I wished, in vain, and wished again,
And struggled on, preserved in hope.
Until a random wish came true,
And now I look a proper dope.
A part of the main dining room at the Meridan Hotel near the bar was now described as a Business Area because the tables were supplied with power points for mains adaptors for laptop PCs and telephone sockets for modems. Pete Astor always made a point of having a table as far as possible from the workers with their mobile phones and computers when he was having lunch for the sake of eating somewhere posh and letting his band think that they were running rampage with a company expense account.
The Meridan Hotel no longer impressed Astrid Sachs. She had come to accept it as just a place where her uncle waved a company credit card around like an acknowledged millionaire. She had found that the expense-account lifestyle, and being a focus of attention in an otherwise all-male group, suited her perfectly. The arrangement also suited the restless, shifting membership of the Dead Junkies when the musicians believed that they were having a posh lunch on their record company.
"Reptile alert, Uncle Pete," Astrid murmured as the group was agonizing over the choice of ice creams.
"The Chocolate Heart Attack for me, please," Astor told the waiter as Reg Drew blagged a chair from another table and sat down, uninvited, at a free corner of the musicians' table. "Great! Are we all having lunch on your paper, Reg?" Astor added.
"Hah!" scoffed Drew. "Not at these prices."
"And some coffee and a stale bun for our starving friend, please," Astor added when the others had agreed to have the Chocolate Special ice cream.
"If you haven't got any stale buns, I'll have a slice of the walnut cake. And a drop of the cooking whisky," Drew told the waiter. "So what's this about you giving up Black Magic Rock?" he added to Astor.
"News to me," said Astor. "Sounds like a scoop."
"Hold the front page!" scoffed drummer Ronny Bone.
"So what about this new band you've signed up? Braht Lahts? The next step forward is UFO Rock?"
"Are you quoting one of Nick's press releases at me?"
"No, that's from their own publicity hand-out. So are you finding all this black magic stuff too much of a strain?"
"Yeah, that's why he's going to Australia on tour," scoffed Astrid. "To relax."
"Are you his latest girlfriend, love?" said Drew.
"I'm a trainee groupie," said Astrid. "I'm on a Youth Education course."
"That sounds daft enough to be true, these days," said Drew. "So you reckon UFOs and alien abductions is where rock music is going next?"
For about two seconds, Astor contemplated telling the journalist that he was in contact with an extra-dimensional being when he was out of his skull on a hallucinogen called Charm, and that the extra-dimensional being had reported a strong energy spike during a recent Braht Lahts gig at the Astoria. The arrival of the waiter extended the pause.
"It's all about diversification, Reg," Astor said eventually, recalling what Syd Melchior had said about plundering Australian Aborigine culture and some comments that James Faucumberg had made.
"People get bored easily these days so you have to keep looking for something different. Our people see the same sort of potential in Braht Lahts as Drachensblut showed when we gave them their head."
"Sort of rock-drama rather than just rock? So this means you'll be doing more videos like the Drachensblut one? And the big boss of your outfit will be coming down off his mountain to knock their stage act into shape?"
"Since when did you become the music correspondent of your rag?" frowned Conrad Bone, the drummer's brother and the band's keyboard player.
Drew shrugged. "We've got to put some bloody thing between the adverts. And let's face it, a whole lot of people think most of Croydon's cultural life revolves around whatever's happening at the Astoria or Kiron Sounds."
"So you're trying to find something to print that's not on Caroline's Internet site?" said Astor.
"I don't remember seeing anything about Youth Education Courses for trainee groupies. That would make some eye-catching headlines," Drew added with a grin.
"If you print anything like that, her grandma will kill me."
"Violent sort, is she?"
"My grandma is his mother," laughed Astrid. "So he daren't say anything bad about her."
"So you're either the daughter of someone he knew twenty years ago, who's just bobbed out of the woodwork to claim her long-lost daddy..."
"Or?" said Astor.
Drew pulled a mournful face. "Knowing my luck, she's your niece."
"Still, Uncle Reg has never been known to let facts get in the way of a good story, has he?" scoffed Astor. "Astoria In Trainee Groupie Shock Horror. I'd definitely want to read that."
"So you're going to Australia?"
"What, me, Gov?"
"That's what your niece said."
"Ah, but how do you know she's not having you on?"
"Because I don't suppose you've had time to corrupt her that much yet," said Drew. "I suppose you'll be touring with Intoxicant? Despite all the stories about mutual hating of each others' guts?"
"You shouldn't believe what you read in the music press."
"So what's going to happen here while you're away?"
"Oh, I imagine life will go on pretty much as normal, Reg, even if I'm not here."
"I mean at the Astoria. With the Vice President In Charge of Everything on the other side of the planet?"
"There's a difference between being in charge of something and running it. Which is obviously too subtle for characters like you to grasp. It's like having Her Majesty's Prisons, but you don't expect the Queen to go round clipping the inmates' ears if they misbehave. The management at the Astoria are perfectly capable of running the show unsupervised. And I suppose they have phones in Australia."
"What about that piece in one of the papers about you taking all the important decisions about the day-to-day running of the Astoria and the recording studio? Quote: 'A full and dedicated involvement'."
Astor shrugged. "Probably just someone quoting a quote about me that someone else made up. James and Roddy are in complete charge of all the day-to-day stuff. And most of the policy."
"So what do you do?"
"I just wander in to harass James occasionally by getting him to fix up gigs for new bands at no notice."
"So you're not here having a posh lunch before your afternoon meeting with someone dead important?" scoffed Drew. "Such as the company that's put in a takeover bid for KS?"
"No, I'm just having lunch with the guys before we get down to some serious rehearsing. That's what I do, Reg. I'm a musician. I play music and I spot bands that play good music and get them signed up to KS. And James and his people run the Astoria."
"Or Uncle Pete might be a secret criminal mastermind," remarked Astrid. "Who's to know?"
"Yep," nodded Drew after finishing his cake. "You've got to be his niece. I recognize the Astor piss-taking style. So what about this takeover? Secret negotiations going on, or what?"
"Is it you who started that particular rumour, Reg?"
"You're telling me that's all it is? Just a rumour?"
"I wouldn't dream of trying to tell a journo anything. They know the lot, don't they?"
"So how come all the KS bands are going to Australia suddenly?" Drew changed tack.
"It's all to do with globalization and export earnings," said Astor. "And grabbing the chance to see a new bit of the world while it's there. Or before we get taken over and we get all our privileges cut off."
"What's this I heard about a brilliant new musical epic you've written that you're not letting your lot do? I heard you've given it to Intoxicant instead."
"You trouble-making sod!" remarked Ronny Bone.
"It's the final piece of a musical concept. Something that comes after The Portal and tops it all off," Astor added.
"What's it called? Sod Off?"
"Sotir. And it needs more than four people to do it properly, so when Intox start it off, we invade the stage and join in. The ultimate master plan is to record a grand version with the Junkies, Intox and The Croydon."
"Nothing like thinking big, is there? Did you know Intoxicant got an invitation to a Downing Street do? Like the one you got?"
"News to me. Are they going before or after Australia?"
"Neither. They gave them the same sort of answer you did. They reckoned it would be quite fatal for their credibility, toadying up to politicians."
"Glad to hear it," laughed Astor. "You know, you're a positive mine of information today, Reg."
"Did you know your friend Mr. Brown is retiring in the near future?"
"Do I know any Mr. Browns?"
"The bloke who gives your other pal DI Farne the dodgy warrants that let him bust your place. Retiring from the bench, he is, due to the pressure of other commitments. Spending more time with his family, and all that."
"He ought to be retiring to the nick after all the dodgy warrants he signed for Inspector Fiend. Is anything happening about them?"
"I think they're hoping if he retires, that will be the end of it. They don't like embarrassment one little bit, do the legal establishment."
"Not unless they're making money out of it. Well, I'm bloody well not letting him get away with it. It's a bad example to other dodgy magistrates."
"Can I quote you on that?" Drew said hopefully.
"Is there any way of stopping you, even if I say no?"
"Even though Nick has made it plain that anything I say outside a press conference is off the record?"
"You never go to bloody press conferences, these days."
"There could be a reason for that," Astrid remarked.
"A source close to Kiron Sounds said...," Drew remarked to himself.
"What about Inspector Fiend?" Astor added. "Sources close to Croydon police say he's being let off with a quiet spot of rustication."
"I heard much the same," nodded Drew. "But I suppose certain people will shine the light of publicity on these deals if they try and sneak them through on the QT?"
"Too bloody right!"
"And when it happens, unco-operative bastards like yourself, who wouldn't give me the time of day normally, will be wanting me to print their side of things?"
"Probably. Hard life, isn't it, Reg?"
"You're sitting here having your lunch on expenses and you can say something like that?" scoffed Drew.
"Some people say it's the luck of the seven blind bastards," Astor said wisely. "And others say it's just a fitting reward for a lifetime of hard work and wearing out your fingers on guitar strings. Which is what I have to be doing in about twenty minutes from now. So I'll see you around, Reg."
"You can count on that," nodded Drew. "Thanks for the stale bun. By the way, is it true one of the guitarists in Damaged Goods broke his hand smashing the drummer in the face in a back-stage fight?"
"If he'd broken his hand, he wouldn't be able to play his guitar, would he? It's not something you can do one-handed. So he'd get the sack. I mean, the world's full of guys who can play the guitar."
"Which is why guitarists don't hit people, they kick them instead," Conrad Bone added helpfully.
"Just another silly story, eh? Right, see you." Drew pushed his chair back and headed for the door.
Astor put a credit card on the table as a hint as their waiter passed. When the group reached the rehearsal room at the Astoria, Astor was surprised to find Wendy and her Welsh friend Mwrdn helping to set up the drum kit. Alice Smith was watching them and offering advice.
"We were wondering what to do," Mwrdn explained. "Then we thought we'd pretend to be Pete Astor. So we've been out for our posh lunch and we're going to spend the afternoon drinking and hanging around at a theatre somewhere."
"Instead of saving the planet and causing trouble?" Astor remarked as Ronny Bone rushed over to make sure that the 'helpers' were doing a proper job.
"The thing about saving the planet is there's always plenty to save, so you can afford to have a day off," said Wendy. "And I seem to have lost my helper. Is Astrid your driver full-time now?" she added, watching Astrid and Alice doing battle with a tangled microphone cable. Mwrdn drifted over to supervise their efforts.
"I haven't given her the job officially, if you want her back? It's just that Cazzer's a bit too important to be driving me around now." Astor pretended not to notice that Caroline was walking toward him with sheet of paper in a plastic wallet. "And the kid's up for all the driving practice she can get."
"And you can still drink as much as you want?"
"And score points with my Mom, with Astrid driving."
"How?" frowned Wendy.
"If the kid's driving me, she's obviously not drinking. So I'm having a good influence on her."
"Right!" scoffed Wendy. "I must say, she seems to be fitting in very well. Even if she is very much, 'my uncle runs this place,' when she's here. Still, imagine what she'd be like if she knew, 'my uncle owns this place.'"
"It doesn't bear thinking about!" laughed Astor. "I'd have the whole gang of them, Astrid, Barry and all their cousins, queuing up to bump me off. Inspector Fiend would never know who to give the medal to."
"He'd probably give them one each," laughed Wendy. "Hello, Caroline."
"Someone taking my name in vain?" said Caroline.
"Probably," said Astor. "What you got?"
"More amusing emails for you. You might like to answer a couple of them."
"More nymphomaniacs with a pub proposing marriage?"
"That sort of thing, yes."
"You'd better let my censor look at them while I get myself plugged in," Astor decided.
Caroline handed the print-out to Wendy as Astor headed for his amplifier to plug in his guitar. "Not that any of this lot is likely to get a look in at the moment," she added. "If you and Pete are still itemized?"
"You know the Rule of Relationships?" Wendy remarked. "That says by the time you've been out with a dozen people, you're supposed to have the experience to pick a thirteenth who's pretty well suited to you? Someone you can have a lasting relationship with?"
"Yes, I read that somewhere. It didn't work for me, though. Perhaps I should have gone out with more blokes before I married Roy. Or instead of."
"Anyway. I think I've done it backwards."
"How do you mean?" frowned Caroline.
"Well, I think the first guy I picked..."
"I think he was the right one for me and the next dozen people just proved I made the right choice in the first place."
"So it's serious serious now?"
"I don't think serious is a word you can apply to Pete Astor's relationships. Apart from the one with his Stratocaster guitar. But yes, I reckon it is as far as I'm concerned."
"So much for opposites attract," remarked Mwrdn, arriving with a chilled bottle of white wine and a collection of glasses. "Two weird people? No, it'll never work."
"Yes, but that's the point of everything," Wendy told her. "It doesn't have to work. Our relationship doesn't have to do anything. It just is."
"Oh, God! She's going all Zen Buddhist on us," sighed Mwrdn. "Here, get some of this wine down your neck. Are you stopping, Caroline?"
"Yes, I've given myself an afternoon off," nodded Caroline. "Pete said I ought to do it to make people appreciate me more when I'm there, and I think there's a lot to be said for being weird enough to do what you feel like doing occasionally."
"Seconded," said Mwrdn, pouring generously.
James Faucumberg found himself in two minds as to how to treat the musicians' reactions to the up-coming tour. It was all still up in the air while he was busy with contract negotiations with the Australian promoters, but Pete Astor and his friends were making plans as if the whole thing was set in stone. In the end, James decided to take it as a vote of confidence in his abilities rather than a sign that he could be replaced if the deal faltered.
The rumour-mill continued to churn now that Kiron Sounds had become the name that just had to go into articles to prove that the author was a member of the in-crowd. The next set of silly stories about the company seemed to originate from female journalists trying to make trouble. They had noticed that there were no female artistes on the KS label.
Nick Pennington raised the sex discrimination issue with Pete Astor during a routine meeting at the Astoria to find out if he was bothered by it.
"If you want my reaction," Astor told him, "it's probably: since when have the company's commercial decisions been anything to do with that lot? You can imagine the moaning they'd do if we tried to tell them how to run their papers."
"So you're not about to rush out and sign up a bunch of female artistes?" said Nick.
"If I did, I'll only be accused of trying to get off with them," said Astor.
"So what was all that stuff about Hellen D'Amnation in aid of?" said James Faucumberg. "After she told the papers she wouldn't sign for KS if we were the last recording company in the whole universe, and that journalist approached you for a comment, you're alleged to have said: 'Shit! I suppose we'd better junk the deal we're working up for her.' In other words, is anything going on that I should know about, Pete? And thanks for telling me if there is."
"Just yours truly razzing up the meeja," laughed Astor. "No, she's pissed off because the police keep trying drug busts on me and no one takes her seriously when she tries to tell them about all the stuff she's been taking. And if I was going to sign her, which I'm not, I'd talk it over with you before I talked to any journos."
"So what do I say if someone asks me about Hellen D or some other female artiste getting signed up?" James added.
"Just look blank and say it's all news to you," Astor advised.
"You won't mind if I'm a bit more diplomatic?" said Nick. "And tell them KS is only a very small company working in a limited market a corner of the whole music spectrum. So we're not trying to cover everything. And we think BMR, the sort of theatre-cum-rock style and the new Classical stuff we're doing is quite enough for us to handle without over-reaching ourselves."
"You reckon they'll really be interested in the truth, me old Nick?" scoffed Astor. "Especially if it's that boring?"
"Someone's got to put it on the record sometime," said Nick. "We can't live in a fantasy world permanently."
"Oh, I don't know..." remarked James, looking at Astor.
"Talking about fantasy worlds," added Astor, "how did you get on with your head-hunters, James? Did you know they've been after him?" he added to Nick.
"I think he mentioned it in passing," nodded Nick. "But I got the impression it's not worth asking you for his job."
"What was up, not enough cash or perks?" said Astor.
"Oh, yes, they were offering a decent package, and probably more prestige than running the Astoria complex," said James. "But there was this board of governors in the background and three of them are political appointees. Subject to change whenever the political wind changes direction. And I had this awful vision of these characters setting targets and shifting the goal-posts constantly and arbitrarily."
"You can't beat a good metaphor when it's well mixed," Astor remarked.
"Then I thought about my working life here," James added, "where I'm genuinely in charge and the V.P.I.C.E. just strolls in occasionally when he wants me to give him some space on the calendar. And I thought, am I the sort of idiot who doesn't know when he's well off?"
"So we're stuck with you, then?" said Astor.
"'Fraid so," nodded James.
"Or is this a ploy to let me know what a great job you're doing and you're worth twice the money?"
"Isn't it amazing how cynical people get in their old age?" laughed James.
Tom Maddox, the private investigator, interrupted an afternoon session during the second week of rehearsals at the Astoria with a series of speculations. Working on from Jane Vance's death, he had started to put some pieces together.
He now had both Jane and Peter Vance marked down as prime suspects for the people who had bank-rolled the attacks on Pete Astor and Philip Hallan. Knowing that Peter Vance had come into a sizeable inheritance shortly after his sister's funeral, Maddox was wondering whether some pre-emptive extreme counter-measures might not have become necessary.
Maddox had also been keeping an eye on people suspected of being undeclared members of the Talmy Group and the Lihmahl Support Group -especially the latter. The police were confident that they had identified the man who had planted the dummy bomb in Maddox's car. They were also convinced that engineering drawings seized during a raid on the home of one of the inner circle of the LSG showed that the next step would have been a real bomb. They were now in the run-up to a wave of dawn arrests with the usual media coverage.
The close attention of the police had shattered external support for both the Talmy and the Lihmahl organizations, but Maddox saw no harm in being prepared for trouble, especially when he had a rich client and he too was a potential target. Astor's reaction had been to asked Maddox to assess the situation and do what he thought was necessary, as long as he kept Kiron Sounds out of anything illegal.
"What you're saying," Astor said as the detective completed his report and tackled a slice of veal and ham pie selected from the rehearsal room's survival rations as if he had been on short rations all week, "is the Talmy Group used to include the people who split off as the Lihmahl Support Group? And the whole gang's original idea was to put forward the proposition that those who have 'gone on through' have been reincarnated in some way as a species called the Lihmahl and they were under attack by the Dendrashi?"
"Right," nodded Maddox after a swig of red wine from a paper cup. "The idea was to approach punters for cash to find out ways to protect the life-to-come from the evil Dendrashi."
"But there were arguments about how the cash was to be split up and who was in charge of what? Which led to the Lihmahl Support Group splitting off?"
"Their big idea then was to solicit contributions towards developing a device that will protect the Lihmahl from the Dendrashi and also protect the Earth at the same time. Because the Dendrashi have to go through the Lihmahl to get to us. The LSG built the whole thing as a conspiracy within a conspiracy."
"The more money people cough up, the deeper they're allowed to penetrate the mystery?"
"Right. But the Talmy Group decided to simplify the scam. They decided just to solicit contributions for developing the means to get more people through to the next plane of existence. Two more splits in the Talmys -again, about who was to be in charge -created the Norton faction and the Hraldy faction. And after the announcement that Alice Hraldy had 'gone on through', our friend Bert decided he'd better do the same to stop the smaller off-shoot from stealing his mug punters."
"And once they'd both taken the risk of telling the big lie, the whole thing started to drop to bits?"
"Something like that," nodded Maddox.
"Have another piece of pie."
"Cheers. Yes, the whole problem was all these factions and people wanting to push ahead and get results. If they'd stuck to their original timetable and concentrated on really locking people in to the mystery before they moved in on them, well, they'd still be operating today and there'd be a lot of mugs around thinking they'll be able to 'go on through' too when the time comes. Or a lot more mugs, I should say."
"Which means what?" frowned Astor.
"There are still a lot of people around who think the arrests are just an establishment plot to suppress the knowledge that it's possible to 'go on through'."
"The sort of people Padraig and his archive make their money out of?"
Maddox nodded. "The seekers after truth. Nothing like a good dose of suppression by the establishment for making people believe in something even harder. Conspiracies always sell."
"So what's the state of play on all this?"
"The whole Talmy and Lihmahl thing's gone underground for the moment. For rebuilding and consolidation."
"What about putting bombs in people's cars?"
"I shouldn't think they'll be too keen to do anything that will get them noticed by the police for quite some time."
"So if we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone?"
"That's about the size of it," nodded Maddox. "Unless you want me to put you in touch with the survivors out of the inner circle?"
"It was mainly Wendy who was interested in them," said Astor, concealing his own interest. "It's probably best to let the whole thing go."
"Probably," nodded Maddox. "So do you want me to knock out a final report for you?"
"Yep, I think we'll call it a day," nodded Astor.
"So what's the story on you and Hellen D? Did you make her an offer, or what?"
"In her dreams!" laughed Astor. "Which version have you heard?"
"That you offered a three-album deal and a world tour but she turned you down -basically because KS is run by a bunch of ancient wankers."
"What really happened is her management approached James after I told some journalist -I was lying, obviously -that I was thinking of making her an offer around the time she came out with her 'no way'. And James told them he'd re-allocated the signing budget and he can't offer them a deal in the current financial year."
"So you never offered her any sort of a deal?"
"When I think about Hellen D'Amnation, the words pole and forty-foot come to mind."
"Yeah, you've always struck me as the sort of guy who'd never let sordid commercial concerns get in the way of a healthy dislike," laughed Maddox.
In the middle of the following week, Pete Astor was hoovering out his Rolls-Royce when unexpected visitors arrived by taxi. His father and Wendy's father had arrived unexpectedly. Astor abandoned his labours in favour of summoning Wendy then organizing coffee and cake. He returned to the visitors to find Wendy turning a fist-sized piece of rock over in her hands and looking baffled.
"You're supposed to bring people a stick of rock, Dad," Astor remarked. "Not just hack lumps off your castle wall."
"It's an ore," said Astrid, unable to resist showing off superior knowledge to an adult.
"Fascinating," said Pete Astor dismissively.
"Not any old ore," added his father. "J.C. has found a vein of platinum ore of commerciably workable grade on the island."
"Since when was your old man a geologist?" Astor asked Wendy.
"If he's been reading up on it, he probably knows enough to bamboozle the experts," said Wendy.
"Yeah, I guess so. He always was a fast study," Astor admitted. "So how did you find it, J.C.? Trip over it coming back from the pub, like they do in Australia?"
"No, there was a programme on telly about it," said Jim Collier. "About mineral deposits on the mainland more or less opposite Clive's island. So I thought I'd have a look."
"What, and you found a lot of it?"
"Enough to make the geologist from the mining company lose his cool. He was looking quite goggle-eyed when he'd worked out how much there's likely to be."
"You've got a mining company on the job?" said Wendy.
"We're talking serious money here," nodded Clive Astor. "A lot more than we paid for the island."
"Far out!" said Pete Astor.
"So, Pete, me boy, we thought we'd drop in and borrow your Roller so we can arrive at the HQ of the mining oufit in style."
"Show them you don't need their cash so don't even think about buying you off with peanuts?" laughed Pete Astor.
"Got it in one," nodded his father.
"The luck of some people," said Pete Astor, wondering if the discovery was genuine good luck or Kiron lending a helping hand to those close to him.
"It certainly seems to run in some families," Wendy remarked with a significant look at her friend.
A week later, on the last Thursday in May, during a rehearsal session, Astor received a call from Dominik Wekling, who had news of the musical bandit who had entered the folksong competition pretending to be Wendy.
"Don't tell me -she's won?" said Astor.
"Not quite," laughed Dominik. "In fact, I've had a leak that someone else is ahead in the voting. It's taking a bit of time because they're taking postal votes as well as phone votes."
"Wezzer's going to be a bit dischuffed about that."
"Especially when she hears the not exactly brilliant winning entry. So I'm organizing an exposé before they can get the result out and I just wanted to warn you to make sure you're available for comments when the proverbial hits the fan."
"I'll be here today and tomorrow, carrying on with the rehearsing. And gigging over the weekend."
"Information on where available on the KS website, as usual?"
"Right. Pity Wendy didn't win the competition."
"You can never rely on the public showing good taste, Pete. Which is why you keep trouble-makers like myself going."
"I knew there had to be some reason," laughed Astor.
"So what's this about a gold rush to your Dad's island?"
"It's not gold, it's platinum."
"That's worth a zillion times more than gold, isn't it?"
"Something like that. Only it's not lying around in a stream, waiting for blokes with frying pans. You have to crunch up tons of rock to get at a few ounces, or something."
"So it's not worth dashing over there to try and make my fortune?"
"Not unless you take a ton of dynamite with you."
"Oh, well. Have a good time in Australia, Pete."
"Funnily enough, I was planning to do just that," said Astor.
A fortnight before the bands left on the long haul to Australia, Colin Brown, the magistrate who had signed DI Farne's warrants, retired from the bench with no publicity and no farewell party. The truth about the reason for his departure had become common currency, thanks to the efforts of local subversives and those with a grudge against the system.
A week later, DS Flint looked in at the Astoria to tell Astor that he had been promoted to detective inspector and he was being posted away to the wilds of Manchester. It was a move that robbed Astor of a valuable source of information and Flint of the company of Toy Graham and access to music events at the Astoria as a semi-privileged guest.
"Your old mate DI Farne will be on his travels soon," Flint added.
"Special Branch at the North Pole?" said Astor.
"Out of this area. And he's being returned to the uniformed branch," Flint added significantly.
"While you might think that's a big deal, anything not involving boiling oil counts as a let-off for me."
"I've also heard it mentioned there might be an MBE for services to the community for Mr. Brown, the ex-magistrate. When the heat dies down, of course."
"I'll write a letter of protest to the Queen if he gets one," Astor vowed. "Or maybe I'll send Her Majesty a postcard so everyone can read it on the way. Or I could get Caroline to put it on the Internet."
"That would make you popular."
"Those two expected me to suffer the consequences of my actions. If Inspector Fiend had caught me in possession on the strength of a dodgy warrant, they'd have felt the end justified the perjury. So it's no good telling me Mr. Brown is a good bloke who deserves a gong. If he's stepped out of line for Inspector Fiend, he'll have to face the consequences of being caught breaking the law he was supposed to be upholding."
"Even if his motives were honourable?"
"As the bloke who was the target of their attempted stitch-up for the terrible crime of smoking a bit of dope in the privacy of his own home, I say sod his motives. I reckon he's got off pretty lightly."
Flint nodded. "You're probably right. But his mates aren't going to see it that way, so a bit of compromising might be in your best interests."
"We'll see," Astor said with a smile, promising nothing.
There was only one serious problem to solve in the weeks leading up to the Australian tour: how to take some Charm to the antipodes. Astor felt obliged to stay in touch with his mentor, no matter where he was. Feed-back from Kiron on how the energy flow was going had become a routine part of his life and it helped to keep his contact with a being from another set of dimensions in his personal realm of fact. And Kiron's Music continued to flow.
After some thinking about the problem, Astor's supplier of exotic pharmaceuticals came up with the idea of a travelling medicine kit. Some further experimentation, and some work with a pill-pressing machine, provided Astor with two part-filled bottles, one labelled milk of magnesia and the other labelled soluble aspirin.
Before he left, Astor took the precaution of testing out the chemist's assurance that taking one of each tablet in a glass of water would have the same effect as smoking Charm. Astor came out of a successful contact with his ally persuaded that the tablets represented the future.
Enjoying the effects of Charm using the tablets meant less messing about and no special equipment compared to smoking Charm. And the tablets had the advantage that he, or anyone else, could use them separately to tackle a headache or an upset stomach in an emergency. The tablets were an all-round good thing of the sort that a multi-millionaire can afford to buy to improve his quality of life.
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.