Luck's only there to be pushed,
Decisions exist to be rushed,
Life is short, so get the hell on with it!

Having been away for the best part of a week, Pete Astor was sure that he could smell the paint when he returned to his home in Warleigh. The decorator had been rather desperate for work and Astor had ended up letting him loose on the whole of the exterior of the house as well as the repaired porch. After the clean air of the Scottish countryside, paint solvents seemed particularly pungent.
   Astor and Wendy arrived back at lunchtime and solved the problem of a meal by calling in at their local fish and chip shop. Tom Maddox, the private detective, arrived as they were trying to decide whether to have ice cream or cake for afters.
   "So have you got the inside track on all this business in Welsh Wales?" Astor ask as Maddox was wondering whether to be polite or take the nearest piece of cake, which happened to be the biggest one.
   "Go on, have it," said Wendy, reading his body language. "Pete's got tons of the stuff in his cake cupboard."
   Maddox glanced at the ranks of cupboards in the spacious kitchen, as if looking for clues as to which was the one reserved for cake. "Well, if you insist..."
   "We do, we do." Wendy looked at Astor, letting him know that an ice cream sandwich between two modest slices of the square cake was a gross idea.
   "Looks like everyone was right about the Talmy Group," said Maddox. "Common sense said it was all a con job, and that's what it turned out to be."
   "So the Invisible Man really was Bert Norton after his first dose of plastic surgery?" said Astor.
   "Despite their denials. He'd not had his fingerprints done. And they could have done a DNA match if he had."
   "And who was that woman? The dead one at the farm."
   "I'm pretty sure she's a Jane Vance, the niece of one of these evangelist guys in the States. Her uncle, Hobbert Vance, made an absolute fortune out of fighting the good fight and promoting the Christian message. You know, telling the punters what they want to hear. Live the righteous life and you won't fry in Hell-fire but every bugger else will, style of thing."
   "What, one of these guys who get caught with a bedful of tarts then demand a million dollars for a personal redemption fund? Ah, hayev seeyunned mahtilly," Astor added in a mock Southern US accent. "And Ah thaa-yenk ther good Loward Ah am bayuck on the peyoth of true raa-tyus-nuss."
   "Except this guy never got caught out," grinned Maddox. "Died of excessive good living, was the private opinion of the pathologist. A well-larded candle, who'll burn long and bright in the fires of Hell."
   "So what was this woman doing at the farm, exactly?" Wendy asked with a frown.
   Maddox shrugged. "The best guess is she was trying to do the same as DSI Parry -prove the Talmys are a bunch of crooks."
   "How long have the phuzz been on to them?" said Astor.
   "About three weeks now. Actively looking into what they're up to. In response to information that Hraldy didn't actually kill herself. A woman came forward and claimed she could prove that Alice Hraldy was planning to disappear, maybe after plastic surgery like Mr. Norton, but Hraldy's deputy, Jane Polon, saw an opportunity for herself and gave Hraldy a helping hand into oblivion."
   "Sometime after the event, as it were?" said Astor.
   "Two days after she was supposed to have jumped off the bridge. And when his witness dropped out of sight -and she hasn't been seen since -DSI Parry decided to have a much closer look at the Talmys, suspecting some sort of big-time fraud is being set up."
   "So what about the music?" said Wendy. "How do you explain that stuff by Bach?"
   "The best theory is that most of it was knocked out by a computer," said Maddox. "They used some sort of program to analyze the work of Bach and put together ideas on where his music might have gone. Quoting from earlier work and trying to project forward from what was in the database."
   "And they did that with a computer?" said Astor. "The bits they printed in the paper weren't that bad, actually."
   "The expert also thinks they got some human Bach scholar to fuzz up the computer's efforts to make them less mechanical and more human. Make them a bit quirky, to quote the man himself. And throw in a few obvious imperfections and rough bits, which the composer would smooth out in a later draft."
   "Sounds like it could work. I suppose the Bach scholar is keeping his trap shut now and hoping he doesn't get found out."
   "It's the sensible thing to do," nodded Maddox.
   "Go on, have another piece of cake," said Wendy.
   "Excuse me for making a pig of myself, but I've only had a sandwich at the wheel of the car. And your cake is great."
   "So why has everything been so quiet on this business?" said Astor. "I was expecting the good old Beeb to junk all their programs to give us rolling news reports as another Case Of The Century unfolds."
   "Nothing much is coming out because Norton and his associates are still trading information with the police and the CPS for the best deal they can make," said Maddox. "And on-going investigations could be disrupted if anything much does come out."
   "The usual carve-up," nodded Wendy. "What about the bomb in your car?"
   "I shouldn't be surprised if someone rats on whichever of the Lihmahl bunch was behind that," said Maddox. "From what I can make out, most of the really nasty pieces of work on the Talmys' original membership list ended up in the Lihmahl Support Group after the split. But not all of them, as Miss Vance found out the hard way. I should think getting chucked out of the rough end of the Talmys is like being expelled from the KGB for sadism."
   "I'm feeling a bit guilty about being part of getting you into all this," said Wendy.
   Maddox shrugged. "All part of the job. Which I went into with my eyes open. So anyway, are you going to tell me about your dad's castles, Pete? How many has he got now?"
   "Still just the two," said Astor casually.
   "Number One Castle and Number Two Castle," laughed Wendy.
   Tom Maddox stayed for another ten minutes, then he threw himself out. He had work to do. Back in the kitchen, Astor decided that the washing up could wait until there was more to do.
   "What about the Talmys?" Wendy remarked as she watched Astor arranging the used mugs into a perfectly line straight on the draining board. "Were you ever taken in by them?"
   Astor thought for a moment, then he decided that he might as well be honest. "I never made my mind up about them."
   "What, you believed that stuff about 'going on through'?"
   "Not as such. But I do know that some bloody odd things can happen. So you can never be quite sure that something that sounds fantastic is totally off the wall."
   "What, things like Pete Astor winning twenty-odd million quid on the lottery twice in the same lifetime?"
   "There's a good example for you. Don't you think there might be something beyond your experience behind something like that?"
   "Sounds like there ought to be," nodded Wendy. "But if I admit I really believe that, you'll be ringing for the men in white coats."
   "Are they anything like the men in grey suits?"
   "Probably. Only with a better laundry service. Did you ever actually give the Talmys any dosh?"
   "Not actually. Why, did you?"
   "Nothing on top of the entrance fees to their meetings."
   "So they had a few hundred quid out of you?"
   "Are you going to laugh at me for being a stupid bloody woman?"
   "What, me, Gov? Wouldn't dare," laughed Astor.
   "I suppose you think it's weird, don't you? Someone of my age still looking for something more to the universe than the physical world of what's around us."
   "If you don't look, you'll never know for sure if there is anything."
   "Are you humouring me?" said Wendy suspiciously. "Or just taking the piss?"
   "What if I were to tell you that I'm in contact with some sort of extra-dimensional being and we've made a pact? Out of which I got my two lottery wins?"
   "I'd say you're definitely extracting the urine."
   "Of course, you would," nodded Astor. "And that's what any normal, rational person would say. But what if it were true? And what if I'd actually met four other people who are also in contact with another of these extra-dimensional beings? And knowing what I know, and what the other four know, left me wondering if the same might not be true of the Talmys. Not all of them, but maybe a couple of them at the inner core. So what do you reckon to that?"
   "Sounds like the plot of one of the sci-fi books you buy in junk shops."
   "Yes, but what if it were all true?"
   Wendy shrugged. "Then I suppose it would be another of life's little ironies. Here I am, someone who's been asking herself if this is all there is for the last twenty-odd years. And there you are, someone who's only been interested in having a bloody good time for all that time. And guess which one finds the path to true enlightenment?"
   "But they do say to travel hopefully is much better than to arrive, Wezzer."
   "I suppose so. But you do get a bit bloody foot-sore and weary after a while. This is weird! Me having a philosophical discussion with you of all people!"
   "Well, we are both weird people. Caroline would be willing to stand up in court and testify to that. Right, I think I'll get on with some guitar practice, now."
   As he headed upstairs to his studio, Pete Astor told himself that he should put Bert Norton's exposure down as another example of Astor's Luck, which was just another term for Kiron's Magic. He had been getting close to assuming that if one set of weirdness was real, namely his irregular contacts with Kiron, then the Talmys' story of a subsequent plane of existence might just be real too.
   As things had turned out, however, he had not been taken in by the con trick and he had not suffered a little, redeemable financial damage and a whole lot of less easily repaired damage to his pride.
   In fact, he was a very lucky sort of bloke, and thinking about the state of his luck told him that he really ought to get in touch with the being who had brought him that luck before he got on with his guitar practice.
   Kiron was able to report a good energy spike from wherever Pete Astor had been on Saturday night. When he returned from his Charm excursion, Astor put off his guitar practice again while he contacted James Faucumberg to discuss bringing the ceilidh band down from Scotland to do some recording for Kiron Sounds. Keeping the real boss happy was still Pete Astor's number one priority.

Peter Vance was rather dismayed by his reception when he arrived in England. Two English cops turned up at his hotel within an hour and a half of his arrival. The more senior, a superintendent, gave him the usual 'sorry for your loss' routine. Then, almost in the same breath, he began to interrogate Peter about his sister's activities in relation to the Talmy Group.
   More annoyed than upset, Peter played the grieving brother for all he was worth and just repeated that he had not seen his sister for a couple of weeks and she had said nothing to him about an interest in a bunch of English nut-cases. Detective Superintendent Parry took his time with the awkward Yank to be sure that Peter Vance had no plans to pick up where his sister had left off.
   A good prowl through her personal possessions had turned up some extremely interesting and advanced surveillance equipment. Jane Vance had also made a great many notes on a top-of-the-line laptop computer. Unfortunately, she had used an encryption program and an expert had told Parry that he couldn't afford to pay for the time that the expert would require to find the key.
   Parry was convinced that Jane Vance had been planning something illegal. Her brother had usually accompanied her on previous trips to the UK, which suggested that he was involved in the scheme up to his neck. And yet Jane Vance was the victim of a brutal murder and there were no points to be scored from trying her brother out for a conspiracy charge. All that he could do, Parry realized, was to come down heavily on the brother, who had never been as close to his sister as he was pretending, in the hope of warning him off.
   When he had got rid of the cops, Peter Vance sat down with a big drink and asked himself what he was doing in England. His main purpose was to take his sister's body home for burial but he would have to let the local legal system go through its rituals first. That meant an inquest and more investigation by both the police and whoever the Talmy Group appointed to defend his sister's murderer.
   What he didn't want to do, Peter decided, was expose himself to questioning in depth by English cops on a fishing expedition. The best place to be for some time to come was out of the UK, and it might be better to let a firm of lawyers handle the business of extracting his sister's body from whichever hospital had performed the autopsy and let them ship Jane home. And the same law firm could handle all of Peter Vance's dealings with the English police, too.
   Once he was safely back in the United States with a buffer between himself and the English cops, he could claim the credit for exposing the Talmy Group. Peter could tell the trustees that his sister's death proved just how dangerous but worthwhile that particular joint effort had been. Not to mention expensive. Milking expenses out of the trustees for payments in connection with the Talmy Group would keep him solvent for a few months.
   Of course, there was the business of the trial to come. From what his real investigators, as opposed to the ones invented for expenses purposes, had been able to learn, the English police had an excellent case against his sister's killer. The trial would drag on for a week or so, more if the lawyers could swing it to jack up their fees, but the outcome was fairly certain. Then there would be the appeals...
   All in all, Peter suspected, England would be a good place to avoid visiting for at least a year. And if he wanted to create trouble for Pete Astor's relatives or business colleagues, such as having someone give false information about them to the television licensing authority or the British Internal Revenue Service, he could always pick up a phone or send a fax.
   About the only piece of good news that had come his way was that the M'Cracken Archive was planning to publish memorial editions of Rixborough Press material as a tribute to the late Philip Hallan. The archive was planning to offer what the trustees would call dangerously subversive material to collectors on a semi-confidential basis to make them think that they were getting something extra special.
   The more books the archive issued, Peter knew, the more scope for him to 'distress' them and pass them off as original editions when he milked the trust for more expenses. If he made Ireland his European base instead of England, retaining the benefit of a country that understood American English but was never too willing to co-operate with its neighbour, he could get hold of the books on day-trips across the Irish Sea without leaving much of a trail.
   Finishing his drink, Peter Vance told himself that he would spend just three days in England on this final extended trip. Once he had hired a suitable law firm, he would devote the weekend to looking for interesting material for the trustees. Then he would head for home on Monday, putting himself out of range of the English cops.
   One good thing about being out of England, Peter told himself as he flicked through his address book, looking for inspiration on the subject of advice on a good law firm, was that he would be well beyond suspicion the next time something unfortunate happened to Pete Astor and anyone who happened to be standing or sitting next to him...

Monday night had lasted well into the early hours of Tuesday morning for the Dead Junkies. The club had stayed open for an extra half-hour beyond the usual 2 a.m. closing time and the band had carried on jamming for another half-hour while the staff did the usual tidying up and checking for stray bodies and smouldering cigarette ends. After a trip to an all-night café for coffee and refreshments, the group of about a dozen musicians and followers had finally broken up.
   Pete Astor ignored his watch and any available clocks when he got up the next morning, certain that it was about lunchtime. He heard the pips of a radio time-signal as he neared the kitchen. Then some lying woman was trying to tell him that she was reading the nine o'clock news. The news-reader received no apology when Astor checked his watch and found that she wasn't lying to him, after all.
   "Morning, Uncle Pete," said a voice with a laugh in it.
   "Morning, Astrid," said Astor. "Warleigh Business Centre will be a bit late getting open this morning."
   "Oh?" said Astrid.
   "Yes, Auntie Wendy had a very late night last night."
   "In that case, can I borrow your car?"
   "As long as you put some petrol in it."
   "Aren't you going to ask me where I'm going?"
   "What, you mean it's not a big, teenage secret?"
   "That's what our science teacher called reverse psychology, isn't it? Not asking to know something and trying to make whoever's not telling you feel guilty."
   "It's what my science teacher would have called minding your own business. So where are you going?"
   "Wendy wants me to do some research at the town hall."
   "The junior trouble-maker doing a bit of path-finding for the senior trouble-maker?"
   "Something like that. I should be back by lunchtime."
   "Who knows, the senior trouble-maker might be out of bed by then. Hello," Astor added to the semi-stranger, who had been busily munching a half-slice of cheese-on-toast through the conversation.
   "This is Ally," said Astrid.
   "Oh, right," said Astor. "How come you're not called 'Lc' if your mother has such an aversion to vowels?"
   Alice Smith, daughter of Mwrdn, returned a look of blank incomprehension to the ravings of a man of her mother's generation.
   "See you later, Uncle Pete." Astrid rattled a set of car keys at her friend and headed for the door. Alice followed her with the last half-slice of cheese-on-toast. She looked like the sort of junior ectomorph who could empty the fridge and still not put on a surplus ounce.
   Astor made a mental note to ring the cheese mines and get a truckload of replacements sent over if The Locust had invited herself in for a second breakfast. Then he turned his attention to making toast for himself, grilling tomatoes and warming up some cooked sausages from the fridge.
   The morning paper had been folded to the television page. Astor started there and worked his way back to the front. He was scanning an article on the already semi-legendary Millennium Dome Bomber, which was dressed up as a piece on the contribution of the Millennium Dome to Britain's self-image, when the telephone began to ring. Astor gave his number.
   "Henry Hall-Carter," said a half-familiar voice. "Is that Pete?"
   "In person. What can I do you for, H.H.?"
   "I've had a threatening letter from the Inland Revenue."
   Jane Vance had swiped at the actor from beyond the grave.
   "Those bastards were quick off the mark. The tax year only ended a couple of weeks ago. What's the problem?"
   "They say they have evidence I'm earning a lot more than I've declared from Kiron Sounds."
   "You've told your accountant about your two-fifty a week?"
   "Oh, yes. I'm too terrified of the taxman not to. I even told him about the signing-on fee."
   "In that case, I can't see you've got anything to worry about. Just dump the problem on your accountant. If you've told him all your earnings, anything the Income Tax don't like is down to him. But if you need to recruit some legal wizard, or get in touch with Ozzie, my accountant, for any certificates of earnings, feel free."
   "Right, thank you, Pete."
   "And I reckon your accountant should send a letter to the taxman stating that his client has declared his income in full and he'd like to see any evidence to the contrary in their possession."
   "Put up or shut up?"
   "Right. If you've told them what you're earning, you're fireproof."
   "One thing I was wondering. There are no assets in my name in your company, by any chance?" Hall-Carter asked apologetically.
   "No, nothing like that. You're the figurehead boss-man and that's all you are. Hang on. Have you sent your tax return in already?"
   "Well, no. Not for the year just gone," Hall-Carter realized.
   "So why do they think you've earning anything from Kiron Sounds? You've only been on the payroll since the end of last year."
   "You know, you're right. I think I went into panic mode automatically when I saw a threatening letter from the Inland Revenue. And come to think of it, I'm not actually paid by KS, am I? It's the company that owns KS that pays me."
   "Yeah, right. In that case, I reckon it's a screw-up. Some idiot's pushed the wrong key on a computer." Or, Astor told himself, someone's doing a bit of trouble making.
   "But why would they think I work for KS?"
   "Maybe they read something in one of the papers when you were on the road with the Drachs. And made a note in your file to call you a liar no matter what you tell them, just to see if they can shake a bit more out of you."
   "But I was on the road as Roger Carstairs, your head honcho, not as myself."
   "Yeah, right." Astor realized that someone was definitely making trouble. "Maybe it would be a good idea to get your accountant to ask them. And set some legal expert on them if they won't tell you."
   "I'm a bit nervous about being cheeky to the taxman."
   "Haven't you heard they're not very good, the tax mob? It's either a half or two-thirds of their cases that they get wrong if there's anything complicated involved. I should think they're quite used to being pulled up and told they're wrong. But it would be a good idea to push on the KS angle. Get them on the defensive."
   "It could be a bit expensive, though," Hall-Carter said doubtfully. "Legal fees and everything."
   "Which the holding company will pay and claim from the taxman as business expenses. So it's not your problem."
   "You're sure about that, Pete? That the company would do battle on my behalf on a purely private matter?"
   "It's obviously arisen as a consequence of your working for them. So if anyone starts giving you dodgy looks, just refer them to me. But start the ball rolling by giving the taxman's letter to your accountant."
   "Right, I'll do that. Hell of a start to the day."
   "At least your bloody postman's been. I think mine's having a day off. By the way, we're looking at another band that has a stage show like the Drachs. Are you up for doing a bit more of your director-producer act if we sign them up?"
   "Yes, indeed, if the expenses are as generous as the last time."
   "Skimping on investments is always a false economy, as I read in one of the papers the other day. Anyway, I'll be in touch with more details if it all comes off. And let me know what happens with the taxman, H.H."
   Astor rang off, then he pressed one of the speed-dial keys.
   "Good morning, Maddox Investigations?" said a quietly competent female voice.
   "Pete Astor. Is Tom there?"
   "Just a moment, Mr. Astor."
   "Someone not been to bed yet?" said Tom Maddox with a laugh in his voice.
   "So much for the detective," scoffed Astor. "Why would the income tax think someone's working for Kiron Sounds, and why would they tell him he's not paying enough tax? The person we're talking about was recruited during the last tax year as a free-lance consultant, and not by KS, and he hasn't sent his return in yet. So he hasn't put it on the official record yet, who he's worked for."
   "Someone's shopped him," said Maddox. "They even get informers sending them emails, these days. It sounds like the Revenue thinks this person's been working free-lance for KS for quite some time but he hasn't reported any earnings from previous years."
   "What previous years? KS has only been going since last August. And this guy is paid by the company that owns KS, not KS itself."
   "In that case, we're in cock-up country. Someone's told the Revenue a silly story and they've not checked it out properly. Or they've not been able to check it out, so they've made coming up with an explanation your person's problem. Are we talking about you, by the way? The mysterious person?"
   "Me?" said Astor in surprise. "I get it. The suspicious police mind. No, it's genuinely someone else. So, any idea who did the shopping?"
   "You mean, is it someone on your list of enemies?"
   "I suppose that's a fairly unanswerable question." Astor realized.
   "Not totally. Some disappointed private investigators have been asking who got the Croydon job recently."
   "Which is what? This job?"
   "No one knows for sure. But someone was getting tenders for a big surveillance job in Croydon. It looks very much like the M'Cracken Archive was the target."
   "To do what?"
   "Basically, find out who uses it."
   "That never came out. But the people behind it were probably Yanks."
   "Like that woman who got done in by the Talmys?"
   "I'm just wondering if they're spreading their net, as far as making trouble for KS is concerned. Making people think twice about having anything to do with the company."
   "Why, have they shopped you to the taxman, too?"
   "No, but I did get an imitation bomb in my car."
   "I thought that was the Lihmahl mob?"
   "Nothing was ever proved, Pete."
   "So are you having second thoughts now? About working for KS?"
   "I had my second thoughts a long time ago. And I'm still working for KS."
   "So is there anything you can do? As far as finding out who's doing all the shopping?"
   "No guarantees. And I'm going to need a bit more to work from. Such as the name of your person and what he or she does."
   "What are you doing for lunch?"
   "Surveillance job. But I've got some time this afternoon."
   "Okay, I'll be at Melody Studios most of the day. Catch me there?"
   "Okay. Or I'll give you a ring if there's a problem."

Astrid and Alice returned from their research expedition in good time to let Astor reclaim his car and drive into Croydon for a lunchtime meeting with James Faucumberg at the Astoria.
   DS Flint and a stranger approached him as Astor was navigating the ground floor of the theatre. "You've not been waiting here all morning to bust me, have you?" Astor asked with a frown.
   "This is Inspector Klugman from Dortmund," Flint told him patiently. "He's over here on an exchange visit."
   "Not on a bust on behalf of Europol?" Astor remarked as he shook the hand of a well-built man in a posh suit. "Maybe I'd better give you your brown envelope later so I don't embarrass you in front of your guest," he added to Flint.
   "What did he say?" remarked the German, who looked to Astor like a less muscular version of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
   "Ich werde dem Schutzmann das Schutzgeld später geben," Astor told him.
   "You bastard!" said Flint. "I might have guessed you'd speak German."
   "This is your English sense of humour, nicht wahr?" said Inspector Klugman. "Giving policemen protection money?"
   "I'm not laughing," said Flint.
   "No, but I am," said Astor. "So what can I do you for?"
   "We wanted to blag a Drachs poster."
   "So this is an unofficial visit? We don't have to flush all the contraband down the bog?"
   "And a Gems poster, if you've got any left." Flint thought it safer to ignore the question.
   "Yeah, I think James had them reprinted, there's such a demand for them."
   "I would have thought your security would have been rather better, Herr Astor," Klugman remarked. "We just walked in and no one challenged us."
   "For one thing," Astor told him, "you're with a guy our security people know is a cop. And for another, not all our security cameras have got big red lights on them. So even if no one's asked you for your backstage pass, you can be sure they know who you are, where you are and what you're doing. It's over here."
   Astor led the way into an office and asked the occupant to surrender the required posters. While Inspector Klugman was supervising an operation to roll up his posters and insert them in a mailing tube, Flint took Astor aside. "Spot of news for you," he said. "Your pal DI Farne is getting moved away from here."
   "As in moved to the Tower of London ready for hanging, drawing and quartering?" said Astor.
   "As in shunted off somewhere out of the way under a cloud."
   "So he's getting away with it?"
   "He won't think so as he watches his career stagnate."
   "So all his mates left here will have it in for me even more?"
   "What mates?" scoffed Flint. "No, he's wasted a lot of resources trying to get himself noticed by busting someone famous. And even if he'd caught you out, your company's publicity machine would have been having a real go at the Chief Constable, wanting to know what other crime prevention measures could have been put in place for the cost of busting one high-profile bloke smoking a bit of dope in the privacy of his own home."
   "And contributing to the profits of drug dealers when he buys it?" Astor remarked.
   "Which I'm sure your PR mob would gloss over," laughed Flint.
   "You're not telling me I've suddenly got immunity from drug busts, are you?" scoffed Astor.
   "More that the replacement DI would have to be incredibly brave, or incredibly sure of himself, to try any more fishing expeditions. But if any solid information does comes up, you'll be jumped on. And probably extra heavily for all the embarrassment you've caused the Chief Constable in the past."
   "What, you mean by being innocent of the crime suspected? And making him pay for property damaged in an illegal search based on a dodgy warrant? That sort of embarrassment?"
   "Right," nodded Flint.
   James Faucumberg looked into the office and said, "Can you give me some time in about ten minutes, Pete?"
   "Okay. See you shortly," said Astor.
   "I see what you mean about your security system, Herr Astor," said Inspector Klugman as he tucked a receipt into his wallet to prove that he had paid for his posters and not accepted a free gift. "That gentleman obviously knew where you were."
   "Not a lot gets past him," nodded Astor. "So you're a Gems fan, Inspector?"
   "I was at their gig in Hamburg two years ago. It was totally stunning. Like the Drachensblut gig my girlfriend took me to in Turin recently."
   "Yeah, they've got a lot in common, impactwise," nodded Astor.
   "At times like that, I think I should have learned to play the guitar at the age of eleven instead of playing football and enjoying myself."
   "Some of us managed both," said Astor.
   "And some of us would land in the bloody divvy if they fell off the Co-op roof," remarked Flint. "Right, sir, we're going to have to move a bit to get back on schedule."
   Astor watched with a thoughtful expression as the police officers headed for the car park. His naturally suspicious nature told him that it might be a bad idea to rush to his local drug dealer to stock up on some decent dope. DS Flint was a reasonable sort of bloke, but he was still a copper and the right copper to use to put Public Enemy Number One Pete Astor off his guard.
   Astor decided that it would be a good idea to stick to immediate-consumption level as far as cannabis sativa was concerned, even if small amounts were more expensive, weight for weight, than units of a bigger deal. After all, it wasn't as if he couldn't afford to be careful with Kiron's Bounty still filling his bank accounts to overflowing.
   The sound of part of an orchestra playing something vaguely familiar attracted his attention when Astor headed for James Faucumberg's office. He stopped off an a rehearsal room on the way and found Hugo Wolfe watching a young hopeful trying his hand at conducting.
   "Interesting piece, your War Requiem," Wolfe said with a smile of welcome, keeping his voice down.
   "I'm amazed," said Astor. "I thought there were only two copies of this left and I had both of them."
   "Which explains why I had to assemble mine as bits from three different sources."
   "So what do you reckon to it?"
   "It's certainly one of the angriest pieces of music I've ever heard."
   "That's why it was never performed. The organizer of the concert got cold feet after some bishop heard a rehearsal. Too little praising God and too much railing against a cruel fate, apparently," Astor added with a smile.
   "I won't argue with that," laughed Wolfe. "It certainly does a good job of testing young conductors to destruction, too."
   "That was another strike against it. Too bloody much rehearsal time needed because it's a bit complicated in parts."
   "That's one of the spin-offs of our young musician programme. It gives us a chance to expose the permanent staff to pieces like yours, and cuts down on the rehearsal time when we do them for real."
   "What, you're thinking about doing it? For real?"
   "Probably later in the year. There's a certain feeling in the orchestra that we should be doing more contemporary music. Especially if it's written by our patrons."
   "And people call me cynical," laughed Astor. "Whoops! I've got a meeting I should be at. See you around, Hugo."
   When he arrived at James Faucumberg's office, Astor was surprised to find Dominik Wekling there, looking completely at home.
   "Dom's interested on putting your Scottish band on TV," James explained. "As part of some deep, dark plot."
   "To do what?" invited Astor. "I thought your series had finished?"
   "There are other people putting programmes on, Pete. Have a listen to this and tell me who it is." Dominik pushed the play button of a pocket-size cassette recorder.
   "That's Wendy," Astor realized almost at once. "I was up at my Dad's Number Two Castle the weekend before last and he had this massive Easter party for the locals. And Wezzer joined the band to do a fake Country and Western number I wrote years ago. So long ago, in fact, that she had to remind me of the tune. So who bootlegged us?"
   "It's even better than that," laughed Dominik. "Someone's entered this for a competition. As a new country song. I mean, as the work of a new singer-songwriter."
   "The bastard!" said Astor.
   "So the plan is," said Dominik, "to put your Scottish band on TV so people recognize them, then hope to hell this song gets somewhere in the competition..."
   "So you can turn up and say you know who the real composer and performers are?" grinned Astor.
   "Neat bit of trouble-making, or what?" grinned Dominik.
   "Sounds neat to me," nodded Astor.
   "So it's okay to go ahead with organizing hotel rooms and time at the recording studio for six musicians?" said James. "Duly co-ordinated around a TV appearance?"
   "If you would, James. Do you believe the cheek of this guy? Or woman, if she's pretending to have Wendy's singing voice."
   "I've ceased to be amazed at what people think they can get away with," said James. "Living as I do in the presence of experts at that black art. Have you heard anything about a takeover, by the way?"
   "Of what?" frowned Astor.
   "Of Kiron Sounds."
   "It's news to me."
   "Maybe they've not told you about it yet. Before the details of the bid are on the table."
   "Who hasn't told me? The people who invented the rumour?"
   "The people at the top of KS."
   "I'm in constant and daily touch with the head honcho. If anyone had suggested a takeover, I'd know about it. And no one has. And I'd be strongly agin it. I mean, how can you be Vice President In Charge Of Everything if some bugger else has got your everything?"
   "So it's just a silly story?" laughed Dominik.
   "Yep," nodded Astor. "Who's spreading it?"
   "I've had three different journalists ring me," said James.
   "Yeah, and a couple rang me," added Dominik. "It's not a kite your guy Nick is flying to keep people talking about KS?"
   "I'm sure he can do better than that," scoffed Astor.
   "Maybe it's just a sign we've really arrived," said James. "And we're seen as profitable enough to be a target for a major player in the business. I even had someone trying to head-hunt me the other day."
   "What did you say?" Astor asked. "How much are they going to pay you and when can you get out of here?"
   "It was only a very tentative approach, Pete."
   "Still, you should find out what they're offering and use it to put pressure on your employer to screw more money out of him."
   "You know, Pete, when you say things like that, I could almost believe you mean them."
   "Only almost?" said Astor.
   "Yep. Only almost."
   "Story of my life, that. Good title for a song, too, Only Almost. No bugger's ever tried to head-hunt me."
   "Probably because no one would be able to work out how to fit you into a conventional corporate structure, Pete," said Dominik. "Apart from the guys running KS, of course. Who must have head-hunted you for the job you've got now."
   "That's true," Astor admitted. "That was so long ago, it's almost beyond living memory. We have been around for a long time!"

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