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31.

If the fog ever lifts
It does so briefly, concealing even more effectively
That which our eyes strain to see.

When he flicked through the morning papers the next day, Pete Astor gained the impression that the compensation case against Kiron Sounds wasn't quite as ready to roll as the other side had made out. His threats of retaliation were making the legal profession quite nervous and Astor assumed that they were working behind the scenes to shift the goalposts in their favour.
   One item that caught his eye was a report on a memorial service for Alice Hraldy, which had been held in the meeting hall belonging to her faction of the Talmy Group rather than a place of worship. The reporter described it as a jolly, social occasion, which made its own sense if the lady wasn't really dead because she had merely 'gone on through' to help others to follow her lead.
   The flavour of the report indicated that the journalist sensed that she was on to something deep and mysterious, and that she possessed rather more insider knowledge than she had been allowed to divulge. Astor assumed that the reporter had been let a little way into what looked like a conspiracy as a means of getting her attention.
   Toward the end of the piece, he learned that Jane Polon maintained that she was still in contact with Alice Hraldy, and she had proved it by answering questions that only Hraldy could have answered. Astor could see that the reporter had found herself in an awkward position. Her newspaper could not condone suicide but the reporter could see that there was something very much out of the ordinary behind Hraldy's 'death'.
   Astor put it down to a symptom of an age that was rejecting 'proper' science in favour of alien invaders, paranormal phenomena and extra-dimensional creatures, which appeared to humans drugged out of their minds on Charm and other exotic pharmaceuticals.
   Still wondering about the Talmy Group, Astor headed for the archive to consult an expert. Padraig M'Cracken seemed to have time on his hands and he was in the mood to talk about the Talmy Group with one of his major benefactors.
   "What we have to do, Pete, is sort the magic from the moonshine," M'Cracken explained over drinks (the good sherry) in his office.
   "Aren't they synonyms?" said Astor.
   "I define magic as something real that we can't explain and moonshine as delusion. For instance, people knew about the phenomenon of static electricity, and used it for hundreds of years before anyone came up with a scientific explanation."
   "So you're saying magic is sort of pre-science? Something people can do and get the same result every time, but they don't understand why it's happening?"
   "I wouldn't go quite that far. The link between the action and the phenomenon isn't that cut and dried. What I mean is, there are intangible components to the magic spell and you have to make due allowance for them by altering the ritual."
   "How?" frowned Astor.
   Padraig M'Cracken smiled at him. "If we knew that, we'd be heading over the border from magic to science. It's just something some people can do. An in-born talent."
   "Sounds very weird to me."
   "Magic is until it becomes science. And even more so when it's veiled in a fog of moonshine."
   "So how do contacts with mysterious entities fit in with the magic and moonshine?"
   "It's a fact that humans have been putting themselves into altered states of consciousness for thousands of years. Whether by fasting or taking drugs. The motive is generally to make sure that they're in harmony with the universe, or the people they represent are in tune with the universe..."
   "Medicine men, kind of thing?"
   "That's right," nodded M'Cracken. "Squaring things with the gods. And then you get the individuals looking for a personal advantage. An edge over everyone else."
   "Like Faust?"
   "I prefer to look more to the Arabian Nights scene. Where the entity contacted isn't necessarily evil. It could be, but the punter just takes a chance on that."
   "So the genie could have been shut up in the bottle as a justified gaol sentence, or he could have been wrongfully imprisoned by some evil bastard?"
   "That's right. The human participant in the contact is hoping to make a deal of some sort without having to give too much away in personal terms."
   "But he might be willing to sacrifice a few thousand lucky others?"
   "In some cases. But there's a great deal curiosity behind a lot of cases. Just having the satisfaction of knowing something can be done is the initial goal. Thinking of doing something with the knowledge tends to come afterwards."
   "So what does all this tell us about the mysterious beings from other dimensions, for want of a better description?" said Astor.
   "That all depends on whether they're real or a continuous and fairly self-consistent output from an inner recesses of the mind of some human who's stoned out of his normal mind."
   "Assuming they're real...?"
   "Then there are various possibilities. One is that they're just that, beings from other dimensions shouting through the walls, as it were, like the people in the next flat."
   "Telling us rowdy buggers next door to keep the noise down?" Astor said with a grin.
   "Possibly." M'Cracken cracked a smile. "But one very popular assumption is they're a subsequent state of our life cycle. And then the various theologies argue about the next step. Maybe everyone 'goes on through' and they're divided between Heaven and Hell. Or just a select, deserving few 'go on through' to Nirvana, the garden of delights, Valhalla or whatever. Or the Talmy Group's view -those who can will always 'go on through' regardless of whether they were Mother Theresa or Pol Pot in this life."
   "In that case, if it's the next step in our life cycle, what's the point of contacting people on this side? You'd think they'd know everything they need to know about us. Or is it just idle curiosity? Do they want to know what's top of the pops this week? Or what crap won the Turner Prize this year?"
   M'Cracken shrugged. "You pays your money and you takes your choice. The Church of Spiritualism would have us believe those on the Other Side are concerned about what happens to the people they left behind, or they want to reassure them that things will be great for them on their side. The major religions would have us believe that if we lead good lives, meaning support them in this world and do what the leaders of the church say, you're on for an eternity in paradise."
   "Or Hell, if you don't cough up?"
   "Exactly. Or if you fall for the siren song of the Evil One, you're going to be drained dry and cast into the pit of flames in due course. And that more or less sums up the various theories about why there's contact between the Sides, if I can call them that. It's either pure compassion, or it's sheer greed -a sort of vampirism on the human life force -or even sheer necessity."
   "In what way?" frowned Astor.
   "Well, imagine you've 'gone on through' and you find yourself on a barren desert island with no hope of surviving unaided. But then you find out you can establish some sort of symbiotic link with your previous plane of existence..."
   "You do the sucker a good turn and he supplies you with a bit of life force?" said Astor. "Or you make him think you've done him a good turn while you drain him dry like a vampire, then you move on to the next sucker. Which could also apply to extra-dimensional beings as well as former human beings on another plane of existence."
   "Sounds like you've been doing some serious thinking along these lines, Pete."
   "Well, when you're exposed to someone like Wendy, you can't help absorbing some of this stuff. Or wondering about it, if someone you like and respect takes it so seriously. So what do you reckon to this Talmy bunch?"
   "On the face of it, their view coincides with how I think moving on to a further plane of existence would work -if it were possible. It's something some people can do and others can't, and whether or not you went to church every Sunday and supported lots of good causes is quite irrelevant."
   "What about their claim they can teach you to do it?"
   M'Cracken shrugged. "Who knows? The only way to find out for sure is to 'go on through' yourself, which is a pretty drastic step. But it should be possible to find out if there's anywhere to 'go on through' to by contacting whoever's on the Other Side and getting information from them that only they could supply."
   "Like details of where they buried the body? Or the number of their secret bank account in Switzerland?"
   "Yes, that level of information."
   "So you have a pretty open mind where the Talmys are concerned but you're waiting for them to back up what they say with some solid proof?"
   "My work has taught me that weird things do happen in our cosy, scientific world. Real things that no one can explain right now. But it's also taught me the first person to come along with an explanation ain't necessarily going to sell me the truth."
   "Or even the second person?"
   "There's a lot to be said for striking a balance between an open mind and a healthy scepticism. And examining everything in the light of what you know from personal experience."
   "As long as that doesn't leaving you even further in the dark than someone without that doubtful benefit," said Astor. "Anyway, I'd better get on with some work and let you get on with yours."
   "Anytime you fancy a chat, drop in," said M'Cracken with a smile. He sensed that Astor knew something but that he was not yet ready to share it. Padraig M'Cracken had learned to be patient.

Pete Astor received a somewhat apologetic phone call from his father at the end of the following week. Astor let him ramble on for a few minutes, then he decided to take the initiative.
   "Go on, Dad, what is it you're really calling about?" he asked. "Is Jules in gaol again, or something?
   "No, she's fine," said Clive Astor. "Okay, I really called to ask you if you want to come into a deal with me."
   "What sort of deal?"
   "For an island off the Scottish coast. It's a great place, but I don't have enough spare cash around at the moment. So I was wondering if you were interested in going halves with me?"
   "Sure. When do you need the cash?"
   "Aren't you going to ask how much it is?"
   "Okay, how much is it?"
   "It's going quite cheap, actually. The asking price is one point seven million, but I think they'll come down at least a hundred kay for an uncomplicated sale. There's a village on it, and several farms, a pub, an old lighthouse, now closed down, and a house for the owner."
   "Sort of your own county?"
   "Almost. The house is quite interesting. It's a sort of fortified affair, built by an eccentric millionaire with delusions of being persecuted..."
   "I know the feeling," said Astor.
   "Of course, you do. How are you getting on with Inspector Fiend?"
   "It's all suspiciously quiet at the moment but I've been told by one of his mates that he did a favour for the magistrate who keeps signing the search warrants. Say no more," Astor added significantly.
   "Inspector Fiend has got mates?" said his father.
   "Surprising as it may seem. I'd better not tell him about the island or he'll be paying you a visit on some pretext."
   "Interestingly enough, there were rumours of a murder on the island -done in a building that was later demolished to provide some of the stone for the existing house. Of course, there's no official record of the murder and there was never any police investigation."
   "So he got away with it? Whoever did it?"
   "The local sceptics think the story's based on a husband who chose to walk out on his wife and was never seen again. The rumour could be based on scandalous tales that she killed him and hid his body on the island."
   "This isn't something the estate agent invented?"
   "Hardly. The rumour's been going around for nearly two hundred years."
   "So you're not worried about ghosts?"
   "Nope. And I reckon the place is a dead bargain. But I can't afford it after buying my castle. And the place is going to need some extra cash for running costs and maintenance on top of the purchase price."
   "Okay, go ahead with a serious offer. And I hope you don't get gazumped."
   "Thanks, Pete. The place has got real possibilities, and helping to run it will keep Jules out of mischief."
   "How's she getting on up there?" Astor asked.
   "She's starting to spread her wings a bit. She's still a bit mad about being betrayed like that, by her Italian pals."
   "Being busted for a risk she didn't agree to take? Talking about that, I had another chat with your mate Signor Altaverdi last week."
   "What, offering him more free copies of faked photos?" laughed Clive Astor.
   "No, Tom Maddox thought we ought to let him off the hook now. So I spun him some yarn about getting suspicious about this mythical Italian PI I'm supposed to be in contact with. How he became dead shifty when I offered a deal for part of the material he's supposed to have because I was having trouble raising the money for all of it."
   "What, giving the impression you think your mythical PI was stringing you along?"
   "Something like that. Signor Altaverdi managed to sound most dischuffed at not getting any more proof of corruption."
   "Which lets him concentrate on sweeping what he's got already under the carpet."
   "Everything back to normal, yes."
   "By the way, I had some journalist asking me if the detox clinic you were in is here in Scotland. What's that all about?"
   "Some bastard with nothing much to do is spreading rumours about me. So they've crossed the border now?"
   "Right. I sent him away with a flea in his ear, of course."
   "Pity you didn't clobber him with a caber," laughed Pete.
   They chatted on for a few minutes more. Then Pete Astor consulted his computer to check on his financial position. He had lots of money but most of it was tied up in fairly long term investments. He could raise a few hundred thousand quickly but it will take time to get hold of a half share in an island. A man with his assets could always borrow cash, he knew, but that would mean paying a small fortune in interest to some undeserving, thieving bastard bank, which seemed a bad idea. Especially when he had other sources of finance.
   Each batch of Charm seemed to have a slightly different effect - as if it were taking him to the same place by a slightly different route. Astor was just wondering how to phrase his question while trying to spot differences in Kiron's colours when Kiron took the initiative.
   "I was hoping to hear from you, Pete. I have some news for you," the voice said inside his head.
   "Good, I hope?" said Astor.
   "D'Iem Hadar will be contacting you about a gig at the Astoria."
   "You're kidding!" gasped Astor.
   "No, I expect the contact to come within the next few days. Why do you doubt me, Pete?"
   "That's not doubt. You've just totally blown my mind. I mean, the Gems are rock legends. One of the greatest bands of all time. Big as they come... Oh, I get it. Are they one of your energy sources?"
   "Unfortunately not. They provide energy for a colleague of mine, who is known to them as Valefor. As I am known to him as Purson."
   "Never give your right name," quipped Astor.
   "My species uses names appropriate to the circumstances, Pete. You could look upon the D'Iem Hadar gig as a favour to my colleague."
   "A favour to everyone who gets to go, more like. Far out."
   "So you anticipate no problems?"
   "Anyone who creates any problems is out on his ear. Dead. The gig is on. You can count on that."
   "Excellent. Do you have something to tell me?"
   "I don't know. Do I? Oh, yes. I was just wondering if I could get out of a temporary cash-flow problem by winning the lottery again."
   "Yes, it could happen again, Pete. You're still a very lucky person."
   "Great! Well, you've just proved that. A gig by the Gems!"
   The coloured shapes began to become blurred. As soon as he was able to function again, Astor turned to his record collection and looked out his favourite D'Iem Hadar album. A group of university students had formed the band in 1968. They had burned brightly through the Seventies and then just dropped out of sight, apart from eight gigs per year at closed venues with admittance by invitation only. They had gained control of their back-catalogue of recordings and everything was available on vinyl or CD by mail order.
   Wendy walked in on him while Astor was reliving his past. "I thought I'd nicked all your Gems stuff off you," she said.
   "Which is why I had to buy a new set," said Astor. "You remember going to this gig?"
   "It was one in the mid-Seventies when they were charging about a week's wages for a ticket, right? Because they were putting so much preparation into their gigs, they couldn't do very many of them."
   "And they were worth twice the price, too."
   "Wasn't this when you made one of your infrequent attempts to impress a girlfriend? And you spent another week's wages on a ticket for her?"
   "Only she wasn't impressed enough and I chucked her and you blagged the spare ticket," Astor finished. "Did you know they're doing one of their occasional gigs soon?"
   "If you can find out where it is, I'll buy the tickets this time," Wendy vowed.
   "Wow! What's it like to be rich?" laughed Astor.
   "Not bad, but you can still get arrested."
   "Are you still pissed off about that?"
   "I'm not going to let it go, you know. It's fair enough if you get arrested for doing something. Or actually getting in the way of someone obnoxious. But I reckon those sods were looking for us. Looking to arrest us for anything, I mean."
   "You're going to have a hard time proving that."
   "And we're going to give them a hard time along the way."
   "What you need to do is have a quiet smoke of something illegal to calm you down."
   "Except I'm not bringing any back here with your friend Inspector Fiend on the warpath."
   "Me neither," said Astor. "I haven't smoked anything for ages, and that includes ordinary ciggies. Do you want a drink instead? My dad sent me a case of rather fine malt whisky the other day."
   "Okay," nodded Wendy. "Then are you going to shut up and let me listen to the music?"

Pete Astor spent the weekend within grabbing range of a telephone at all times. Then he realized that talking to Kiron was on such a casual basis that his call from D'Iem Hadar might come in weeks rather than days. Wendy had a triumphant air on Sunday when she brought him breakfast in bed. They were both forty-three years old now and she would not be a year older than him until the middle of July.
   It wasn't until Wednesday of the next week that Astor remembered about winning the lottery to buy his father's island. The whole notion seemed totally ridiculous. Even if Kiron were real, not some strange figment of a diseased brain, then it seemed totally incredible that anyone could possible be lucky enough to win two lottery jackpots.
   And then Astor noticed which day it was and remembered that there are mid-week draws for a prize of just a few millions, and if he won that sort of jackpot, it would be more than enough to buy the island. A miserable little mid-weeker didn't really count as winning the lottery in the same way as a Saturday win. Astor reached his conclusion as Caroline entered the kitchen via the back door.
   "Are you ready, Pete?" she asked brightly. "Obviously not," she added, taking in odd coppery glints on his unshaven face.
   "We're going somewhere," Astor divined.
   "We're going to the Astoria to see the orchestra show off its new apprentices to the press. Your friend Carol and that hunky pianist Marcus. And Dominik's going to be there with a film crew from his Channel Four programme."
   "So we are. You're early."
   "Just as well, really, isn't it?"
   "I'm not going to argue with someone as well organized as you, mate," grinned Astor. "By the way, do you ever do the lottery?"
   "Only when it's a roll-over, like this week. So the answer is yes, this week. Lucky you asked me today."
   Luck ain't got much to do with it, Astor thought with an internal smile. Well, not normal luck, anyway. "Have you got your ticket yet?"
   "I always leave it to the last minute. I read somewhere you stand more chance of dying before the day of the draw than winning a big prize."
   "That's a cheerful thought," laughed Astor. He opened a drawer in the kitchen cabinet and took a 5 note from the petty cash. He had decided on a set of numbers similar to the Diabolicus combination that had brought him his big win. He wrote '13, 14, 18, 19, 26 39' in the bottom margin of the note, as if adding an unofficial serial number.
   "I wish I was rich enough to use fivers as scrap paper," remarked Caroline.
   "It's still spendable, so it's not exactly scrap," Astor pointed out.
   "You want me to get you a ticket when I get mine? I think the jackpot's about twelve million."
   "I thought it was only about two quid for a mid-weeker?"
   "It's a roll-over, like I said. No one won on Saturday."
   "So you did."
   "What would you do with twelve million pounds, Pete?"
   "Buy myself an island and retire to a life of contemplation and serious debauchery," Astor said without hesitation. "Maybe even start an exclusive detox clinic."
   "Would you invite your friends round to this island of yours? I mean, any who didn't need detoxing?"
   "What, fly them over on my private jet?"
   "Yes, you could afford one of those. You could buy a private jet for about seven million pounds. How much would your island cost?"
   "You could get one off Scotland for less than a couple of million."
   "I think I'd want my island somewhere a bit warmer than that!"
   "It'd probably cost you more, then."
   "Tell you what, if my ticket comes up, I'll give you the odd two million for your island and just keep the ten for myself."
   "And you'll fly the guests in on your personal Learjet?"
   "I don't think I could ever spend seven million pounds on just one thing."
   "Bet you could if you tried real hard."
   "Chance would be a fine thing," sighed Caroline, glancing at her watch. "Are you growing a beard?"
   "I think I'll go and have a shave," said Astor. "Help yourself to coffee or computers or anything else you fancy. I suppose I'd better put something decent on so you're not ashamed to be seen with me?"
   "Great idea." Caroline turned to the kitchen computer. "I can do a quick tweak on the website while I'm waiting for you."

The 'Usual Suspects' were out in force at the Astoria, mopping up the free food and drink at the reception before a short concert, which would feature the new recruits to TC. Quite a fair number of the local councillors were music lovers and Astor noted, without surprise, local journalist Reg Drew in earnest conversation with a heavyweight music critic from one of the national newspapers.
   Roddy Quayle, the theatre's assistant manager, was in charge of a Classical music event. He dressed and behaved like an ageing Sloane Ranger and he had a posh accent to match, even though he had grown up in Croydon. Roddy had been in the theatre business since leaving school in his mid-teens. Now in his fifties, and prone to limp if his arthritis was playing him up, he was grateful for the chance to end his working life in the upper branches of the show-biz service sector tree. James Faucumberg had given him his job as a repayment of past favours.
   "Pete, hi," said Dominik Wekling, arriving with woman wearing large red spectacles and carrying an overflowing clipboard. "This is Verity, my producer."
   "Enjoying the freebie?" said Astor.
   "Some of us are here to work," Verity Marshall told him in a very purposeful tone.
   Astor frowned. "You're not still making tomorrow's prog?"
   "No, this is a separate feature on modern composers. Which we should be getting on with," the producer added.
   "I think that's a heavy hint directed at me," laughed Dominik. "By the way, you know these occasional extreme merit awards we make?"
   "This is the Real Art movement not TV?"
   "Serious Art, right. I've met this bloke who's turning out seriously stunning computer graphics on dinosaur of a PC. He'd benefit from some decent equipment and software and a grant for some proper training. But I'll catch you later about that, Pete," Dominik added in response to a menacing look from his television producer.
   Dr. Gale Bannister, Carol's mother, homed in on Astor as Verity Marshall steered Dominik toward their camera crew. "I wanted to thank you for what you're doing for Carol," she explained. "She's really over the Moon about all this."
   "Glad to hear it," said Astor.
   "I'd almost suspect you were having an affair with her, or planning to, if I didn't know better."
   "Is that a mother's polite way of warning me off?" laughed Astor, remembering Dominik Wekling's plans to get even more friendly with a lady violinist in The Croydon. "Have you ever suspected she really might be as musically talented as everyone thinks? Your little girl?"
   "I'm afraid I'm not qualified to judge that. Maybe I should have kept up the piano lessons my mother made me take."
   "What, you mean you wasted your life being a doctor instead of junking medicine and getting into a band?"
   "Something like that. You really think she has as much talent as Mr. Wolfe says?"
   "I certainly do. I reckon if she puts in enough work, she's got a good career in front of her. Or one that will keep her going till she chucks it all out the window in favour of getting married and having loads of horrible kids."
   "A mistake you never made, Pete?"
   "I didn't get where I am today by having loads of horrible kids. Or nice ones, like Carol, I hasten to add."
   "Yes, that's funny, I did get where I am today by having Carol. Are you really old enough to remember Reginald Perin?"
   "Age has nothing to do with it when characters are preserved on film and recording tape. And TV stations keep showing their back catalogue in seasons of repeats."
   "I suppose not."
   "Excuse me, Dr. Bannister, could we have a photograph of you with your daughter?" said one of the media organizers.
   "Famous for fifteen minutes!" laughed the doctor.
   "Pete, phone," said Roddy Quayle, doing a walk-by.
   Astor headed for an adjacent office and some peace and quiet. The theatre's switchboard operator re-routed his call.
   "Hi, this is Dave Briggett," said an unfamiliar voice. "Does the name Valefor mean anything to you?"
   "Oh, shit!" said Astor.
   "Hello?" said Briggett.
   "I can't believe it!" said Astor. "That's the Dave Briggett?"
   "The only one I know."
   "And does the name... Shit, what was it? Purson, that's it."
   "I can't believe we're having his conversation, Pete."
   "That makes two of us, Dave."
   "You're really in touch with one of the Extras?"
   "I call them The Others."
   "We call Valefor an Extra-Existential."
   "We?"
   "The band."
   "You mean you're all in touch with him?"
   "Right."
   "Far out."
   "Anyway, about this gig..."
   "Right. Sorry if I'm totally incoherent, Dave, but you're a legend."
   "But still a human being, Pete."
   "Right. Have you got a manager? Do you want to shoot him over to the Astoria to talk serious turkey with my guy?"
   "Yeah, I'll let you have his number so they can fix up something between them. And I'd like to have a look at the theatre. I've heard a lot of good things about it."
   "Anytime you like."
   "What are you doing this afternoon?"
   "We've got this do with TC till four. When can you get here?"
   "Suppose I roll up about half-four?"
   "Great. See you then, Dave."
   James Faucumberg was suitable gob-smacked when Astor passed on his news, along with a warning that his information was confidential for the moment. Then he tracked Wendy down by telephone and ordered her to be at the Astoria by four twenty-five without fail. After that, Astor rejoined the party and sat through the concert in a dream of anticipation.
   Business intruded again as the audience was leaving the Astoria and the musicians were winding down. A small crowd joined Astor in his personal box. Dominik had brought Hugo Wolf, the conductor, and his producer for a chat about strategy. Verity Marshall was much more relaxed now that she had completed her taping schedule and sent the crew back to base.
   "What we want to do is announce that you've commissioned a symphony from Darren Creel, Pete, while we're talking to him about it," said Dominik. "If that's okay with you?"
   Astor shrugged. "Works for me."
   "You weren't planning some announcement by the Kiron Group?" said Verity Marshall.
   "No, it's a fairly informal arrangement," said Astor. "He has some sketches which he thinks could develop into a symphony, and I offered to sponsor him to see how it works out. But there's no obligation to produce, so it's not a commission in that sense. We won't sue him if it doesn't work, I mean. We're just paying for a sabbatical for him."
   "Okay, but we won't mention that," said Dominik. "You see, Pete, you've managed to give the Arts Mafia control freaks another reason to hate you by giving Darren the commission and not asking for their approval first."
   "Even if that's the usual way music came into being in the past?" said Astor. "Someone commissioning a Mozart to write something? Old Mozzer would have been working in a shop or chopping wood to keep his family going otherwise, and there'd be nothing to put on the greatest hits album."
   "Quite right," nodded Hugo Wolf.
   "Anyway, the point is, we'd like to include an insert of you telling Dom how a rock musician like yourself comes to be commissioning a Classical symphony," said Verity Marshall.
   "Not something I can do today." Astor glanced at his watch. "I have a four-thirty meeting."
   "We were thinking about next Wednesday afternoon, anyway," said Dominik. "And doing it here."
   "Sounds okay," nodded Astor. "It'd be a good idea to tell Caroline so she can remind me. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have this bloke to see."

The legend was a man in his early fifties, about ten years older than Pete Astor, half a head shorter and with rapidly thinning hair that was white with traces of the original blond around his natural tonsure. He had an air of total confidence, as if sure of what he was doing and not caring what anyone else thought of it, but it was confidence without arrogance.
   The legend proved that he was, indeed, just like an ordinary mortal by telling Astor that he should rejoin Intoxicant while Astor was struggling for something intelligent to say. Dave Briggett had been to one of the band's gigs between The Portal and Astor's sacking, and he had been impressed. For the very first time, Astor was able to share his real reason for failing to do what everyone else expected of him -his obligation to Kiron and the need to make sure that his empire remained focussed on the task of keeping the Other supplied with energy. Dave Briggett's nod of understanding told Astor that he was either not completely insane or not completely alone in his delusion.
   Wendy became totally incoherent when she was introduced to the legend. She recovered after about five minutes and took upon herself the task of giving the visitor a guided tour of the theatre. Caroline proved that she had a shocking hole in her musical education by saying hello to the visitor and not recognizing the name. Then she left Astor to find his own way home and went off to buy their lottery tickets.
   A brief visit to the theatre turned into a full-scale night out. Astor and Wendy gave their guest dinner at the Meridan Hotel opposite, Dave Briggett enjoyed a BMR double bill from one of the Astoria's boxes, then they headed for clubland. Astor half expected to find the police on their doorstep, making another futile drug bust, when their minicab unloaded Wendy and himself at six-thirty in the morning. Pete Astor went to bed with a profound sense of achievement.

Caroline phoned Astor at four in the afternoon to ask him if he was up. "Why, is it in the rules you have to be out of bed to answer the phone?" Astor asked.
   "Probably not," Caroline admitted. "I just wanted to tell you your lottery ticket didn't win because no one won and the jackpot's being rolled over to Saturday."
   "So you tore the ticket up?"
   "No, it's in for four more draws. You gave me a fiver, remember?"
   "Oh, right."
   "Are you awake, Pete?" laughed Caroline.
   "Certainly."
   "Do you want me to pop in with the ticket?"
   "No point till it's won something."
   "Optimist!"
   "Has anyone told you who the Gems are yet?"
   "You can't get over someone not having heard of them, can you?"
   "Frankly, no," said Astor.
   "Yes, but just think how much I'm enjoying discovering them now."
   "Good point."
   "Did you see that thing in the paper about your new band? Damaged Goods?"
   "Not yet."
   "All sorts of complaints about a TV appearance they made. When they told the presenter they take lots of drugs before they do any writing. That's why their songs are so good."
   "What's wrong with that if it's true? Or if they were just living up to their reputation and expectations? I mean, what else do you expect from the Doms?"
   "Hey, why does that sound almost reasonable?" laughed Caroline. "Cheers, Pete."
   "Cheers, Caroline."

Pete Astor set off for a Caradoc gig on Saturday afternoon, acting as a chauffeur to take Wendy and her friend Mwrdn Smith to their local airfield. Their destination was Porthmadog on the coast of Wales and Astor amused himself on the way by speculating about how many native porters they would need for their safari into the wilderness.
   Mwrdn accepted his jokes in good part. Pete had become one of the good guys after signing up her brother's band. Her opinion of the rest of the Astoria's management team was uniformly low. James, Roddy and others had been singularly unimpressed by Caradoc.
   James thought that they were an average ethnic band that was likely to appeal to a fairly small audience. He had taken as another sign of eccentricity, Astor's decision to give the band a recording contract and to set up a tour for them of the traditional Celtic circuit -Wales, Ireland, Scotland and Brittany.
   Their discussion on the matter had been cut short by passing over familiar territory. Astor had told James that the big boss liked Caradoc and they were to get every break. James had given him a long look and then shrugged.
   "Okay," James had told him, "we're into encouraging the musicians the boss likes, not just those who make us a lot of money. You shouldn't have joined if you can't take a joke, so they say."
   "If it helps you to see the joke," Astor had replied, "remember I used to know one of the guys in the band years ago..."
   "Is there any band with musicians of a certain age you can't say that about, Pete?"
   "You'd probably be hard pushed to find one. So why don't you tell yourself I'm working a fiddle and doing someone I used to know a favour?"
   "So which is it? A fiddle or the boss likes them? Not that it matters too much."
   "The boss really does like them. And Wendy's threatened me with extreme physical violence if I don't co-operate because the guy I knew way back is the brother of one of her weird mates."
   "Influence on a grand scale, you mean?"
   "Wheels within wheels within wheels, me old James."
   And that had settled matters.
   There had been increasing amounts of criticism of the band from professional Welshmen as it had become better known. Dominik Wekling had managed to stir up a fair amount of controversy on his TV show. Spokespersons in the Welsh Arts industry were now saying that Caradoc was mocking Welsh culture, which surprised Pete Astor because he didn't believe there had ever been such a thing.
   The band had also managed to upset the Druids by branding them as mainly a Victorian creation and nothing much to do with Wales. If anything, the real Druids were native Britons who had been driven into Wales from England by invading Romans, Angles, Saxons and so on, and these interlopers had contaminated the local culture.
   Astor had continued to get good reports on the band from Kiron and he remained amused by the amount of controversy they managed to stir up. The fact that there were two other bands on the bill beside Caradoc proved to Astor that the other musicians were grateful for the publicity and the added fees for playing to a bigger audience than they could have drawn alone.
   Mwrdn was in a combative mood by the time they had penetrated the ranks of anti-Caradoc pickets outside the theatre. Wendy seemed to think that getting her friend inside without a punch-up was a major achievement. Having access to the back-stage area, being recognized as a star's sister and a couple of stiff drinks soon calmed Mwrdn down. A good night was had by all, and Astor was certain that Kiron would report a healthy energy spike from the Porthmadog area at their next contact.

The travellers arrived home at four a.m. on Sunday morning. Astor checked his fax machine but there was no message from Caroline. He assumed that his luck was taking a little longer to exert itself this time -if it was planning to exert itself at all. In case it wasn't, he had made a deal with himself. He would let the lottery ticket run out, and if he still hadn't won, he would get Ozzie, his accountant, to cash in some asset or other and get the money to his father that way.
   As he slipped into sleep, he was wondering whether his win, if there was one, would be a multiple roll-over of about thirty million quid, or just an ordinary jackpot of seven or even three million. Either would suit his purposes and buy his Dad's island.

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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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