The new creation met my gaze,
Engendered hope in many ways,
And dread of what I knew to lie concealed...
Pete Astor had been working on an extended version of The Portal in his spare time, driven partly by an urge to give his unseen mentor better value for money and partly because he knew that he could do a much better job of what had been an idea sketched out in a hurry. In the normal course of events, he would have refined the new number through many performances. Being chucked out of Intoxicant so abruptly had disrupted that process. The bootlegged version and the one on his solo album were both good, but he felt that there was a lot more to be done with the idea.
As a compulsive perfectionist, he knew that he would never lose the urge to tinker, but he was aware that he had reached the stage where he was just re-arranging deck chairs on the musical equivalent of a magnificent cruise liner. When he looked out the music and the tape of his latest mix on O-Day Minus Six, he knew that anything more done to the piece would make it just as good but in a different way.
The phone rang as he was telling himself to stop messing about and declare the project finished. "Hi, it's Nigel. ... Dexie's brother?" the unfamiliar voice added after a short pause.
"Oh, right, hi, Nige," said Astor.
"Actually, I'm a bit surprised at getting straight through to you. I was expecting you'd have some sort of call-filtering process by now."
"The huge success of that CD, From Another World. Derek reckoned the meeja would be in a feeding frenzy over you."
"The record company does all that, handling the meeja. Which is a bit of a relief, come to think of it. So what can I do you for, Nige?"
"I've met someone who wants to get in touch with you. About the grimoire. He's interested in it, and he might be able to put you on to some similar source material."
"Sounds interesting. But not till after our opening night next week. I'm just clearing the decks to concentrate on that right now. We've got some heavy rehearsing to do."
"Yeah, right. The guys are quite sick about having to work on that night. Any chance of blagging a couple of tickets? I've more or less finished my thesis now and I could do with a good night out."
"I'll leave them at the box-office for you. So anyway, who's this guy? Another enthusiastic young amateur, like yourself?"
"No, he's a professional student of the occult, you might say. He's had books published on forms of magic around the world, and you might have seen his TV series about ten years ago. He's called Padraig M'Cracken?"
"Can't say the name rings any bells, but I don't watch that much telly."
"And you weren't into BMR ten years ago?"
"It wasn't even invented then," laughed Astor. "Not as a separate branch of rock music, anyway. This guy sounds seriously Irish with a name like that."
"He's Irish-Scots with an Oxbridge accent. His dad's from somewhere out in the wilds of Ulster. He's heavily into fringe culture – Breton, Welsh Celtic, Irish and Scots Gaelic, that sort of thing – as a sideline to magic."
"Sounds like he might have possibilities. Maybe we can set something up for next weekend?"
"I'll mention that to him next time I see him. And give you an update on Wednesday. Thanks in advance for the tickets, Pete."
"No problem, Nige. See you on opening night."
Astor replaced his receiver and wrote Patrick MacCracken? on his pad as a reminder to ask around for information on the alleged celebrity, who sounded as if he had some trouble-making potential. Then he printed out several clean copies of the lyrics and music to the extended version of The Portal and backed up the files on his computer to a floppy labelled Last and Completely Finished Version.
He was free to give his full attention to the Astoria now; not that he was actually needed there with James Faucumberg in charge. But if his money was paying for everything, Astor planned to hang around, keeping an eye on things and enjoying watching an impossible dream come true.
At the same time, he was also watching for signs of a bubble about to burst. The success of From Another World had taken him by surprise and left him wondering just how good the piece really was. Was it selling just because of his aura, because Kiron had made him lucky? Or was it selling because it was good?
In fact, the success of FAW was making him hesitate over other projects to make sure that they satisfied his own internal standards. Pete Astor did not want to make a name out of being a hugely successful purveyor of what would be seen as junk music in the future. His father had always told him to find out what he could do, and then do it well. Getting things done right went beyond vanity – it was all to do with personal pride and personal standards, and maintaining those standards in the face of allegedly limitless supplies of good luck.
Even though everything was supposed to be one hundred per cent completed and ready to go, there was still a great deal of activity at the theatre as the staff got to know the building and prepared for the opening night. Astor found himself drawn into a lot of Nick's PR work and Caroline seemed quite happy to be a general assistant to anyone who needed a helping hand; especially at £100 per day. She developed a particular interest in helping to update the Internet pages and she seemed to be nerving herself to buy her first computer so that she could get on the Internet at home.
The Sunday before opening day had been declared a rehearsal day to let Belfry and Pandaemonium get the feel of the new theatre – even though the building would seem quite different when it was full of paying customers. As a member of senior management, Pete Astor had put in an appearance to give the other support bands some encouragement. Neither of them was used to playing such a grand venue. Astor was on stage, explaining to Pandaemonium the routines for using the headset sound monitors, when one of the crew waved him to an internal telephone.
"Yo, Pete here," he said.
"It's R.V.," said an American voice. "We've got Syd from Intoxicant and Ange at the side door asking for you."
"Great!" said Astor. "Can you get someone to show them to the stage area? And make sure they don't nick anything on the way."
"Sure thing," chuckled R.V. Johnson. "Ange says to watch out, she heard that and she's going to get you."
"Promises, promises," laughed Astor.
The Melchiors arrived looking impressed by what they could see. They were not used to being in new, fresh theatres like the Astoria, which was free of the tatty grubbiness of constant use.
"So they really did name the place after you, Pete," said Angela. "I thought that was just a joke."
"That'll teach you to take me a bit more seriously in future," laughed Astor. "Someone having a day off?"
"You can't work on a Sunday in the black magic business," nodded Syd. "So the boss decided we should have a good lunch then inflict ourselves on you. And tell you what a lousy job you did on that radio show last night when you were plugging your trashy album."
"You still listen to the old steam wireless?" laughed Astor.
"When we've got nothing better to do," nodded Syd.
"And did you have to use black magic to home in on me?"
"Your house-sitter, Wendy, told us where to find you," said Angela. "This is an amazing place. Is it real?"
"You mean, is it really a hologram?" said Astor.
"Is it original or a fake?"
"A little bit of original and a lot of reconstruction using the original plans. A bit like the Stone-Age axe that's had two new heads and three new handles. But we reckon any time traveller from the 1930s wouldn't spot too many differences. Apart from obvious things like the security cameras. Shall we get out of everyone's way and go on the grand tour?"
"Which way's the bar?" said Syd.
"Day off, love," said Angela patiently. "We don't have to pretend we can't live without a drink in our hands."
"Are you going to be ready to roll on your first night?" remarked Syd. "Or will it all end in tears?"
"The management guys reckon they could have been ready this last Wednesday if they'd rushed things," said Astor. "But there's no harm in giving it extra time to make sure things are right and ready to go."
"Pretty radical," laughed Syd. "Doing things right."
"Yeah, well, I know you're not used to it," said Astor. "And talking of that, I've finished an extended version of The Portal, if you want to include it in your act. As a sort of secret weapon to prove you could headline a tour. I gather you've been doing the quickie version from time to time."
"It gives the fans a thrill, hearing quote The Banned Number unquote," nodded Syd. "You mean you're not going on the road with your solo album? Which features The Portal."
"I don't particularly feel the urge to be in a different place each night," said Astor, "and I'm still working on another piece out of the same box as FAW. And you know how impossible is it to get your head round anything long and complicated on the road. Not that the old feet won't start to get a bit itchy in a while. We're doing radio shows every so often and club gigs but I'm quite getting into this A&R stuff and the concert promotions."
"It's getting you back to the good old days when you used to organize rave-ups for two or three thousand lunatics in an empty warehouse somewhere?" laughed Syd. "In the Fifties? Or was that the Forties?"
"Or maybe even the Thirties," said Astor. "So do you want the new version, or what?"
"Def'rably!" said Syd quickly. "Especially if it does as well as FAW. What's it like having a super-monster-hit on your hands?"
"It leaves everyone looking at you and saying, ‘Okay, top that, you bastard!'" said Astor.
"Some problem," laughed Syd. "No, we're getting pissed off with the Euro-pop scene anyway. These French buggers need a charge of Astor dynamite up their arses. They haven't got a phucking clue, Pete. And the whole gang of management guys are full of shit. About as full of shit as their pockets are full of French taxpayers' cash. How long is it? The new version?"
"About twenty-five minutes. It's basically symphonic-type variations in three movements. And I've incorporated a couple of other spells into it on the way to the finale with the one I picked originally. It starts some distance away from the first version and winds itself up the same climax."
"Sounds great," said Angela. "You'll have to do all your rehearsing in secret, though, Syd. If they find out you're planning to up-stage the headliners, they'll zap you double-quick. In fact, they probably will do just that after your first performance."
"So we'd better make it good," laughed Syd.
"I should just check with the others first to see if they mind being out of a job," cautioned Angela.
"No problem," her husband told her airily. "We'll just sign up with Pete's record company. They're going to be falling over themselves to sign a red-hot band that gets fired for being too bloody good. Right, Pete?"
"Yes, I'm sure a band as successful as yours could afford to pay us a very handsome signing-on fee," nodded Astor.
"Ha!" scoffed Syd. "Is this bar of yours open?"
"If not, I know someone with a key," said Astor.
"And you're sure about letting us have your masterpiece? Aren't you doing The Portal in your set here?"
"The shorter version, yes. But I want to showcase some of the other numbers off the album. And I want to see the long version performed by a band I know can do it right."
"Right enough to get themselves into a whole bunch of trouble," remarked Angela.
"Hey, come on, they're not going to sack us for blowing a bunch of Frogs out of town," scoffed Syd. "These phucking Jap accountants will hear cash registers ringing when they read the reviews and they'll make us headliners on the next tour. You know that's the way it works. People have got to have heard of you to know you've got an album out. Publicity equals sales equals happy Japs."
"I think we're going to have to pour a couple of stiff drinks into Ange to get her seeing things your way," laughed Astor. "The bar's this way."
There was a lot of calculation behind Astor's generosity with what was easily his best piece of work for a couple of years. He knew that Kiron got bursts of energy from Intoxicant's infrequent unauthorized performances of The Portal, even though he was no longer in the band. There was clearly still a connection between them, even if Pete Astor had no ideas on the ‘what' and the ‘how' of it.
Astor also knew that Syd Melchior and the others would play the new version just because the previous version had been banned. Of course, if he wanted to be sure that The Portal was played, he could always take it out on the road himself along with his crew of session musicians. There would be a pleasing level of conspiracy in letting audiences hear a number that had got him thrown off a tour for being ‘dangerous'. People always enjoy being on forbidden territory.
Weighing things up, however, Astor had decided that he could create more energy sources for Kiron, and greater benefit for himself, by creating the conditions for Black Magic Rock to flourish. He knew that he would return to serious performing eventually, however. He was still a professional musician and music would remain his career for as long as he remained satisfied with his own level of technique.
But in the meantime, he could enjoy the satisfaction of making things happen in ways that suited Pete Astor.
Even though the Astoria was in fully functional, there seemed to be an amazing amount of activity and an amazing number of things that needed doing right up to the moment when the doors opened to the audience on the opening night. Sitting in the security room, watching monitors screens showing people flood into the building on their way to the auditorium and the bars, Pete Astor felt a profound sense of accomplishment.
Pandaemonium and Belfry were waiting for the off in their dressing rooms. Feygore was standing by at a nearby hotel. The other Dead Junkies were either lurking in their dressing room with friends or wandering around the theatre as if they owned it. James Faucumberg seemed to be everywhere, appearing on a different monitor screen second by second, talking constantly into his personal radio when he wasn't issuing orders to those around him. He looked very busy with a task that he found very enjoyable.
At last, bells rang to warn the audience that the show was about to start. Astor wished the members of Pandaemonium good luck as they filed past him into the dark shadows and moving spots of their light show. They left the stage half an hour later, having done a good job and knowing how to do better next time.
The change-over had been allotted ten minutes. The crew managed to shift equipment, cover up items to be left on stage and uncover Belfry's equipment in six minutes. The send-up of BMR was well received and Astor and his band knew that they would have to do a good job to follow the band from Hastings.
Sales of the album Pedal To The Metal had been good, but not on the same outstanding level as sales of From Another World. Astor had taken the difference as a sign that he was still subject to normal commercial forces and not totally dependent on charisma dropped around him by an extra-dimensional being. Even so, the volume of local sales of the Junkies' album meant that the audience was able to clap to show that they were recognizing each number as it started.
Astor was quite looking forward to the reaction when the Junkies reached their version of The Portal at the mid-point of the act. Feeds from Conrad's headset to speakers placed all round the auditorium gave the traditional wolf-howl an unearthly and threatening ring. Astor knew, from a quick dash to the body of the hall during a rehearsal, that Conrad's chanted words seemed to slither around the walls, threatening, approaching constantly from a different direction. He could see heads turning as the audience tried to spot the speakers, cigarettes in mouths moving in red arcs.
Astor had a feeling of being part of a vast cauldron of sound and moving lights. He could feel the music flowing from his guitar into his body and then being radiated out as shining bars of energy. For a moment, he had a sensation of complete stillness as a focus of the entire universe. Then he was playing the final bars of the song and Conrad was winding up for the longest, most menacing wolf-howl that he could manage.
The band was well into the next number before Astor felt the whole audience come back on-line. Some people had not been affected by the power of The Portal but most of them had been bowled over by a strange and totally unexpected and magical experience. Twenty minutes later, after a helping of fast-moving in yer face rock music, the audience poured out for pit-stops in the toilets and refreshments in the bar.
"Good work, guys," Pete Astor told him fellow musicians as they were towelling themselves in their dressing room. "I reckon we made the buggers sit up and think."
"I reckon everyone got well zapped with some pretty psychedelic low-frequency harmonics," said bassist Eddy Edwards, who worked as a sound engineer at Melody Recording Studios to earn his living. "Pity you need a whole theatre full of people-shaped objects to recreate it or we'd be able to get off on it during our rehearsals."
"So it wasn't just me?" said Conrad, sounding relieved. "I thought someone had slipped me some acid – except acid never wears off that quick."
"Well, you know what they say," laughed Ronny Bone, the drummer and the vocalist's brother, "Black Magic Rock is evil stuff and it does terrible things to impressionable people."
"Except you could do the same with lift-music if you strap on the right sub-threshold harmonics," Eddy said knowledgeably.
Astor poured himself a glass of the post-performance champagne and lit a cigarette, smiling inwardly. You can't beat a scientist for coming up with an explanation that makes a genuine magical phenomenon seem as ordinary as switching on a light, he reflected.
The human mind seeks to conquer the unknown by describing it. And if a totally wrong explanation made the phenomenon appear harmless, Pete Astor was not about to argue; not when the phenomenon had brought him a personal fortune and seemed to promise a lot more for the future.
The first part of the opening night went down very well. Feygore, the headliners, delivered more of the same. A cheerful and contented audience hit the streets at twenty to eleven, heading for car parks, bus stops and the railway station. Pete Astor, with Caroline, Wendy and Jeff, left the Astoria to its night security guards at half-past midnight.
They dropped a sleepy Caroline off at her home. Wendy and Jeff retired to Wendy's apartment more or less right away. Pete Astor was not in the habit of taking drugs at that time of night, mainly because the effect would be wasted if he dropped off to sleep. But as he was feeling up from the success of the opening night, and there was no point in going to bed for a few hours yet, he realized that it was a suitable time to get Kiron's reactions to the night's work.
Charm gave him its mellowing warmth. The spot of bright yellow light seemed to form very quickly and expand and move past him in an almost perfunctory display of coloured shapes and black lines, as if Kiron were rushing him through the preliminaries. A dark, formless shape coalesced with a speed which suggest that Kiron had been hovering, waiting for Pete Astor to get in touch.
"Yo! Maestro!" said his benefactor.
"Hi, Kiron," thought Astor. "Did we hit the spot or did we hit the spot?"
"In the words of the immortal Jim Morrison, We is stoned. Immaculate! And more of the same will be very okay."
"You mean this energy gets you stoned?" laughed Astor.
"Perhaps not quite in the sense you mean, Peter. We keep running up against the buffers of concepts that are mutually equivalent. But having it is as desirable as being especially well stoned to someone in the habit of getting himself stoned, if you see what I mean."
"We're getting useful blips of energy when your CDs are played but there's nothing that compares with output of the live performances."
"That's live music for you. And there should be a few more live performances quite soon."
"Maybe a few more by my band. But I've given an extended version of the really effective song to the band I used to be in. And I've built in some more material from the original source. I don't know whether that will reinforce it any."
"I would say we're very much in the field of empiricism rather than manageable theory," said Kiron. "All we can do is try it out and see what happens."
"In that case, fasten your seat belt and Syd and the guys should be delivering shortly."
"I look forward to receiving their contribution. And to further contributions from yourself, Peter."
As the visual special effects faded and Astor was surrounded again by his familiar recording studio, an uncomfortable shiver ran down his spine. It was normal to feel threatened by the unknown, he told himself. It was imagination, ignorance and routine paranoia that put a hint of threat behind Kiron's approval and expectations.
Was a being from another place with such a tenuous link to his own frame of existence to be feared just because of his/her/its strangeness? Was such contact an inevitable road to disaster because misunderstandings were inevitable? And should he really be worried about the motives of a powerful entity who could quote Jim Morrison at him? Pete Astor had no answers to any of the questions. But what he did have was another thread of Kiron's Music running riot in his head.