People can accomplish things just by believing they're possible.
They can shift a grey area into the positive
Just by choosing to do so. So they reckon.
Saturday morning had half an hour left to run when Pete Astor got up, having made Friday night last until about four in the morning. When he checked himself for signs of strain, he found nothing obvious. As ever, he remained surprised that he was able to continue with a lifestyle that had proved fatal for many younger and fitter men.
There was a man in the kitchen grilling sausages when he arrived in search of breakfast. Astor stopped and stared at the intruder. He was able to get into motion again before the other man noticed that he was there.
"What are you making, tea or coffee?" he asked, trying for a casual note.
"Tea. You can't get a decent cuppa in an Eyetie gaol," his father remarked. "Or a good old stodgy British banger."
"So when did they let you out?"
"Half-eight this morning."
"Is this you deported and persona non grata in Italy now?"
"No, they were very polite about it," laughed his father. "Told me there'd been a terrible mistake. They drove me straight to the airport and put me on a plane more or less right away. No hanging about to check in or anything like that."
"What, all charges dropped and please don't sue us, style of thing?"
"More or less."
"Right." Astor crossed to the kitchen telephone and hit one of the speed-dial buttons. "Signor Altaverdi?" he said when a man's voice answered. "It's Peter Astor here. I'm calling you to let you know I'm having a problem with those recordings." Astor spoke slowly and as clearly as possible for a man whose English was nowhere near as good as he liked to believe.
"Ah! What sort of a problem?" said the Italian official in a neutral tone.
"The thing is, the bastard's holding out for more money. And I think he's going to try and give me the runaround for a few weeks to see how much he can screw out of me. I'm sorry if this is delaying your investigation."
"We are used to such things happening, Mr. Astor," said Altaverdi in the same neutral tone.
"The way things are going, I may not be able to afford to buy a full set of the recordings. Not right away, anyway. But I'll let you know if and when I make any more progress." Astor thought that he could hear a female voice speaking Italian not too far from the telephone. He assumed that Altaverdi's wife or girlfriend was listening in and translating.
"I should not trouble yourself too much, Mr. Astor," said Altaverdi. "We have many lines of investigation open. Many other lines of investigation."
"So the whole case doesn't rest on mine?" said Astor. "I suppose it doesn't, but I wouldn't like to let you down by not getting the recordings. Anyway, I'll be in touch when I have more news."
"Thank you for calling, Mr. Astor," said Altaverdi after a little more off-microphone, female Italian. "Good morning."
"What are you up to?" said his father as Pete replaced the receiver.
"I think it's called ducking and diving," said Pete. "It's all about convincing Italian officials in charge of dodgy departments that you've got some pictures of his gang up to no good, and you can get hold of recordings of your Dad doing dodgy deals with his dodgy officials."
"I didn't know those guys worked on a Saturday."
"They don't. And I reckon my knowing his home number will worry him even more."
"I suppose you cooked all this up with your private investigator? I must say, he struck me as frighteningly thorough. And is any of this directed to getting Jules out of gaol too?"
"Who knows what the boss of a dodgy department will do to stop the truth getting out? Are those sausages supposed to be on fire?"
Clive Astor turned back to the cooker quickly to expose fresh areas of sausage to the flames of the grill.
"So how did you get in when you got here?" Pete said as he spooned ground coffee into the machine. "Did you learn invisible breaking and entering in your gaol?"
"No, your major domo let me in. He shot off home about half an hour ago. And Wendy says, if you ever get up, could you write down how to use the fax software on her computer because she's forgotten."
"Who's she sending bloody faxes to now?"
"I suppose she's protesting about something and she wants to send the same fax to a whole list of people instead of having to keep feeding a sheet of paper through the machine."
"They should never, ever let women get their hands on technology. It only makes trouble for the rest of us. So, have you reserved the spare room?"
"Actually, after I've had a free lunch on you, I was thinking of flying back up to Scotland."
"See if anyone's nicked your castle, you mean?"
"It'll be a pleasant change to be somewhere where the fortifications are there to keep other people out, not you in."
"So what was it like, your Italian gaol?"
"A fairly relaxed regime. It was more of a low security remand centre than a high-security prison. Irritating more than intimidating."
"So what's your next move going to be? Put together a team of mercenaries to take out the bastards who took bribes off you then locked you up?"
"Maybe after they let Jules out."
"What about all the cash it's cost you?"
"If we get Jules out, it'll be money well spent."
Astor shrugged. "Well, okay. If you say so. What else are we having to eat besides sausages?" To be cool was to talk about breakfast rather than revenge.
A call from Dominik Wekling took Pete Astor to the Astoria in the early afternoon. He was able to tell his trouble-maker that he had enjoyed his Channel Four arts programme, Realities, on Thursday night. They met in the office which had become the lunch room for the advertising and PR staff. Dominic was about to have his lunch. Astor, still full of breakfast, had just brought coffee.
"Your dangerous food notices still tickle me," Dominik remarked as he was unpacking a carrying box from the café. "But I see other people are starting to imitate you now."
Astor shrugged. "A symptom of the age, my management guys reckon. We're heading for the stage where there'll be a Euro directive saying all power points have to have a warning sign on them telling people if they shove two bits of wire in the holes and hold the ends, it may prove damaging to their health. A bit like your programme, really. Wendy and I nearly killed ourselves laughing at that French woman."
"Glad you liked it. I had a hell of a job keeping my face straight when she was on, I can tell you."
"And this was live and unrecorded, too. I was a bit amazed you were able to get away with some of the stuff."
"Outrageous but true is the name of the game."
"That sounds like the Wekling family motto. So anyway, what's the latest Big Idea?"
"The Croydon Orchestra. Commonly known as The Croydon or TC for short, which sounds like something to do with Top Cat. You may not be aware of this, not having your hand out to them, but this is the time when the Arts Council grants for this year are announced. And our local orchestra is losing out. The theory is that resources should be concentrated on the main orchestras, there are too many orchestras based in and around London and there are too many tuppenny-ha'penny outfits like The Croydon around anyway."
"And what are our local culture vultures doing about that?"
"Not that much, really. The council is shedding crocodile tears and saying it's the government's fault..."
"Labour council has half-hearted pop at Labour government?"
"Something like that," nodded Dominik. "But consoling themselves with the knowledge that if the orchestra does goes bump, they'll save the annual grant they're giving them."
"A chance to squander the ratepayers' money on more junkets for the councillors, you mean?"
"That's it. But it occurred to me, if the Astoria could give the orchestra a home and rehearsal facilities for nothing, they might be able to climb out of the hole they're in."
"Stick up two fingers to the Arts Council while still copping for the grant from the council, you mean?" laughed Astor.
"There's plenty of space around the Astoria that could do with being filled up with useful activity," Dominik added. "And it wouldn't do your image any harm, having a resident orchestra."
"It would certainly knock the feet out from under the people who claim we've taken the place down-market, despite Roddy's regular Classical concerts. So what's the master plan?"
"If you could have a word with James, I can co-ordinate things with the honcho of TC. Have you met him?"
"Oh, yes, my mate Hugo," nodded Astor. "Know him well. I hear he's got some radical plan that lets concert-goers recommend things the orchestra should be playing?"
"That's right. And he puts a note in the programme when they add something to the repertoire by popular request. And when Hugo gets a suggestion he likes, he sends the person a letter to say the piece will be going into rehearsal."
"Giving the masses what they want instead of giving them what's supposed to be good for them? I like that."
"So you'll issue a commandment to James? In your capacity as Vice President In Charge Of Everything, then?"
"Okay. By the way, what's in it for you, Dom? Or are we talking pure altruism?"
"Two things, really," Dominik said with a smile. "I want to get Hugo on Realities to exploit his potential for controversy, so it would help if there was a row with the persecutors of the Arts Council and a happy ending for the orchestra. Just so people know who he is."
"There's this lady violinist who's worried about her future. Nothing like a spot of security for making a lady less tense and more interested in having a good time."
"Like it!" laughed Astor.
Pete Astor found himself dragged out of bed by his own personal persecutors the following morning. He suspected that Inspector Farne was making a last attempt to get something on him before the roof fell in. The search warrant looked very much like the last one. Pete Astor just stood about and yawned through the first ten minutes of the search. Then he went down to the kitchen to make some coffee while Inspector Fiend and a sergeant were hunting in Wendy's lair.
Astor was sampling the brew when the inspector strolled into the kitchen to show him a brown, crumbly substance wrapped in kitchen foil, which he had found in Wendy's bedroom. Astor just looked blankly at the find, refusing to let an enemy see him defeated, and yawned again.
"You'll be hearing a lot more about this, Madam," Farne told Wendy. "You people may think you're clever, but you always come unstuck in the end."
"Why do the words frogs and box of come to mind when we're talking to you, Inspector?" Astor remarked.
"One of the words I think of is doshan," said Wendy.
DI Farne gave them uncomprehending glares. Ten minutes later, he, his sergeant and a female detective walked down the garden path while being machine-gunned by photographers. They had invited the media along again and Farne was more than ready for a garden-gate press conference.
Following Jane Vance's orders, a private detective had searched Astor's house while he had been in Italy and Wendy had been out making trouble. The private eye had found two stashes of drugs but none of the material that his employer wanted to locate. Farne had no idea that Jane Vance was the source of his anonymous information, but he had located one of the two promised foil-wrapped packages and he felt that he had justified the earlier, unproductive search.
Astor became aware of, and surprised by, Wendy's barely concealed triumphant attitude when they were alone again. Her smiles had been outshone by Inspector Fiend's obvious delight when he had been on the premises. "Go on, what have you been up to?" Astor invited as he filled mugs with coffee.
"I'm just wondering why anyone would get so excited over a well-matured Oxo cube with a bit of dried cough mixture on it to give it a different smell," she smirked.
"You bastard! You've set him up?" laughed Astor.
"I think it would have been obvious even to someone as dozy as you that he'd be back. So some of us were prepared." Wendy decided not to mention that she had used up the last of a genuine stash just a couple of days earlier.
Someone started to ring the doorbell while someone else was banging the knocker. Astor took his time about getting to the front door, where eyes were peering through the letterbox. What he needed, he decided, was a long stick to poke the nosy sod's eyes out.
"Who's that running my battery down and banging on the door?" he demanded, ignoring the rush of questions. "Do you bastards think I'm deaf, or something?"
"How do you feel about all these police raids on your home, Mr. Astor?"
"Naturally, I enjoy every minute of them. Better than an alarm clock," Astor added with a smile.
"I hear they found something this time."
"Finding things is news, is it? Hold the front page! I just found ten pee in my pocket!"
"They took away substances for analysis, though."
"So what?" said Astor. "That's no proof of anything. They could have walked off with my chocolate biscuits for all you know. But that wouldn't stop you lot trying me and convicting me because it suits your prejudices, would it? So be warned. If you print anything libellous based on what you want the analysis results to show, I'll sue your ass from here to breakfast time after the real report comes out."
"So why did they take samples if there's nothing illegal in them?"
"Saving face. They could hardly come stomping into my house, after inviting you lot here, and then walk away empty-handed, could they? And that's all you're getting. So if you wouldn't mind leaving in an orderly fashion, some of us have got breakfasts to organize and complaints to make about police harassment."
"What was it they found, Mr. Astor?"
"We'll all know that when the analysis report comes back," said Astor. "End of interview, so would you all kindly sod off without walking all over my garden?" He closed the door on further questions. He had a breakfast to consume and a morning paper to scan.
Astor's solicitor, Rachel Billington, called his mobile's number the following afternoon. She mentioned that she had delayed the call until she could be sure of finding him awake before telling Astor that the reporters seemed to have been impressed by his air of confidence. Only one had strayed over the top into actionable territory. Astor told Rachel to take whatever action she thought would be appropriate.
Wendy pointed out a sizeable retraction on page four of the next day's issue of the newspaper at breakfast. Astor wondered what Rachel had done to the editor to produce more than about one column centimetre buried in a spot where the eye rarely travels. He had just enough time to send a fax of congratulation before Caroline arrived with her Kiron Sounds van to drive him into Croydon.
"I'm going to the archive, apparently," Astor remarked as he was fastening his seat belt.
"Yes, I know, so am I," said Caroline.
"What, more data-basing?"
"I'm testing a retrieval program to find out if it's worth buying."
"How come they've got someone computer-literate doing it? Shouldn't they have picked the biggest idiot they can find?"
"Maybe they thought you'd be doing something else today, Pete. No, Padraig wants someone who knows what the program ought to be able to do to try it out. To see if it gets all tangled up if you push it. Then he's going to turn non-experts loose on it."
"Are you doing a demo for the Talmy guys we're meeting?"
"They're weird, that bunch."
"Takes one to know one," laughed Caroline.
"Why, do you believe in their next plane of existence?"
"Not until they show me some evidence."
"You know, you're the exact opposite of Wendy. She believes everything she's told - until it starts dropping to pieces. You only believe what people can prove to you."
"It's probably the difference between going through a bad divorce and having break-ups from people you never married. Wendy still thinks the best of most people while I hardly trust anyone."
"But do you trust us?"
"What, you trust people who keep getting raided by the drug squad?"
"They haven't proved anything, have they?"
"More by luck than good judgement. So that means we're innocent and okay?"
"Yes. Well, innocent of anything that matters."
"We're weird and you're as mad as a box of frogs!" laughed Astor. "No wonder we get on so well."
"Why, how mad is a box of frogs, Pete? And are we talking about crazy or angry?"
"You're not suppose to ask questions like that, Cazzer."
"Did you see that thing in the paper about Padraig?"
"There was nothing about him in the paper Wendy was waving around."
"It was a typical bit of tabloid rubbishing, my aunt said. Trying to prove he's a fraud."
"How can that be if he's offering access to a real archive containing real documents? That's his only product. The chance to read and make your own mind up."
"They reckoned he wrote most of the stuff in the archive himself."
"He's nowhere near old enough to have done that!" laughed Astor. "It would have taken him bloody years!"
"Tabloid reality, my aunt called it," said Caroline.
"Straight out of the frog box," Astor added.
The meeting was with the mainstream of the Talmy Group, led by their organizer Bert Norton. The group had made a donation to the fabric fund of Padraig M'Cracken's archive and they were about to receive their membership cards, which would give them access to the electronically stored data and to books and other material that could be handled with normal care without causing damage.
Padraig M'Cracken was eager to prove to major investors that the archive was capable of generating income now that their initial donations had been invested to good effect. He also wanted to prove to the Talmy Group that they had gained access to a study centre that would be of real benefit to them. Showing his contempt for the article knocking himself and the archive, M'Cracken had pinned it to a notice board next to a sign reading Emergency Toilet Paper.
Pete Astor had pictured someone called Bert Norton as a down-to-earth artisan type who did skilled manual work, perhaps a carpenter or a car mechanic. He was pleased to find himself shaking the rough, firm hand of a fiftyish man who looked as if he was no stranger to hard work. Bert had brought three colleagues with him.
Andy Clark was a bit of a yuppie type of about Astor's age. Liz Merial and Jo Eastern were both in their early thirties. They looked like mature students with no particular distractions, such as husbands, children or a shortage of cash, to prevent them from pursuing an exotic interest. They were well turned-out in an informal way and they looked like the Right Sort Of People.
After the quick tour, and a look at the experts in the Preservation and Conservation Unit, the group arrived at Data Processing. Jenny, the unit's co-ordinator, gave them a quick demonstration of how quickly a scanner and optical character recognition using a computer could turn the pages of a book into electronic text, which could be searched and served up as quote-size chunks in support of a particular thesis. Then she let Caroline, at the database terminal, take over.
"So, Pete, what's the scene around here like?" Andy Clark remarked to Astor, while the others were watching Caroline trawl through vast amounts of electronically archived data.
"Jumping and dead, more or less in alternation," said Astor, not quite sure what he meant.
"I hear you're in the music business. Can you get any interesting pharmaceuticals around here? Or do you have to head into the heart of the big city?"
Astor shrugged. "At my end of the business, you don't go shopping for the stuff. There's always someone around who's got something interesting to share around."
"Maybe I should get into the music business," laughed Clark. "What I'm looking for is a source of something called K-nine-five-nine. An absolute knockout psychedelic."
"Not something I've heard of," Astor said into an expectant pause. "But I may know it by a proper name rather than what sounds like a laboratory code."
"It really, really opens your mind up. You get the feeling you're standing on the very edge of infinity and everything possible is opened out before you, just waiting for you to explore it. And it can put you in contact with, well, presences. Variously called Zagan, Kiron or Sotir, who are gate-keepers for the next plane of existence."
Astor forced himself not to react to a familiar name. "So you've had a chat with these gate-keepers?"
"Not personally, but I live in hope," smiled Clark. "Which is why I'm looking for an alternative source. Bert's a nice enough bloke, but he's a bit stingy with the exotic pharmaceuticals. But he and two others have contacted Sotir."
"He doesn't look the type."
"Don't let appearances deceive you. Bert's well aware that the use of mind-expanding drugs has a long and honourable tradition in the search for what's really around us."
"Oh, yeah?" said Astor with a sceptical smile.
"Really, yes. I'm not talking pure recreation, here. I'm talking about people having similar and consistent experiences across long distances and wide time-spans."
"Sounds like an abuse of exotic pharmaceuticals to me," chuckled Astor. "I've always considered them purely for recreation. As opposed to working drugs like meth."
"What, you mean speed?"
"It's more super-speed. If you get it pure from a reliable source, it gives you the energy to pursue a project to the very end and get it as right as it will ever get. Things like a lyric, a tune or a complete song. A lot of good music has been put together on meth."
"I'm talking about much more challenging directions for mind-expansion, Pete. Possibly even as far as getting a handle on this plane of existence we're in now that can make you invulnerable for the rest of your time here. And give you success all the way to the next plane."
"Doesn't that rob you of a sense of achievement? Getting everything just by asking?"
"Maybe, but a lot of people are up for the gig, as you people in the music business say. And maybe you'll think differently after you've been to one of our meetings."
"Could be," nodded Astor.
"No, really, you may think we're a bunch of nut cases, but I can assure you there are all sorts of weird things going on around us that can be tuned into."
"Weird's certainly my territory," smiled Astor.
"What do you reckon to that rag having a pop at Padraig?"
"Obviously stuck for something to pad out their adverts."
"And obviously monumentally ignorant if they're calling him a fraud. If they'd done any basic research, they'd know what he presides over is an immense catalogue of beliefs. Somewhat like our own archives. Accounts of what people believe - which is not necessarily true in an absolute sense, but it's true for them and knowing what they believe to be true can be the key to understanding them."
"So you're saying it doesn't really matter whether it's fiction or non-fiction in an absolute sense?" frowned Astor.
"In a sense, no," nodded Clark. "People can accomplish things by just believing they're possible. They can shift a grey area into the positive by choosing to do so."
Caroline answered a ringing telephone then held the receiver toward Astor. "Phone, Pete."
"Yo?" said Astor.
"It's Betty," said a half-familiar voice. "We have a delivery of your book coming in."
"Right, I'll be with you before you know it." Astor caught Padraig M'Cracken's eye. "The grimoire reprint's just been delivered," he announced.
"Ah, I think this is something you'll be interested in, Bert," M'Cracken told Bert Norton. "We're planning to reprint selected reference works. And publish short-print-run volumes. This will give you an idea of the product quality."
The group abandoned the computer, allowing Caroline to return to some serious work, and headed for the goods receiving area. Betty, a sturdy brunette in what looked like a fashion-overall, had opened up one of the packets of books. Astor claimed one of the volumes and opened it while Padraig M'Cracken was talking about its quality.
Astor was surprised to find that the book looked and felt very much like his own copy of the grimoire – except that the edges of the pages were gilded instead of grey with the muck of ages. The pages had the same clean, fresh quality and the printing looked crisp and accurate.
Another telephone began to ring. Betty answered it, then held the receiver out to Astor.
"Philip Hallan here," said the caller. "I've just had some copies of the grimoire delivered."
"Snap," said Astor.
"I must say, I was very impressed by the look of it."
"We were trying for the authentic Rixborough quality."
"And you achieved it. I must say, it gives me added confidence for the other projects in hand. Is Padraig there, at all?"
Astor attracted Padraig M'Cracken's attention and handed over the receiver. The visitors seemed busy admiring their individual copies of the grimoire. Betty answered the other telephone, and held that receiver out to Astor.
"It's all go for some of us, isn't it?" he remarked. "Pete Astor, yo?" he added into the telephone.
"Guess what?" said Wendy's voice.
"You're pregnant and you're going to try and tell me I'm the father?"
"Close. We've got a houseful of cops again. They arrived half an hour after your sister."
"You know, Julia. The one who was in gaol?"
"Oh, that sister. What do they want?"
"What do you think they want?" Wendy replied patiently.
"You're joking! Is it that bastard Inspector Fiend again?"
"And he's got his press gang outside."
"Can you hold the fort while I put some counter-measures in place?"
"I suppose so. Luckily, we've got Kevin here. He's keeping an eye on some of them."
"Right. I'll be there in due course."
"Trouble?" said Betty when Astor dabbed down the receiver rest.
"We've only got the cops back on another drug bust."
"You're joking! I thought they did you on Sunday?"
"Yeah, well, they're doing us again today. And that's the mad dog's third bite. Now, we really go after him." Astor tapped out a number. "Mrs. Billington, please. It's Pete Astor. Hi, Rachel. I've just had a call from Wendy. Our pal Inspector Fiend is back again. So can you put Plan B into action? Right, speak to you later. Right, that's me out of here," Astor added to Betty.
"Do you want your books?" Betty pointed to two packages labelled with Astor's name.
Astor nodded. "Might as well."
The press corps was still there when a minicab delivered Astor to Warleigh. He passed though the mob, promising to make a statement when he had received a situation report. His key was travelling toward the lock when the front door opened and he found himself face-to-face with Inspector Farne. Astor stepped aside
"Your press conference awaits, Oh, Guardian Of The Law," he said with a mocking smile.
Astor could tell from the grim look on the inspector's face that Farne had found nothing incriminating. Four detectives marched past Astor with scarcely a glance in his direction. Feeling that his arms were in danger of dropping off, Astor put his heavy parcels of books on the hall table.
"What is with that guy?" he remarked to Wendy, who was glowering after the departing detectives.
"I think it's my fault," said a young woman in her late twenties behind Wendy. She had cropped, dark hair and a very well-worn denim outfit. "I've had a feeling I was being watched ever since I got off the plane."
"What, you mean some bastard Eyetie tipped off our local phuzz there was a notorious drug smuggler bringing some stuff over for me?" laughed Astor.
"I must say, you're taking it very calmly, sir," remarked Kevin David. He was holding a carpet sweeper and he looked as if he wanted everyone off the hall carpet.
"That's because I know Rachel, my solicitor, has initiated some counter-measures," said Astor. "And I have a few of my own to get on with when I've seen the warrant."
"It was the same magistrate," said Wendy. "Brown. Look."
Astor looked, nodded and said, "Right. Press conference time."
Astor gave the gang of press and TV reporters a good twenty minutes of his counter-measures. Then he realized that it was only lunchtime. He felt as if he had crammed a good day's work into the morning. As it was a cold day with snow threatened for the end of the week, soup and chicken-and-ham pie were on the luncheon menu.
"Hello," Astor remarked to his half-sister when they found themselves sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table. "I'm Pete, your semi-brother."
"Take no notice of him, Jules," said Wendy. "He's just trying to be weird."
"So when did they let you out?" Astor added.
"This morning," said Julie. "Wendy was saying pretty much the same happened to our dad on Saturday. Except they told me not to come back. They just dragged me out of my cell before the crack of dawn and told me they were deporting me. Then they drove me out to the airport in handcuffs and shoved me on a plane."
"So how did you get into smuggling dope anyway?"
"I didn't. I knew about the cigarettes, obviously. Everyone smuggles them or buys the smuggled ones over there. But no one told me about the cannabis."
"So technically, you're not guilty because you didn't know you were smuggling dope?"
"Except you couldn't get a court to believe that. I really appreciate what you and Dad did for me. It was really boring in that remand centre."
"I think it's mainly the old man you've got to thank for getting you out," Astor said with due modesty.
"You've not got an M-track like your weird brother, then?" said Wendy. "Your own permanent music sound-track to life?"
"No," laughed Julie. "My dad reckons he's got one, too, so I must have missed out on that gene."
"So what's your next move?" said Astor.
"I'm going up to Scotland to see Dad. Has he really got a castle up there?"
"You better believe it. How are you getting there?"
"Dad said to borrow the plane fare off you and he'll pay you back. But I could hitch it. It'll cost a fortune to fly there."
"That's okay. We can afford it. And you're much too good looking to be out hitch-hiking. I can't believe you're my sister."
"Snap! I can't believe she's your sister either," laughed Wendy.
"Except we've both got coppers crawling all over us," said Julie.
"Why haven't you got an Italian accent?" Astor added with a frown. "Or a Spanish one? You talk just like the rest of us."
Julie shrugged. "I don't know."
"It's probably because you learned all your languages by speaking them and imitating people you heard speaking them in the countries concerned," said Wendy.
"Yeah, obviously, Professor Wezzer," said Astor.
"Is it true what Dad said, you run this vast music empire round here?" said Julie. "A theatre and recording studio with its own public relations agency? How did you manage to get all that together?"
"Lots of hard work and years of experience in the industry," said Astor. "What?" he added indignantly when Wendy started laughing.
"Nothing," she told him with a knowing smile.
"Am I missing something here?" said Julie
"Nothing important," said Astor. "Did they give you time to pack before they chucked you out of Italy or do you need some cash for clothes, too?"
"The girl I was sharing a flat with, she'd packed up all my stuff. They collected it for me. So I wouldn't have any excuse to go back, I reckon."
"So what are you planning to do with yourself? Are you staying here or going back to Spain?"
Julie shrugged. "There's nothing in Spain for me to go back to. Dad said he can give me a job helping out with the things he's doing in Scotland. Or I can get a job as a roadie with your outfit."
"Yeah, we've got a band doing an Italian tour in March," said Astor. "We could do with some fluent Italian-speakers."
"Yeah, right," scoffed Julie. "I think I'll try Scotland for a while. Do I get the tour of your theatre before I push off? Wendy said you don't have much on today."
"I've got so little to do, we can probably manage the recording studio as well," said Astor. "Some of us tend not to do our work during the day."
"Great!" said Julie. "You know, it's really weird having a big brother who's some sort of tycoon."
"Well, if you're looking for really weird, Pete's your man," laughed Wendy.
"Actually, it's nice to have a bit of intelligent female company for a change." Astor directed a pointed look across the table at Wendy.
When he contacted Rachel Billington at her office the next morning, Astor learned that things were happening about his complaints, but not very fast. The establishment was reluctant to believe that someone like himself had a genuine case and that magistrates and detective inspectors had been exceeding their authority.
On the other hand, Rachel told Pete Astor, the ranks of the police complaints investigators contained officers who believed that they could do their own careers a lot of good by digging out and exposing people who were in the habit of abusing the system. It was all a matter of giving them time to get their job done.
By the time he set out for the eastern edge of Warleigh, where the town was colliding with the Green Belt, Astor had decided that investigating his case would feel like digging a hole in soft sand. If the investigator didn't dig hard enough and fast enough, the whole issue would collapse as the walls caved in on him. Astor didn't believe that the system was fundamentally corrupt, just that it was expert in obscuring unfortunate details.
Astor had accepted without surprise, the news that the composer Darren Creel lived less than a mile from his own home. Warleigh seemed a natural place for creative people to choose to live. As it was a sunny, January day with a guarantee of no rain, he decided to walk instead of driving, knowing that he could always get a minicab home if the weatherman had been lying to him.
Darren Creel was looking a bit out of breath when he opened his front door. The sight of a vacuum cleaner under the stairs, abandoned in a tangle of hose and power cable, told Astor that his host had been doing a bit of tidying up, which he found quite flattering. It proved that some people believed that he really was an important record company executive, even if those who knew him well, like Wendy, still found the whole business an incredibly funny joke.
The gas fire was keeping the front room warm. This was clearly the music room. Creel had a venerable upright piano against the wall facing the gas fire, and huge speakers in the alcoves on either side of the chimney breast. His collection of recordings was mainly on vinyl with just a scattering of tape cassettes and CDs. Deutsche Gramophon and Philips had done very well out of him in the past.
Astor settled into one of the armchairs and took an envelope from his inside pocket. "I've brought you the details of our standard deal for paying the composer's royalties. I don't know if you've had any experience of this sort of thing?"
"Chance would be a fine thing," sighed Creel.
"Yeah, that's what most composers think. And that's why music firms can rip them off in a hundred and ninety-nine ways before they're all the way through the door. You'll be pleased to hear it's the same deal I have with Kiron Sounds for my royalties. But feel free to show it to some legal expert. You can't trust anyone in the music business."
"You're serious about recording my concerto for flute and viola?"
"We certainly are."
"It's just that when you've been struggling in the wilderness for so many years, you start to lose faith that you can ever make a breakthrough."
"Right. Being good isn't enough, given the amount of competition around. You have to get lucky, too." Astor investigated a heap of scores on a coffee table, which had been placed artfully close by his chair. The composer had cut down orange and dark green document wallets to the size of music paper and stapled his manuscripts together down the left-hand edge.
"There's about ten years' work there," Creel said apologetically. "I sometimes despair of ever getting anything finished. You know, there's always some little changes you can make."
"Know the feeling well." Astor flicked through the scores, then began a closer examination of a piano piece.
"Do you want me to play some of it for you on the piano? That's how I hack it out, note by painful note on the piano. I could really do with hearing an orchestra play it a few times to get it right."
"You can't hear it in your head when you see it written down?" said Astor.
"No," frowned Creel, puzzled. "Can you?" he added with a laugh.
"Well, yes. And I tell you what, I wouldn't change a note of this."
"You like it?"
"I sure do. I reckon you're going to be a lot more than a one-hit wonder if the rest is as good as this. You know, what you ought to do is get the orchestra to use your stuff for auditions. It means you get to hear it and Hugo can find out how good the hopefuls are at sight-reading."
"Great minds, and all that," said Creel with a smile. "Hugo suggested just that for the auditions they're doing tomorrow."
"In that case, maybe I'll stroll round for a listen," said Astor. "This will be in the rehearsal room at the Astoria?"
"Yes, I understand you have that rather controversial Welsh group descending on your main concert hall."
"That might be a good way for you to get yourself noticed. Do a spot on Dominik Wekling's Channel Four arts programme and be controversial."
"I'd love to," sighed Creel, "except I've got a living to earn and I don't have the time for being controversial."
"Pity a few others in the arts business can't say the same," laughed Astor.
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.