We all know truth is what people want to believe,
That truth exists to serve their needs,
And has no absolute purpose.
Nick's PR campaign had suffered one of the temporary reverses to which such campaigns are prone. Having attacked Christians kill-joys with great gusto, the tabloids were now starting to ask if Black Magic Rock was dangerous after all. Nick dismissed it as routine tabloid double-facedness in a phone call to Pete Astor.
Kiron Sounds had taken the broad attitude that as long as there are drugs around, then they will kill people – a sad fact which also applies to pharmaceuticals supplied legitimately by a doctor to someone who goes on to suffer an unexpected adverse reaction. The message from Nick was that the music itself was irrelevant and it contained no incentive either to take drugs or to kill oneself.
The music business in general resigned itself to an uncomfortable few days after the youth's death as the papers made veiled accusations and called for speedy legislation and a general tightening up of unspecified regulations. The death of Colin Fodser provided Jane and Peter Vance with further proof that they were dealing with a malign and dangerous influence.
They had agreed that a campaign of covert suppression was likely to be more successful than outfight confrontation. They would continue to support those who demonstrated against the glorification of black magic but they saw removing that type of music from record stores as a more telling weapon. They knew that the market-place can be a very effective weapon.
If silly teenagers and impressionable young adults were no longer able to buy such music, they would spend their money on something less harmful and the Black Magic Rock boom would collapse from lack of financial sustenance. Their long-term strategy involved laying siege to the enemy and starving it into submission.
Peter Vance withheld from his sister a vague feeling of déjà vu as they put their plans into action. He had been very surprised to learn that Pete Astor was working for a company called Kiron Sounds as he had heard the name Kiron before in unusual circumstances.
Uncle Hobbert had been rather drunk at the time, and trying to persuade himself that giving in to temptation and carousing with one of his female assistants didn't make him a bad person. He wanted to be convinced that he was only human and that his lapses could be condoned in view of the great amount of good that he did. What he had ended up telling his nephew was that he had proof positive that he was doing the Lord's work.
Peter, of course, knew better than to make fun of Uncle Hobbert's views to his face, but what he had heard next had set him wondering. Uncle Hobbert firmly believed that he was in touch with a heavenly messenger, who visited him during mass meetings of the faithful.
"He don't come every time," Uncle Hobbert had told him. "Hell, he don't come but once a month, if that often. But if the intensity of the congregation reaches the right pitch, the spirit of the Lord comes down upon me and I find myself transported, carried away to a distant place. A vast, empty place, but not a bad place, not a lonely, emptiness. A place filled with the love of the Lord. And that's where I meet him, an angel of the Lord."
"What, with a halo and wings and all?" Peter had asked sceptically.
"Maybe I should call him an agent of the Lord," his uncle had corrected himself. "I feel him as a presence with the kindest voice you ever heard. I think it must be a place out of time, for I can speak with the angel for what feels like an age, but when my senses return to the meeting, but an instant of time has passed."
"So what does this angel or agent tell you?" Peter had asked, keeping his amusement well under control.
"Kiron tells me I have the Lord's blessing for my work, and as long as I keep the faith, the Lord's bounty will flow. Not in so many words, of course. I don't recall his exact words afterwards. But Kiron gives me an absolute conviction that what I'm doing for the Lord is exactly right. Everything, every part of my life, is justified by what I achieve at the gatherings. The light I bring to the world and the benefits to all who attend the gatherings."
Can't argue about the cash-flow, had been young and cynical Peter Vance's thought at that moment.
Still eager to convince his doubting nephew, Uncle Hobbert had dug some books out of his extensive library and pointed out references to a heavenly messenger called Kiron. At the time, Peter Vance had dismissed his uncle's ramblings as transient drunken remorse.
When he had sobered up the next day, Uncle Hobbert had tried to interrogate Peter in a roundabout way, as if he suspected that he had said something indiscreet but he was hoping that he had not. Peter had assumed that the old man was going down with a galloping case of the DTs, and he had hinted that he himself had been a bit wasted too, and he had no clear memories of the previous evening. It was the polite thing to do for such a generous source of cash.
Now, perhaps six years later, Peter Vance found it quite ironical that some of the vast amount of money that his uncle had assembled, with the approval of an angel or agent called Kiron, was being spent on fighting a Black Magic Rock empire with the same name.
Pete Astor received a phone call from a man with a somewhat familiar name in the afternoon. He was sitting in his recording studio at home, working on Kiron's Music and starting to feel that he was getting somewhere. He wrote down the word piano as a bookmark for his thoughts before he lifted the receiver. Padraig M'Cracken sounded almost like an impostor. His style of speech owed more to the old-style BBC accent than to either Scotland or Ulster.
Astor realized that M'Cracken had cultivated his image of a thoroughly British academic on the lecture circuit in the United States and that he had turned himself into a close match to an American preconception. After confirming that Nigel Jordan had mentioned him, Astor invited M'Cracken to make his sales pitch.
"The great master plan," M'Cracken told him in a faintly self-mocking tone, "is to set up an archive quite close to London. Somewhere within easy travelling distance of the city as a focal point, but out in the suburbs where property prices are much more realistic."
"And what would this archive have it in exactly?" said Astor.
"It would be a repository for books and documents about what's popularly known as magic. A research centre where layers of pollution can be stripped away. Nigel mentioned you have Hallan's Registry."
"A copy. In the sense of a Victorian reprint, not the real thing."
"Not just any old reprint, though. A Rixborough reprint. What we want to do is some similar restoration work on ancient documents. It's like cleaning up an old painting, if you will, by removing the varnish that's become yellowed and opaque over the years, and reversing the misguided efforts of previous restorers and embellishers. Our aim is to let the original artist's vision shine through. Similar to the way the Italians cleaned up the paintings in the Sistine chapel."
"Despite some so-called experts saying they were meant to be hidden behind four hundred years' candle smoke?"
"Experts and general Luddites, yes."
"So what are you calling me about, if we can cut to the heart of the matter?" prompted Astor.
"It must be obvious I'm looking for sponsorship." M'Cracken was totally unapologetic about asking for cash. "And I hear Kiron Sounds is backing somewhat off-centre but worthy projects. Such as the efforts of the Real Art campaign. I've been hearing some interesting things about what Dominik Wekling is doing these days."
Astor smiled to himself, reflecting that the Alternative Arts Mafia had lines of communication as effective of those of the official wing. "So you think the profits from Black Magic Rock should be put into the study of the real thing?"
"It's as good a thing to spend the money on as anything else. I suppose it all depends how interested you are in the subject or whether it's just a money-making fad." M'Cracken's tone was level, neither accusing nor mocking.
"I take it you have an interest beyond making a living out of it?" Astor kept his tone equally neutral.
"I tend to think I'm rather like you in that respect. I'm doing something that I find interesting and rewarding rather than just working for someone else in order to survive."
"So what are you after from KS? A pound-for-pound match of whatever cash you're going to put into the archive?"
"That would be a very generous offer," laughed M'Cracken.
Making a snap judgement, Astor realized that it could be quite useful to have an academic like Padraig M'Cracken on the team. He could say with authority that Black Magic Rock is harmless because it is based on a creation of the Catholic Church that exists only for propaganda purposes, that the Church itself invented the Devil and black magic as a means of extracting power and money, and they have no connection with the real world. M'Cracken could be used to mock journalists and tell them that they were just scare-mongering. He had a lot of useful trouble-making potential.
"Well, what can I say?" Astor said. "The project sounds quite interesting but I'd like to hear more about it."
"When do you have some free time? I'm staying with a friend in Raynes Park at the moment, so I'm quite close. The weekend?"
"We've got a big do at the Astoria on Saturday night, but I don't have anything planned for Sunday. Better make it well into the afternoon. I shouldn't think I'll be up much before lunchtime."
"Hard life you lead in the music business," laughed M'Cracken.
"We tend to be working when most people aren't," said Astor. "You know where to find me?"
"Nigel gave me directions. Shall we say about three?"
"See you then." Astor mentally waved goodbye to another wad of cash.
Seeing piano on his notepad re-connected him to his line of thought. The bits of Under Alien Skies left out of From Another World, and the new items of Kiron's Music, seemed to fit logically into a sequence of five pieces, but they had sounded wrong when Astor had tried them on his guitar. Re-working them as a composition for five pianos seemed a much better idea.
The units of the composition seemed to start from a common point, diverge and have irregular coincidences before reaching a common focus, after which the pianos dropped out one by one. In fact, Astor realized, he could have one piano starting the work and the others joining in and dropping out, leaving the number one piano playing solo at the end. Which raised the interesting question of whether that person should be paid more than the others.
Someone rang the doorbell almost as soon as he had finished making notes about the new direction. Astor found a dapper man in a blue overall standing in his porch. His black shoes, like Pete Astor's were highly polished, his grey hair was cut short, his round face had a scrubbed and freshly shaven appearance and he exuded an air of competence. There were no actual vertical creases in the trousers of his overall but the garment looked as if it had been ironed after a recent trip to the washing machine.
"Good afternoon, sir," he said with a respectful smile. "I understand you're looking for a Mister or Missus Mopp? I'm here to apply for the position. Miss Xanadu contacted me. The name's Kevin David."
"Oh, right. Come in. I wish she'd contacted me."
"If it's an inconvenient time, sir ...?"
"No, come in." Astor showed the visitor into the front room. "Have a seat, Mr. ... David?"
"I think it's probably French, sir. Used to be pronounced Da-víd, like the painter."
"The guy who painted Napoleon on his horse looking like Jimmy White, the snooker player?"
"Indeed, sir. These are very spacious houses, aren't they? I have a view of your road from the back. I live next door to Miss Richmore."
"Who?" said Astor blankly.
"I thought she worked for you, sir. Blonde lady, fortyish, very attractive, called Caroline..."
"Caroline? I thought she was Mrs. Palmer?"
"She's decided to go back to her maiden name, she was telling me the other day."
"That should cause a nice bit of confusion. So, anyway, what qualifies you to be a Mr. Mopp?"
"Ex-army, sir, ex-batman to three general officers. Expert domestic and driver. Expert in clearing up after gentlemen, if I may make so bold, sir. Abundant experience of showing tact and diplomacy and of making myself invisible. Hard-working, loyal, thorough. Not a clock-watcher. Available at weekends and out of office hours, as it were. And I have some excellent references to offer, if I say so myself."
"So you're doing this to top up an army pension?"
"Such as it is, sir. To be honest, they got rid of me as part of this campaign to have an army on the cheap. They chucked out all the expensive types who knew what they were doing and replaced them with kids recruited on the cheap. Except the kids of today have to be shown how to do the simplest things, like polishing a pair of boots. Most of them don't even know what a tin of polish looks like. Unlike people like us, they all wear these trainers. Sorry, sir, bit of a hobby-horse with me. And I don't suppose you want to hear my speech on what's wrong with today's army," David added with an apologetic smile.
"Not all of it, no," grinned Astor. "So you're working for this agency Wendy mentioned? The one with the leaflets?"
"As you can imagine, sir, getting something more, well, demanding, at my age is a real problem."
"Right. You're well over the hill at twenty-six, these days."
"And I've also been doing the odd bit of night taxi work. Which involves an element of domestic service when one has to clean up after a drunk. For which one gets paid nothing extra."
"Talking about that, did Wendy talk money with you?"
"I meant to have a word with you about that, sir. You do know you're offering quite a bit more than the going rate?"
"Is that a problem for you?"
"Not if it's not a problem for you, sir," said David quickly.
"Did Wendy tell you we're looking for more than a Mr. Mopp?"
"She mentioned gardening, general maintenance work and so on. I quite enjoy gardening, as it happens, and I'm very handy with a paintbrush and a roll of wallpaper. And I know the value of proper preparation beforehand."
"Okay, we'll check out your references and get back to you. Probably early next week as we have a busy time over the weekend. But you seem to be just what we're looking for. The archetypal handy man, if you live just at the back of us."
"Very good, sir. Thank you, sir."
Kevin David allowed himself to be shown off the premises. Astor returned to his recording studio and switched on his tape recorder. If he was at a loose end, he could carry on with the eternal chore of logging musical ideas on tape –making notes about the content, style and quality of riffs and sketches dashed off in creative moments.
His neighbour with an anglicized French name seemed a suitable candidate for the role of live-out housekeeper. And a man in his financial position could afford to make the odd mistake, Astor reminded himself. Even if Mr. Mopp cleared the place out and disappeared with a loaded pantechnicon, he could afford to replace just about everything. And if he kept his collection of tapes and the backups for his computer's files in the fire-proof safes, the only truly irreplaceable items ought to be secure. Not that he expected the ex-batman to be a total crook.
Kevin David looked respectable enough to have perks but nothing outrageous. And Wendy would be providing a second opinion on him. And Caroline could supply a third opinion of her neighbour. Astor resumed his riff-logging with a sense of accomplishment.
The Astoria's first Saturday night had been billed as a special occasion that would be on a par with the opening night just three days earlier. Very reasonable ticket prices had ensured a full house. Nick had mentioned to the news media that the local drug squad has asked for access to the building and that the Astoria's security staff has been told to co-operate fully with all police requests.
The company's line was that it was putting on a music show and doing everything reasonable, and a bit more, to protect feckless people from themselves. And short of body-searching everyone and doing blood-tests for drugs at the door, there was not much more that the Kiron Organization could do to promote a safe evening.
Some of the theatre's security staff were visible. Most were mingling with the crowd like detectives working under cover. James Faucumberg and the chief inspector in charge of the drug squad had agreed that presenting too high a security profile would encourage the more daring kids to drug-taking excesses and furtive consumption of harmless substances to provoke actions that might become the subject of an official complaint. The mood in security circles was one of watchfulness and preparation for swift but discreet action.
Inevitable, there had been some agitation to have the Astoria closed down as a stain on Croydon's character. Nick had been expecting local killjoys to latch on to a source of controversy to get themselves noticed. The Astoria's PR staff was on full alert for local politicians trying to gain advantage from saying the place should be shut down.
Nick had spotted the likely candidates and he was ready to highlight favourable comments made when they had been enjoying the theatre's hospitality. His first object was to try to embarrass the wreckers into keeping their gobs shut. Plan B was to make them look ridiculous and humiliate them with evidence of the political crime of performing a U-turn. Pete Astor saw no reason not to make enemies of such fair-weather friends. He preferred to know who was on his side and could be trusted, and who was just hanging around for the free drinks.
Swanning around a theatre on a concert night when he was not expected to perform was still a somewhat novel experience for Pete Astor, but one that he was learning to enjoy. Having power while James Faucumberg shouldered the responsibility was quite a pleasant experience.
Caroline was still a little embarrassed about being paid while enjoying a good night out but she had acquired a pocket-size cassette recorder from the PR department and she was hovering around Astor like his keeper, ready to make an independent record of anything that he said to the visiting journalists.
Most of the customers had come to enjoy themselves, some having travelled quite long distances. The headliners were Endymion, a Sheffield-based BMR band with a massive following. They had been forced to cancel part of an earlier tour after their vocalist had contracted a throat infection.
Their gig at the Astoria was one of three make-up gigs for the London area. It represented a happy coincidence of interests, providing the theatre with a top band and giving the band an excellent venue in which to make contact again with disappointed fans.
James had brought in two up-and-coming BMR bands to support them, following the initial policy of offering lots of music and a longer than usual night out. Astor exchanged cautious greetings with a drug squad officer in the security control room. It was clear that the cop saw him as a natural enemy and a standard-bearer of the drug culture.
Chief Inspector Hobb seemed unable to appreciate that Astor was as keen as anyone to stamp out conspicuous public consumption of controlled substances if it prevented the Astoria from fulfilling its primary function.
The theatre was there only as an environment in which excited humans could generate energy for Kiron and his associates. It was not supposed to be a rallying point for members of a subversive counter-culture. But Astor knew that scalp-hunting coppers, were unlikely to be put off by fine words from a PR agent in their relentless hunt for personal publicity and career advancement.
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.