If you say that nothing matters, I'll believe you.
If you say my life's in tatters, I've deceive you.
Kevin David showed Rachel Billington, the solicitor, up to Pete Astor's music room the following morning, taking a break from his routine dust-busting and interrupting a session of guitar practice.
"I'm glad to see you looking your usual self," Rachel told Astor with a smile.
"Is this a courtesy call? Or have you dropped in to tell me about some great new deal for keeping your will up to date?" said Astor.
"You're an appalling cynic, you know that?" laughed Rachel. "Well, now I know you're in rude health, I can put my business hat on. It's about the compensation case the parents of that boy who died on the opening night wanted to bring against the Astoria. I've just heard their legal wizards have pulled out. Apparently, they've decided they don't have much of a chance of winning."
"I could have told them that," scoffed Astor.
"I gather too they were somewhat concerned by your argument that taking the case on a no-win, no-fee basis lays them open to a counter-suit from you..."
"For extortion as an accessory or accomplice?"
"Perhaps not quite in those terms. But they were concerned by your idea that if they hadn't funded the action, it would never have got off the ground. And if they could expect a pay day only if they won, that made them partners in an enterprise from which they expected to profit. If they had gone ahead, it would certainly have been an interesting test case on the law that allows no-win, no-fee cases..."
"But they thought it would be a good idea to wait till something more winnable came along?"
"Something like that."
"So we're in a sort of 'collapse of stout party' situation now?"
"Unless you're really serious about to following through with your counter-action?"
"I'm in the music business, not the business of contributing to the upkeep of the yachts and the big houses of the nation's undeserving barristers. But I see no harm in letting the buggers sweat for a while before I let them off the hook."
"While they count up what it's cost them to date?"
"They'll probably fiddle it off their income tax. Guys like that must know some bent accountant."
"Switching to my social hat, what's happening about that business yesterday?"
Astor shrugged. "It's like the arson attempt. The phuzz have got the bloke but I hear this one croaked on them too."
"And Caroline's van was a write-off? You were very lucky there."
"As I told the phuzz, I'd call lucky not having something like that happening to me. Rather than getting out alive when it does."
"Yes, I take your point. So is there anything you can do? Assuming you were the target, not Caroline."
"I can't see Cazzer's ex-husband being that pissed off with her successful life after him," laughed Astor. "But I bet the phuzz have given him a bit of a hard time as part of their routine. Did you hear about Tom Maddox's bomb?"
"A bomb! No?"
"Well, it was only a dummy. Put in his car to tell him to lay off last week."
"Lay off whom?"
"That we don't know yet. He was threatened by some idiot who was too cryptic for his own good. The phuzz are chasing that up too. If they've got anywhere, they're not telling anyone. And Tom, being an ex-cop, seemed to think that was a satisfactory state of affairs."
"So you think it might all be connected?"
Astor shrugged. "Possibly. Or not. We'll just have to wait and see."
"Anyway, the collapse of the compensation case might just make others think twice about making dodgy claims against the Astoria."
"Which is good news. Even if it does do you out of some fees."
"I think we're more comfortable with the work on contacts that you give us," laughed Rachel. "Is Wendy at home? She wanted to consult me about something."
"Am I allowed to ask what?"
"Certainly. But telling you would breach client confidentiality."
"In that case, allow me to conduct you to her lair," laughed Astor.
Astor managed to get half an hour's practice in before the phone interrupted him. His father had heard about the van-dodgem incident and he wanted to know if Pete was as uninjured as he had heard.
"No problems," said Astor. "Just a few minor bruises and seat-belt burns. I've booked you and JC suites at the Meridan, by the way."
"Oh, why?" said Clive.
"For the Gems gig. You know they're playing the Astoria on the twenty-ninth?"
"You what?" His father was satisfactorily dumbfounded. "D'Iem Hadar are playing the Astoria?"
"I take it you can both get down here?"
"Okay, I admit it, you've blown my cool on that one. I'll tell you something else that came quite close the other day. I've been ignoring some threatening letters from the TV Licensing Bureau about Creuch Lodge. The cheeky sods want to know if I've got a TV."
"They don't believe you've got better things to do than watch telly?"
"And they seem to think I've got time to waste filling in their forms to swear I haven't. Anyway, I happened to be there on Tuesday and I got a visit. The local copper and two blokes with a search warrant. They said they had information that people have seen flickering lights in what they called 'the residence' and they had grounds to believe I've got an unlicensed TV."
"Of course, when I asked them who'd seen flickering lights, they became very evasive and started insisting on searching the premises. So I asked the copper where everybody stands if they'd got a warrant on perjured evidence. Remembering your adventures with Inspector Fiend. The local copper knows I don't have a TV because he had the tour of the castle on my open day. So he just shrugged and said it would save time if I just showed them I don't have a TV."
"Just doing my job, Guv?"
"Right. So I told the copper I was willing to let them search the place but only if they give me full details of who they are: names, address of their office and so on. And I insisted on checking it out by phone before I let them on the premises. Because it was quite clear the warrant had to be defective."
"Right," laughed Astor. "People strolling past your castle can't look in the windows unless they're carrying a ladder."
"That's what I told the copper. They must have come to the wrong address or they must have got the warrant on perjured evidence. So anyway, I let them walk round, keeping their hands in their pockets to make sure they didn't nick anything and watching them like a hawk."
"Making them feel like criminals if they were trying to do it to you?"
"Dead right. The two guys were obviously expecting to visit some suburban semi and they were acting 'in good faith' on information supplied by what they thought was an indignant neighbour, who didn't like to see someone getting away with not paying a licence fee when he or she was too scared not to pay it. But where their people slipped up was in cutting corners. They didn't bother to check the information. They just sent these two comedians steaming round. It's what Hamlet would have called 'the insolence of office'."
"Reminds you of that Labour lord chancellor who spent billions of pounds of public money doing up his grace and favour home," remarked Pete. "So what happens next?"
"I've got my solicitor on the trail of this warrant and I'm waiting to see what develops."
"Don't hold your breath, Dad. The legal process grinds on and on."
"Oh, yes, and we're doing some serious talking about the price of that other castle and estate I mentioned. Things seem to be firming up at around four to four and a half million. I was thinking of putting it in Julie's name if we buy it."
"Good idea. She's bound to outlive both of us so she's going to end up with it anyway."
"Anyway, we can talk about it some more at the end of the month when I'm down there for the Gems gig. Tell you what, you can forget about holding a Damaged Goods gig at the castle. What a bunch of wreckers! Did you see the pictures of that hotel room?"
"Do you want to know the inside story on that?"
"Go on, then," invited Clive Astor.
"It was all a bloody put-up job. The alleged damage was just cosmetic and it was all arranged as a mutual publicity stunt for the band and the hotel."
"You mean, it was just part of their dangerous image?"
"Got it in one."
"How very disappointing. Okay, JC and I will see you both in due course, Pete. Give our love to Wendy."
"Right, cheers, Dad."
The phone began to ring again almost as soon as Astor had replaced the receiver.
"Hi, it's me," said Caroline's voice. "Are you busy?"
"Trying to do some guitar practice, if you think that counts as busy."
"Yes, I suppose it does for a musician. What do you think about counselling?"
"The quick answer is I don't ever think about it. Why?"
"I've been given the number of a counsellor. You know, about the crash. In case we want to talk over what happened."
"Why? The guy tried to off us but he got offed himself. End of story. What more is there to say?"
"I think it's in case you want to talk about your feelings about what happened."
"But I don't have any feelings about it. It happened, it's over, we survived. I've got better things to do than waste any more time on it."
"So you don't reckon it's a good idea?"
"I've always thought of it as something for untogether people. And you've always struck me as a very together sort of person. Someone in charge of her life..."
"We weren't very in charge of our lives in the van."
"Hey, life's not an exact science, Cazzer. You can't be on top of everything all the time. But you're back in charge now, aren't you?"
"Well, I suppose so."
"Yes, I am in charge of my life again."
"So, if you want to do this, if you want to see if this counselling business is any cop, go for it. I think I'm more or less grown up enough not to point at you and laugh if you do. I don't think it would work for me because everyone knows blokes don't talk about things, they just bottle them up inside. But what's right for my life ain't necessarily right for yours."
"Because I'm not a weird person, like you?"
"Right. You're weird in your own special ways," laughed Astor.
"Okay, thanks, Pete, I'll think about it some more."
Astor replaced his receiver again and glared at the phone, daring it to ring. Then he returned to his guitar practice. The phone remained silent for ten minutes. Then Tom Maddox had news of a sort for him.
"I've been making a bit of a nuisance of myself," he reported to Astor. "About my bomb."
"I should think you're bloody well entitled to," said Astor. "If they've not arrested someone after all the leads you gave them."
"I gather that's because they've identified who made the call to me and they're continuing their enquiries to see if they can find out who put him up to it."
"He's a small cog, you mean?"
"Something like that. Not that they were going to tell me anything until they realized what I was planning to do."
"Which was what?" prompted Astor.
"Well, I realized that finding and removing my 'bomb' had been a very low-key affair. So I was wondering what would happen if I put a replica of the bomb in the car, drove it to some public place and pretended to find the bomb. Whether that might bring some more threats, or even just a call to say, 'See, we told you so.'"
"Generate more leads, you mean?"
"Right. I was amused to find out that my former colleagues had come up with the same idea as something to do next if they'd not identified my mystery caller."
"Is he anything to do with the Lihmahl Support Group?"
"He certainly is. Did you know those guys are an off-shoot from the Talmy Group?"
"No, but it doesn't surprise me. It seems to shed splinter groups like a Christmas tree sheds its needles. Are they involved too? The Talmys?"
"I don't know," Maddox admitted. "But I should steer clear of both of them for the moment, if you can."
"Not a problem. I can claim to be too focussed on the Gems gig to think of anything else."
"That's probably a good thing to be, Pete. I have reason to believe, as they say in the police force, that the Lihmahl bunch are sizing you up to see if they can rip you off for a nice chunk of cash. They also don't like people asking questions about them."
"Is this where I apologize for putting you in harm's way?"
"I made that choice by taking the job on, Pete. I do have the option of saying no, you know."
"As long as you're okay about it."
"Yep, I'm okay about it. So I'll be in touch if I find out anything more, but don't hold your breath."
"Right, cheers, Tom." Astor returned to his guitar practice with more of a sense of duty than enthusiasm. The constant interruptions were bad for his concentration. He thought about taking one of Loko Moko's pills to see if it could do anything for him, then he decided to save them for real emergencies, such as further assassination attempts. Another phone call underlined the need to do something.
"Mr. Astor?" said a female voice. "This is Amy of CRW, I'm just making a courtesy call about porches and replacement windows..."
"Sorry, love, but we're Jehovah's Witnesses. We don't have any windows." Astor replaced his receiver and switched on the AnswerFone feature. Then he put the guitar aside and turned to his current book. The universe clearly wanted him to do something other than practising and reading seemed a good alternative.
The next day, Dominik Wekling arrived at the end of the morning, looking as if he had been celebrating well the night before. Wendy let him in and showed him up to Pete Astor's music room. She left looking highly amused at his wrecked condition.
"Good end of series party?" said Astor, offering a chair and a transfusion from his coffee-maker.
"Apparently, it's always really good when you've got another series commissioned," nodded Dominik. "We're on again in the autumn."
"So you fulfilled the Channel Four requirement to upset the absolute maximum number of people in the shortest possible time?"
"Something like that. The way you've upset the London music scene."
"What, me? Upset someone?" laughed Astor.
"I've come across a surprising amount of resentment about a crummy local orchestra getting a posh base like the Astoria and unlimited practice facilities. Not to mention a recording contract."
"The old green monster rearing its ugly head?"
"Right. And a lot of the jealousy is about the work going on CD. Mainly because they're doing stuff no one else is being paid to record. So if anyone else wants to hear it, they'll have to buy TC's version."
"And that's our fault?"
"The London Mafia are feeling excluded, not consulted and downright resentful. The Arts Council mob are upset because they're not getting in on the freebies..."
"They cut the grant off, not us."
"...and someone else is getting the publicity for the music events that are making the news. Basically, the control freaks aren't getting to dish out sentences of death to anyone who doesn't give them enough toadying."
"So by being the good guys, as far as TC is concerned, we're making satisfactory amounts of trouble?"
Dominik nodded. "So much so that when this bubble bursts, we're never going to get a look-in ever again."
"On the edge, or what?" laughed Astor.
"About three inches to the left of the edge, out over a long drop. So anyway, I'm going to see the computer graphics guy this afternoon, and I wondered if you'd like to come along? Make sure your money's well spent. He's had two weeks' intensive tuition with the new gear and he's awash with ideas."
"Any chance of blagging a decent screen-saver?"
"Well, yes, he's looking to get into that market," said Dominik. "As a way of generating some income. Maybe by creating screen-savers for fans of the KS bands to buy. And advertised on the KS website, if you'll let him."
"Sounds good to me," said Astor. "And if we can get a piece of his action, that might postpone bursting the bubble for a week or two."
"You sound like Walter," laughed Dominik.
"Even the best of us are corruptible," Astor admitted.
As the big night approached, the Astoria became the focus of what the popular press called Gem-Mania - mainly because there was nothing much going on in the world and they had invented it to fill up space between their advertisements. Even though Nick had issued a stream of press releases and the Kiron Sounds Internet site confirmed that the gig was sold out, requests for tickets continued to flood in and the bribes offered by tabloids wanting a pair of tickets for a giveaway competition reached outrageous levels.
During one of their frequent contacts during the run-up to the big day, Loko Moko mentioned to Astor that the Gems had all tried Charm. They had found it a good trip but it had done nothing at all for them as far as contacting their Extra was concerned. Loko's conclusion was that there was something in Astor's biochemistry that let him make contact with Extras using Charm, and something in the Gems' shared areas of biochemistry that let them make contact using their own personal drug cocktail.
But meeting Pete Astor had been beneficial for the band in that Astor's pharmacist could supply the components of their drug cocktail at greater purity and to a consistent quality standard. And they, too, had found that Charm heightened their appreciation of certain types of music.
The whole episode had also forced Astor to confront his doubts about Kiron's existence. If an entity invaded a drug-induced altered mental state to tell him about a deal with another, similar entity, that could be just an extension of the fantasy to a grander scale.
If the message led to a gig by D'Iem Hadar at the Astoria and if the members of the band contacted him with the same story, and if the entity could arrange a second win on the lottery, Kiron had to exist in a sense that involved interactions with Pete Astor's personal set of dimensions.
At the same time, recent events had torpedoed his recent thinking about theology. Astor had realized that contact with a benevolent entity like Kiron might feel to some like being in personal touch with God. The only problem with that was that there were at least two Gods if the Gems were in touch with another entity called Purson. His upbringing in a monotheistic culture made Astor reject pantheism and view the Extras as more powerful than himself rather than omnipotent; just fellow occupants of the pancosmos rather than gods.
All that was left for him to wonder about now, Astor realized, was the nature of their alliance, which seemed pretty harmless, as far as he could tell, and certainly less hazardous than another opportunity that Gem-Mania threw out. Nick Pennington mentioned it to Astor in a phone call that interrupted a morning session of guitar practice.
"How would you like to go to a do at Number Ten?" Nick asked.
"What's that? This month's club that's supposed to be dead great?" said Astor.
"Number Ten as in Downing Street, Pete."
"What's it in aid of? Am I getting a knighthood, or something? For services to the music industry?"
"No, it's so members of the government can be photographed shaking your hand to prove they're in touch with real people."
"How much are they paying?"
"So what's in it for me, Nick?"
"You get to be seen to be the sort of person politicians want to be seen shaking the hand of."
"Do I get to pick which ones? I'll shake his hand but not hers, style of thing?"
"What do you think?"
"I think I've got a gig that night. Did you know that being seen to support any particular political party automatically alienates forty-three percent of the public?"
"How fascinating. And anyway, they're asking for windows in your diary. They're not suggesting any dates."
"Is this likely to prove I'm an okay guy and all these drug busts are the police picking on me for no reason?"
"If you try and put that sort of spin on things, the politicos will drop you like a hot brick."
"In that case, you can tell them to phuck off."
"I'll tell them your diary's in a state of flux and we can't help them at the moment."
"You should get a knighthood for diplomacy, Nick. In fact, I think I'll mention it to the PM next time I see him."
"Right!" scoffed Nick. "Now you've made your decision, I can tell you that they've also approached the Gems. And got turned down. So you were probably the next best thing."
"I danced with the man who danced with the woman who danced with the Prince of Wales, kind of thing?"
"That's it exactly. They wanted to be seen with the Vice President In Charge Of Putting On Gems Concerts. So, for future reference, you're not interested in these dos as a matter of general policy?"
"Not unless there's something really worthwhile in it either for me personally or for Kiron Sounds. Can you dig that?"
"Yeah, makes sense to me," said Nick. "And if you don't spread yourself around too thinly, that makes you a much more valuable commodity for the company when you do go to one of these dos. And it is rather nice to turn down these characters when their every word is telling you what a big favour they're doing you."
"So, you don't get on with these slippery PR characters, Nick?" laughed Astor.
"Nah, they're a bunch of ratbags," laughed Nick. "One thing more: people keep asking me why you don't have an office at the Astoria and a secretary. Or to put it another way: 'If Pete Astor's such a phuckin' big tycoon, how come he's so invisible?' What's the official answer to that?"
"All the people I want to be in touch with can find me. As you've just proved, me old Nick."
"Or alternatively: 'With modern telecommunications, Mr. Astor doesn't need a conventional fixed base of operations, and part of his job is observing and assessing without influencing whatever it is he's observing."
"Isn't that against Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle? Observing without influencing?"
"Only for electrons. So what do you reckon?"
"Yeah, sounds okay. In fact, give it to me again and I'll write it down. I'll probably even get it printed up on cards to give to wise guys. A few of them do manage to catch up with me."
Nick repeated himself, then he added, "By the way, I've had a call from a head reptile to say he's spiked a report which included the news that you told a journalist that your policy on homosexuals is, quote, shoot on sight, unquote."
"How do you mean, spiked?" said Astor. "You mean someone considered printing a daft response to a daft question? I mean, why do I need a policy on homosexuals, for heck's sake?"
"I think they were a bit worried you might sue them and they couldn't prove you'd actually said it. Like battery failure in a cassette recorder. So our friend the editor decided to try and plant a favour on us. I think it may even be a genuine attempt at bridge-building."
"Pity it won't work," laughed Astor.
"On a slightly serious note, Pete, shooting from the lip can alienate customers."
"But waste-of-time questions always deserve a frivolous answer, Nick. And they'll always get one from me. Plus a reminder that you handle all that stuff."
"And I suppose they do know anything you say off the premises is not official company policy. Not that a minor consideration like that will stop them quoting something outrageous and out of context."
"Plus I accept no responsibility for material quoted that I've not been paid for," added Astor.
"That's another thing that goes down well with the reptiles," laughed Nick. "Asking for a quotation fee. Okay, I'll let you get back to your guitar practice. Cheers, Pete."
Astor refocussed his attention and picked up the threads. When he had had enough, he drove into Croydon and headed for the archive. He had decided to scratch a mental itch. Padraig M'Cracken found him hunched over the S-T section of a dictionary of the occult.
"Looking for inspiration, Pete?" he remarked.
"Enlightenment," said Astor. "What does the word Sotir mean to you?"
"Pretty much what that dictionary's telling you. If you speak to the Talmy Group, the inner circle, they say they're in occasional contact with an entity called Sotir, which helps them 'go on through' the way Alice Hraldy's supposed to have done. But if you consult other sources, a sotir with a small 's' is a channel, as I mentioned the other day. To what, or for what purpose, is not too clear. What's your interest?"
"Just working out a few musical ideas. For a number to come after The Portal in a sequence of linked, well, episodes."
"Steps on the climb to enlightenment?"
"It's more hidden context for the conspiracy theorists to dig out of the act and feel clever about," laughed Astor. "With maybe a bit of stuff about extra-dimensional life-forms thrown in for good measure."
"The secret of that is to be good and vague so no one can pin you down," laughed M'Cracken. "Well, I'll leave you to your researches."
M'Cracken headed for his office wondering whether Astor was working from a base of knowledge or just acting out a part. M'Cracken had met people in the United States and on the European mainland, who had made a great deal of money out of pretending to have occult knowledge and convincing punters that they, too, could share the revelation.
Pete Astor was an enigma. He was not interested in that sort of scam, which meant that he might just be writing music around drug-induced visions, or he might just have stumbled across something strange. Padraig M'Cracken had been around long enough to tell when someone was leaking the inner glow that comes with a truly mind-blowing insight. Both Bert Norton of the Talmy Group and Pete Astor had that air of contentment and disbelief that comes with deep insight.
M'Cracken had learned that he could make money around such people. The archive was a shining example of what was possible. The secret of success for him lay in being there when everything was going well and being absent when it all collapsed, because that was the ultimate fate of all who have 'seen the light'. They become blinded, they take one step too far and the whole thing comes to a bad end - which was a pity in Pete Astor's case.
Padraig M'Cracken appreciated Astor's easy approach to life and his willingness to make others' dreams come true. He would miss him when he finally started taking the whole thing too seriously and the edifice came tumbling down about Pete's ears. A survivor never lets himself become trapped in a dream.
On the Wednesday night of The Gig, there were television cameras in the streets, taking pictures of the people who had arrived to watch the lucky three thousand enter the theatre and contributing to a major crowd-control headache for the local police. Inside the Astoria was the place to be and the security staff had their hands full turning away gangs of con-artists with what they hoped were convincing stories.
Pete Astor had begun to wonder if the rare event of a gig by rock legends might not turn into something like the American football Super Bowl - a whole lot of hype with the actual match a more or less incidental add-on. It was the amount of careful preparation in the theatre that had convinced him that if any band was worth the hype, it was the Gems.
The set was two and a half hours of music with a twenty-minute interval for drinks and some quick reprogramming of the lights and video projectors. There was no warm-up band because the audience was there to see D'Iem Hadar and no one else.
Pete Astor was feeling totally drained when the band walked off the stage for the last time after their second encore number. He had the impression that the energy which the Gems generated for their own extra-dimensional agent was a long, steady stream - a nuclear reactor under control as opposed to the atom-bomb explosion of one of Pete Astor's bands.
The party back-stage in the empty theatre lasted until about midnight and then the musicians sneaked across the road to their hotel, feeling exhausted. Pete Astor and his personal guests stayed on for another hour, listening to extracts from the tapes of the concert as the engineers reviewed them.
D'Iem Hadar, as one of the most bootlegged bands in the world, had decided to record their own gigs and issue their own CDs. As the Astoria had all the necessary facilities on site, it made sense to sub-contract the job to Kiron Sounds. It was a small spot of reciprocity from one group of servants of the Extras to another - and keeping the master tapes safe was yet another headache for the theatre's security staff.
Pete Astor woke late the next morning to find that Wendy had set up a couple of display stands beside his bed to show off articles in that day's national newspapers. Providing profiles of Pete Astor had become an accepted way of filling space.
'Who is Pete Astor?' began one of them. 'Ask any of his friends and they'll return the standard Pete Astor reply to such questions: Who cares? as if he were a person of no importance. But the fact remains that a growing number of people owe successful careers to the so-called 'Vice President In Charge Of Everything' at Kiron Sounds.
'Under the direction of Pete Astor, Kiron Sounds has turned a derelict theatre in Croydon into an essential stop on any rock music tour and the home of the Croydon Symphony Orchestra. Bands on the KS label are touring every continent and selling thousands of recordings. Associates, such as Dominik Wekling, host of a Channel Four arts programme which has become essential viewing, spread the cult of excellence into the fields of fine art and literature. Clearly, there is a lot more to Pete Astor than his casual approach to life would suggest.
'The man himself is a successful and controversial musician in his early forties, who has demonstrated an ability to survive in stormy waters. His album sales are a matter for speculation because the company does not feel obliged to shout them from the roof-tops, but they are massive by any standards - particularly his pieces From Another World and Under Alien Skies.
'His recruitment methods are just as unconventional as Astor himself but he has a talent for putting the right people in the right jobs. And having installed new recruits, he leaves them to get on with things, following his creed of 'hands-off' management.'
"Is your head too big to fit through the door yet?" remarked a female voice. Astor directed a patient stare at Wendy, who had brought two mugs of coffee. "I had no idea I knew the greatest thing since sliced bread," she added, collecting the other newspaper from its display stand. "It's amazing how much of this is your perceived public image and how little is the real Pete Astor."
"That's the thing about a profile," said Astor. "It's not an interview, it's not about you. It's whatever they've trawled up that other people have said about you. Plus whatever they've invented to pad it out. It's like, Twenty Things You Didn't Know About Pete Astor. Mainly because they made up nineteen of them."
"Things like There are two constant themes in Pete Astor's work? One is a sense of a lack of all permanence and the other is of enjoying everything while it lasts . . ?"
"Knowing it won't last."
"Exactly. It's all about going through life with a sense of driving straight towards the edge of a cliff with your eyes wide open..."
"And accepting as one's inevitable destiny that one will go over the cliff edge?" scoffed Astor.
"You've obviously read this article very thoroughly."
"I couldn't believe they'd printed such bollocks in what's supposed to be a quality paper."
"Doesn't stop it being true, though," said Wendy. "I wonder if being famous like this is going to make Inspector Fiend more or less inclined to have another go at you?"
"Lots more, if he's hoping to get enough on me to make his past indiscretions seem justified. And less because he'll expect me to fight back more vigorously."
"Great answer," laughed Wendy. "You realize, I hope, that I'm not mentioned once in these?"
"Is that good or bad? Do you want people to know you're my co-habitee? Or would you prefer to remain invisible?"
"I'll let you know when I've made my mind up," Wendy promised. "Are you getting up today?"
Astor shrugged. "It's hardly worth it. I don't think there's anything left for me to achieve."
Pete Astor was out of bed and getting some guitar practice in during the afternoon when Kevin David interrupted him with news of the arrival of a visitor. He found a stranger in the front room. She was taking a close interest in his record collection.
"Hi, Uncle Pete," she said with a smile.
"Hi, yourself. Do I know you?" said Astor.
"Astrid. Astrid Sachs. My Mum's your sister Angela?"
The girl was in her late teens or early twenties. She was quite tall and well built, and she had shoulder length, pale blonde hair with vivid red streaks. She was wearing a rescue-orange anorak, ice-blue jeans and black trainers. Astor was sure that he had never seen her before because he had not met her mother for over twenty years.
"Can you prove who you are?" Astor asked. "Have you got any I.D. that will stand up to close scrutiny?"
"Like what?" frowned Astrid.
"Passport? A travel pass with your picture on it? Signed picture of you and the prime minister?"
"No." There was youthful sarcasm in the reply.
"You see my problem, though?" said Astor. "Some kid turns up calling me Uncle Pete. 'She told me she's my niece, your Honour. And you believed that, Mr. Astor? Well, your Honour, that was what she told me.' I suppose I could get your mother to fax me a picture of her daughter."
"We haven't got fax at home."
"Or I could get her to describe you."
"She'll be out at the moment."
"Or I could ask my mother if she's got a grand-daughter like you."
"Go on, then."
"How old are you, by the way?"
"Good grief!" Astor hit a speed-dial button on the telephone. His mother answered with a speed that suggested she had been lurking by the phone, willing it to ring. "Hi, Mom," Astor said brightly, "Have you got a grand-daughter called Astrid? If so, why?"
"Her mother liked Princess Astrid's name. The one from Luxembourg all the papers tried to marry Prince Charles off to. Why?"
"What colour's her hair?"
"Blonde, like Angela's. Or yours. Only with some quite appalling red streaks at the moment. Why?"
"Either the real thing or some imposter's just dropped in on me."
"Let me speak to her."
Astor passed the receiver to the visitor.
"Hello, Gran," she said. "Uncle Pete wants you to fax a picture of me so he knows I'm not an imposter."
Astrid's initial cheeriness began to wilt under the force of her grandmother's interrogation over what she was doing. Astor retired to the kitchen to see about some coffee. He had drained his mug by the time his mother had finished giving Astrid the third degree about her plans. Astrid returned the receiver gratefully. While listening, she had found plenty of time to drink her own mug of coffee.
"I've never really thought of you as old enough to be anyone's granny, Mom," Astor remarked. "Well, not of someone as old as our imposter."
"I'll take that as a compliment," said his mother patiently. "And that really is Astrid. Are you bringing her back?"
"She said she's eighteen."
"What if she is?"
"Age of majority, and all that. She can to come down to the posh South and live in a cardboard box if she wants to."
"Don't you dare let her..."
"Right. But the point is, she's probably going to stay down here till her cash runs out."
"Well, you make sure you look after her."
"And make sure she rings her mother to let her know where she is."
"And make sure she doesn't get into any of your bad habits. I think you know the ones I mean, Peter?"
"And I've been trying to ring you to say thank you for you-know-what. But you're never in. It came as a real shock when we got a statement from the bank."
"Us executives lead busy lives, Mom." Astor had decided not to let his mother know that he had a mobile phone.
"I know, I've been reading about you in the papers. Why are they saying you only took a second-class degree at Oxford? You studied music in London and you have a first-class honours degree."
"I think they must have got a bit of someone else's biography mixed in with mine."
"Just make sure you keep a close eye on Astrid. Okay?"
"Right, Mom, see you."
"Aren't parents a pain?" Astrid remarked.
"On the other hand," Astor said, replacing the receiver, "where would you be without them? So, what's the story? Is this you just dropping in before you set off on a round-the-world trip? Or what?"
"I was reading about you in the paper this morning and I thought you might be able to get me a job in this big empire of yours."
"What, you did a Tebbit? You got on your bike?"
"Except I got on a train."
"Right. So what instruments do you play?"
"Nothing, really. But I could be a groupie, or anything else as long as it's interesting."
"Are you still at school, or what?"
"I finished school last year. And they said I'm not university material. So I've been on this Youth Education scheme. Which has finished now, leaving me ineligible for another scheme right away, and there's no decent jobs going in a dead dump like Bornleigh anyway."
"Decent being five hundred quid a week and all the time off you want to take?"
"Yeah, right," scoffed Astrid.
"Can you drive?"
"But no licence?"
"My Gran's paying for lessons but they reckon it'll be a while before I'm ready to take my test."
"So what did this scheme teach you?"
Astrid shrugged. "Nothing much."
Astor spotted Wendy looking round the door at Astrid. "Are you sure she's your niece?" Wendy asked when she noticed that Astor was looking at her.
"ID check positive," nodded Astor. "You're not looking for an apprentice trouble-maker, are you, Auntie Wendy? Astrid's after a job."
"Actually, I do have one or two things I could do with some help with," nodded Wendy. "Can you type?"
"'Course," said Astrid.
"Are you any good at designing leaflets?"
"I did art at school. And we did graphics in Computer Studies."
"Hang on, how much are you paying her?" said Astor. "I wouldn't take less than four quid an hour," he added to Astrid.
"Four-fifty for starters," said Wendy.
"Half-hour tea breaks every thirty minutes, Auntie Wendy makes the tea, of course, and two hours off for lunch," said Astor. "And luncheon vouchers."
"Get back to your guitar practice, Pete," scoffed Wendy. "After you've put Astrid's bags in the spare room."
"Ja, Boss," sighed Astor.
"But you can answer the phone first," Wendy added as it began to ring.
The call took Pete Astor to Melody Studios in Cheam in the middle of the following Monday morning. He arrived in the new Kiron Sounds van with Caroline at the wheel. Caroline had thought deeply about the matter and she had decided she wasn't the sort of person who needs counselling because she was a together sort of person; someone who could put the past where it belonged - behind her. And she had no intention of being forced off the roads because some nut case had taken a dislike to her, Pete Astor or both of them.
The police were still trying to identify the man who had tried to run them off the road, and until they knew who he was, they had no hope of assessing why he had attacked them.
On a more cheerful note, the American BMR band Dark Angel had decided to come to Croydon to record at Melody. Astor had vague memories of meeting the band's drummer perhaps a month before, but his mind had been on other things at the time. Now, the lead singer was on record in the music press as saying the band had been looking for a certain sound, they'd been unable to achieve it in the States but they had found it at Melody.
Caroline produced a cutting from her briefcase while they were sitting in the reception area, waiting for the visitors to arrive. "Tell me what you think of this, Pete. 'The studios may look like a little old small-time operation out in London's boonies, but I have to tell you the people are amazing! Really amazing. I'm talking about what they know and what they can do with the equipment, which is state-of-the-art and then some, and their commitment to getting the best possible sound for you is outstanding.'"
"Load of bollocks," scoffed Astor.
"You reckon? That's what Dark Angel think of Melody."
"The thing is, their record company is paying enough to give them the four-and-a-half star treatment, so they're getting the sort of service and back-up that makes them feel really important. Which is fair enough, if they're going to make a lot of dosh for the record company."
"Who is this appalling cynic?" remarked Jim Welch, the general manager of the studios.
"It makes sense up to a point," added Astor. "If they feel they're doing a good job and making good music, it's because they feel really good about what they're doing and where they're doing it. It's a kind of circular argument. And if some slick PR man had persuaded them they could get the same treatment at some little old studio in LA, or wherever the hell it is they come from, I'm sure they could have made the album there. It's all about feeling like stars and being seen to be stars and actually becoming stars though strength of will."
"And their record company's prepared to throw a lot of money at Kiron Sounds because we can give them that?" said Jim. "Kraft durch Freude, kind of thing?"
"Exactly. So you see, Caroline, it's all pure hype. But the good thing about it from our point of view, apart from the money, is it gives us some positive publicity from a music business point of view."
"So you're not laughing at them too hard?" said Caroline.
"They can be as pretentious as they like, as far as I'm concerned. And hey, they might be really nice guys under all the bullshit."
A small mob invaded the reception area, many of them wielding cameras. The press call lasted a busy twenty minutes then the record company minders shooed the journalists back to the car park while the band retired to their studio to check out their instruments.
Nick Pennington took the opportunity to have a word with Astor. "Remember that Number Ten gig? They're still keen. Especially after all the stuff in the papers after the Gems gig."
"Tough! I ain't," said Astor.
"You may be interested to know that no one at KS believed you'd do it. Perform for the politicos."
"Shit! Am I that predictable?"
"'Fraid so," laughed Nick. "The only way you can be outrageous is to be conventional. See you around."
Astor headed for the control room, where he found Caroline and two mugs of coffee.
"Two point five," she remark as Astor sat down out of the way of the engineer.
"What?" he asked with a frown.
"Bottles of spirits per musician."
"Oh, right, you've been checking out their riders?"
"The contract perks, right. And they've got some weird Mexican lager with things in the bottles."
"I didn't look too closely but they looked quite disgusting."
"They're probably made of plastic and just for show."
"They are," remarked Reg Aspen, the chief engineer. "They have to be to get round the US FDA regulations."
"I don't care. I still don't fancy them," said Caroline.
"So which one of these guys to you fancy most?"
"I quite like the drummer. He's nice."
"What about the vocalist?"
"Too much of a weirdo egomaniac."
"So if the drummer offered you one of their Mexican lagers, you'd tell him to get lost?"
"Maybe I'd tell him I can't drink it because I'm driving," Caroline said with a smile. "Are this lot any good?"
Astor nodded. "When they get their heads together. Why, have you got somewhere else you'd rather be if they're not?"
"What, other than right here, right now?"
"That sounds like a quotation."
"One of Walt's. Someone called Marv who used to be the head coach of the Buffalo..."
"...Bills American football team. 'Where would you rather be than right here, right now?'"
"The guy could have a point."
"And my answer to the question is Nowhere! Its quite relaxing sitting here, watching you being in charge of everything."
"And a bit unnerving for the rest of us," said Reg from the vast bank of sliders and other controls. "Whenever I see Pete, I get this feeling he's going to suggest some brilliant new tweak he can make to Under Alien Skies."
"Nope, that's a hundred per cent finished," said Astor.
"Right!" scoffed Reg.
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.