We look for signs of balance,
A reassurance that it will all even out.
But looking, and finding, and knowing can have no end.

Nothing much had happened in the world the day before, so the news media were grateful for a further episode of an old story. They all assumed that they were on familiar ground and that a second death in the vicinity of the theatre had to be drugs-related, even though there had been no post-mortem examination and the young man's friends were certain that he had consumed nothing more lethal than a takeaway meal and two cans of lager before the concert.
   Knowing the drill, Nick talked to people who contacted him and refrained from sending out any press releases. He stone-walled on any supplementary questions about progress on the compensation case brought by the parents of the youngster who had dropped dead in front of the Astoria, and what was happening about the complaints arising from the search of Pete Astor's home for drugs.
   The man himself was in the theatre's auditorium, watching a demonstration of a new laser light-show, when a detective sergeant from the local CID caught up with him in the early afternoon. A voice behind him told Pete Astor that he had company. He turned round in his seat and found himself looking at an unfamiliar face.
   "Detective Sergeant Flint." The man held up his warrant card, even though the laser reflections from shiny clear plastic made it quite unreadable.
   "Are you good news or bad news?" said Astor.
   "Not particularly either, sir," said Flint. "I just thought you might be interested in the results of the postmortem on the bloke that you and the young lady found last night."
   "What, so many different kinds of illegal pharmaceuticals, they couldn't count them all? But they were all clearly identifiable as having been sold here?"
   "Someone a little paranoid today, sir?" said Flint.
   "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean you lot aren't out to get me," Astor reminded him. "Even more so now I've actually dared to make a complaint about one of you."
   "Not necessarily. Mr. Farne isn't exactly the most popular copper in the world. He pulls too many strokes and drops too many subordinates in the shit for most people's liking."
   "You're not suggesting you're one of these most people, Sergeant?"
   "Let's just say I won't be first in line to nick you for something trivial as revenge if he does get clobbered over your complaint."
   "Well, you do surprise me. Is he getting worried?"
   "He reckons there's no way he's going to let anyone meet his alleged informant."
   "Otherwise known as his fictional informant?"
   "He reckons the man's in fear of his life and he won't meet anyone he doesn't know. So it's a bit of a Mexican stand-off with CIB at the moment. I think what he'd really like is a nil-nil draw with you."
   "The bastard can always dream."
   "What would make you really unpopular is a complaint against DC Woods over that ornament she broke."
   "Well, you obviously get so many complaints in, you can't keep track of them all," prodded Astor, "but I've only actually made the one. Breaking my mother's Christmas present is being treated purely as an insurance matter, over which your chief constable is dragging his bloody feet, I might add."
   "That comes as a real surprise," said Flint.
   "Possibly because the insurance company's giving him grief because your mate Inspector Fiend got my name wrong on his dodgy warrant. So anyway, what about this post mortem?"
   "The deceased showed no signs of physical violence. No drugs or poisons detected. No evidence of any lethal medical condition at all."
   "I don't get it," frowned Astor.
   "He just told his mates he was feeling unwell and he was going for a breath of air. Then he died."
   "What, just like that?"
   "Apparently, people do actually die for no obvious reason."
   "Extremely weird, but I don't think anyone's going to sue you for compensation this time."
   "That's good news. So do I owe you a favour now? For your time and trouble in coming here?"
   "You could give me the phone number of that security person you were with last night."
   "Why not ask her yourself. She's sitting over there." Astor pointed to a small group in the block of seats on the far side of the auditorium. "I suppose we'll both have go to the inquest and waste a load of time there?"
   "I shouldn't think so. If there are no suspicious circumstances and death was due to natural causes, even if they were bloody rare, there won't be an inquest. Perhaps I should tell the young lady that."
   "Yeah, perhaps you should," nodded Astor.
   He turned back toward the stage as the detective moved along the row of seats. The laser show programme ran for about another thirty seconds, then the lights came on. Astor conveyed his approval to the stage with exaggerated nods, then he took out his mobile to pass on the latest news to Nick. Across the auditorium, he could see Toyola Graham and Sergeant Flint having an intimate conversation.
   Seeing a potential crisis averted gave Astor a sense of achievement and an urge to spend some money. He let James know that the cash was available for the new light show, subject to a satisfactory deal on installation and maintenance, then he went home. He had no gig for that night but he was planning to visit a club in nearby Frenhall as an A&R man. Wendy looked in on him as he was deciding what to wear -whether to be a flash git or an undercover-man.
   "Doing anything interesting tonight, Warlock?" she asked, propping herself up against a cupboard unit.
   "Going over to Frenhall to look at a couple of bands." Astor put his white suede jacket back into the wardrobe. It felt more like a black leather jacket and jeans night.
   "I'll go with you, then."
   "That's very decent of you." Astor put on a look of surprise.
   Wendy shrugged. "It's official. Jeff and I have split up. He's going back to his wife and kids."
   "Never expect anything from people who are only semi-divorced."
   "It's all right for you," Wendy summoned a small smile. "You never expect relationships to last more than a couple of weeks because that's about your attention span. Some of the rest of us still have illusions that some people can be really compatible in the long term. I really thought it was going to be like that with Jeff."
   "Except he found he's that sort of compatible with his almost-ex-wife? And I bet he misses the appalling kids for a reason no normal person could understand. Why don't you tell him about your two million quid? See how compatible that makes him feel?"
   "You think that's a basis for a relationship? One partner having two million quid?"
   "I'd marry you if I knew you had two million quid."
   "Good job you don't, then."
   "Why, wouldn't you marry me if you knew I had two million quid?"
   "What, intending to divorce you when I'd spent it all?" scoffed Wendy.
   "And she accuses moi of being a bloody cynic!" Astor said indignantly. "I hope you haven't given him any of your two million quid, by the way."
   "I didn't know how to without running the risk of compromising the relationship."
   "That's lucky. How much compromising do you reckon it's done to our relationship? Giving you that dosh?"
   "We don't have that sort of relationship. One money could make a difference to. We're friends."
   "Are we?"
   "Why else would you give two million quid to a woman you're not sleeping with now and you don't expect to be sleeping with in the next ten minutes?"
   "Temporary insanity?"
   "You may have a problem dealing with this, Warlock, but we're friends in the best sense of the word. I put up with your weirdities and you put up with mine. And no matter what you say about me to other people, I know you'll stand up for me if I ever need you to. Just as I'll come and visit you in prison if they ever find out Black Magic Rock is all a sinister conspiracy against society and shove you in gaol where you belong."
   "Great! That makes everything okay. Anyway, we ship out at eight-thirty. I'll meet you at the front door then. Be there or be somewhere else. And what's with this Warlock business?" Astor added as Wendy was leaving.
   "Oh, that," she laughed. "Carly and I were talking about what you should call your next album. We reckon you should rip off the Sultans Of Swing and call it The Warlocks Of Weird."
   "Hmm," nodded Astor. "I might just do that. Good name for a band, as well."

A night out with Pete Astor, Wendy felt, was a trip back into many layers of her past. They had enjoyed nights out together on three continents over the last twenty years, and they were now in a position to add Africa, Australia and even Antarctica to the list if they felt like making the effort. Another thing which she had not done for some time, Wendy realized as she rattled round the empty house on Saturday morning, was try out Pete's latest composing aid. Jeff had not approved of using anything stronger than good old cannabis sativa.
   Pete had mentioned that he had stocked up again since the abortive drug bust and he had told her enough about Charm for Wendy to feel quite comfortable about how much to take and its likely effects. As Pete had been doing, she sampled his Charm in his music room while playing the German bootleg of the Italian bootleg CD of Intoxicant. The effect of the drug left her feeling confused and enchanted.
   When he got home at around lunchtime, Astor hopefully followed the smell of fresh herb bread to the kitchen. Wendy had created a large batch of her special muffins.
   "Yo, wonder-chef, what's to eat?" said Astor.
   "I was thinking of a massive Spanish omelette," said Wendy.
   "With a bit of everything from the fridge? Sounds great."
   "You can chop some onions while I see what we've got."
   Astor washed his hands at the kitchen sink and looked out the chopping board and the Chinese cleaver that he enjoyed using.
   "I met someone called Kiron today," Wendy remarked casually.
   "I hope the bastard's not planning to sue us for pinching his name for the record company."
   "It was really weird. I tried out some of your Charm to see if it's as good as you're always going on about. And I had this strange sense of suddenly being in touch with far more than your normal senses tell you. It wasn't any sort of freakiness like you get from a bad acid trip. It felt like a natural extension of me going out and out and out for ever and ever. And that's when I met Kiron."
   "Good-looking bloke, is he?"
   "I don't know. He was sort of there, but as a presence. We could make contact with each other, but on a non-corporeal level. Anyway, he knows you."
   "Oh, yeah?"
   "He told me to tell you Thursday night was particularly good and he's getting some really huge spikes from Intoxicant, whatever that means."
   "You mean he didn't tell you?"
   "We sort of drifted out of contact at that point. But I can see why you use Charm for your lyrics. It gives you a really strange experience. And there's no way you could experience it any other way. I tell you what, my subconscious must be really screwed up if it's sending you messages my own conscious can't understand. And if I don't know what the hell it means, how can you?"
   "How indeed?"
   "But I suppose I must have done some clearing out of my subconscious. And that reference to Thursday night was obviously triggered by the way Mwrdn kept telling me she was having a really great time. And I was listening to the Intoxicant bootleg with you on it at the time."
   "Move over, Dr. Freud," remarked Astor as Wendy did her best to describe the rest of her Charm excursion.
   On one level, a pat on the back from Kiron because Thursday's gig had generated a particularly good energy spike was good news. On another level, finding out that Wendy could also contact Kiron came as a total mind-blowing shock. On yet a third level, Astor had no idea whether the energy surge was a response to one of bands or to someone in the audience choosing to croak on that night - but he had his dark suspicions.
   Astor was beginning to wonder whether there might not be more to the Others than Kiron was letting on. It could have been a coincidence but two deaths in the vicinity of BMR music in two months was a lot, and the death of an apparently healthy twenty-four-year-old was particularly unsettling. And yet, Astor realized, that question might be answered in a week or two.
   Kiron had reported nothing special happening on the night of Gorgon's first gig at the theatre. If he reported nothing from further gigs for Caradoc and Evul Eedie, Gorgon's current backing band, then the spike had to have come from the mysterious death, which would put Astor in something of a moral pickle. He decided to put an intractable problem out of his mind for the moment. Thinking was always easier for him on a full stomach.
   Despite everything that had happened, Astor was still not sure that Kiron was anything other than a product of drugged-up imagination. Wendy's contact with Kiron seemed to suggest that the entity was real - except that the name Kiron wasn't exactly unfamiliar to Wendy. And pushing the rejection of Kiron's reality further, Astor reminded himself that Wendy had spent the majority of her life looking for a source of spiritual enlightenment.
   She had convinced herself that most Western and Middle Eastern religions are based on sheer bunkum. Her trips to India and the Far East, and her time spent on the West Coast of the USA, had persuaded her that she was looking for something that just wasn't available from an external source.
   Each person, she now believed, has to find their own questions and then devise their own answers. Exotic drugs and sensory deprivation and distortion, she knew, can provide an illusion of contact with the infinite. Her recent Charm excursion had to have provide her with her best such illusion.
   "So is this what it's going to be like for the next few months?" Astor asked when Wendy had finished her story. "You out of your head on exotic substances most of the time? And a name we can't mention?"
   "No, I don't think so." Wendy smiled sweetly at him. "I think I'll just go out with you for a while, then I'll be sure to meet someone else. Like the rest of your recent conquests."
   "You mean it's my fate to give hope to women who don't have much going for them?"
   "Well, look at Bee. She was absolutely at the bottom of a black hole in Manchester when she met you. But look at her now - having the time of her life in California. Same with Caroline. I think earning a whole lot more than her ex-husband, being seen on telly and being envied by him and his new bimbo has done more for her than winning twenty-six million quid on the lottery did for you."
   "So what do you expect me to do for you, Wezzer?" Astor asked suspiciously. "Fix you up with a job that makes you feel important to restore your shattered morale? Tell you you've always been the most important woman in the world to me?"
   "Just be your own sweet self, Pete, to remind me there are still some good guys in the world."
   "Cue for me to cry all over these onions," scoffed Astor.
   "And keep doing that, not handling me with kid gloves. Just be the same to show me nothing's really changed."
   "That's the trouble with women," sighed Astor. "Always telling you what to do."
   "Did you see that letter, by the way? We had a second post."
   Astor gave the onions a few more swipes with the cleaver, then he washed his hands again. He went into the dining room to look at the area of mantlepiece that served as his personal in-tray.
   "Good news?" Wendy asked in response to his expression when he returned to the kitchen.
   "Depends whose side you're on. I've just had a demand from an agency that collects royalties wanting a payment for using The Portal on my new band's album."
   "Nice early Christmas present for you."
   "Cheeky bastards. I've got a good mind to set Rachel on them."
   "What makes them think they own your work?"
   "You know how many crooks there are in this business. Someone might have sold them a parcel of rights as part of some deal, or my ex-record company might have assumed they own anything Intox play. Or they might just be trying it on. If I set the police on them for false pretences, which would be a nice Christmas present for them!"
   "You know what we ought to do for Christmas?"
   "What?" said Astor cautiously.
   "Take a trip over to the States. I think we need to get away from here for a while."
   "We need?" frowned Astor.
   "You more than me. You're not used to being in one place for months on end. When was it you got sacked from Intoxicant?"
   "End of July."
   "So you've been here nearly five months, more or less all the time."
   "So you reckon we should check out some of your old buddies in the States while we have a look at Intox? Head out to the airport right now, you mean?"
   "After lunch," said Wendy.
   "Do they have Concorde flights on a Saturday afternoon?"
   "Probably not. But we can go on Monday."
   "Yeah, we can, can't we? Hey, and I tell you what, being out of the country is an excellent reason for not being available to go to my mother's for Christmas."
   "Someone too independent for the proper family routine?" scoffed Wendy.
   "Especially if she's got Alie, Gracie and Angie plus their husbands and thousands of horrible kids floating around."
   "You're not into the rich uncle scene, then?"
   "And I can take some CD-Rs over to the States." Astor ignored the question. "The stuff the guys at Melody knocked out from my taped archives. I can drop one on your pal The Third for his approval."
   "No one who remembers me as a weirdo is my pal, Pezzer."
   "You must have made quite an impression on him if he remembers you. And another thing, I'm going to put lunch on the disembarkation card as the purpose of my visit when we get to the States."
   "Yeah, I've always wanted to do it myself," laughed Wendy. "You hear other people are supposed to have done it, but you never know if it's a true story."
   "It will be if we both do it. I suppose I'd better give James a ring. Let him know he and Roddy will be on their own over Christmas. Safe from outside interference."
   "I wonder if he'll win the sweepstake?"
   "What sweepstake?"
   "Carly told me they've been laying bets on how soon you'd find an excuse to go over to see Intox on a company freebie."
   "Cheeky sods! I don't need a freebie to go to the States."
   "Yes, but they're not to know that. Not as long as you keep your multi-millionaire status a big secret. Are we really going or are you just winding me up, Warlock?"
   "Why don't you book the tickets and call my bluff?"
   "Why don't I book the tickets to save you the bother, you mean?"
   "Are we getting any lunch, or what?" Astor changed the subject.
   "We might get some decent weather in California, too." Wendy proved that she could ignore questions with the best of them. "Was that the door?"
   "Sounded more like the doorbell to me."
   "So why don't you go and answer it, wise guy?"
   Astor headed for the front door, expecting to meet someone from the Royal Mail with a bulky second delivery. Instead, he found himself looking at a familiar figure in a sheepskin coat and what looked like ex-RAF flying boots. "If you've come for lunch, there's nothing wrong with your timing," he remarked, stepping back to let Cath enter the house.
   "I came to find out about this tour you told me about," she told him. "My contract runs out at the end of this month."
   "Oh, right. There's a UK tour next month then Germany, Austria, Denmark in February and Italy in March."
   "Brilliant! Who do you have to screw to get on it?"
   "Well, you could start with me."
   "So where's your bedroom?"
   "It's the one upstairs with the queue outside it."
   "Okay if I take a pit stop first?"
   Astor shrugged. Cath started upstairs. Astor turned back toward the kitchen and found Wendy looking at him.
   "Do you want me to delay lunch? Or is it going to be a quickie?" she asked with a mocking smile.
   "You don't think I'm weird enough to want to shag Cath, do you?" scoffed Astor, keeping his voice down.
   "Why, what's wrong with her?" whispered Wendy. "She's female and breathing, isn't she?"
   "She has these peculiar notions about lasting relationships."
   "Oh, right, that sort of weird! So it's three for lunch? And I get a chance to find out the really embarrassing things that happened on your tour with Intox that you didn't mention?"
   "Inspector Wezzer of the Yard," sighed Astor.

Astor had a strong sense of pre-destiny when he took Cath on a quick trip round the Kiron Sounds empire in the afternoon, letting her drive him in a very military Jeep-clone. When he told people about the up-coming trip to the United States, it became clear very quickly that he was providing confirmation rather than news.
   When he visited the recording studio to ask Reg Aspen how many CD-Rs he had burned, he soon found himself talking to the winner of the Kiron Sounds sweepstake on when Pete would be claiming his freebie.
   On arriving home again, Astor retired to his music room and looked out the grimoire. His subconscious had been digging at a problem. If Kiron was withholding information on the true nature of their relationship, that was fair enough as a business tactic. Astor's memory had released a possible way to forcing Kiron's hand.
   After much skimming of pictures, he found a half-familiar seal in the middle third of the book and located a spell that was guaranteed to give humans total control over demons. All he had to do, he told himself, was make it work. As a rational, modern man, Astor realized that he had about as much chance of making some weird magician's spell work as he had of winning the national lottery twice in the same lifetime.

Caroline drove the travellers to Heathrow in her company van on Monday morning. By the time they reached Fresno, on Wednesday morning, Pete Astor was still not sure whether he preferred to rocket across the sky in a somewhat cramped Concorde or to crawl to his destination in the wide open spaces of a Jumbo jet.
   Wendy had not been to that particular part of California for at least a dozen years, but she still felt able to tell the cab driver the shortest route to their hotel. When he tried to argue with her, she switched to her most commanding Castilian Spanish, which she felt always scored points over someone using the inferior South American version found in Mexico.
   When they reached their suite of rooms, they decided to go straight to bed and sleep until they felt in tune with the world again. It was a tried and true method of coping with long-distance travel. Being filthy rich meant that they could live in their own, personal time zone and not worry too much how it fitted in with California.
   Intoxicant had been booked into somewhere less grand than the Cumberland Park Hotel. The band arrived in force for lunch when they learned that their cast-off was staying at a hotel with one and a half more stars than theirs. Tony Stock and Bee had work to do at the concert venue and intended to catch up with Astor there. R.V. Johnson had joined the musicians in case Astor needed to talk to a member of the on-the-road management team. Astor quickly put him right about the purpose of the visit - Pete was there as a spectator rather than a visiting record company executive.
   A team of waiters had delivered an impressive spread of snacks. Familiar with American ideas of how much a food an average person consumes at a sitting, Wendy had ordered for six people, knowing that they would be receiving eight guests. Their eighth-floor suite lay at a corner of the hotel's tower and offered two separate views of the tall buildings and straight lines of a modern American city.
   The musicians and their party were in good spirits because they were on a tour where the bands felt challenged when rivals attempted to blow them off the stage. They were working in the sort of atmosphere that Astor always hoped would surround his touring days but which was rarely achieved in practice. They had only one complaint, however - that their security consultant was much better known than themselves in the United States and he was getting more requests for autographs.
   "So is it true what I heard? You're spending more time making your own personal appearances than all the members of the bands put together?" Astor asked R.V.
   "My personal appearances are integrated into the publicity package for the tour," said former American football star.
   "Even so, d'you reckon you could try to be a bit less famous, just to be tactful?"
   "Working on it, boss," scoffed R.V.
   "Oh, yes," added Astor, "you'll be pleased to hear some bastard from the Home Office rang up about your work permit, R.V. James said he sounded totally pissed off when he told him you'll be over here for the next three months."
   "They don't like it if you look like staying," nodded R.V.
   "I suppose R.V. picked the wrong time of year to come back home quietly," said Wendy. "I bet everyone keeps asking you who's going to win the next Super Bowl."
   "Every minute of every day," sighed R.V. "When they're not asking who's going to win the battle of the bands. Every gig's like a Super Bowl when these guys go head to head."
   "A little bit of deadly rivalry helps to keep the punters entertained," said Syd Melchior. "And it stirs up the Christian Fundamentalists nicely. I reckon they buy tickets on the sly and come to the gigs in the hope we'll have a battle to the death on stage."
   "Getting much bother from the extremist fringe?" said Astor.
   "Nothing we can't handle," said Blood Axe lazily. "And we're a moving target. Stir them up in one place then off to the next."
   "Did you have much trouble getting Pete here?" Angela Melchior asked Wendy. "In view of his reputation for being quite hopeless at travelling on his own."
   "It has to be seen to be believed," laughed Wendy. "He'll bound up to a booking desk and say something like, 'Yeah, I'd like two tickets outta here.' And they just smile at him very politely and say, 'Certainly, sir. Where to?' And the next thing you know, he's going, 'Where hell are we off to, anyway, Wendy?' Or he just looks at them in amazement because it's not obvious to them where the famous Pete Astor wants to go next."
   "You're having a go at me, aren't you?" demanded Astor.
   "You reckon?" laughed Wendy.
   "How can she be having a go at you when it's all true?" said Angela.
   "And what I'd love to do," added Wendy, "is when he asks where the hell we're going, is just to have the courage to shrug and say, 'Beats the hell out of me, Pete.'"
   "Except you're too much of an organized bossy-boots not to know where we're going," said Astor.
   "You watch I don't abandon you in Death Valley." Wendy turned to Angela. "We're in southern California, so what do we pick as must-see places to visit? My suggestion was Sequoia National Park. He only wants to go to Death bloody Valley."
   "Mainly because there's a place called Scotty's Castle right at the northern end," said Astor. "I just want to find out how his castle stands up to my Dad's."
   "So it's true about your old man's castle, Pete?" said Dexie. "It's not just another silly story?"
   "He's even going to start up a local Highland games association," said Astor. "Even though the place is in the Lowlands and you have to go back about three or four generations before you find any Scottish blood in our family."
   "Fancy putting a kilt on and tossing a few cabers around, R.V?" laughed Syd.
   R.V. smoothed the lapel of a posh suit. "We guys in management don't do that physical stuff no more. We're all soft, and sweet and reasonable!" he added aggressively.
   "Hey, Pete, do they have any whisky-drinking contests?" said Blood Axe. "That's more our style."
   "So are we going to see you wearing a guitar on stage, Pete?" said Angela.
   "Yeah," laughed her husband. "We introduce the famous Pete Astor as our big-star guest, and the audience turn to each other and go, 'Who?'"
   "I bet he does," said Wendy. "He says he's here on holiday, but if you put a guitar in his hands, he won't be able to resist another fix of what you guys get when you're on stage in front of a big crowd."
   "Hello, I'm Pete," Astor said to a thirtyish blonde, who seemed to be with Ryan Calvin. "Don't you just hate it when people talk about you as if you're not there?"
   "Hi, I'm Corrie," she said with a smile. "Isn't it like Oscar Wilde says? To be talked about is bad, but not to be talked about is worse."
   Astor frowned. "If you're educated enough to have heard of Oscar Wilde, what are you doing with this lot?"
   "I'm a free-lance journalist, working on series on life on the road."
   "On the road with what? A circus or a bloody zoo?" laughed Astor. "So what do you think of it so far?"
   "Rubbish!" obliged the band in chorus.
   "I can see the attraction," said Corrie. "And I can see why a lot of guys just burn out."
   "All the ones who wear T-shirts with Live fast... ...die young on the front?" remarked Wendy.
   "And Get talked about... forever... on the back," scoffed Angela.
   "Actually," said Syd, "it used to say Make a beautiful corpse on the back but people kept assuming that was an invitation to necrophilia."
   "Is it true you used to be in a band called Dead Junkies, Pete?" said Corrie.
   "A legendary band called Dead Junkies," added Blood Axe.
   "I still am," said Astor. "We've got an album out and we've been playing gigs round where I live in the last few months."
   "I always thought people told stories about that band as a way of telling stories they couldn't about people they know," said Corrie.
   "They started doing that after we went into retirement the first time," said Astor. "Mainly because there was never any fixed line-up for the band. We roped in whoever was in town and handy. So anyone could have been in the band."
   "You know that encore number we do sometimes? Cryogenically Yours?" said Ryan. "That's one of Pete's Dead Junkies numbers."
   "In fact," remarked Carol-An with a smile at Blood Axe, "if you really want to write about Intoxicant, you should start with Pete because all the best stuff they do is his."
   "Dead right!" said Syd warmly. "Pete is the greatest musician the world has ever known. And I'm not just saying that because he runs our record company."
   "You mean, he runs your current record company, darling," laughed Angela.
   "Talking about record companies," said Syd, "did you know Ange is getting quite paranoid about yours, Pete? She's not used to the co-operation she gets when she asks for details of royalties and so on. She's just not used to getting straight answers to straight questions from record company bastards."
   "In that case, I'll get Walter to tell her to bugger off occasionally," Astor promised.
   "Cheers. So anyway, old timer," Syd added in a challenging tone, "are you up for a guest spot with us tonight?"
   "Just when this was shaping up to be the first Christmas I haven't worked for well over twenty years," Astor reflected.
   "Guess who's going to end up going to Sequoia National Park on her tod," remarked Wendy.
   "If you don't want me to, you can shop me for working without a green card to the immigration mob," said Astor.
   "And when you get deported, I still have to go on my own," Wendy told him in a you idiot tone.
   "Life's a bitch, isn't it?" laughed Astor. "Okay, one gig tonight, then we can do the full tourist bit. Including Death Valley. Bloody hell! Listen to us, making deals with each other. Anyone would think we were married!"
   "There's a bit of news calculated to ruin your poor mother's Christmas," laughed Wendy. "Can you imagine him married?"
   "Not really," said Angela. "He looks like the rest of them and he behaves like the rest of them most of the time, but I reckon he's a bit too weird for anyone to keep up with him for too long. Mind you, my Syd's no better. And I'm not just talking about their M-tracks. I think it comes home to me most when I see Pete writing music and Syd sitting, looking on and going 'Wow, man!' over the dots as the plot unfolds, as it were."
   "Weird and weirder," said Wendy. "But which is which?"
   "Weird and dangerous," added Ange. "I was really worried for a while about what Syd would do after the record company sacked Pete. In fact, the longer he did nothing, the more worried I got about what he was going to do when he did do something, if you see what I mean? Fortunately for all of us, that particular bomb never went off."
   "Weird and lazy, that's very like Pete," laughed Wendy.
   "Why does everyone think I'm weird?" complained Astor.
   "Because you are," said Wendy. "Things go on in your life that would blow the average person's mind on a daily basis."
   "Oh, well, if that's your definition of weird!" scoffed Astor, reflecting that even Wendy, the person closest to him for many years, didn't know the half of it.

In England, Jane Vance had arrived at her brother's hotel in London for a brief conference before she left for Christmas in Paris with friends. She had visited Peter mainly as a means of killing time before she had to leave for Heathrow rather than expecting to achieve anything too constructive. Peter was in a party mood and he was waiting for a female friend to show up and take him out on the town.
   They had more or less run out of things to say and Jane was watching the large-screen television almost as a reflex. A bout of commercials gave way to the local news. Jane began to take a closer interest when the lead item unfolded.
   "Did you see that?" she called to her brother. "This guy was sitting in his car at a traffic light and another guy on a motorbike just rode up and blew him away. They think it's drug-related. Can you believe that? In England?"
   "East L.A., or what?" remarked Peter from the bathroom, where he was deciding whether he needed another shave.
   "Maybe we could set up something like that for your namesake, Peter Astor."
   "What, blow him away at a traffic light?"
   "We could blow him away as he walks out his front door."
   "We personally?"
   "You could hire someone to do that sort of job for five hundred pounds over here."
   "What if he misses? What sort of guy are you going to get in this country at that price?"
   "Think positive for once," sighed Jane. "I mean, he doesn't have to hit Astor. Just getting shot at, with his record, is going to make people have serious negative thoughts about him. In fact, missing him is probably the best solution. It creates confusion. Is he or isn't he in the drug business? If he isn't, why do the police keep busting his home? And why did someone take a pop at him on his doorstep? Speculation thrives on a lack of firm evidence, Peter."
   "Could work," Peter Vance admitted.
   "And maybe we could sic a tame arsonist on this archive he's put money into. Seeing it go up in smoke might make him think again about encouraging guys like M'Cracken."
   "Could work," repeated Peter Vance.
   A knock on the door settled the question about another shave. Peter threw the door wide open in invitation. "Hey, Livvy, you look great! Have you met my sister? She's just leaving."
   Jane Vance smiled at the warmly dressed visitor and waited to be helped into her own new winter coat. Making more money out of neutralizing Pete Astor could wait until the new year. There were places to go, people to see and good times to be had over the Christmas and New Year break.

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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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