Push to the limit, force the pace,
Kick the door open and march on through:
Unprepared for the long drop into nothingness.
The Dead Junkies had a club gig the following evening. Pete Astor arrived home at midnight to find Wendy watching the conclusion of a cop drama on TV. She was surrounded by sheets of paper covered in notes in various colours of felt-tip pen. She was working on one of her projects.
"Don't tread on these important documents!" Astor shouted as he entered the room and saw the overflow to the floor.
"I thought you'd be home with the milk," said Wendy.
"People tend not to stay up all night, mid-week. Having fun?"
"I had a phone call for you about an hour ago. Philip Hallan. He'd just got back from a business trip."
"He sounds a bit bloody keen, ringing up at this time of night."
"So I phoned Padraig. We're going to Norfolk to see Mr. Hallan tomorrow."
"We as is you and Padraig?"
"We as in you, me and Padraig."
"So you assumed I'd have nothing better to do tomorrow than swan off to the wilds of Norfolk with you two?" Astor said indignantly.
Wendy just looked at him.
"I'll take that as a yes," Astor decided. "I hope we're flying. It takes bloody ages on the train."
"That's a good idea," nodded Wendy. "I'll see if I can fix something up tomorrow."
"Come to think of it, we'll have to go tomorrow afternoon. There's that award do at the Astoria tomorrow morning."
"Oh, yes," said Wendy.
Astor gave her a 'Wendy-look' special.
"All right, I forgot," she said patiently. "So shoot me."
Speeding from one part of the country to another by light aircraft, rather than going by car, was a new notion to Padraig M'Cracken. He knew now that Pete Astor had a rich father, who lived in a castle in Scotland. He had gathered from his conversations with Wendy that her father was something to do with the European governmental system in Brussels. He now believed that they both came from rich families and that Pete Astor's current elevated position was based on getting to know the music business from the ground up. He was the right sort of patron in the sense that he would be interested in the broad details of their joint venture and not too concerned about grabbing a share of the profits.
Padraig M'Cracken was a convert to the millionaire's preferred mode of transport by the time the group reached its destination. By then, the effects of mid-morning champagne, paid for by the award-winning architect's firm, were long gone and lunch was just a pleasant memory.
Philip Hallan was waiting at the airfield to drive them to his home in Caxham, about four miles from Postwick, where the ashes of Rixborough and Company were mingled with the rubble of the demolished shell of the burned out building.
Astor found him to be a bald, careworn man who looked older than his sixty-seven years, which was not surprising if he had been doing battle with an insurance company for the last two years, not to mention defending himself against police efforts to put him on the spot for burning down his ailing business.
During the drive, Hallan told the visitors that he had sold off most of the surviving assets of the family firm in a bid to survive until the insurance company settled its obligation. But he did have a great deal of original and research material stored at his home, including everything that had come down the years from Geoffrey, the author of the grimoire.
"It's just sealed up in plastic bags at the moment," Philip Hallan told his guests as he showed them into his study. There was steam rising from the coffee machine, which he had switched on just before his departure.
"It could well be in need of stabilization and conservation," remarked Padraig M'Cracken.
"That's why I've transferred most of it to my computer," said Hallan. "To avoid handling it any more than's strictly necessary. I keep making revisions and corrections, and doing experiments with page layouts, in the hope I'll be able to do something with it."
"Publishing that sort of material is something else we're interested in discussing," said M'Cracken.
"Did Tom Maddox mention my grimoire?" said Astor.
"Yes, I was quite interested to hear it's become fashionable again," smiled Hallan. "It seems to pop in and out of fashion regularly."
"So how would you feel about us getting an edition printed? Obviously, after making a deal with the copyright holder. And we'd want you to co-ordinate the whole thing. Being the expert on Geoffrey Hallan."
"As a matter of fact, I do have a version that could be printed more or less right away," nodded Hallan. "I've been tinkering with it for the last couple of years as a means of keeping myself sane. Proof reading, correcting mistakes and substituting material deliberately put in to mislead."
"As a matter of fact, we were thinking about facsimile editions of the well known version of the grimoire, the special edition that was never released and what sounds like the edition you've been working on, with as much as possible of the misleading material removed. Three versions, in fact."
Astor noticed an immediate change in Philip Hallan's studied air of unconcerned interest. Three editions meant three payments to a man who was struggling financially. And the possibility of having his original documents housed in the archive meant that the conservation work would be done at no cost to him and he could charge fees to those interested in consulting those original documents.
Encouraged, Hallan brought out a box of loose printed sheets as an example of the state of the worst-kept documents. Padraig M'Cracken pulled a face at the sight of the stained, ragged-edged papers in their polythene bags, but he seemed confident that they could be stabilized and reassembled in a matrix of stable modern materials.
Astor took the opportunity to get down to some details while Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken were working through the carton of ancient papers. He produced an envelope containing duplicated contracts and a cheque for three thousand pounds and handed it to Hallan.
"This would be an advance on royalties?" said Hallan after glancing through a standard contract to make sure that it held no surprises.
"And Tom Maddox suggested we should also offer a good-will payment as an optional extra." Astor took a bundle of notes from his pocket.
Hallan glanced at Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken, who had their backs turned and who were deep in conversation. Then he looked more closely at the bundle of used notes. They were all twenties and there seemed to be about one hundred of them.
"We could do the same sort of deal for all three editions," Astor added. "But on a larger scale for the other two because of the work you've done on them. I've been told we'll just have to photograph the copy of the grimoire I've got to be able do the facsimile edition of it."
The notes disappeared into Philip Hallan's pocket. He produced a ball-point to sign the contract. Astor used the pen to add his own signature to the contracts.
"Just how many boxes of papers are there?" Padraig M'Cracken turned round in time to see a handshake over the signed contracts to confirm a deal struck.
"Eighteen," said Hallan. "They could really do with being in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. But I've had to make do with lots of plastic bags."
"We could certainly store them under the best possible conditions until the conservators can tackle them. If you're willing to let them out of your sight."
Hallan shrugged. "As I said, I don't like to handle some of them in case they drop to bits. I'd prefer to work from photographs, but that would prove prohibitively expensive."
Astor and Wendy exchanged knowing looks as the other two worked their way to an inevitable decision. An hour later, Wendy travelled into Norwich with Philip Hallan to hire a van. Two hours after that, she was heading for Croydon with a vanload of boxes and Padraig M'Cracken was making plans to expand his team of conservators.
Astor had two floppy disks in his pocket, one containing a working draft of the special edition of G. Hallan's Registry and the other a draft of Philip Hallan's complete and accurate edition. Philip Hallan had been working on a number of other private projects in addition to the grimoire. He had arranged to come over to Croydon the following week to discuss his projects with Padraig M'Cracken and to collect an initial batch of photographs.
As far as Astor could tell, Hallan had two immediate objectives - to lay his hands on some more money and to get a volume called Hallan's Arcana published. It was also likely that when he had a complete set of photographic copies of untranscribed documents, he might be willing to sell his collection to the archive. Astor had no idea whether this peripheral business would be of any benefit to Kiron, but it all seemed to flow naturally from the way things were going.
After a day off, Astor found himself travelling by air again - to Italy this time. Appropriately, the date was Friday the thirteenth. He reached Verona feeling no more than moderately travel-worn and too late to visit his father in the remand prison. He had more than enough time to put the first part of his plan into action, however.
Tom Maddox had paved his way to the office of a senior official, who spoke less English than he liked to believe. Astor, a non-Italian-speaker, found that they could communicate well enough in French, especially when what he had to say was of great interest to the Italian official. Signor Altaverdi had something of a grey-haired film star look about him and he had spent a fortune on his suit.
Astor quickly filled in the background of his half-sister's arrest and his father's attempts to get her trial pushed forward to a lenient conclusion. Playing the naïve Englishman abroad, he explained that his father had been obliged to make payments to some officials to persuade them to do their job. His father had also been wise enough to have some photographs taken to prove that the payments had been made in case the services were not forthcoming.
The official acquired a wary look during the talk of bribery, but he relaxed somewhat when Astor went on to explain that the private detective who had taken the photographs was being difficult. Being an Italian, he wanted more money than had been agreed. Astor added that he hoped to raise the extra cash quite soon and he was wondering whether to take the compromising material to the police or deliver it directly to the man in charge of the corrupt officials.
Signor Altaverdi put on a thoughtful frown while he considered the matter. Then he decided that the best thing for Astor to do was bring the evidence to his office in confidence. If there was any wrong-doing going on, it was better not to give the guilty parties any warning.
When he visited his father the next day, Astor found him in a rather philosophical mood. Clive Astor knew that he had gone too far and his spell in an Italian gaol was his just deserts, but he remained confident that Tom Maddox would pick up the pieces successfully.
After a weekend of solitary sight-seeing, Astor returned to Signor Altaverdi's office with an envelope in his inside pocket. The photographs were all convincing electronic constructs, which Tom Maddox had commissioned from a computer expert. They showed real people in real settings although they had been assembled by manipulation of separate images and clever blending at the edges.
Astor handed over the envelope, trying to look like a trusting idiot who expected Altaverdi to root out the corrupt officials and expose them. He also mentioned that the Italian private eye said he had some further, even more compromising material, but he was being even more difficult about that. Even so, Astor told Altaverdi, he was sure that he could raise the extra cash needed within a week or so.
When he flew home on that Monday afternoon, Astor felt that he had done a good job of playing the vengeful political innocent. Signor Altaverdi believed that Astor saw him as an ally, but he knew that Astor was a man with a mission, and he was worried about what the Englishman would uncover if he kept on digging.
The message that Tom Maddox wanted him to convey was that Pete Astor knew that his father had parted with a lot of money, and Pete was prepared to part with more to expose Italian officials as crooks if his family failed to receive the services paid for. Maddox was leaving Altaverdi with a simple choice: put pressure on his corrupt colleagues to act or end up contaminated himself by their mess when it was exposed.
By the time he got home, Astor had decide to send Drachensblut to Italy on tour just in case his suspicions about Kiron were valid and the extra-dimensional being really was arranging deaths at rock concerts. He had vague memories of an article in one of the posh papers about drugs and drink associated with the weekend rave scene being the biggest killers of young Italians. If they were so keen to do it to themselves, Astor decided, there was no reason why the Eyeties shouldn't do it in a good cause.
Just asking a few questions about venues and their likely availability managed to spread the news around. It was all over Kiron Sounds by the time Astor approached James Faucumberg at the Astoria a couple of days later as he was hanging about, waiting for the launch party for Under Alien Skies to begin.
"Don't tell me," said James when Astor entered his office. He put a hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. "My mystic sixth sense tells me you want me to fix up an Italian tour for the Drachs in March."
"Amazing how good the people around here are at leaping to obvious conclusions," said Astor. "Did you know Toy speaks Italian?"
"Yes, it's in her CV."
"So you reckon her telling me that on my way to your office might be an unsubtle hint she wants to go on the tour?"
"Probably. And she's also let me know she can deal with the Italian attitude to women."
"Anyone who pinches her bottom gets his nose busted?" laughed Astor.
"Violence is a last resort, she reckons. Puncturing egos is the first line of defence."
"So what do you reckon? Is she's up to the job?"
"Probably. I think my first choice would be R.V. but he's still going to be in the States and it does staff morale good to spread these jobs around. And she does speak the language, which is a big asset."
"So she's going to get the job on merit? That's a bit bloody unreasonable, isn't it?"
"Only in the real world, Pete," laughed James.
"I'll tell you who else was bending my ear. Cath phoned to let me know she's had experience of driving on the wrong side of the road."
"Maybe we ought to start charging our people for the privilege of representing their employer abroad."
"That would make you bloody popular," laughed Astor.
"I also had a job application from someone called Monica Farley. Who dropped your name."
"More than I can do with hers," frowned Astor.
"When I gave Tony Stock a ring, he told me he sacked her off that tour you got sacked from. For working a fiddle."
"Yeah, right. And Bee got her job. I remember now. She mentioned Monica didn't just quit. So you turned her down?"
"No vacancies at present," nodded James. "Is this the idea of the Big Boss, by the way? The Italian tour? Does he fancy a bit of a holiday for himself?"
"What, in March?" scoffed Astor.
"I gather he's still with the Drachs, giving them the benefit of his knowledge of stage-craft."
"Not for much longer. He's got another gig coming up. He's just filling in time till then."
"I take it you don't want me to try and lay on a gig at the Vatican for our Black Magic Rock opera?"
"No, I should concentrate on areas with a high Communist vote, where they don't believe in God any more."
"That's not a bad idea, actually," nodded James. "Do I get a trip to Italy to check out venues?"
Astor shrugged. "How you do your job is your business. If you want to go, do it. And take the missus, too. So I don't have to spend the next couple of hours ganging up on you and Walter about the Drachs going over there?"
"Actually, I think having Alec Carstairs with them has done them a power of good. They're had some quite excellent reviews, which Caroline's quoted heavily on the website, and the sales of their video are threatening to catch up with From Another World, which is saying something."
"But you still reckon they're dust beneath the chariot wheels of the likes of HellBridge?"
"Let's just say their talent is less obvious and it needs rather more bringing out. But they're going to do a lot better than Belfry, who've moved from struggling to making a comfortable living and seem quite happy there. Have you heard about Pandaemonium, by the way?"
"Yes, they called me the other day to say thanks for all the gigs but they've decided to knock the band on the head at the end of the month. Some rubbish about wanting to concentrate on being students and getting their degrees now they've had their taste of fame."
"Weird bunch! Anyway, how are things going for you in Italy?" James added cautiously.
"They're getting quite interesting, actually. But not in a way that could affect us," Astor added quickly.
"Just how many members of your family are clink over there?"
"Only two. My half-sister, the professional smuggler, and my Dad, who tried to buy her out."
"And how are they taking it?"
"I should think my semi-sister's used to it by now. She's been inside for months, now. As for Dad, he's a professional laid-back type. Nothing gets to him."
"Something like his son?"
"I'm only a very pale shadow of the original. Anyway, we should have them out shortly."
"I hope so. Are you and Cherryl all set for your launching?"
"Just about. She's got about ninety-nine relatives and half The Croydon downstairs to witness her triumph."
"Good job the room's quite big," laughed James.
"And are we all set for tonight?"
"More than all set," nodded James. "The tickets just evaporated. This Welsh band Caradoc seems to have become quite hot after the trailers for their appearance on Dom's TV show tomorrow. I've already fixed them up with another gig the week after next. And the tee-shirt factory is on overtime."
"Oh, well, I'm sure Wendy and the Tafia will be chuffed. So Dom's series is actually getting off the ground?"
"Amazingly, yes. It looks like there's something to be said for your policy of giving people a chance after all."
"Except that you have to put up with a lot of rubbish before you find anyone worth encouraging?" grinned Astor.
James shrugged. "There's no absolutely right way of running a business like this. You just have to try and find enough needles to make up for the haystacks." He glanced at his watch. "Okay, time to get the booze-up going."
The next morning, feeling slightly hung over from the effects of a party which had lasted from mid-afternoon to two in the morning, Astor telephoned Signor Altaverdi from Tom Maddox's office. With Maddox listening in on the extension, Astor asked Signor Altaverdi if he needed any further copies of the surveillance photographs and told him that he hoped to be back in Italy after the weekend.
Keeping his face straight despite Maddox's relentless grin, Astor told Signor Altaverdi that he had just about scraped together the next instalment of the Italian private eye's fee, and that the private eye was talking about supplying him with compromising recordings.
Signor Altaverdi wanted to know if Astor was talking about bugged phone conversations or meetings. Astor told him that he was going to have to raise even more money to find out, but he promised to let Altaverdi have copies of the tapes in case they were of any use to his corruption investigation.
When he rang off, Pete Astor felt that Henry Hall-Carter, the professional actor, would have appreciated the way that he had played the amateur crusader, who was hot on the trail of his poor father's persecutors.
"I reckon this guy's getting close to melt-down now," said Tom Maddox as he replayed on his office computer, the signals recorded by the voice-stress analyzer connected to the telephone.
"You reckon?" said Astor.
"He knows you've got the negatives of the compromising photos. Having sound recordings would nail down the guys your Dad bribed even more. And your friend Signor Altaverdi knows what happens when a corruption investigation gets publicity. Once the guys who took your Dad's cash realize just how bad things are going to get for them, they're going to start making deals. And they do that by telling what they know."
"Which could include some dirt on my good pal Signor Altaverdi?"
"Right. So he's really got to get his arse in gear now."
"So you expect some action within the next few months?"
"You're a bit of a bloody cynic on the quiet, aren't you, Pete?" laughed Maddox. "Your pal's not going to risk letting this drag on for a moment longer than necessary now. Like I said, the guy's at panic stations."
Astor spent the next few hours at a firm of printers in Croydon, having arranged to be there at a time that got him lunch on the firm. The production director seemed to find it difficult to believe that Astor wanted to spend the extra on having a facsimile edition of the Rixborough grimoire made by traditional methods. He seemed to think that Astor would be much better off with a modern "perfect" glued binding rather than a proper sewn binding.
Astor convinced him, eventually, that he expected the book to have a life of at least two hundred years and he didn't want it becoming separate pages when the adhesive binding gave up after a couple of decades. And the customer is always right.
The Astoria's car park seemed quite full when he arrived back to claim his own vehicle. Instead of going home, Astor decided to find out what was going on. The sounds of a symphony orchestra in full voice told him that there was a rehearsal in progress. Astor drifted into the backstage area and then up to one of the boxes.
The Croydon Symphony Orchestra was at work in informal dress; in shirt-sleeves, jeans and other casual clothes. Hugo Wolfe, the conductor, normally a splendid figure of a man in full evening dress, managed to lose his customary air of authority, in Astor's eyes, when he was wearing trainers instead of highly polished black shoes.
There was a man with an almost totally bald head sitting on the front row of the stalls with a score. He was surrounded three rows deep by an escort of about two dozen others. As he had never heard the piece before, and the orchestra seemed to be feeling its way through it, Astor assumed that the man with the score was the composer and he had brought a crowd of friends along so that he could show off in front of them.
Looking for a category, Astor decided that the music sounded like one of George Frederick Handel's jaunty, popular pieces but with an added dark, majestic edge. The piece had a recurrent theme that the people could hum but there was an interesting complexity to it, which would require several listenings to gain its full value.
The audience took a break for tea and coffee at the end of the run-through. Astor decided that he was feeling a little dry. A young blonde in an Intoxicant T-shirt approached him as he was taking his turn at the thermal jugs of coffee.
"Hi," she said with a bright smile. "I was really hoping you'd be here so I could thank you. For all the stuff you gave Mum. And for the audition."
"You're Carol, right?" said Astor.
"That piece you were just playing seemed to have plenty of work for the violas."
"Yes, that's why they called me in for the audition today."
"Is it something new? I don't recognize it. Not that I've heard every bit of music in the universe."
"Yes, that's the composer giving Mr. Wolfe some ear-ache."
"Bloody nuisance, living composers. Always popping up and telling you how to do things. So how are things going?"
"I love this theatre. And the orchestra are a really together crowd."
"Yeah, well, they can be that if they're properly sponsored and they don't have to worry whether they're going to get paid at the end of the week."
"Ah, Peter, you've met our latest young musician?" boomed Hugo Wolfe as he joined them. He was a tall man with a large physical presence and he had made a point of meeting the Vice President In Charge Of Everything on a previous concert night.
"Sure have," nodded Astor.
"I'll leave you to it," said Carol Banister.
"So what do you reckon to her?" said Astor when Carol had moved out of earshot.
"Technically, she could do with quite a bit of work. But in terms of her musicality, if I can use such a dreadful word, she shows a great deal of promise."
"What, the potential to become the Nigel Kennedy of the viola? Only with a better haircut and without the yobbish accent?"
"Whether she can develop her technique to young Mr. Kennedy's level is very much up to her. But I think the potential's there."
"So would you be happy to put her into your apprenticeship programme?"
"I'm certainly considering it," nodded Wolfe. "I have her down for a second interview visit already. What did you think?"
"Yes, her technique's not a hundred per cent, but the expression's good. You get the sense she has the time to take in the music and its context. Pretty much the reverse of that girl on the flute. Her breath control is flawless but her playing struck me as a bit wooden. Accurate but nothing more."
"Yes, I must admit I was quite disappointed by her, too," nodded Wolfe.
"That piece you were just playing, any chance of blagging a score? It's doing quite a lot for me."
"I'm sure we have a few spares. Would you like it signed by the composer?"
"Yeah, that would chuff him no end, wouldn't it?" laughed Astor. "I was watching him from one of the boxes. Him and his entourage."
Wolfe lowered his voice to a murmur. "I think we could have charged him a thousand pounds for today and he'd have paid up quite cheerfully."
"Mind you, the guy's really got something. From what I heard, this could be good material for an album."
"What, is Kiron Sounds starting a Classical label?" laughed Wolfe. "I wish."
"I don't see why we couldn't put some Classical stuff out. There's nothing in the name Kiron Sounds that says the output's got to be Black Magic Rock. Good music remains good whatever the label you put on it."
"Yes, they do say music is the true international language. One can listen to an aria in Italian or German without knowing the language and still get the message. And the same applies to your own music, Peter. Your piece for five pianos is quite extraordinary. And one listens to The Portal and emerges at the other side with a sense of continuity. This may be all there is, but what one does resonates on forever. There's certainly a strong spiritual content in it."
"Oh, yes. I was quite surprised to find the depths that I did in your music. On the face of it, it has the character of superficial popular music. This week's hit before another comes along. But when one looks more closely, one can see that it was constructed by a person with Classical training."
"Nice to be appreciated," laughed Astor.
"Good music will out," Wolf said with a smile. "I'll chase up that score. Then I'll introduce you to the composer."
In his capacity of the Astoria's VPICE, Astor shook the hands of the composer and several of his gang, most of them ordinary locals with an interest in culture, before retiring to his box with the score and another cup of coffee. The rehearsal and audition session resumed.
Astor left the theatre as the orchestra was taking a break before final preparations for that evening's performance and the composer and his entourage were telling each other how much they had enjoyed their afternoon out. Astor managed to get his car out of the car park before the rush started. Wendy was out when he got home. Now at a loose end, he decided to find out if Kiron was taking calls.
"Hi, Pete, those were some really far-out sounds just now," said the voice from everywhere but nowhere when Astor was through the realm of geometric shapes and moving beyond.
"Oh! Are you sure that was us?" said Astor before he realized that if there was any credit going, he should grab it whether he deserved it or not.
"It was certainly the sort of energy spikes I associate with you."
"Right, well, I'll have to see if I can identify the source," said Astor. "While you're on the line, as it were, can I ask you a strange question?"
"Like, how strange?" laughed the mysterious voice.
"I know this guy called Padraig, who's into all sort of weirdness and mysticism. A bit like Wendy."
"How is your charming friend?"
"Continuing in rude healthy. Anyway, one of Padraig's contacts got all secretive with me. Then he told me he's a recruiting agent for the Lihmahl. Have you heard of them?"
"Can't say I have. Who are they, Pete?"
"This guy reckons there's a secret war going on between two extra-dimensional species called the Lihmahl and the Dendrashi. Both sides are looking for allies on Earth. And this guy, Harrison Knox, he reckons he's a recruiting agent for the Lihmahl. So, being an extra-dimensional sort of being yourself, I was wondering if you've ever heard of the Lihmahl or the Dendrashi."
"I can't say I have," Kiron said after a short pause. "But don't take my ignorance as any sort of proof one way or the other. What are they hoping their allies on Earth will do for them?"
"I think you have to be a signed up and paid up member of the Lihmahl Support Group to be told that."
"They could be looking for energy sources, I suppose."
"If they exist."
"You sound almost prepared to admit that they do, Pete."
"Well, if I wasn't here, out of my skull on Charm and talking to you, I'd say this Knox guy is totally nuts. Or up to something. Anyway, you're still getting energy feeds from Intoxicant and the Drachs, I hope?"
"Yes, indeed. There was also a very powerful energy surge on Wednesday night - very like one you created four weeks ago, only much bigger."
"That's good. And if it's from the band I think it's from, you should be getting another helping the week after next."
The Charm began to wear off. Astor returned to reality on a wave of approval from his extra-dimensional mentor. It was nice to know that he was doing some things right. And there was more of Kiron's Music, more new material ...
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.