. Hence the secrecy, okay?"
"All right, Peter, message received. And thanks from all of us."
Astor put the receiver down and started to think himself into tycoon mode. He had concerts to organize and he needed somewhere to do it on his own terms. An article in the local paper put him on the right track. Astor learned that a conservation group was worried about the fate of Croydon's appropriately named Astoria cinema, which was a main feature of Sydney Street in an area just off the main shopping streets that had escaped wholesale demolition and rebirth as tower blocks and a modern shopping mall.
Access to the venue by road and public transport was easy. There were three close public car parks, and the cinema lay within five minutes' walk of the bus station and both railway stations, which offered a seventeen-minute journey time to and from central London. The Astoria also lay within an easy commuting distance of Astor's home. It looked an excellent place for Pete Astor to set up shop.
Wendy's friend Jeff was able to tell Astor why the Astoria project was in the news. A Japanese firm had been planning to re-structure it into an out-of-London headquarters with an adjacent conference centre. All that the local paper had been able to report, within the constraints of the libel laws, was that some of the contractors were getting nervous about delays in getting their hands on part-payments for staged work already completed.
The Japanese firm was insisting that it just had to smooth out several minor planning problems. Some of the contractors believed that the firm had concentrated too much attention on the offices and let the cost of restoring the fabric of the theatre overshoot the budget. Jeff's inside information from colleagues in the Arts world was that the firm wanted to dump the whole project because it was in trouble at home, where a long-buried corruption scandal was unravelling –the same one which had kept the Pete Astor drug bust out of the papers.
Astor learned that he had taken an interest in the Astoria just when the Japanese firm wanted to get on with a spot of quiet restructuring to cover up a couple of suicides and make its problems go away with minimal loss of face. It was the sort of thing that might happen to someone lucky enough to win the lottery.
Having found somewhere to base his music empire, he turned his attention to the mechanics of ownership. Ozzie, his accountant, put on an ‘are you trying to get me arrested?' expression when Astor dropped in on him and started talking about setting up a front company in a country that kept details of directors' names a national secret. Ozzie Hagar was Astor's age. He had been a drummer once, but he had turned totally and depressingly respectable after qualifying. He even had a wife, a mortgage, four children and a dog.
Astor had to go through the whole business of ‘yes, I really did win the lottery' before he could make Ozzie understand that he wasn't trying to evade paying taxes and all he wanted avoid was the hassle of people knowing that he had lots of dosh. He left Ozzie contemplating a large jump in his standard of living as a director of Astor's holding company, and thinking about the best place to establish it.
Having off-loaded one problem, Astor addressed another. The last time he had consulted a solicitor locally had been when he had bought his present home. The practice had changed hands since then and the newcomers had redesigned the premises. Astor feet had an inclination to go straight on when he turned left from the front door.
He outlined his needs to the receptionist and found himself in the office of Mrs. R.V. Billington, a severely dressed woman of about his own age. Her desk was clear, apart from the telephone and a photograph of a husband and two more or less teenage children. The rest of the room at the back of the building looked full of case papers but efficiently managed and well under control. If she had been surprised at all by the magnitude of the business that Astor had brought, Mrs. Billington concealed it well.
Astor told her that he was a consultant for a major new force in the music industry and produced the first surprise reaction from his prospective solicitor by dumping £5,000 in £20 notes on her desk as a retainer. She provided a receipt while taking notes on his plans for the Astoria site, realizing that her new client was showing all the impatience of the nouveau riche. He was not going to be tolerant of legal delays.
Three days later, Mrs. Billington reported that Croydon's town planners had designated the area around Sydney Road an urban regeneration area, which meant that developers had to maintain the existing façades of the buildings. The idea had worked very well in the case of the Meridan Hotel, which lay just across the road, and seemed tailor-made for the Astoria.
The Astoria had started life as a music hall. It had been converted into a cinema, then to a bingo hall and then half-converted into a four-screen multiple cinema before that developer had run out of cash. According to the Japanese firm's survey report, which Mrs. Billington had seen, the fabric of the building was sound but it had needed extensive pointing and weather-proofing outside. The surveyor had suggested that the best thing to do with the interior was to rip it all out and replace it from bare walls.
Behind the scaffolding and the cladding of blue tarpaulin sheets, the work on the Astoria was close to completion. Mrs. Billington had gained the impression that the owners of the site would be willing to let it go to someone willing to take on its debts and free them from the hassle of dealing with unpaid contractors, the council's inspectors and the gangs of local conservationists, who wanted the power to direct without the responsibility of paying for it.
Mrs. Billington had consulted her accountant brother-in-law about the debt situation. Walter Merion suspected that the contractors working on the Astoria had taken advantage of a rich foreign firm to pad their profit margins. He was sure that they were eager to switch from thoughts of suicide to making a deal that will let them break even on the work already complete, if only for the sake of laying their hands on ready cash without the long delays of legal proceedings. Having had a nasty shock, the contractors would be willing to be very reasonable over finishing the job if they could see a small profit ahead and a chance to keep their workforce busy.
Walter was sure that the Astoria development represented very good value for money. Astor contemplated playing the big tycoon and negotiating fiercely with the construction firms, forcing them to give him a tight price with penalty clauses for over-runs. Then he decided that it would be too much hassle and the best thing to do would be to create another company with a team of reliable managers and let them handle it.
He could then play the part of a consultant employed by the holding company which concealed the identity of the person who owned the empire. He would have more freedom of action if he was seen as a link in a chain rather than the tautological ‘head honcho', and others would find him less intimidating if they thought that he was just another employee.
Ozzie had warned him that doing what he wanted to do would involve jumping a whole lot of legal hurdles aimed at preventing tax evasion rather than at frustrating a desire for privacy, but Astor had made up his mind. And while Ozzie was busy, Wendy's friend Jeff was a sound source of information on the right sort of people to approach as staff for the front-line company in his layers of control.
Half a day on the phone put Astor back in touch with James Faucumberg, whom he had known in his twenties when both of them had been supplementing their earnings as musicians by organizing rave-ups – independently and together. James, never common Jim or Jimmy, had gone into the management side of the music business when he had turned respectable, figuring that bands come and go but there will always be promoters around to rip them off.
James was now grey and forty-eight, and he was in the middle of a fierce legal battle with a former employer. The company's director of operations had sacked him for being too old while trying to make out that he was incompetent. The offer of a five-year contract plus bonuses that would make him a millionaire at least was more than welcome. It was also vital ammunition in his fight with the company that had dared to boot him out. Clearly, James would not be worth that sort of deal if he were as incompetent as they made out.
Astor had reconsidered declaring himself as the bankroll behind his company – Kiron Sounds was the chosen name – and playing the tycoon. After thinking again about the down sides, such as the gutter press rushing to build him up then expose him as the arse-hole of the universe, he decided to let James Faucumberg assume that Pete Astor was just following a brief as a consultant with extensive experience in the music industry.
Astor was comfortable with the image of a guy having a good time while it lasted on a generous expense account. Of course, the next logical step would be to recruit someone to play the figurehead of his organization, but planning that far ahead was foreign to Pete Astor's nature.
Astor held his reunion meeting with James in the restaurant of the Meridan Hotel to set the tone for their contacts. He started off by explaining that James would have complete charge of the running of the Astoria complex, and that he could recruit his own team to run the place. James was wearing a somewhat sceptical look when Astor concluded his initial briefing.
"So what do you reckon?" Astor asked after topping up their wine glasses before the waiter could sneak into range.
"Sounds brilliant," nodded James. "But there's one question I have to ask right away, Pete. If we cut a deal between ourselves, do we then have to try and convince some fascist bastard banker to lend us the cash? On the strength of a work of fantasy called a business plan? To be honest with you, I like the project but I can't afford to get into something where I have to give my services for free at the start, betting there's going to be cash coming in sometime in the future."
Astor opened the briefcase, borrowed from Wendy, on an adjacent chair and took out a selection of documents. "The cash is in the bank, collecting interest, even as we speak," he announced. "This is top secret, but there's lottery money involved. Which the winner doesn't want disclosed to the gutter press."
"That's great," beamed James.
"And the even better news is that you go on salary as soon as you put your John Hancock on the contract."
"And you're saying you're just going to give me a corporate chequebook and walk away? You won't keep looking over my shoulder? Checking the lucky winner is getting value for money?"
"You and the accounts director, that's my solicitor's brother-in-law, will be handling the financial side, but apart from that, yes, I won't be peering over your shoulder. I've picked you as the administrator because I know you'll do a good job. Basically, you're admin and I'm music. You arrange for the Astoria to be there so that I can bring a band along and give them a gig there. Can you live with that?"
"No problem," nodded James. "Are you going to be providing all the bookings?"
"I doubt it. No, you'll just treat it as a normal, commercial operation. And slot my bands in where there's a gap."
"You know, I can think of half a dozen guys who'd kill for a job like this, Pete. How long's your interview list?"
"You're it at the moment. That seems to be the way things are going. People I know, and people they recommend, are getting the jobs."
"I suppose it saves a lot of messing about," nodded James.
"Yep, it's all about getting things done. So are you in?"
"I suppose I could be boring and take a week or so to look over what's involved and discuss this with my wife," said James. "Or I could do what I feel like doing, which is jump in with both feet. No prizes for guessing which way I'm going."
Having organized a major part of the music project, Astor retired to his home recording studio to give more of his attention to the other aspect of it. Being a persuaded cynic, he knew that what he needed to do was create self-perpetuating notoriety. He needed a gang of busy-bodies who were opposed to what he was doing because it ran against their own personal prejudices.
As it was the 12th of August, he wondered whether organizing a grouse-shooting extravaganza would do the trick. It didn't take much thought to recognize that Black Magic Rock was a better starting point. It was a variety of the music business that he knew well and it had got him into trouble – in fact, it had put him where he was at that moment.
The Astoria was being converted back to its 1930s Art Deco incarnation with the architect and the builders working from original plans but modifying them to meet the requirements of a modern super-venue. Astor decided to start a recording label in the meantime. He could afford to recruit half a dozen bands and pay them enough in advances on royalties to let them get themselves into trouble. And he knew enough people on the manufacturing and distribution side to get his tapes and CDs to the Great British Public without having to rely on the major distributors and shops if his bands were banned on taste grounds.
The first venture on the new label had to be a spot of vanity publishing, of course. If a bunch of Italian pirates were making money out of the now notorious Intoxicant set, then there had to be an official version of the song from the grimoire and other deserving items in the Pete Astor collection.
Getting some session musicians together was no problem. All he had to do was make a few phone calls to find out who was available. As far as bands were concerned, he would have to play the A&R man himself and trawl around some of the smaller venues looking for talent that deserved a break. With the weekend coming up, he had the opportunity to get started right away.
Intoxicant was coming up to the end of the first week of the Scandinavian section of the tour. But while his former band was still slaving for a bunch of Japs to earn their living, here was Pete Astor, filthy rich and able to take the time to watch other musicians in action. Such was life ...
The first thing that he needed was a trustworthy driver, who could be relied on to stay sober. Astor headed for the granny flat – now Wendy's annex. He knocked loudly on her door, knowing that Wendy was a devotee of daytime television.
"Come!" called an imperious female voice.
Wendy was watching some black-and-white film that was chock-a-block with the arrogance of the British upper classes while drafting another letter of protest about something or other on her laptop computer. She had been in the protest business long enough to build up a varied archive, from which she could cut and paste appropriate paragraphs.
"Yo, Wendy," said Astor.
"Speak!" she commanded.
"I need a driver for tonight, Saturday and Sunday. Someone who'll stay sober. Does that sound like any of your weird friends?"
"I suppose she has to be good-looking, too?"
"I'm certainly not dragging some old boot around."
"With her own car?" Wendy added with a cynical smile.
"Nympho or lesbian?"
"That doesn't matter. All I want her for is driving me around. But I suppose I don't want her getting lucky and walking off the job."
"What about Carly?"
"You know, Caroline at the back of us."
"Oh, you mean Cazzer? The blonde with the pony tail who lives with Cat Woman?"
"I think you'll find she prefers to be called Carly, Pezzer. And her aunt's only got two cats."
"Yeah? I thought it was at least half a dozen."
"She did have three kittens for a while. Until she found homes for them. I hope she doesn't hear you calling her Cat Woman."
"Is that you getting all disapproving?"
Wendy just looked at Astor.
"Probably because you don't realize it's a compliment."
"Oh yeah?" scoffed Wendy.
"Yeah. She looks a lot like Cat Woman in Batman. Not the films, the proper one on TV with Adam West as Batman. I always thought she was particularly gorgeous. You can see where Cazzer gets her looks from."
"Why do I find your explanation less than credible?"
"Probably because you're a miserable cynic and you don't watch TV trash like the rest of us. So anyway, you reckon she's a sad bastard like me with nothing better to do than drive some bloke around all weekend?"
"Well, her social life went down the drain when she developed that weight problem after the divorce ..."
"You mean, no one fancied her when her husband got himself shacked with a bimbo and her weight shot up to eighty-nine stone?"
"I'm not going to dignify that with a reply. Are you paying her for this, or is she just going to get the doubtful pleasure of your company and the odd non-alcoholic drink?"
"Probably. Is that a flash new laptop you've bought with your millions?"
"I've always wanted one of these," nodded Wendy. "I never thought I'd be able to afford one. Have you bought anything? I haven't seen anything new about the place, come to think of it."
"I got a new laptop with more memory and more battery power than you can shake a stick at." Astor studied Wendy's new computer more closely. "In fact, it looks a lot like yours. We must have liked the same ad in Jeff's computer mag. And some clothes ..."
"I don't remember seeing you in any posh suits," remarked Wendy.
"Obviously, the new ones look pretty much like the old ones. But if I've been wearing something and I've suddenly realized I don't like it any more, it's gone in the bin and I've been out doing some shoppo."
"Taking a break from your busy schedule?"
"If you're trying to wind me up, just remember I'm bigger than you, mate."
"And I can run faster than you, mate, so I'm not bothered. Or further than you before you get fed up. What else have you bought?"
"Stacks of CDs and some actual vinyl LPs ..."
"You've got so many, I'd never notice another roomful."
"And I've got a spare reel-to-reel tape recorder and LP record player on order. And I've got this cool gadget called Com-X-O. You can program phone numbers into it for people you don't want to hear from. So when they ring you up, they get an annoying message saying ‘The number you have called is unobtainable. Please replace your receiver and do not dial again.'"
"Far out! Have you put your mother's number on it?"
"Are you kidding? I wouldn't dare. And that's about it. I suppose I'll have to get down to the boring things like having this place painted and decorated and any building work done. And get the central heating overhauled for the winter ..."
"But it's all a drag when you get down to the detail?" laughed Wendy.
"Right. Spending money should be fun."
"By the way, Pete, I never gave you that two hundred quid you lent me."
"Come on, Wezzer. With all the dosh we've got, we're not bothered about a lousy two hundred quid."
"How can you not be bothered about two hundred quid?"
"I'm sure you can manage it with a bit of practice," grinned Astor. "I mean, don't you feel having a huge wad of dosh has made all your problems seem like infinite specks on the surface of the cosmos? Which they were anyway, before you magnified them by worrying about them."
"Zen and the Art of Lottery Winning," laughed Wendy.
"I suppose one thing I could do is make a list of people who've given me a bad deal in the past and see about trashing their lives a bit."
"Bet you don't. You're not a vindictive person, Pete. Because you're too bloody lazy."
"Ah, but the advantage of being filthy rich is you just have to drop hints and the staff will take care of it for you."
"Except you're too idle to hire any staff."
"Oh, well, if that's your attitude, I'll leave you to your trouble-making while I have a word with Cazzer. Sorry! Carly. Oh, yes, I've made a will," Astor added. "Want to read it?" He dropped an envelope onto the arm of Wendy's chair. "I left everything to you. But I can change my mind if you start wave any carving knives near me, okay?"
"Everything? To me?"
"Who else am I going to leave it to?"
"There's no answer to that."
Wendy was wearing her expression of blank astonishment and reading the copy of his will as Astor left her apartment. He let himself out into the back garden and followed the path down the left side to the token boundary with the houses that backed on to his. Astor's garden was one-and-a-half times the width of the more modest properties that formed the next street.
The row of square, ornamental brick enclosures that formed the boundary had three gaps, which had remained open. A tabby cat, who was sprawled on the roof of a garden shed, sunning herself, looked down at Astor suspiciously but decided that he was not a threat to her security.
Caroline's early warning system seemed to be working. She opened her back door just as Astor arrived. Her blonde hair was caught up in the familiar pony tail and she was wearing jeans and a plain white tee-shirt almost as a uniform. If anything, she looked a little on the lean side, having left her twelve-stone, miserable self firmly behind.
She was about a year away from the misery of finding that she was forty but she looked quite cheerful and fairly content with life on that August morning. Digging into her hippie past, Wendy had taught Caroline various relaxation techniques and ways to feel good about herself once the divorce had become inevitable. After a long period of frustrated rage and a heavily negative mental attitude, Caroline was starting to get her life under control after a fashion.
"Hello, stranger, how are you?" Caroline said with a smile. "Wendy mentioned you were back."
"Sacked, you mean?" Astor said with an answering smile.
"Well, something like that. I thought it was dreadful, sacking you just because someone thought you were worth bootlegging."
"The penalty of being too good. But what the hell. Are you doing anything over the weekend?"
"Why? Are you having a long party?"
"No, I'm looking for a driver to take me round some clubs while I go talent spotting for a new recording label. A hundred quid a night, no alcohol, drugs or like that. For you, I mean. But anything else you want in the way of refreshments is on the firm."
"What, three hundred pounds for three nights' work?"
"You obviously don't need a calculator. Wendy said you might be interested."
"If you mean it, you're on! There's lots I could do with three hundred quid. Starting with getting my brakes relined."
"But our car's safe to drive?" Astor asked with mock nervousness.
"If it's not, you'll be one of the first to find out," laughed Caroline. "What time do I pick you up?"
"About eight. Be prepared for a long night. Dress informal."
"Right, I'll see you then, Pete. Three hundred quid!"
Astor headed back to his home. He had never believed that it is impossible to buy happiness. People who are rich and miserable are the sort of miserable bastards who would be miserable no matter what their circumstances. But real people, Astor firmly believed, can achieve true happiness easily through an unexpected bonus from a generally unforgiving fate.
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.