Forsake the day.
Step out lightly across a field of dreams
where nothing ever stays the way it seems, and no one cares.
The hotel was all chunky cobbles and fountains outside. An obsessive use of large panes of glass and monumental mirrors gave it an almost insubstantial feel inside. Exterior lifts offered a spectacular view of the city to those going to the upper floors. Astor and his guest got off at floor three. Belinda was struck at once by the amount of noise. Several rooms had their doors open so that people could wander freely from one to another. She could hear guitars, an electric piano, beeps from electronic games and a background of music, television programmes and videos.
There were two large men in black leather jackets and mirror sunglasses sitting near the entrance to the lift. They exchanged nods with Astor in passing and looked Belinda over, as if assessing the guitarist's pulling power. Astor wiped a keycard through the lock of his door.
"Home of the moment," he remarked, waving his guest inside.
The room was large enough not to be dominated by the bed and fairly uncluttered. The first thing that Belinda noticed was a well-travelled, black guitar case on the bed. On the body of the case was a large notice reading In case of fire, save the guitar first! There was nothing else of Astor's visible. He had put everything away in cupboards and drawers and he had not been back since the cleaning staff had made their rounds.
"Quite posh," Belinda remarked after a survey of the quality of the furnishings and fittings.
"It is quite, after some of the holes I've over-nighted in, as our American cousins say. The benefits of a sold-out tour with healthy CD and cassette sales everywhere we visit. We're making a lot of dosh for happy Japs. Chair? Drink? Five-course meal from room-service? All on those friendly, record-company Japs, of course."
"Just a cup of coffee from your machine. I don't want to get used to luxury living."
Astor dumped the books and turned to the coffee machine as Belinda took in the window's uninspiring view of outer Manchester.
Someone pounded on the door. "Got a woman in there?" yelled a male voice. "If not, do you want one?"
"We thrive on old jokes," Astor remarked. "You'd better let him in before he does a Tarzan act and comes in through the window."
"Hi, there!" grinned a tall man with long, flowing, coppery hair when Belinda opened the door. "I'm Blood Axe, but you can call me Blood for short. And you must be...?"
"Good afternoon, Mr. Stoker. I'm Bee," Belinda told him primly.
"You extracting the urine, madame?" frowned the band's drummer. "Wow! Books. I read a book once. Green, it were." Keith Blood Axe Stoker shook paperbacks out of the carrier bags, spreading them over the bed.
"I know that line," said Belinda. "It's out of that prison thing on telly, Porridge."
"You'll find the rock business tends to stagger from one cliché to the next," remarked Astor.
"Hello, who's been buying hardback detective fiction? This is a bit above your average brain-dead guitarist."
"They're mine," said Belinda.
"That explains everything. Some people only buy trashy SF. Yee-ha! What the phuck's this! Wow-ie! A real book."
"You'd never guess he's got a degree in English literature, would you?" laughed Astor.
"I suppose they're not handing out points for education in your business at the moment?" said Belinda.
"Good God! This is the genuine article," said Stoker.
"A genuine reprint, more like," said Astor. "Possibly a mock reprint of something that didn't pre-exist the author."
"Obviously, it didn't pre-exist the author," scoffed Stoker.
"What I mean is," said Astor patiently, "it looks too new to be early nineteenth century, despite what it says in the printing history. What I think it is, is it's something someone wrote in the twentieth-century pretending to be a nineteenth-century reprint of something from the seventeenth century."
"Amazing how experts at one thing think they're experts on everything else," Stoker remarked to Belinda. "Especially literary style and the age of books. I suppose you did a quick carbon dating on your way here? Dr. Astor?"
"Has everyone in the band got a degree?" said Belinda.
"Pete's the only one with a degree in yer actual music," said Stoker.
"What did the others do?" said Belinda.
"Dexie, the bassist, he read chemistry. And Syd did, what?" Stoker added.
"P.P.E," said Astor. "Politics, philosophy and economics. At Cambridge, no less."
"Right. I knew it was something totally useless."
"Milk? Sugar? Whisky? Brandy? Vodka?" added Astor, filling cups from a jug of coffee.
"Milk and brandy, please," said Belinda.
"I'll take mine straight," said Stoker. "Yes, I'll admit this book does look quite new, but I reckon that's down to careful handling. My old professor used to drool over his couple of books from the presses of Rixborough and Co. of Norwich. He reckoned they made intelligent reprints - with the complete original text from original sources but with obvious blunders corrected."
"So you reckon that book really was printed in 1836?" Astor said sceptically.
"Yep. Cheers!" Stoker accepted a cup of black coffee and lowered himself into one of the armchairs. "Reprinted in 1836 and from an original work from 1692. Yes, indeedy, just like it says. This could well be a genuine Rixborough reprint that's been looked after properly. You can tell it's old just from looking at the paper. It's not yer modern rubbish full of wood and crap like that."
"So what is this book exactly?" Belinda claimed the other armchair. Astor perched on a corner of the bed.
"A Registry by G. Hallan? It's a grimoire. A magician's book of spells. Used for calling up the dead and summoning demons," Stoker said in a deep, sinister voice. "We must try one of these on stage tonight to see what happens."
"Why, do you expect it to work?" frowned Belinda.
"According to the theory, you need a lot more than the words to make a spell work," said Astor. "It's like alcohol's made of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. A lump of coal, a cylinder of hydrogen and oxygen in the air won't make you drunk .."
"But put them together in the right way and they will," Stoker finished. "Maybe someone can throw some music round a good spell and make it into something the people can hum?"
"Meaning me?" said Astor.
"It's your bloody book, mate," grinned Stoker. "So, Bee, tell me all about yourself. What're you doing hanging round with a miserable sod like him when you could be having the time of your life with me?"
"There's no answer to that," said Belinda. "No polite one, anyway." She smiled at Astor.
"Young, single and looking for adventure?" said Stoker.
"Thirty-three, divorced, just been made redundant, totally pissed off with life and looking for a half-decent job."
"Oh, dearie. Sounds like you're too much in touch with the real world. What you want is one of these little pills to make you feel better." Stoker took what looked like a chrome-plated cigarette lighter out of his pocket and pulled the top part out of the casing. Half a dozen pale purple tablets nestled in cotton wool inside.
"No, thanks," said Belinda quickly.
"Quite right," approved Stoker, washing a tablet down with cooling coffee. "If everyone felt as good as I'm going to, there'd be no point in making the effort."
"Is he going to be all right to perform?" frowned Belinda.
"Sure," nodded Astor. "Blood's a professional. He knows he's not going to get paid if he gets wasted and he can't go on stage. The purples are just a mild mood-enhancer. In fact, they're not even illegal. Mainly because they're a new class of drug they've not had a chance to ban."
"And you can't get used to it," added Stoker.
"That's good?" said Belinda.
"Oh, yes. You know the song Love Is The Drug? Well, that really works for some people. Being a sexoholic is like being an alcoholic or a chocoholic. Getting it on with a new partner can drown your brain in endorphins. But your body gets used to it after a while. So you have to ditch the current bimbo and get it on with another one to get that buzz again. Just like you can use up one lifter or psychedelic, and you only get a good hit if you come off it for a while or you try something else. Luckily, if you mess with bimbos or designer drugs, there'll always be another one along in a minute."
"But they both do a good job of screwing up your head and your bank balance," remarked Astor.
"But I've been popping my little purple pills for over a year," said Stoker, "and I still get an excellent hit off them. Which is brilliant."
"Of course, it may be you're brain-dead but you don't know it," said Astor.
"There you are, see the benefit of my purple pills?" said Stoker. "If I'd not taken one, I'd be smashing his face in now instead of going for a lie down to enjoy the pill. See you."
"So you lot go in for designer drugs that you can't get arrested for using?" said Belinda when Blood Axe had gone.
"When we can afford them," nodded Astor. "Otherwise, it's back to the old faithfuls: dope and crystal meth."
"What, speed?" Belinda said dismissively.
"A bit more than that. If you can get it in a very pure form from a decent source, meth gives you the energy to pursue a project to the very end and get it as right as it will ever get. Things like a lyric, a tune, a complete song and so on. A hell of a lot of good stuff has been written with meth giving a helping hand. But you do all that between tours. You're liable to get killed if you try and get some brilliant new number shoved into the act you're doing at the moment."
"I can see the point of that. What time are you going to the concert hall? Maybe I should go home and change."
"We saddle up and ship out at half-five or so. I'll get someone to drive you home and bring you back."
"What, you can do that?"
"As a mere member of the support act, not one of the stars?"
"No, I meant..."
"It's okay. We've got lots of bodies hanging round doing nothing much at the moment. Don't forget your books."
Alone again, Astor took his No. 1 guitar out of the case, the others were with the band's equipment, and checked the tuning. Then he tried out some variations on the riff that he had sketched in the pub. His faithful cassette recorder took it all in to provide a permanent record of his musical ramblings. Inspiration temporarily exhausted, he took a closer look at the book of spells. The leather of the binding was badly scuffed in places and the edges of the pages were blackened with ingrained dust. But when he opened the book, the paper looked an even, suspiciously pale cream colour that was free of brown spots and stains. In search of a spell that would fit his riff, perhaps with some modification, Astor flicked through the antique pages.
He found himself a little spoilt for choice because most of the spells, certainly the most powerful, allegedly, had their own internal rhythm. They were designed to roll freely off the tongue in units of thirteen syllables. The pattern was like a call sign in Morse Code and went: Dah-dit-dit-dit Dah-dit-dit-dit Dah-dit-dit-dit Dah.
The only bits of Morse Code that Astor could remember were Dah-dah-dah Dit-dit-dit Dah-dah-dah for S-O-S, Dit for E, Dit-dit-dit-dah for V and Dah-dit for A. None of the fragments supplied any clues to a translation of the black-magic call sign.
A little tinkering gave him a very pleasing and quite distinctive musical theme to set behind appropriate words. Astor chose quite deliberately what was proclaimed to be the most powerful spell in the book. There could be no half-measures in Black Magic Rock.
When he had made a fair copy of his final draft on a sheet of music paper, he put his guitar aside and switched on his portable computer. He was pleased to find that seventeenth or eighteenth century composers had used 'his' riff three times as major or minor themes and four more composers had rediscovered it in the last thirty years, according to the latest up-date of his database.
Luckily, none of the rediscoverers was noted for rushing to crooked lawyers with claims of being plagiarized. It was all very well thinking that one was bullet-proof, but Astor knew that some lawyers have no qualms about trying to convince a jury that whatever the lawyer says automatically becomes the truth.
Belinda returned to find him working on the arrangement of a new number. Astor had decided to be faithful to the original and not mess about with the words. Some long-dead black magician had gone to great trouble to string together harmonious and majestic vocal effects. Astor felt that he had to do an equally good job with the music.
It was a matter of professional pride, of one creative person shaking the hand of another across the centuries - a thought which sounded suspiciously like the plot of a typical Black Magic Rock lyric.
Belinda made some coffee and watched the television with the sound turned low until Astor was ready to notice her again. About a minute after he had locked his computer in the wardrobe, someone banged on the door.
"The coach goes in ten minutes," a female voice called. "Be on it or don't show your face again."
"Time to saddle up and ship out." Astor collected his guitar case.
Belinda was disappointed at first to find a minibus parked outside the hotel's rear entrance. But four musicians and their companions, she realized, hardly merited a coach. Cath, the driver, was a blonde Amazon in a Railhead Raiders tour jacket. She insisted on making the head-count twice to be sure that everyone was there before setting off for the venue.
"Hi, I'm Syd," a voice breathed into Belinda's left ear from behind. "How would you like to get wildly excited?"
"Wow!" said Belinda without turning round.
"Ignore him, love," said a patient, female voice. "He can get wildly excited enough for both of you."
"Bee, meet Ange, Ange, meet Bee," said Astor.
Belinda turned round in her seat to smile at the dark-haired woman behind her.
"Come for a closer look at the animals in the zoo?" Angela asked with a mocking smile.
"They do seem quite interesting," said Belinda.
"They certainly try hard enough to make you think they might be interesting," Angela admitted.
"Never mind interesting, I'm bloody starving!" protested Syd Melchior, the singer.
"He doesn't suffer from nerves, then?" Belinda said to Angela. "Before going on stage?"
"This lot are usually too stoned to know where they are, so they don't get nervous," said Angela.
"Are you talking about me, bitch?" demanded Syd.
"What if I am?" said Angela aggressively.
"Nothing." Syd pretended to shrink away from her in terror.
"And don't take any bullshit from any them, either," laughed Angela. "So are you joining our happy band?"
"Don't tell her your life story, Bee," warned Astor, "she'll only use it in her book."
"Oh, are you writing a book?" said Belinda.
"Yeah, she's been writing this bloody book since before I met her," scoffed Syd. "And that was backstage at the Freshers' Ball at uni."
"We don't all have the concentration span of a gnat, darling," said Angela frostily. "So, are you thinking of joining us, Bee? And do you want eight good reasons why you shouldn't? Starting with Syd, Pete, Keith and Dexie."
"Followed by Ange, Ange, Ange and Ange?" scoffed Syd.
"No, I'm just looking for a bit of a change from my rotten, dreary life," said Belinda.
"Just as well," nodded Angela. "You'd have to be a proper masochist to put up with much more than one night with this lot."
"Speaking as someone who's just celebrated her ninth wedding anniversary, Mrs. Mitchell?" remarked Blood Axe Stoker.
"Yes, Syd and I are married," Angela said in response to Belinda's look of surprise. "But he doesn't like to admit it because he thinks it makes him look ordinary. Not a totally outrageous wild-man of rock."
"Hang on to your hats, folks, we're about to shoot the rapids," called their driver.
"Do what?" said Belinda.
"Speed bumps," Astor said loudly enough for their driver to hear. "Cath reckons you're supposed to speed over them."
The minibus slowed as it entered the approach road to the stadium. A white-and-pink-striped barrier lifted in front of them as if the man in the security hut had realized that Cath had no intention of stopping. She waved to him as she coasted toward the first of three humps in the road. She crossed them going no more than five miles per hour too fast.
"What are those people with placards doing?" said Belinda, failing to catch the message. She had noticed a dozen or so people hanging around near the main entrance.
"The pickets?" said Angela. "Protesting about Black Magic Rock. I'd almost say the record company sent them to get the tour noticed, except the headliners aren't a BMR outfit."
"Good old MX dopes," said her husband.
"Who?" said Belinda.
"Militant Christians," said Syd. "They're trying to do the sort of intimidation the Islamics go in for. But without the bombs and the guns and slitting people's throats. The wimps believe in peaceful picketing. Except when it's raining."
The band headed straight for the dressing rooms to dump their bits and pieces. They were also acting as hostages to the promoter. The headline band was not there yet, but the promoter had the minor comfort of knowing that at least the opening act was on the premises. Belinda had never been backstage at a gig before but she had seen what went on often enough on television. Even so, she was eager to have a look around, with Angela as her guide, while the men got on with a final sound check.
The band and their entourage had a meal of chicken and chips in the dressing room during the dead period before they were due on stage. Belinda noticed bottles of wine and beer in circulation, and a few pills, but nothing too outrageous. The musicians all knew that they had a job to do before they could get too loaded.
The Intoxicant set was well received by an audience that had come for a good time. After returning their equipment to the safety of vans and their hotel rooms, the rest of the band and their partners headed into town to see what else the club scene had to offer. Unlike everyone else, Belinda had never seen the Railhead Raiders live before and she wanted to get full value out of her look behind the scenes. Astor had seen enough clubs not to be bothered about missing a second helping of Manchester's and he had no objections to staying on.
"What do you think?" Astor asked in the brief interval between the set and the headliners' compulsory encore.
"Nearly as good as you," said Belinda. "Right answer?"
"Not bad," laughed Astor. "So you reckon them?"
"Yes, they're good. I might even have paid to see them if I'd known it would be such a good night."
"That's one way you can judge people, by how they respond to music. You're obviously A-okay."
"What if you're not on a tour and you can't get women into gigs for free? How do you judge people then?"
"Then you take them home and play them some music. If they sit up and take notice when they hear the start of Voodoo Childe or The End by The Doors or the Tannhäuser overture, or they recognize something like Kulervo by Sibelius, or you ask them to tell you which is the best track on the CD of the Byrds' Notorious album and they look up when you get to David Crosby doing Triad, or Sandy Denny doing All Our Days on the Rendezvous album, it's a good start."
"I like Jimi Hendrix. But I don't think I've heard the other albums. And I don't know any of that Classical stuff."
"Treats yet in store," said Astor.
After the encore, on a fine night, Astor and Belinda decided to merge with the crowd streaming out of the stadium and walk back to the hotel. The inevitable party was going on in a conference room on their floor. Astor made sure that the minders had delivered his guitar to his room before he joined in the round of drinking anything that came to hand and telling outrageous stories to journalists.
At around one in the morning, Astor turned to Belinda to check the state of her glass and found her with eyes closed, smothering a yawn behind her hand.
"Tired?" he remarked.
"Ready to drop." Belinda put on an exhausted smile.
"Does that mean a shag's out of the question?"
"Is that all you think about, sex?" Belinda said patiently.
"Not as often as I used to. It was about every sixteen seconds when I was a young lad. I think it's only about every seventeen seconds now."
"What, is that how long it takes you?"
"Well, you don't want to inconvenience the lady for too long, do you? Thinking of England can get a bit boring."
"That's only about wham! Never mind bam!"
"Ah, but I do say Thank you, Ma'am afterwards. Brought up to be polite, I was. Especially if the lady's ready to drop."
"So you don't mind?"
"I'm a bit knackered myself. I think I'm getting a bit old for all these late nights. Life stops at forty, style of thing."
"Yes, I didn't like to mention it, but I thought you were the same age as the others at first. Not a mature musician."
"That's probably why they stick me in the shadows at the side of the stage and pretend I'm part of the furniture. Sorry to be such a disappointment in the toy-boy department. But what do you care? It's only a one-night stand to get you out of your flat for a while."
"Yeah, maybe you're right. Even so, I really like you, Pete."
"Wow, gosh! Don't get too attached, kid. We're outta here in the morning."
"Where are you going next?"
"I didn't bother asking any more. Who the hell cares? I mean, I'm only going to be there for one day."
"God, I wish I could be that casual about things."
"Really?" laughed Astor.
"Yes, really. My life's one long hassle at the moment. I bought some new clothes and some shoes when I lost my job, trying to look smart for interviews. Only it's not worked yet, so I'm behind with the rent on my council flat."
"So what does that matter in a Loony Left dump like Manchester? I thought you had to be behind with your rent to be right-on?"
"It's all right you laughing, mate, but I was also daft enough to borrow money from someone I thought was a friend. Only she turned out to be working for this money lender, who reckons I owe him a small fortune in interest now. Enough to get me worrying about guys with iron bars breaking my legs or slashing my face with a Stanley knife. Or setting me up for a gang-rape as an example to other late-payers. So yes, I feel like I'm in over my head. And if I don't get a job real soon, I'm in real trouble. Which is why I was so pissed off about the way they treated me at the Job Shop this morning. Sorry, Pete, I didn't meant to go on at you like that."
"Well, they do say it's good to share your troubles..."
"...but it doesn't make them go away, does it?"
"True. I suppose you know you have to crash here tonight for the sake of my credibility?"
"You mean, they'll laugh at you in the morning if I go home now?"
"Something like that."
"Just as well I'm too knackered to go home, isn't it? Do you want me to make a formal announcement that I'll be sleeping with you? Or fax out a press release?"
"Nope. All you have to do is slide off to my room right now before I drop off and you have to carry me."
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.