Each new beginning,
Looks like the definitive fresh start.
Until the next time, the next town, the next horizon.
As the time of the gig approached, the members of Intoxicant began to show an increasing reluctance to sit up straight. They slumped comfortably and gave the impression that they were there for the rest of the day. Then Cath, their blonde Amazon of a driver, was in their midst suddenly. Belinda had tracked down the disappearing band and sent their Nemesis to harass them back to the venue. Like a sheepdog with a crab-salad roll in either hand, Cath enjoyed a share of Astor's hospitality while steering her charges back through the evening streets to their dressing room.
Astor took Caroline to the control area, where the crew handled the sound balance and the light show. Caroline gave her attention to what was happening around her and provided an audience for the small gang of technical people. Astor wanted to assess the bootleggability of the set-up.
He was not sure whether he wanted any sort of revenge against whoever had taken a bribe and got him booted off the previous tour; especially in view of the way things had turned out for him. He had no idea whether the company had put the same crew on this tour as they had used for the Railhead Raiders, or that the same people had been available. He just wanted to satisfy himself that his opinions on how the band had been bootlegged were reasonable. It was detective work for its own sake.
As he was looking around, Astor became aware that a fairly tall, ash-blonde woman was hanging around, keeping an eye on him. Astor didn't know whether to feel flattered or paranoid. The woman was interested in him as a person, interested in him for what he could do for her in the way of another job or maybe just making sure nothing fell into his pockets.
He decided on a direct approach to satisfy his curiosity and drifted over to his fan.
"Hi, I'm Pete Astor, Kiron Sounds," he told her. "Are you new on the crew?"
"Toy Graham, Security. Do you have any authorization to be here, Mr. Astor?"
"Check with Bee or Tone if you like," Astor said casually.
Toy Graham took a radio out of a pocket of her tour jacket and pressed the send button. "TG to Bee, come back, over."
"What is it, Toy?" said Belinda after a short pause.
"Do you know a Mr. Astor?"
"Pete? Sure. Why, what's he done?"
"Just checking he's okay to be here."
"If he gives you any trouble, get R.V. to sit on him," laughed Belinda. "No, he's okay."
"Cheers! TG clear." Toy put the radio back in her pocket.
"We didn't have this level of security when I was touring with the band," Astor remarked.
"We've had warnings of possible trouble from some American Christian group." Toy shrugged. "And we get all sorts of weird people hanging round gigs."
"Tell me about it," nodded Astor. "Anyway, you're one of R.V.'s colleagues? I must say, you don't look all butch and tough."
"If you look butch and tough, people feel entitled to take a pop at you. If you look like a 'normal' person, they get a hell of a shock when you deck them. And women are better able to defuse some situations than men."
"You can sort things without all the aggro of a punch up?"
"If there's no injured male pride, there's no resentment and no trouble. Of course, that works best with reasonable people who've just got a bit out of line. But some people just don't know how to be reasonable, and that's why you have guys the size of R.V. around as well as people like me."
"Interesting thought," said Astor, wondering if James Faucumberg had included it in his thinking about security measures for the Astoria. "Excuse me, I think we're about to get going."
"You're thinking of signing these guys?" said Toy.
"Just revisiting my past. Caroline!"
Astor collected his driver to remove a source of distraction from the sound and light crew and headed for the side of the stage. Intoxicant burst out of the wings exactly on time and behaved like a band in a hurry to prove something right from the start of the first number. Occasional glances in his direction told Astor that they were showing to him that they were still good even without the great Pete Astor in their ranks.
As they approached the end of what had been a warmly received set, Syd Melchior walked right to the front of the stage, held up both hand and asked for total silence. Before the audience had time to do more than gather breath so that the inevitable awkward sods could yell wise-cracks, the light show let out a brilliant pulse of white light to coincide with a roar of thunder.
Out of that thunder came the sound of Blood Axe beating hell out of a damped gong and a long wolf-howl. Then the band was into a shortened version of The Portal and pouring out four blending sorts of weirdness at a stunned and captivated audience.
When the gong fell silent and Melchior's final wolf howl faded away, Astor became aware that Caroline was clinging to his arm with a surprisingly strong grip; which she released, embarrassed, when she realized what she was doing. Then the musicians were trooping past them, looking very pleased with themselves.
"So, what do you reckon?" Syd asked Astor between dives into a towel that his wife had handed him. "Were we phucking brilliant or were we phucking brilliant?"
"Nearly good enough to get your asses fired off the tour," laughed Astor. "Ten pee to a lottery win you get some suit-and-tie coming round to give you a warning."
"Yeah, well, he can stick it up his arse!" said Blood Axe.
"Right, if they fire us, we'll sign up with Pete's label," said Dexie.
"Reckon they're good enough?" Astor asked Caroline.
"That last song was amazing!" she said. "It's the one on your album, Pete, I know, but done quite a different way."
"Done better?" said Syd.
"Hardly," scoffed Astor.
"It's like the difference between a good red wine and a good white wine," said Caroline. "They're both good but different. But I've never heard it done so loud!"
"You doshan bastards! I should have guessed you'd do that number," said Belinda, arriving to tell the band it was time to go back for their encore; and to make it a fairly quick one. "I just hope you don't get the sack for doing it."
"Hit the spot, Bee?" grinned Blood Axe.
"Like a ton of wet cement," said Belinda. "Come one, get back on that stage before they start yelling 'Less!' instead of 'More!'"
The band headed back to the stage, determined to give their Anglo-French headliners even more of a problem over following them. Astor passed a complimentary can of chilled cider to Caroline and popped one open for himself.
"Ready for the trouble?" he remarked to Toy Graham, who was standing nearby, ready to head off a back-stage invasion.
"Trouble?" she frowned.
"They've just played a banned song. Didn't you know that?" grinned Astor. "You'll have all your Yank nutters leaping out of the woodwork at the next gig."
"Oh, great!" Toy sighed.
The band came off stage again, leaving happy fans streaming toward the bars. There had been a lot of rumours circulating as to why Intoxicant had stopped performing The Portal. An unexpected revival of the number would start the speculation flowing again. Tony Stock looked in to the dressing room to tell the band that they had done a good job. Wearing a patient expression, he caught Pete Astor's eye and shook his head.
"Reckon it's going to make your life a whole lot easier when the bloody Japs fire them, Tone?" Astor called.
"The next lot are bound to be even worse," sighed Stock.
"Doshan bleeda," laughed Syd Melchior. "So where are we going now?"
"To get some grub," said Blood Axe.
"You scoffed enough to feed a bloody horse at Pete's hotel," Angela Melchior told him.
"Yeah? That was hours ago," scoffed Blood Axe.
"Are there any decent clubs in this place?" added Syd. "We've not been to one for ages."
"I thought you were never out of them," remarked Caroline.
"We weren't on the last tour," said Syd. "But there's a bit of an economy drive going on at the moment. Some weird notion about you can't spend all your money all the time. You have to hang on to some for grimmer times."
"Don't blame me for having to be the sensible one in our relationship, Peter Pan," said Angela. "The job's open if you want to grow up and tackle it."
"Maybe we should sign on with Pete's label right now," said Dexie Jordan. "Then we could party non-stop."
"You guys have got a pretty weird idea of what my record company will stand for," laughed Astor.
"Yeah, well, these guys are a pretty weird bunch," remarked Carol-An. "Bee must have checked out the clubs. Let's ask her."
Belinda knew of two clubs worth visiting and she decided to join the group for a couple of hours. She had settled quickly into a job that involved a long working day with breaks at peculiar times and periods of activity when most people were taking time off. Astor had always been amazed at the amount of effort that the road crew and the management could put into a tour. That Bee could consider taking any time off for herself seemed equally amazing.
Two couples, two singles and one threesome – Pete Astor, Bee and Caroline – headed out into evening streets. At times like this, Astor sometimes wondered if people recognized a band unwinding because the people were famous or because they behaved as if they were famous.
A waiter in the restaurant took the opportunity to get the four original members of Intoxicant to sign the liner of his Italian bootleg CD of the band. Astor supplied another signature on the liner of the Dead Junkies' CD. The DJ of the club where they ended up turned a spotlight on them and insisted that the men in the group took a bow. Then Pete Astor found himself up on the small stage with a borrowed guitar playing a jam session with one of the live bands booked for that night. The other musicians insisted that they were too knackered to do any more work that night.
Belinda abandoned them just after eleven. Some people had to get back to work, she told them. Astor insisted on paying for a taxi to take her back to the concert hall to spare her the risks, if any, of going on foot through Colchester on a Tuesday night. Angela Melchior started yawning pointedly at one o'clock. Astor and Caroline escorted her back to her hotel, leaving Syd, Blood Axe, Carol-An and Ryan to party on for another hour. It a point of honour with them not to leave the club until they were thrown out. They were even considering wrecking the place as a publicity stunt. Ange preferred an extra hour's sleep; and in a bed at the hotel rather than in a police cell.
In the morning, Astor realized that he was starting to do a mental count-down to opening day at the Astoria. It was O-Day Minus Fourteen all of a sudden. As he wriggled into the shoulder holster for his mobile phone, he realized that it was more of an ornament than something that he used constantly. He had delegated the running of his empire so well that his staff rarely felt obliged to consult him for opinions.
He used the hotel's telephone to order breakfast from room service. Steak, two fried eggs, toast and a large pot of coffee seemed a suitably plutocratic accompaniment to the Times and the Daily Express to give himself a spread of opinion.
Caroline knocked on the connecting door just after the breakfast had been delivered. Astor told her to "Come!" in a suitably commanding tone. She was looking disgustingly well rested and ready for another day. At nine-thirty, she had been up long enough to use the hotel's breakfast bar and go out to do some shopping.
"Where are we going today?" she asked, noticing that there were two cups.
"I don't know, what's the weather like?" Astor poured her some coffee.
"Quite nice. Sunny, a little bit windy. It's not going to rain."
"How do you fancy a cruise?"
"Ever been to Gothenburg?"
"Where's that?" frowned Caroline.
"Sweden, I think."
"You don't know?"
"I know it's somewhere across the North Sea. A mate of mine was telling me once he and his wife used to go on mini-cruises on North Sea car ferries. When he had a wife."
"You're going to be in a minority soon, not being divorced."
"They used to go over to Scandinavia, down to Germany; Hamburg or Bremen, I think; then back to Harwich. So what do you reckon?"
"I haven't got my passport with me."
"I thought you were going to tell me you haven't got anything to wear," grinned Astor.
"That as well. I only packed for one night."
"You can go home and be back in time to sail this evening or tomorrow."
"Is this work, Pete? Or..."
"Or are you getting paid for it? Well, I reckon I'll be playing the A and R man in any clubs we get to. So we're on expenses. Why, do you reckon you should get paid extra for working abroad?"
"I don't think I'd dare ask for more than I'm getting already."
"Your trouble is you don't have an exaggerated sense of your own worth. You've been stuck in the real world for too long."
"You reckon I should try to be a bit more weird?" Caroline asked with a smile.
"If you have to try, it probably won't work."
"So where do I meet you when I get back here with a suitcase and my passport? I take it you've got yours?"
"I never go anywhere without it. You never know when you might need to leave the country in a hurry. Give me a ring when you're on the way back. You've not lost your mobile?"
"Oh, right. I probably need to put a spare battery in it," Caroline realized. "See you later."
Astor returned to his breakfast. The guaranteed BSE/CJD-free slab of Scotch Beef was dark brown on the outside and pink inside. The guaranteed salmonella-free eggs had runny yolks, the way he liked them. His hotel knew how to charge corporate clients but it also knew how to provide a high quality service.
There was a picture of Dominik Wekling in the cultural section of the Times. According to the article, the Chief Commissioning Agent [a self-created title] of The Serious Art Movement had awarded £20,000 to a middle-aged Cumberland photographer to enable him to publish a selection of the material that he had been assembling since the age of sixteen. The article was more a thinly veiled attack on Dominik's qualifications for handing out such grants than praise or criticism of Herbert Darnley's expertise with a camera. It was proof that Dominik was getting on with his task of making trouble.
Astor reached for his mobile phone. An empty holster told him that the mobile was still in its charger, drinking up the hotel's electricity. Astor retrieved it and tapped one of the speed-dial buttons.
"Dominik speaking," said a brisk voice almost immediately.
"Pete Astor. Hi! I'm just looking at the piece about you in the Times. Is there some sort of history between you and the journalist?"
"Oh, yes; hi, Pete. Byrony; can you believe that name? I knew him when he was still plain Brian. Byrony lost a big bet to me about ten years ago on what was supposed to be a collection of vanished Impressionist paintings. Supposed to have disappeared in the war. He didn't want to believe they were Russian fakes."
"And he's never forgiven you for being right?"
"Something like that. I don't know if you've seen the piece in the Grauniad too? That's more about Bert Darnley than me."
"Not yet. So you reckon he's good?"
"I reckon he's good enough to make some money out of his book of photographs. Given the right promotion. It's not just a vanity publishing project. If people know it's available, they'll buy it. And probably several more like it."
"What sort of bloke is he? A businessman?"
"Hill farmer. Sheep, mainly. One of the pre-Chernobyl, been-here-for-centuries breed. That's how he gets to be out at all hours in all weathers and that's how he spots all that brilliant scenery to photograph. I used to know his son, who's a graphic designer now. So you can be sure Bert will get value for money out of whichever printing firm he chooses."
"So that's where you are now? Up North?"
"Yeah, I'm on a train going to Dundee right now."
"So how come you're not shouting? Aren't you supposed to shout into your mobile on trains?"
"Not if you don't want to get lynched," laughed Dominik. "There's too much train-rage about these days. I'm on my way to see quote the greatest living unrecognized Scottish artist unquote."
"And after that, I'm going to see a bloke who stands a chance of getting some money out of us."
"So ‘The Greatest' is liable to remain unrecognized for some time to come?"
"Except he's now becoming fashionable for being unknown. Which is a great pity because he's crap."
"Right, I'll let you get on with the good work," said Astor. "See you, Dom."
Another part of the Pete Astor master plan seemed to be working nicely. Dominik Wekling was giving cash to the worthy and public snubs to the pretentious. He was a man who had knocked about a bit, and who had been knocked about a bit himself in his turn. He was a natural-born trouble-maker and he would be a source of resentment against Kiron Sounds, and consequent publicity, when some journalist got round to connecting him to Pete Astor.
Astor himself was quite proud of his newly created role. He was living the life of a wealthy man, but apparently on expenses rather than as a result of winning the lottery jackpot. The plan seemed to have spared him sacksful of begging letters, at any rate.
He had the advantages of great riches without the burden of attribution and he was perceived to be answerable to someone higher up in the structure of Kiron Sounds; which was true in the sense that Kiron him/her/itself was setting objectives even if he, she or it was not dictating policy. Even Pete Astor was still not sure whether he actually had a senior partner or he was independently rich and answerable only to his own conscience.
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.