Strong but fragile,
Our flawed existence totters
From a first of many crises to its last.

Surprising himself, Pete Astor found himself feeling refreshed and able to rise to face another Thursday at ten-thirty the next morning. The red light on his answerphone was glowing, he noticed, on his way from the bathroom to the kitchen. Astor stopped to play his messages. There was just the one. James Faucumberg wanted to contact him. Astor put some coffee on to brew before he called the Astoria. "Good morning, Jane, I understand his lordship wants to talk to me," Astor told James' personal assistant.
   "Quite urgently, yes," said Jane. "But he's tied up at the moment."
   "If he wants to call me back, I'm not going anywhere."
   "Actually, he's told me since he called that he'd like to speak to you. I mean, not on the phone."
   "In that case, can you tell him I'll drop round in a couple of hours and if he wants me any sooner, he can call or send a fax. Okay?"
   "Yes, that sounds fine."
   "Did you have a good time last night?"
   "Yes, it was lovely. All I have to do now is convince my husband it won't be champagne and free food every week."
   "Just every other week? Right, see you, Jane."
   Astor put some dry-cured bacon under the grill then phoned his driver, knowing that he was probably still over the limit. Caroline blew into her personal Intoximeter and reported that she was as sober as she felt and ready for a working day.
   Astor half expected to find the theatre under siege by militant Christians when Caroline drove past on her way to the entrance to the staff car park. Everything looked quiet and secure. The intermittent stabs of light in the lobby were just a roving photographer, from one of the television companies, Astor assumed, collecting interior shots. Caroline had some shopping to do. Astor waved to the security cameras as he let himself into the theatre with his swipe card. Jane waved him straight through to James Faucumberg's office.
   "We have a crisis?" said Astor.
   "You've heard?" frowned James.
   "No, that was supposed to be a joke. Something up?"
   "Yes and no. I've had an early warning from someone I know at the hospital. Apparently some kid dropped dead in the street last night running for a bus. The initial conclusion was he'd had a heart attack. The police got him into an ambulance fairly quickly but he was D.O.A. at the hospital."
   "And this has what to do with us?" frowned Astor.
   "Apparently, he was at the opening night. And the police asked his friends if he'd taken anything. This was in the street, before the friends knew the kid was dead. The police were saying the info might save the kid and there'd be no come-backs. So one of his mates said he'd taken something in the pub on his way here."
   "Several hours before he dropped dead?"
   "Something like that."
   "So we're going to get a kicking for killing him? Anyone who thinks that is as mad as a box of frogs."
   James shrugged. "Even so, it may suit the tabloids to give us a kicking. So what we need is some PR strategy to cover ourselves. Which Nick is working on right now."
   "Damage limitation?"
   "It shouldn't be necessary, but it probably will be," nodded James. "In view of all the dust kicked up about BMR recently. We'll also need some sort of positive anti-drugs statement. I was wondering if our representative of higher management could deliver it with a straight face."
   "In view of his record of drug busts?" scoffed Astor. "That sounds like a good way to give everyone a good laugh. But isn't this a bit of overkill on the It wasn't us! message? Aren't people going to think we must be to blame if we start shouting our innocence loudly and so promptly?"
   "Well, yes, there is a danger of that."
   "Why don't we just leave it to Nick for the moment? PR is his job, after all. Do you really want to become a rent-a-quote bloke for the meeja if I'm obviously unsuitable?"
   "Not particularly." James put on a twisted smile. "It's just that in my last job, I'd be expected to have a complete strategy for handling something like this sorted out within about five minutes of the event. So that the chairman could compare my strategy with the PR guy's and knock lumps off us over bits he didn't like."
   "Well, as I see it, you should be ready to deal with any customers who show symptoms of an OD on the premises. But if someone drops dead off the premises, or gets run over by a bus right outside, I don't see that as anything to do with the theatre. In fact, I don't think it's an occasion for an official statement by Kiron Sounds."
   "In an ideal world, it's not. But we're offering a provocative form of entertainment in Black Magic Rock and the tabloids are always going to be trying to pin something on us. So I think we have to do more than just stand by and shrug our shoulders."
   "Have you discussed this with Nick, by any chance?"
   "To a certain extent," nodded James.
   "And he's busy drafting a press release?"
   "I assume that's what he's doing right now, yes."
   The intercom buzzed. Jane announced that Nick had arrived. The PR consultant entered the office just ahead of a tray with coffee and biscuits.
   "Problems?" said Nick, noticing James's mild frown.
   "Nothing new," said Astor. "I was just telling James I don't think we should be firing off press releases saying we've done nothing wrong because people will assume the exact opposite. But having said that, you're the PR guy and you make the final decision. And there are no points to be scored for doing what I say if you think it's wrong."
   "I think we do have to talk to the media about this," said Nick. "We can't hide behind no comments."
   "Okay, but I'd prefer it if you don't volunteer anything," said Astor. "Talk to them if they come and ask you something but on a casual level, as if they've asked you if you know it's raining in Tokyo. I'm just trying to think of something I heard in the States once that seems to sum it up."
   "Figures," remarked Nick.
   "Oh, yeah." Astor put on an American accent. "‘This is not something we want to get into in any form. We know very little about what happened and we don't seem to be involved in it.' That style of thing. How does that sound to you?"
   "Great; if we can keep it at that level," said Nick. "Or we can be allowed to keep it at that level."
   "Okay, it's your call," Astor repeated. "One thing you might do is try your message out on Caroline and Jane to see just how credible they find it. How suspicious it makes them; if at all."
   "You mean, try it out on real people first?" grinned Nick.
   "We are looking to influence the hearts and minds of the Great British Public, not the Awful British Meeja," nodded Astor.
   "What about an anti-drugs message?"
   "Again, I don't think we should have any sort of polished message; apart from ‘Don't try it if you can't hack it'," said Astor. "As I told James, I don't think we should be creating associations so we become an automatic station on the rent-a-quote circuit every time some kid ODs within fifty miles of us."
   "So you favour an informal word rather than firing off a load of press-release faxes?" said Nick.
   "For this," nodded Astor. "Can you live with that?"
   "Easily," nodded Nick. "It's just that I'm more used to people demanding to see substantial and visible proof that I'm working on a problem. Like lots of files stuffed with paper."
   "I certainly don't want to hear recordings of your informal chats to prove you've had them," laughed Astor. "So what do you reckon, James?"
   James nodded. "Yes, I certainly think we should have our say. If that's to be done by chatting to journalists in a pub rather than firing off press-release faxes, fine. Just as long as we don't present an unresisting target."
   "Okay, if we're all on the same page, let's see what happens," said Astor.
   The intercom buzzed. Jane reported that Caroline was back. Astor invited both women into the office to hear the PR strategy and offer their opinions on how the message of non-involvement should be conveyed. Neither thought that any reasonable person could link the death to the theatre, but they both knew that the news media are staffed by unreasonable people.
   Photo-flashes spat brilliant light at them when they left the theatre. Astor, Caroline and Nick found themselves encircled by four photographers and three journalists with cassette recorders running as they stepped out into the colonnade at the front of the theatre.
   "You got a comment on what happened last night, Pete?" one of the journalists asked, shoving his cassette recorder into Astor's face.
   "We had a very successful opening night and we hope to have the same sort of success in the future," Astor told him.
   "I mean about the kid who died after the concert here."
   "Coming here was just one of the things he did last night," said Astor. "He also seems to have travelled by bus. Have you lot been round to the bus company for a statement yet?"
   "People take drugs when they go to concerts, not when they travel by bus," said the journalist.
   "Really? You know that for a fact?" scoffed Astor. "With regard to the kid's death, it was regrettable, but it didn't happen at the theatre and we don't know why he died, or if it was due to drugs, any more than you do. So if you want anything sensational before the post mortem, I'm afraid you're going to have to invent it, like usual. So if you'll excuse me, I have things to do."
   As he and Caroline were walking away from the journalists, Astor heard one of them saying, "Come on Nick, you can give us something more than that tight-arsed bugger."
   "All I can tell you at the moment is what you know already," Nick said with a shrug. "We don't know why the boy died or if he'd been taking drugs..."
   "Come on, Nick! 'Course, he had."
   "But we won't know for sure until the inquest. And in any case, the Astoria has taken an unconditional anti-drugs stand. Anyone taking drugs on the premises or selling drugs will be ejected and reported to the police. Look, do we have to do this in the street or is one of you rich buggers going to put his hand in his pocket and buy me a pint?"
   "Plan A going into action," Caroline remarked to Astor as they left earshot.
   "Get the journos into their natural habitat," nodded Astor.
   "Was that good cop-bad cop you and Nick were playing?"
   "You're getting dead cynical in your old age, Caroline."
   "I'll take that as a yes. Are you really going somewhere?"
   "Yes, I'm going to put in an offer for Melody."
   "What, you're going to buy the recording studio?"
   "Kiron Sounds should have its own recording studio. But I'm only buying if the price is okay."
   "So you're here on a shopping trip too?"
   "Something like that," laughed Astor. "Are you ready for lunch?"
   "Are we having lunch first?"
   "No, we're having a working lunch at the Meridan with Jim and Reg of Melody." Astor halted at a set of traffic lights, waiting for the traffic flow to stop.
   "Do you normally take your driver along when you go to important business meetings?" Caroline put the van keys back into her bag.
   "You're also a witness. You always need several witnesses at your important business meetings. And it's always a good idea to out-number the other side. Why, don't you fancy it?"
   "Yes, of course, I do. But I was just thinking of something I read about a woman who used to be the PR agent for Princess Di. She ended up having burgers in her hotel room at meal-times."
   "Perhaps her table manners aren't as good as yours."
   The lights changed. Astor and Caroline crossed the road.
   "So who are the other witnesses?" laughed Caroline.
   "Our company solicitor and your good buddy Walter."
   "What d'you mean by that?" Caroline put on a mild frown.
   "I think it was perfectly obvious from the way you two were looking after each other last night that you fancy each other. And he has the obvious advantage of not being totally weird. He's only a head-banger out of working hours. You do know he watches American football on the telly?"
   "No, but so what?"
   "Is that weird or is that weird?"
   "On the Pete Astor scale of weirdness, it's still about nought. Has the company got a policy on members of the staff fancying each other?"
   "It's none of the company's business if it doesn't interfere with their work."
   "I mean, how does it affect you and me?"
   "I always knew I'm just a bit of rough while you rebound from the divorce. And I'm too weird for your tastes. So I'm not going to get totally bent out of shape if you chuck me. I'll just be moderately heart-broken for the rest of the week."
   "I enjoy your company, Pete, but..."
   "But you prefer non-weird in the long-term? Which is okay. The politically correct bunch haven't made that a hanging offence yet."
   "So you're okay about it? If he asks me out?"
   "It would seriously damage my reputation for weirdness if I try and control your life." Astor glanced at his watch as they reached the hotel. "We've got about ten minutes in the bar for a quick bracer and pit-stops before the others arrive. The Manzanilla sherry is supposed to be exceptional here."
   "That's the one Wendy likes, isn't it? Made near the sea so you can taste the salt-spray in it?"
   "That's the theory of it." Astor changed course toward one of the tables as they entered the bar. "Hello, Rachel. I hope your bloody meter's not running. You're early."
   A woman in a dark business suit put her newspaper aside and took her reading glasses off, then smiled at Astor. "Good afternoon, Peter. Nice to see you again. Is this you spending your royalties? I hear your album sales are, quote, strong."
   "Which is very gratifying," nodded Astor. "Caroline, this is Rachel, Walter's sister-in-law. She's doing the soliciting on the deal –if we get one sorted out. Rachel, this is my associate Caroline. Don't ask her what she does –she's under contract not to talk about it."
   "That sounds interesting," Rachel said with a smile.
   Caroline smiled back. She noted that the solicitor was around forty, the general age of Astor's recruits and she cultivated a smart but somewhat laid-back image. She wore a sapphire engagement ring and a broad-band wedding ring and she looked more than capable of managing a business life and a tribe of kids.
   "Sherry?" said Astor as a waiter arrived. Ordering drinks took them away from what Caroline's function was in Kiron Sounds.
   "Walter told you I think you're being a bit premature, bringing me in at this state?" Rachel said to Astor.
   "In terms of the deals he's been in on in the past, maybe," said Astor. "But Jim and Reg know what Melody's worth and Walter has a pretty good idea. And I happen to know they're struggling. They've just paid off the cash they borrowed to get started. Now, they're going to have to borrow quite a bit more to bring in some new equipment; which will pay for itself in the long run but it's going to cost them a hell of a lot in time, trouble, interest payments and grey hairs. So what we're proposing to do is buy the business as a going concern. Jim will stay on as general manager, Reg will still be the technical manager. KS will put in the new equipment and strap on a mail-order business."
   "As long as Jim and Reg see it your way," said Rachel.
   "They get some cash as a return on the blood, sweat, toil and tears that went into building an ace recording venue, they get to keep their jobs with a lot of external pressure taken off and Reg gets to play with some new toys."
   "And Kiron Sounds gets priority for its artistes, presumably? And the advantages of an established brand name?"
   "Right," nodded Astor. "What do you reckon, Caroline? Does it sound a good deal? In your capacity as a real person?"
   "I think Reg liked the idea when you were talking it over," said Caroline. "I'm not sure if Jim wants to give up his empire, though."
   "But the point is, he's not," said Astor. "He'll have about the same amount of power with less responsibility. And they're obviously interested if they're meeting us. I don't think they're that desperate for a posh lunch."
   "And you're showing them you mean business if you've got both your accountant and your solicitor with you?" said Rachel. "Not to mention your mysterious associate?"
   "That makes me sound like the Mafia," laughed Caroline.
   "We're showing them we're here to talk as much turkey as they can handle," said Astor. "And if they think they might lose a new but very good customer at the studios if they don't sell out..." he added with a grin.
   "As long as they don't breathe a sigh of relief when they break a connection with an organization tainted with drugs," remarked a voice behind him.
   "Afternoon, Walter." Astor signalled to the waiter. "Had a situation report from Nick?"
   "Not yet. He's probably still in the pub with the meeja pack. But he did mention he'd be softening them up before he lets them have access to you this afternoon as a special favour."
   "What, to the bad cop?" laughed Caroline.
   "It's called an in-depth PR strategy," Astor told her. "Heads up for lunch, chaps. Jim and Reg have just arrived."

The luncheon party made less progress than Pete Astor had wanted but a lot more than his associates had expected. Jim Welch and Reg Aspen were interested in selling, subject to guarantees about their future roles with Melody Studios, and agreement turned out to be just a matter of looking for mutually acceptable terms. Walter and Rachel went back to the recording studio to continue their discussions, leaving Pete Astor to savour the last of his brandy while Caroline paid the bill with her corporate credit card.
   Astor was less than surprised when a white-haired man, who was carrying a raincoat to half-conceal a cassette recorder, planted himself at the table uninvited. He had the look of a burned-out executive.
   "Watch what you say, Caroline," warned Astor. "This is one of the reptiles of the local press."
   "Good afternoon, Mr. Drew," Caroline said politely. "You look just like the picture over your column."
   "They've done the post mortem on the kid who died last night," said Reg Drew. "Heart failure associated with a drug overdose. There are reports he was popping pills during the concert last night. Any comment on that?"
   "You've got signed statements from witnesses who saw him popping pills?" smiled Astor. "And a laboratory report on what he was popping saying it was dangerous drugs not Smarties?"
   "So you deny he was taking drugs in your theatre?"
   "So you haven't got any proof he was?"
   "So what is your company's policy on drugs?"
   "It's not our company's policy to facilitate law-breaking."
   "And that's as far as you go? You're not getting involved in the new anti-drugs initiative?"
   "We leave that to the people who get paid to do it. Our business is providing musical entertainment. It's what we're qualified to do and it's all we do. We're not like you journalists –experts on absolutely everything and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound."
   "So you won't be doing anything to stop the same thing happening again?"
   "Like what? Strip searches at the door? Blood chemistry tests before anyone gets in? Taking unprescribed drugs is dangerous." Astor shrugged. "But so are lots of other things. And it's often that element of danger that attracts people. I think it's up to whoever's being paid to do so to warn people about the risks and let them make their own minds up."
   "Just tell them say no, you mean?
   "No, a lot more than that. The kids they're trying to influence will go out and do something precisely because they're told not to do it. They're awkward sods. If you can get their attention, all you can do is tell them if they go ahead and pop that pill, they could end up dead or damaged like kids X, Y and Z."
   "Say ‘don't do it' backed up by reasons for not doing it?"
   "Right. And you'll still get them doing it after that. Just as people get killed climbing mountains, driving fast cars, skiing off-piste, or even skiing on-piste if someone else gets things wrong."
   "So what's your answer to the problem?"
   "I doubt there is one. Short of one hundred and one per cent control of everyone's life by a well-armed and totally ruthless police force. As long as you leave people an element of free choice, some will always reckon they can beat the odds. Look how many think they can beat odds of fourteen million to one against to win the lottery."
   "So we'd have to live in a police state to be drug-free?"
   "Probably. All you can do is tell people what you think the facts are and let them make their own minds up. And also let them know they're always going to be held responsible for their own actions."
   "And if they say ‘I was stoned out of my mind at the time'?"
   "If it was their choice to get stoned, on drugs or drink, they're responsible for everything they do while they're stoned."
   "That's not quite what I expected from someone with your arrest record regarding drugs, Mr. Astor."
   "Why, what did you expect? And are you including the fact that I've never actually been charged with a drugs offence, let alone convicted of one?"
   "Some people would say you've been very lucky."
   "Others, but obviously not yourself, might call it innocence rather than luck. But go on, what did you expect me to say?"
   "I don't know. We've all got the right to get stoned?"
   "Sure. As long as we do it in our own time with our own money and we don't inconvenience anyone else."
   "That sounds disappointingly main-stream."
   "Well, tougheroony. But I believe in staying the hell out of other people's space and everyone else staying the hell out of mine. Unless they're invited in. Were you, Mr. Drew?"
   "And it's okay to quote you on that?"
   "As long as you do so accurately. We can always compare your recording with the one Caroline's made. And assuming your editor thinks anything I've got to say is quotable. Anyway, we have to make a move now."
   Drew's mobile phone began to ring. "I'll see you at the Astoria, then," he remarked. "I might get a drink out of you over there."
   "You never know your luck." Astor stood up. Caroline led the way to the exit.
   "What recording?" she asked when they were out of earshot.
   "The one you would have made if we'd given you a recorder to keep track of what's really said to journalists. If this PR thing goes on for more than twenty minutes, remind me of the urgent appointment and drag me out of the room."
   "What appointment?" frowned Caroline.
   Astor shrugged. "I really should be doing some guitar practice this afternoon."

A couple of hours later, during a break for a cup of coffee, Pete Astor began to wonder what Kiron had meant about being satisfied with the Astoria's opening night. He could not help but recall Kiron's original explanation that the form of energy that the Others used was linked to extremes of human emotion, such as those generated in major battles. Was it possible, Astor asked himself, that the death had contributed to the success of the opening night from Kiron's point of view? And that more of the same meant more deaths?

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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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