You look at me,
I look at you,
And neither of us knows who we're really seeing.
Pete Astor's father had arranged for a hire car to be waiting for Wendy and his son when they reached Glasgow airport, which Wendy believed should have been called Paisley airport in view of its short distance from the city of its name. Clive Astor's instructions were: ‘It's about a quarter of an hour on the M8 and the A78 to Greenock, then head south to Nechlan. It should take you less than 5 minutes. I'll meet you at the pub. It's called The Oak Cask.'
Despite Wendy's pessimism about Pete Astor's map-reading skills, they drove straight to the pub, stopping only at traffic lights. Clive Astor jumped straight into the back of the car and took them about three-quarters of a mile on from the town. He passed a letter over to the driver's seat when they stopped on the edge of a village.
"From your dad, Wendy," he explained, "He seems to be in Belgium now, working for a Greek bloke. Something to do with the EU."
"I had a card from him saying he's going to be in Brussels for the next couple of months," said Wendy.
"I get the impression this Greek bloke is working some sort of perfectly legal fiddle," said Clive. "A research project in inverted commas with international helpers like JC."
"Oh, well, if the EU is chucking the taxpayers' cash around, they might as well chuck it at Wezzer's dad," remarked Pete.
"No address," said Wendy.
"Everyone's probably staying on the move so they can't pin them down too closely," laughed Clive. "That's JC's usual working method. Anyway, you can start appreciating anytime now."
His companions looked blankly about them.
"It's not ...?" Pete said eventually.
"God! He's bought that castle!" Wendy suddenly realized that there was nothing else available for them to be admiring.
The square tower was fifty feet high and roofed with dark blue tarpaulins. As Wendy and Astor watched, a flat-bed truck drove up and began to off-load panels of plaster board. When they looked up, they could see figures moving behind a non-authentic picture window at the top-floor level.
"Bought the place for a song," said Clive Astor. "Eight grand. The council were falling over themselves to get rid of it to save the cost of demolition before the Scottish heritage mob could slap a preservation order on it and force them to do it up."
"So you're going to live here?" said Pete.
"The buying price also includes a sort of Scottish lordship of the manor," said his father. "I'm now officially the Laird of Nechlan."
"Even though you're a Sassenach?" scoffed Pete.
"Actually, we do have a few drops of Scottish blood on my father's side. And anyone creating jobs can call himself anything he wants."
"Pragmatic lot, the Scots," remarked Wendy. "Is that your own private lake over there?"
"No, that's Nechlan reservoir. Great for water-skiing masochists. Fall in, and you freeze your nuts off in two seconds flat. Some fishing rights do come with the title where my land borders the reservoir."
"So is this you finally settling down?" said Pete.
"I've always had a secret ambition to retire to somewhere like this and catch up on my reading," his father admitted. "I always thought it totally unrealistic, given my way of living. You know, hand to mouth, earning just enough to keep myself and my dependents going but doing what I wanted to do. But who can count on his lad winning the lottery and turning up with two million quid in a briefcase?"
"So where are you staying? Not roughing it on the building site?"
"Not yet. Not till they block up a few more holes in the walls and do something permanent about the roof. I'm staying at the pub in Nechlan. Me, Erica and couple of tea-chests full of the books I've always wanted to read, given the chance. We've had a rare old time going through second-hand bookshops in the last few months."
"But you found time to buy this, obviously."
"Picked it up at the end of August. There was no need to waste money on a surveyor – the place was a wreck. Just four walls in bad repair with a lot of junk inside. No roof, no nothing. I found out the council had acquired it as payment for a bad debt. And before that, some lucky estate agent had the place on his books for three years. The last owner had been hoping some rich Yank or Jap would buy it and do it up. But he never managed to find one. The bloke on the council even knocked a couple grand off the price for a quick sale."
"Quick, before you could changed your mind?" laughed Pete.
"Something like that," laughed Clive. "So I've had gangs of workmen busy on it for about a month now. They've got the walls as solid as a rock and a roof on it under that tarpaulin. It's a flat roof with battlements at the top and we're just letting the sealing compounds cure completely before we expose it all to the elements."
"Sounds dead technical," remarked Wendy.
"It's all moisture-curing silicone and epoxy mixtures these days. Not a dab of pitch in the right place. The internal floors and the windows are done. We've also got the electricity connected, so we've got some big space heaters going to dry out the damp of ages. The aim is to get the place habitable by Christmas. Then, next year, I'm planning to put some solar heating panels on the roof and link everything up to one of these big energy reservoirs. Get everywhere well insulated and put heat-exchangers on the ventilation system so it's an energy-efficient system."
"Sounds great," said Wendy. "I hope you're planning to invite us back when it's finished."
"So what do you reckon?" Clive Astor asked his son.
"I'm glad to see you investing your windfall in the local economy," laughed Pete. "Does Mum know you've got this place?"
"I'm thinking of getting some postcards made when it's all been done up. To look like part of a series on historical Scottish Castles. Creuch Lodge, home of Mr. Clive Astor ..."
"That's what it's called? Something Lodge?"
"It was originally a hunting lodge, as far as I can tell. It's only about a hundred and seventy years old."
"Not something built in the thirteenth or fourteenth century to keep rebellious Scots in order, then?"
"Oh, no. A lot more recent than that. Well, are we going to sit here all day? Or do you want the grand tour."
"Oh, yeah, we're definitely in there for a look," said Pete.
Pete Astor and Wendy spent an enjoyable day looking over the new laird's estate and spent the night at the pub as honoured guests. A rich Englishman throwing a lot of money at local builders was good news for Nechlan and any new customer for the local shops and the pubs was very welcome. Clive Astor and his companion Erica also seemed to have been busy exploring the possibility of getting hold of development grants for setting up local ventures associated with the ‘castle'.
The travellers arrived home in Warleigh on a dark evening. Caroline turned up at their back door minutes later. Astor was busy accusing her of black magic when Wendy pointed out that the backs of their houses faced each other and Caroline had seen the lights go on in theirs. Astor apologized with a stick of Nechlan rock from a batch that his father had commissioned from a firm in Blackpool.
"I've got these for you," Caroline explained when she could get a word in.
She passed Astor a square package wrapped in quite unexciting brown paper. He ripped it open at once.
"What's this, the bootlegs of Intoxicant?" said Wendy. "What do you need more of those for?"
"These aren't the originals," Astor told her. "These are some bootlegs of the bootlegs that I had made in Germany. It's basically a copy of what's on the Italian bootleg with a bit of tweaking to even out the sound balance where they got it wrong. I don't see why a bunch of bloody Eyeties should be making money out of us."
"So they're legal bootlegs?" Wendy frowned at him. "Doesn't that take all the thrill out of buying them?"
"Only if you tell people they're legal."
"And it's got a different title. Intoxicant on the Peri-Ultimate Wave," Wendy realized.
"So where's this place Nechlan?" Caroline gave the word an English pronunciation with a 'ch' as in 'cheese' rather than 'loch'.
"In Scotland, where his Dad, the Laird, lives," said Wendy.
"I didn't know you were half Scottish," said Caroline.
"Came as quite a surprise to me," Astor admitted.
"So if your father's a laird, what does that make your mother?" Caroline added. "A lairdess?"
"She's still Mrs. Jason. They got themselves unmarried about a million years ago."
"There's a lot of it about," said Caroline. "Did you have to go and see your mother if you went to see your father?"
"Not with her in tow." Astor grinned at Wendy. "My Mum thinks she's a bad influence. She wouldn't have her in the house. Mind you, she'd approve of Caroline, wouldn't she, Wezzer? She's good looking, wholesome ..."
"Reliable," Wendy said pointedly.
"... intelligent, normal. In fact, if she saw us together, she'd start sending out the wedding invitations right away."
"Sounds like your mother's the sensible one in your family," laughed Caroline. "Oh, yes, and I've got to remind you that you have a rehearsal at the Astoria at three tomorrow afternoon for your gig on Friday."
"Is this you using your position of power to inflict yourself on an unwilling public, mate?" scoffed Wendy.
"You'd never guess her boyfriend blagged ten free tickets off me, would you?" said Astor. "Or aren't you going along as the coach driver for his night out?"
"I might," said Wendy, promising nothing. "Do we all get one of these?" She helped herself to a CD and headed for her annex to unpack.
Astor abandoned his travelling bag and took Caroline into the kitchen to make some coffee while he told her all about his father, the laird. He managed to be suitably vague about when his father had come into money and how much Clive Astor had got his hands on, presenting retirement to the castle as a long-term project that had found its time.
Satisfying Caroline's curiosity took half an hour. Astor was just about to reclaim his travelling bag and unpack when the phone began to ring.
"It's Reg from Melody," said the half-familiar voice of the recording studio's chief engineer. "I've just heard some news."
"Like what?" invited Astor.
"You know that Italian outfit that bootlegged you? I've just had an email from a contact over there. Some bugger's only torched their CD plant! It's a total write-off."
"That's a bit bloody extreme!" laughed Astor. "It wasn't me, if that's what you're thinking."
"My contact reckons the police think it might be a Mafia arson job. Anyway, the owner's under investigation for suspected insurance fraud and racketeering, and maybe even money laundering. And they're also investigating him for VAT evasion, which is almost unheard of in Italy, where everyone's at it."
"Do they pay VAT in Italy? I thought it was like income tax. You just bung the right person and you don't have to pay any."
"Pity it's not like that over here," laughed Reg. "Anyway, I was just thinking, it's a bloody good job we got our bootlegged bootlegs made in Germany, not at here."
"Right," laughed Astor. "It'll be interesting to hear if you get any frantic emails from Germany when our version hits the streets."
Two days later, sitting in his dentist's waiting room as the time ticked on toward his check-up, an idea crystallized in Pete Astor's mind as he was flicking through an old magazine. He had stopped at a feature on an actor, who had become another brief 'overnight sensation' after toiling away in the drama business for years and years.
Henry Hall-Carter, he gathered from the first few paragraphs, was forty-six, a little older than Pete Astor, and his history was somewhat similar. He had endured plenty of ups and downs, he had never been a huge star but he had been in a couple of 'good' television series with a long interval between them to allow the public's memory to grow hazy about the previous character and, as he admitted to the interviewer, he was always glad to be working.
H.H., as he was universally known, liked doing television work but he really preferred the theatre, even though there is a lot less money in it. He had classic good looks and wavy blond hair, and he had played juvenile parts until well into his thirties. Now, he was turning more to character parts and having to re-educate directors to take account of his changed circumstances.
The article set Astor thinking. At the Astoria the previous day, Walter had been dropping more hints about the cost of keeping Drachensblut going. As a good financial advisor, he felt obliged to remind Astor that Kiron Sounds was spending quite a lot on the German band and its hangers-on and not getting too much return on the investment.
Astor had told Walter that he had cleared everything with the Big Guy, who thought that what the band was doing was okay. As the visible link to the top of the Kiron Organization, it was simpler to pretend that there was someone to whom he reported rather than admit that he was fabulously wealthy himself or that everything he did was designed to please some extra-dimensional entity, possibly non-existent, whom Pete Astor could contact only when he was out of his skull on an exotic pharmaceutical.
What he needed, Astor realized, was a pliable front man for his organization. Someone like Henry Hall-Carter, in fact. A nurse in a white uniform scattered his thoughts and ushered him into the dentist's lair. Five minutes of poking and probing later, Astor was allowed to surrender the NHS inspection fee and escape with the knowledge that his teeth and fillings were in good order.
When he got home, he decided to try to call Tom Maddox. If the private investigator was in his office, he would get him to find out where H.H. was working. If not, Astor would think his idea over some more. After that, he had to get ready for when Caroline arrived to take him to the Astoria. It was another occasional working day for his band the Dead Junkies.
Wendy sat down and started watching him as Astor was polishing his shoes while waiting for Caroline to arrive.
"Sad, isn't it?" remarked Astor. "Me a multi-millionaire and still polishing me own bloody boots."
"Yeah, isn't it?" said Wendy.
"Something and nothing. It's just that Jeff's being a bit moody about me going to Scotland with you and staying overnight in the same pub, even if we were in separate rooms."
"If that's his attitude, it's a pity we didn't share a double bed. If you're going to get disapproved to death, it might as well be for something you've actually done."
"What's even worse is I had a malicious phone call this morning. Some helpful person rang me to tell me Jeff's still seeing his wife."
"Don't you mean ex-wife?" frowned Astor.
"My helpful friend wanted to tell me they're separated, not actually divorced."
"And is that seeing as in visiting or seeing as in shagging?"
"And is that a problem for you?"
"Not particularly. But it might be for him."
"And he has the cheek to get all moody about you going to Scotland with me to see my dad's castle? When he was probably spending the night with his missus?"
"Yeah, well, men are like that. One set of rules for them and another set for the rest of us."
"You cynical sod!" laughed Astor.
"And he practically accused me of sleeping with you."
"Bet you're sorry you didn't now."
"Almost," said Wendy with a quiet smile.
"So what you're saying is while you were in Scotland not shagging me, he was at it with his almost-ex-wife? And he's the one feeling betrayed? If he calls that logical, he's weird enough to join our club. So what about this getting married business? Is that still on?"
"Things have gone a bit quiet on that front."
"Yeah, well, I could never see you as the marrying kind, to be honest. Do you want to set a private detective on him? I know a good one."
"Have you told him about your two million quid?"
"Not as such."
"Sounds like you don't trust him."
"Who'd trust a man? They're fundamentally devious."
"You mean you don't trust me?
"What, trust a weirdo like you? No way, José!"
"So what are you going to do about it? Confront him? Get him beaten to a pulp up by a couple of big blokes? Get his not-quite ex-wife beaten up?"
"I don't know yet."
"What about making him jealous? Or even more jealous?"
"Is that you volunteering your services?" Wendy asked with one of her sceptical smiles.
"Only if you can't find anyone better."
"Hubris, the ancient Greeks called it. I should have known it was too good to last."
"Rubbish! Hubris is the Gods grotting on you from a great height when you get above yourself. It's not exactly getting above yourself to start thinking about becoming boringly conventional. Weird, maybe. But for a weirdo like you to think about getting married, that's so bloody weird, it's almost normal. And being normal rates as weird behaviour for someone as weird as you."
Wendy frowned at Astor. "Are you trying to cheer me up? Or baffle me totally?"
"Something like that," nodded Astor. "So what are we doing now? Carrying on as if nothing's happened? Cutting him out of our social calendar? I must say, he knows a lot of useful people. It would be a pity to give him the Order of the Spanish Archer just because he thinks marrying his wife wasn't a big mistake, after all."
"I don't think his wife would be thrilled about coming to a dinner party here if they becoming a couple again."
"So the vote is that he gets the bullet if he dumps you? Because your feelings are more important than his usefulness to Kiron Sounds?"
"And because I'm a weak, emotional woman?"
"Well, I could say you're an old, in the non-ageist sense, and highly valued friend. In an extremely valuist sense."
"You know you're talking bollocks, don't you, Pete?"
"You end up doing that every time you try to be politically correct. Hey, maybe it'll all work out for you. Maybe his almost-ex-wife won't want him back when she's faced with that awful reality."
"And that's supposed to be a recommendation?" scoffed Wendy. "Are you going out?"
"Yeah, we've got, like, this gig, you know?" Astor told her in mock brain-dead rock star style.
"I think I'll come with you. I could do with a good laugh."
"Gee, thanks!' scoffed Astor.
The weekend seemed to start on Friday afternoon and continue until well into Monday. Astor and his band played three gigs on successive nights, the first at the Astoria and the next two at venues of similar size in neighbouring towns. Somehow, Sunday night's gig developed into a party that went on and on and on.
Waking at the crack of noon on Tuesday, Astor opened his eyes cautiously to find that there was daylight in the bedroom and his hangover was nothing terribly fierce. He got out of bed slowly in case the room suddenly decided to slip from beneath his feet. The door opened unexpectedly as he approached the bathroom. Astor found himself face to face with Ronny Bone, his band's drummer.
"Yo, Pete, how's it going?" remarked Ronny.
"I think I'm going to live," Astor told him. "How about you?"
"Yeah, it's looking quite likely." Ronny put on a frown. "Where the hell are we, anyway?"
"Looks like my place," said Astor.
"Any idea who that blonde in my room is?"
"You've got a blonde in your room?" Astor said indignantly. "You lucky bastard!"
"I'll take that as a no," laughed Ronny. "I could murder some orange juice and some coffee."
"O.J. in the fridge. And there's a machine in the kitchen that makes the coffee, if you want to work out what to do with it."
"I can always ask your mate Dave."
"Dave?" frowned Astor.
"The old guy doing the windows for you. I'm sure he said his name's David."
"Oh, right." Astor realized that his live-out housekeeper was on the job. "I'll catch up with you in a bit when I wake up."
A shower started the waking up process. Orange juice followed by coffee and toast completed it. Astor was just wondering what to do next when Caroline opened the back door. She had seen figures in the kitchen on her way down Astor's back garden.
"Ready to roll?" she asked with a bright smile.
"Are we supposed to be going somewhere?" frowned Astor.
"We're supposed to be going to Fareham this afternoon. 'To see this bloke', as you put it."
"Right," said Astor. "Which bloke?"
"You didn't say."
"All I know is Tom Maddox fixed it up for you," said Caroline.
"Oh, right, he'll know, then. What's his number? My memory's out to lunch at the moment."
"Obviously," laughed Caroline as she looked it up in her diary.
A quick call to his private investigator reminded Astor that he was going to see Henry Hall-Carter, the actor. Ronny Bone disappeared while Astor was on the phone. He returned with the news that the blonde in the spare room was still asleep and he had some session work to get to in a couple of hours' time. Astor left the unknown visitor in the charge of Kevin David, who was getting on with some serious shifting and dusting among the racks of books and records while keeping an eye open for books to borrow. He was a big reader.
"By the way, sir, I seem to have received a Christmas bonus with the latest payment from your company's accounts department," David added as Astor was on the point of leaving. "Most welcome - if it's not a mistake. Seeing I've only been working for you for about five minutes."
"Walter doesn't make mistakes," said Astor. "Or that's what he tells me. So you can spend it with a clear conscience. See you later, if you're still here."
"It came as quite a surprise when I got mine," remarked Caroline on the way out to the van. "Two hundred pounds! Tax paid. And in November, when you can actually plan ahead for Christmas."
"You got a Christmas bonus too?" said Astor. "No bugger gave me one."
"You've probably got some huge share option deal instead," said Caroline. "Being management."
"Oh, well, that cheers me up enormously," laughed Astor. "You know where we're going?"
"We get on the A3, head down to the coast and turn right onto the A27. I thought one of us ought to find that out. And I've even got a photocopy of a street map showing us where this theatre you're going to is."
"And you don't think it's weird, being that organized?"
"No, Pete, this is normal."
"Sounds weird to me," remarked Astor.
Dull weather had failed to persuade other motorists to stay at home, but Caroline made good time on their journey to the coast. Never having been to that part of the country before, she opted for a look around instead of staying with Astor, which suited his purposes.
The doorman at the theatre's artistes' entrance eyed Pete Astor suspiciously when he announced himself, but he had been warned that Henry Hall-Carter was expecting a visitor. Astor found soon himself in a small room with two names on the door. The other occupant of the dressing room was out, which gave the actor and his visitor a little more room to manoeuvre.
"Excuse the mess," said Hall-Carter. "But I suppose you're used to it, being in the business yourself."
"Except there's usually two or three more people and a load of musical instruments competing for space," remarked Astor. "What a life, eh? You have to enjoy it to keep doing it."
"My agent keeps telling me to get a character part in a TV soap as a sort of pension fund."
"But you're not keen?"
"I prefer to have an audience I can see and work to."
"A bit like my boss, really."
"Would you mind explaining again what your agent chap said you want?" Hall-Carter held an almost empty bottle of supermarket whisky over a drinking glass.
"Cheers," said Astor, taking a bottle from his duffle bag, "but try some of this."
"Good God! The old champagne brandy!" approved Hall-Carter. "I don't mind if I do."
"Colonel Chin-Strap, or whatever he was called, out of ITMA?" guessed Astor.
"Heard on repeats on the steam wireless, of course," Hall-Carter assured him as he stripped foil from the bottle and drew the cork.
"Didn't we all? Okay, we need an experienced actor of about your age to play the fabulously rich boss of a large, successful company ..."
"Kiron Sounds being the company?"
"Right. Our actual boss-guy has decided there's more to life than being a tycoon, like enjoying himself, and he's decided to give up the boredom of business life and bossing people around in favour of something more enjoyable."
"Sounds like the feller should be certified," drawled Hall-Carter. "God! This is good stuff," he added after tasting the brandy again.
"It's what the big boss drinks," Astor told him, being completely truthful. "And when you're as rich as him, you're a lovable eccentric, not crazy. So this job pays two-fifty a week as a retainer, which is paid whether we need you or not. All the job involves is making yourself available for the occasional brief meeting wherever the occasion calls for it. In some handy hotel or restaurant depending on the time of day. In exceptional circumstances, if it doesn't interfere with your theatre work, you may be asked to go somewhere that involves serious travelling. First class travel all the way, of course."
"Of course," murmured Hall-Carter.
"You'll be briefed in advance on the decision that's required from you. And you can take as much time as you think fit, within reason, to come to that decision."
"I'll be a figurehead, in other words."
"Right. You just have to remember never to agree to do anything that falls outside your briefing. Always say you'll consider the matter with your advisors and your people will get back to whoever it is."
"For which your company will be paying me a thousand pounds a month, whether you need me to reach any decisions or not?"
"A bit more than that, actually. Some months have five weeks."
"There's got to be a catch somewhere."
"I can't think of one. So what do you reckon?"
"This is all entirely legal and above board?"
"Nothing dodgy in any way. It's just that the real boss doesn't want to be bothered but he recognizes that the business needs a visible figurehead. You even get a contract of employment." Astor produced it, "that specifies exactly what you're required to do and what you'll be paid. If we were doing something crooked, we'd hardly put it down on paper, would we? So are you up for it?"
"Would you like the signature in blood?" said Hall-Carter.
"Aren't you going to read the contract first?"
"If the deal is as good as you say, I shouldn't need to."
"Okay. Ordinary ball-point will do. Oh, yes; the contract involves a Draconian secrecy clause. Basically, if you spill the beans, the main company rips you into small pieces. But you do get a signing on fee."
"Show me the dotted line, dear boy. Does my agent have to hear about this?"
"Certainly not. Under the security clause."
"What a damn shame!"
Hall-Carter found a well-used Bic in the clutter on his dressing table. Astor showed him where to initial and sign both copies of the two-page contract.
"Welcome to the company," said Astor as he tucked one copy of the contract into an envelope for his own records.
"You mean I'm really working for you now?" said Hall-Carter.
"You started when you signed the contract."
"Funny, I don't feel suddenly rich. I don't suppose you could manage a small sub for an appropriate celebration?"
Astor produced an envelope from his inside pocket. "There's the signing-on fee of five thousand pounds. Which is in the contract for those who can be bothered to read it."
"Just as long as it doesn't say I've agreed to donate both my kidneys after the first month," laughed Hall-Carter.
"One last thing, we don't want you to suddenly start behaving like you've won the lottery. The part you're playing is that of an eccentric multi-millionaire, who's had his money for ages and who now reckons he has better things to do than be a tycoon, most of the time."
"So I can wear silk underwear under my ragged jeans? And hand-made shoes that I don't polish too often?"
"Something like that. You're the actor, so you'll know how to handle it. So do you want to count the cash and sign the receipt?"
"I'm not sure I can count that high," laughed Hall-Carter. "Not too much practice."
"Oh, well, do you best," said Astor. "All I need from you now is details of the bank account you want the retainers paid into. The usual deal is a month behind on the fifteenth of the month."
"Music to my ears, dear boy," laughed Hall-Carter. "I should have a chequebook somewhere with my account number on it. I've not dared use it for a while. Bank manager trouble."
"Know the feeling," laughed Astor. He took the opportunity to top up the glasses, feeling that the day had been very productive. He now had the means to run Kiron Sounds by remote control; power without the apparent responsibility.
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.