If I'd turned around and walked the other way,
Would it all have happened like this anyway?
And am I wasting my time wondering?
Caroline came dashing over via their back gardens at ten-thirty on Sunday morning. She had just got up after a late night and the first thing that she had done on arriving downstairs had been to check the lottery numbers in the newspaper on her doormat. Her own ticket had just one correct number on it, which was one more than in Wednesday's draw. The ticket with 'Pete' marked on it had won the jackpot. Caroline nearly had a heart attack from excitement when she checked and re-checked the winning numbers with the ticket.
She found Wendy in the kitchen of the house opposite. Forcing herself to be as super-cool as she knew Pete Astor would be in the same circumstances, she remarked, "You know Pete's won the lottery?"
"Oh, he's told you?" Wendy's lack of excitement seemed almost superhuman. "I was wondering how long the veil of secrecy would remain intact."
"It was twenty-four million pounds," marvelled Caroline.
"No, it was twenty-six," said Wendy.
"No, I'm sure it said twenty-four. Where's your paper to check it?"
"Hang on." Wendy frowned. "Today's paper?"
"Well, yes," said Caroline, baffled.
"He's won today?"
"Well, yesterday. The draw was yesterday."
"He's won again?"
"Again?" Caroline repeated blankly. "What d'you mean?"
"Where do you think he got all the money to buy his empire?"
"That belongs to Pete? But I thought..."
"Hang on. Hang on. We're getting into Pete's secrets and I think we need to let him decide what he wants to tell you."
"Pete has won the lottery before?" Caroline looked stunned.
"I think we'd better go and roust him out of bed," Wendy decided.
Pete Astor refused to get excited when two attractive women barged into his bedroom and shook him awake. Caroline noticed in passing that there had been two people sleeping in the bed.
"There's probably another hundred and eighty two people with winning tickets," Astor scoffed when Caroline and Wendy had explained why they were there.
"Don't be such a pessimist!" said Caroline. "Or are you just trying to be weird?"
"Probably. Tell you what, if there's less than eight winners, you can have the two million you offered me," Astor said after a long yawn.
"Oh, sure!" scoffed Caroline.
"Straight up. No weirdness."
"You mean that, Pete?"
"Why, don't you think you deserve to have two million quid? As a reward for not legging it with the ticket? After all, possession is eleven points of the law in this case."
"I don't know what to say."
"How about, Give me the money, you bastard? That's what I'd say."
"What if a hundred and eighty two other people have won?"
"You can always go and ring the number on the ticket while I wake up." Astor noticed that Wendy was giving him the comical open-mouthed stare, which had been her reaction on being presented with her own two million pounds.
Caroline used the bedroom extension as Wendy confessed to Astor that she had told Caroline about the earlier win. Someone at the lottery firm confirm that there was just one winner. He was still trying to get an address out of her when Caroline rang off and repeated the news to Astor.
"In that case, there's a condition," he told her. "You've got your two million as long as you don't tell anyone where it came from or what you know about my other win. Can you live with that?"
"You know what?" Caroline said to Wendy. "I think he really is a warlock. How can anyone win the lottery twice? What are the odds against winning a jackpot?"
"Fourteen million to one," said Astor.
"So the odds against winning again are what? Fourteen million times fourteen million? How much is that?"
"No, the odds stay fourteen million to one for every draw," said Astor. "All you need is the right amount of luck."
"The odds against having that amount of luck twice have got to be fourteen million times fourteen million to one," insisted Caroline. "At least."
"At times like this, the words blind bastards and seven come to mind," remarked Wendy.
"So, Cazzer, what are you going to do now you're rich?" said Astor. "Buy your island and retire to a life of serious debauchery?"
"I don't know," said Caroline. "I think I'll probably just carry on as I am until it sinks in. I still can't believe it."
"I read somewhere the lottery is all about dreams," said Astor. "From the moment you get your ticket out of the machine to the moment that sixth ball smacks up against the fifth in the collector, you're entitled to dream -about what you'll do with all that lovely money, who you'll give it to, what you'll buy, what dreams you'll make come true. In fact, you can dream even longer if you avoid the results and check your ticket against the numbers in a Sunday paper, like Cazzer did. And for some, that dream doesn't end on the Saturday night. That person's numbers have come up and their dream goes on for ever. Except in Caroline's case, she's such a rotten sceptic, she couldn't be bothered to dream."
"I've just realized," said Caroline. "If you own the theatre and everything, you've been paying my wages. I mean not some company, because you are the company."
"So?" said Astor.
"That's how you were able to give me a job."
Astor shrugged. "So you got your job because you're someone we know. Like James and Walter and everyone else. And because Wendy threatened to beat me up if I didn't take you on. Are you starting to feel like a charity case?"
"Hey, don't start your amateur Dr. Freud stuff," warned Wendy.
"It's a fair question," said Astor. "Caroline, when you walk into Nick's office or the Astoria or the Archive, is it, 'Oh, God, here's Caroline, what are we going to give her to do to make it look like she's got a job?' Or is it, 'Caroline, can you do this, this and this? And when you've done that, can you do these other five jobs?' Option one or option two?"
"Two, I suppose," said Caroline.
"So does that mean you're there just to be decorative? Well, obviously, you are highly decorative. No, are you purely decorative or are you making a valued contribution to the success of the business? One or two?"
"It's two, obviously," said Wendy.
"Come to think of it, are you sure you're up to doing all these different jobs? Being just a poor, weak woman?"
"According to Wendy," said Caroline, "the answer to that sort of question is 'Sod off, Pete!'"
"So you feel confident and purposeful?"
"No, I just feel normal."
"God, I hope I never feel that! So anyway, what are you going to do with yourself now?" said Astor. "One, go into a corner and shoot yourself? Two, tell the rest of us to phuck off because you've got two million quid to spend? Or three, carry on as you are as a member of our millionaires' club?"
"Three," said Caroline.
"You sad bastard," laughed Astor.
"What Caroline means," Wendy told him severely, "is she enjoys doing what she's doing and she's happy to carry on with it even if she doesn't have to do it for the money. Just like you. We all know you're just happy playing music and showing off, whether it's in a club with fifty people watching or in a big concert hall in front of thousands."
"And do you realize that makes Caroline as weird as us two?" said Astor. "Remembering that her main definition of being weird, as applied to us, is that we always do what we want to and sod the consequences."
"No way," said Caroline firmly. "I could never be anywhere near as weird as you two. Not even if I took evening classes."
"Okay, now we've sorted that out and you've woken me up," said Astor, "which of you kind ladies is going to make me a cup of tea?"
"We're too rich to make you cups of tea," scoffed Wendy. "Make your own."
"How do you handle being a millionaire suddenly?" said Caroline. "I still can't believe it."
"Everything comes to a dead stop," Wendy told her. "In my case, Pete just marched in on me with a briefcase full of money and handed it over. Two whole million quid!"
"Wow!" said Caroline.
"And he told me I can come back for more when I've spent it..."
"Didn't mean it," Astor said quickly.
"...my whole life just stopped there and then. I started to do things after he'd gone, but I just ended up going back to the briefcase to look at the money. I couldn't believe it was real."
"But it was?"
"Oh, yes! And after it sinks in a bit, everything up to that moment when you get your hands on the money just gets left behind on the other side of a fence. You just go into a sort of state of shock while you work out what to do next, knowing you can have absolutely anything, everything you've ever wanted up to then. It takes days to come down to Earth again. I bet some people never do. Unless you're called Pete Astor, of course. I just don't believe how easily he took it all in his stride."
"Maybe being seriously weird helped."
"I wouldn't have thought it possible for anyone to be that weird," laughed Wendy.
"You didn't do too badly yourself," mused Caroline. "I'd never have guessed you were both multi-millionaires if you hadn't told me. I was sure Pete just had this brilliant job where no one ever looked too closely at his expenses."
"I suppose having all these big plans for doing something if he ever came into serious money was what kept Pete in touch with reality. As much as he ever is."
"What about your causes?"
"I realized most of them were just me trying to make trouble, trying to throw spanners in the works for the sake of it. Governments, councils and petty officials ruin people's lives. I was just trying to give them a taste of their own medicine. But I also realized there must be some sort of grand good cause that's worth throwing serious money at. And I've been looking for it ever since."
"And what did you find? Padraig's Archive?"
"Yes, that." Wendy shrugged. "But I'm still looking for other things. You know the old proverb about it's often better to travel hopefully than to arrive? That's me now."
"I wonder what I could do? I'm not really into causes or empires."
"I should just carry on doing what you're doing at the moment if you're happy with it" said Astor. "And if you want a bit of free time for yourself, I should buy your friend Marge a photocopier so she can commit copyright piracy without involving you. And send your aunt on a world cruise."
"Yes, that's a good idea. I think Marge's idea of heaven is to have a photocopier in every room. And Auntie would love a world cruise with her friend May."
"And if you want to talk anything over, you know where we are," Wendy added.
"That castle Pete's dad bought. Was that out of the lottery win?"
"Oh, yes," laughed Wendy. "After a lifetime of building them in the air, his old man finally gets a real one. That's typical Astor."
"What did he buy for his mother?"
"He made her a multi-millionaire too," said Astor, feeling left out of the conversation. "But I bet the silly old trout just left it in the bank instead of spending it. Except to pay off all her kids' boring mortgages. And her own."
"I think I'll do that with one of the millions, invest it, but I think I'll spent a lot of the other," said Caroline. "Do you want me to make you a cup of tea, Pete?"
"That's a great idea," said Astor. "Has anyone seen my mobile?"
"Why don't you use the proper phone?" said Caroline. "It would be cheaper than using a mobile."
"Do you mind?" said Astor. "I'm having a hell of a struggle getting rid of the cash as fast as it comes in without you making things more difficult."
"Why does that sound almost reasonable?" said Caroline.
"Because we're all on Cloud Nine?" said Wendy.
"This is all a dream, really, isn't it?" said Caroline.
"'Course it is," said Astor. "I keep expecting to wake up and find I'm on a plane that's about to crash into the sea and this is just a possible life flashing in front of my eyes in three or four seconds. So the best thing to do is make sure you spend your millions before you wake up."
The lottery company was dismayed to hear that a previous big winner had won again. Astor deduced that from the fixed quality of some of the smiles at a cheque presentation ceremony at the Meridan Hotel in Croydon. The team in charge of publicity was clearly relieved by his reluctance to go public and they made just token efforts to persuade Astor to change his mind.
In fact, the ceremony developed into quite a comfortable get-together with those present being allowed to chat to one another without having photo-flashes exploding all the time and without the lucky winner being urged to pose with the 'lottery squad' from some national newspaper that he never read.
Astor was quite surprised at how much everyone seemed to know about him, even if he was a working musician playing a fairly high-profile part in the affairs of his theatre and the recording company at Melody Studios. The general opinion seemed to be that he was doing all right for himself and he had no need of financial experts to tell him what to do with his winnings.
Wendy quite enjoyed the occasion too, having come along to find out if the people running the lottery were evil, bloated fat-cats or normal people doing a somewhat extraordinary job. She took the opportunity to tell a couple of the directors where the proceeds should be going, as far as good causes were concerned, but she left with the impression that she was just one small voice among a great many very loud ones.
The business of the Astor Grimoire, as she had come to call it, had been bothering Jane Vance for quite some time, which was why she had taken time out from her trip to Budapest to scratch the itch of unfinished business. Not knowing whether Astor had the grimoire hidden in his home, or even whether he still had it in his possession, had left her with a profound sense of frustration. She was 99% sure that if he still had the book, then he would keep it accessible because that was what she would have done in the same circumstances.
The book was clearly too well hidden to be found by an expert searcher -as long as the expert wasn't allowed to demolish walls, to check out cavities, lift floorboards and destroy furniture in search of concealed compartments. Given these restriction, there was only one way to go. If the book could not be retrieved, it had to be destroyed. And if that meant destroying Astor's home to get the job done, then up in flames his house would go.
Her brother was still full of his triumph at coming across two Rixborough grimoires by chance. And while Peter was away on his own trip, spinning his own web of expenses and not terribly easy to contact, his sister could take unilateral decisions on matters that were bugging her.
Having made the decision to commission the arson job, Jane Vance's next problem was finding someone to carry it through. Her decision to terminate the man who had done such a good job on the last surviving elements of Rixborough & Co. now began to seem hasty. But she knew where to look for the same sort of person, and she was skilled in the art of negotiating a price with shifty people while concealing her own identity.
It was also time, Jane had decided, to take another look at Philip Hallan to find out if he had learned his lesson from the fire that had put his publishing firm out of existence. It was part of her late uncle's master plan to prevent the casual reader from learning of the existence of dangerous books, such as the Rixborough grimoire.
As a student of human nature, Uncle Hobbert had known that there will always be people who know about the books and will insist on being able to consult them. That was why he had made them available in his archive -as a means of keeping track of those involved in acquiring and spreading such dangerous knowledge. His niece had extended the notion of keeping track of dangerous people to assessing whether society might be better off if they were to be taken out of circulation with a convenient accident.
Jane was aware that getting rid of the Vukovar Foundation's 'enemies' was cutting her own throat because she needed people to spy on and battle against to build up operating expenses. At the same time, she knew that fear and mystery are powerful attractants of a certain type of person.
She had not thought her ideas through to definite conclusions, but she believed that a few judicious executions could make gullible students of the occult think that they could be unlocking knowledge that was difficult to control, which might even prove fatal and which was certainly very expensive to acquire.
Somewhere in the distance, Jane could see the price of access to the information in the Vukovar Foundation's archive providing a very healthy income and the profits to be made from recovering dangerous publications, such as the grimoires that her lucky and foolishly generous brother had turned up, reaching similar healthy levels.
The more she planned, the more worried Jane became about her brother. Most of what they did together was fairly harmless -except when people got killed, as she had been forced to kill their arsonist because her brother hadn't been up to the job. Peter's problem was that he recognized that big rewards involve big risks, but he was not yet hungry enough for those big rewards.
The Rixborough fire had been a particularly big risk, but Peter had risen to the challenge eventually and they had got away with it. They had also sucked the trustees across an invisible line from being involved in administering money stolen from their uncle's evangelism scam to accessories to a serious case of arson. Killing the arsonist had been something of a folie à deux, even if Jane Vance had made most of the running. But the execution had served to prove they could tie up loose ends when they had to.
In fact, Peter Vance was feeling trapped, locked in a spiral of destruction with his sister driving them on and on. He knew that they had chosen to enter very dangerous territory, and if they kept going farther into it, there would be no coming back. He also knew that Jane wasn't about to let him turn round and go back. He even suspected that she might take extreme action against him if she ever saw him as a threat -which was why he was being careful to be seen to be co-operative.
Jane knew that her brother was something of a weak link but he was susceptible to persuasion. There was a good feeling to life on the outlaw side of the dividing line and she believed that Peter shared that feeling. Jane also knew that both of them wanted to get their hands on much more of their late uncle's money at a much faster rate.
They could see the money piling up and up through interest. Their shared ambition was to boost their expenses claims until they were keeping them level with the interest. Jane felt that she would have a real sense of accomplishment if she could go far enough to eat into the capital, too.
They had talked, no more than that, about cooking up a really big plot that would put Kiron Sounds out of business. The venture was a whole lot larger than the current whispering campaign against Pete Astor and it involved a lot more personal danger. There was a great deal of scope for skimming payments made to journalists for creating the impression that Astor had a genuine drug problem and his local police force was trying to get evidence against a major social risk. But the skimming remained at a purely pocket-money level.
The Vances knew from past campaigns that if they had to spend big bucks on a big scheme to get rid of a major source of evil, it would put them into the major skimmings league. Getting Peter involved in something big and fairly legal was no problem. Taking direct action against a smaller problem, such as one of Kiron Sounds' employees, Jane knew, was something best kept to herself.
In fact, it was something best done while she was out of England and living it up in Budapest, allegedly on the trail of a copy of the Rixborough grimoire -which was why locating the arsonist and briefing him had become something of a rush job.
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.