Life is full of opportunities.
Opportunities are there to be missed and regretted.
So that's the point of them?
It was O-Day Minus Seven before Astor and Caroline returned from their expedition across the North Sea. They had visited Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France in that order. Pete Astor had invited a Danish band called HellBridge and a German band called Drachensblut to assemble and rehearse enough material for a full-length CD, and then come over to England to record it.
Both were working bands in the sense that they could make a living on the road but they looked too raw for any commercial recording company to risk money on them. Astor, in a white suede A&R-man jacket and mirror shades, had blown their minds by telling them that his company would pay full travelling, accommodation and living expenses while they were off the road.
HellBridge was the more musical band. Its five members played Black Magic Rock because they liked that style of music. Drachensblut was building an intricate piece of theatre into the act. Their music was part of a ritual to break through to another dimension to release a plague of demons. Of course, none of the four musicians and three actors believed in such nonsense off stage but they certainly looked as if they meant every word and every gesture when they were working.
Caroline thought HellBridge were too loud and Drachensblut were creepy but, as she freely admitted, she didn't know much about the music business.
There was a strange lack of activity at the Astoria when Astor looked in at the end of the afternoon after wiping a swipe card through a reader to gain access to the lobby. As he passed through different parts of the building, he realized that they all had a similar new, stiff, unused feel. Restored to its former Art Deco self, the theatre looked like a set for an Hercules Poirot TV drama and Astor kept expecting to meet David Suchet.
He climbed the stairs to the balcony and walked down to the front row. Music fans would be kicking hell out of the place and sticking chewing gum all over it in a week's time, but the Astoria was his to enjoy until then. Astor lit a cigarette, noticing that there were actually metal ash catchers and dimp traps provided as a tidier alternative to the floor.
"Excuse me, are you supposed to be here?"
A female voice broke his chain of thought. Astor glanced to his left and smiled.
"Yo, Toyota, how's it going?"
"The name's Toyola, actually," Toy Graham told him with unsmiling politeness. "And you didn't answer the question, Mr. Astor."
"I didn't get where I am today by answering questions," Astor told her with a smile. "Don't tell me you work here?"
"Yes, and I take my job very seriously. So would you mind telling me how you got in?"
"James gave me one of these." Astor produced his swipe card.
"Mr. Faucumberg has given you a job, too?" Toy Graham's tone was carefully neutral, neither believing nor calling him a liar.
"No, I gave James his job. So you are working here? When did you start?"
"Beginning of the week. I'm going to have to check on that, you know."
"If James is in his office right now, you can escort me there personally."
"I'm sure you know the way, then?"
Astor allowed himself to be escorted down to the mezzanine level and used his swipe card to open a door marked PRIVATE. Toyola Graham stayed close enough to him to grab him if he tried to run for it but she left enough space between them to allow room to swing a punch or a kick, if necessary. Astor let her knock on the door of James Faucumberg's office and announce him.
James looked up from the mountain of paperwork on his desk. "Yo, Pete, back with us again?"
"I'll continue my patrol," said Toyola Graham. "If Mr. Astor is authorized to be here?"
"Mr. Astor's my boss," said James. "But the sort of boss who leaves you to get on with things."
"Is that a hint to turn round and bugger off?" grinned Astor.
"Only if you're planning to mess me about. Thanks, Toy." James nodded to her and waved Astor to a chair.
"Busy?" said Astor.
"Just a final check on some invoices before Walter pays them."
"So you've got all the work done now?"
"Apart from the odd bit of touching up and smoothing down."
"And the work-force is getting up to strength?"
"Coming on line. We have the Security team in place, obviously."
"You have people walking round the building?"
"We have cameras, but you really need people opening doors and looking into corners in a building this size. And talking about size, I interviewed someone you recommended the other day."
"Bloke called R.V. Johnson?"
"That's right. Our friend Reckin' Vehicle. I wanted to talk to you about him."
"Well, go ahead. I'm listening."
"From asking around, I gathered he was invited to quit American football over an allegedly serious drug abuse problem. According to the man himself, and I quote: ‘I just did a bit of coke. And quite a bit of grass. Nothing heavy. But the tests they've got, they can tell if you've been in the same room as some dude who smoked a joint six weeks ago.'"
"They've got you, then," laughed Astor. "Being in the same room with me."
"When I checked up on him in more detail, I found he was guilty of nothing more than some recreational cannabis smoking. And no more than traces of cocaine were ever found. He looks to be a victim of a campaign to get his sport a hundred and one per cent drug free."
"That squares with what I've heard," nodded Astor. "He got pushed out mainly because he wouldn't jump through their hoops. He refused to go into a drug rehabilitation programme and attend a drug awareness course because he didn't have any problems with drugs."
"You mean, he knew where to go to get good stuff and what to pay for it?"
"Right. And he knew how much to use, the way so-called respectable people are supposed to know how much to drink. Except he never got wrecked on drugs. He smoked some recreational dope and he sniffed a bit of coke in the off-season when he had nothing better to do. Big deal. Who cares?"
"So you reckon he's okay?"
"I reckon you're in complete charge of the okay department, James. If you reckon he's going to be shooting off to the bog every five minutes to fill his snoot with coke, like some bloody City of London gambler, give him the thumbs down. But if you reckon he'd no more come to work with his head on another planet, the way you wouldn't come to work wrecked on booze, then it's all down to whether you think he's qualified for the job and good enough to do it."
"I just love your hands-off management style, Pete."
"You're the one who's going to be working with the guy, not me. What do you think of his management style?"
"He has all the right paper qualifications. He understands what the job involves. All he's short of is experience of doing it. But there may be problems over extending his work permit."
"You mean, he's doing a job any British-born security bloke could do?"
"That's the line the Home Office will take."
"He's also a specialist in the sort of security you need for American tours."
"You've got a US tour lined up?" James said in a thanks for telling me tone.
"No, but one of our bands is bound to be going there eventually."
"What if someone asks for specifics?"
"You can always tell them we're planning one for the DJs."
"We as in us but not anyone in the States? How long is it since the Junkies last did a gig, anyway? Fifteen years?"
Astor shrugged. "Whatever. But we'll need to bring a guy like R.V. in at the planning stage for a tour. And if we've got an expert like him on the staff, he can train other members of the team on getting by in the States. The psychology of dealing with people from another culture, style of thing. Knowing when to push and when to step aside."
"Yeah, okay, I can work with that. And as Nick said, he's still a famous ex-sportsman, the sort of person who gets asked to make personal appearances. And when he does, and people ask him what he's doing, well ..."
"He says he's covering the security for a KS gig at where he happens to be," finished Astor. "Free publicity. Yeah, I thought of that. Sounds like you're fixing to hire the guy."
"He certainly seems a useful bloke to have around."
"Okay. So how are you doing for our opening night?"
"Tickets are selling very nicely here and at the usual outlets. Probably because it's a very good deal. Four hours' music from four bands, including yours, a legendary outfit that has the notorious Pete Astor in it, and finishing off with Feygore, a cult band that sells a hell of a lot of product."
"Nice to know the punters recognize value for money."
"And the pressing plant is practically red-hot, our supplier tells me, keeping up with the demand for your CD."
"Nice to know the punters have good taste as well."
"We've also had a reception in the bar for members of the city council to show them what the place looks like now that it's been done up. Last night, in fact. They were quite amused by the notices in the café and the bars." James handed a printed sheet across the desk.
"WARNING TO PATRONS, FOOD IS DANGEROUS," Astor read. "Hot food and drinks can cause severe injuries to the human body and should be transported and consumed CAREFULLY. All food and beverages supplied entirely at the customer's own risk. We apologize to any customers who are offended by this statement of the blindingly obvious but it is our only defence against people who are careless, injure themselves and then expect someone else to pay them compensation for their own negligence."
"Nick has a file of cases of people buying hot food and drinks and spilling it on themselves, then getting damages against the vendor. And not just in the United States."
"Don't you think we should add a note saying this doesn't apply if we give someone defective foods or defective containers?"
"Point number one," said James, "there's no point in putting ideas into people's heads. You'll only get crooks sabotaging containers and trying to make a claim that way. Point number two, this wouldn't apply anyway in a genuine case of negligence on our part or on the part of a supplier."
"I think the word you were looking for is no," remarked Astor. "Although I appreciate the reasoned argument to back it up. And I suppose this is another talking point for journos to put in a write-up about the complex when it opens?"
"Correct," smiled James.
"And we're about ready to go?"
"We've got all the necessary safety certificates, and about twice the number of fire extinguishers we need to have. The local police have had a look around and we've promised them full access on demand and full co-operation..."
"Except for the bastards in the Drug Squad?" grinned Astor.
"And all staff are being warned that taking drugs on the premises is a sacking offence for them and grounds for ejection as far as the customers are concerned."
"You rotten sod."
"That applies to the upper tier of management, as well."
"You mean if I light up a joint, I'm outta here?"
"Well, we'll probably be terrible polite about it and have a fire drill to avoid embarrassing you," smiled James. "What's the Euro-dope like these days?"
"Like always, if you know who to get it from, it's okay. And talking about being in Europe, I spotted another couple of bands on my travels. If we can get something decent out of them and onto plastic, we'll be able to get them raising the roof here."
"Good! We're getting a nice flow of bookings from planned tours of BMR bands. All the top names in the field seem quite keen to come here. We've even got your pals Intoxicant booked in at the end of November after they come off their present tour."
"That should be good for a laugh," said Astor. "I'd like you to give Jimmy Rail's outfit a gig, too. Full star treatment."
"You're still pals with them? Despite what happened?"
"Sure. Jimmy and I go back too many years to be bothered by something that was all the fault of a bunch of greedy Japs."
"Okay, I'll see about that." James turned to his computer terminal to add a note to his planner program. "We've also had inquiries from a couple of TV companies wanting to use the place to shoot scenes for period dramas. And an independent company wants to get some video footage for a programme on Thirties architecture. And we're getting a nice flow of bookings for nights when we won't have a BMR event on. Things like one-man shows, classical music concerts sponsored by large companies, theatre workshops and so on. That sort of mix is important to keep people who matter on our side if we're pushing something as dodgy as Black Magic Rock as our prime product."
"What's dodgy about it? Nobody believes in Black Magic."
"The Catholic church has been doing rather well out of preaching against it over the centuries."
"That's just routine punter-frightening to get your hands on their dosh. No one takes it seriously any more."
"Don't be too sure of that. And your publicity machine next door doesn't seem to think Christianity isn't a threat. Not with the hot air that's coming our way from the MX bunch."
"Nick's getting to grips with the wreckers, is he?"
"His book of cuttings based on his press-release faxes seems to be growing pretty quickly." James shrugged. "Someone must believe in Black Magic."
"I get the impression these nutters are more interested in stopping people believing in it because it means they've got them under their control. It's the actual stopping that counts not what's being stopped, if you see what I mean?"
"Like R.V. and his drug awareness programme, you mean? They're putting up hoops for people to jump through because they're control freaks?"
"Right. And it's Nick's job to kick the hoops over."
"And R.V.'s and mine to repel boarders?"
"Right again. So you're giving him the job?"
"I'm trusting your instinct for picking people you think are right."
"Like yourself, for instance?" grinned Astor.
"Your instinct is obviously sound," nodded Faucumberg.
"On that note, I'll leave you to your paperwork." Astor pushed to his feet. "I'd better meet the other security staff so they don't leap on me if they see me wandering around."
"We've got a computer recognition system being plumbed in to the surveillance system. We'll have to stand you in front of the camera to let the system record you when it's all working. In the meantime, I'll give the surveillance room a ring and tell them the upper tier of management is looking the place over."
"Sounds like a good idea. See you around, James."
Astor left the office and went on the prowl. He had a fairly good mental picture of the building and all junctions were well sign-posted to let people know where they were and give them no excuse for being on restricted territory. His mental image was still heavily cluttered with the paraphernalia of construction, Astor found.
Most of the refurbished building had an unused or barely used air. Astor had to keep reminding himself that it all belonged to him via his holding company. He was still not quite convinced that he had become fabulously wealthy courtesy of a Charm vision. True, he was spending lots of money and trying to organize people into trouble-making projects but he still wondered whether he might not wake up suddenly and find himself back on tour with Intoxicant.
Pete Astor was still locked into his personal dream of riches when he left the theatre and drove home. Even in his dreams, he had to deal with grim or grimy reality, such as tackling the collection of laundry accumulated during his mini-cruise with Caroline. What he needed, he decided, was a personal slave. In the meantime, there was a washing machine in the utility room and he was intelligent enough to group together a load of garments with the same washing codes.
He selected the correct program and switched the washing machine on. Then he retired to his music room to listen again to the HellBridge cassette. It was a compilation of the best bits of self-taped rehearsals. Even if the recording quality was suspect, the quality of the music came through loud and clear. With a little tidying up, production work to shape the sound and some more rehearsal, they had a highly marketable album.
A knock on the door and someone shouting, "Drug Squad!" in a loud, voice announced Wendy's arrival. She dropped into one of the swivelling leather chairs and stretched out a hand for the joint. Astor turned down the music so that they could talk.
"Hmm, good stuff," Wendy said after a couple of tokes. "Get this on your travels?"
"Joke!" said Astor. "I know better than to try bringing dope through the customs. The sods had a bloody good root in all our stuff, just for the hell of it. Cazzer was most indignant."
"I know, she told me."
"She's been giving you her holiday highlights already?"
"She brought a big stack of foreign money over a while ago. Well, the notes. She gave the coins to a neighbour's kid, who collects them. She didn't feel safe with the cash at home."
"Inconvenient stuff, cash. I think I'm going to have to get her a corporate credit card so she can pay hotel bills and buy things for me. Shopping can be an awful fag."
"You yuppie bastard," laughed Wendy. "Are the Channel Tunnel trains really that bad? From what Carly said, I'm glad we did our booze-cruises by hovercraft."
"I don't know if it was just that particular train, but I didn't think it was as comfortable as an InterCity. And there was nothing special about going through the Chunnel. You'd think they'd have murals on the walls – fish and seaweed and stuff."
"Maybe they think it's better if the passengers don't realize where they are."
"And the service was a joke. I thought it'd be a bit like an airline with buxom hostesses in short skirts coming round with drinks and stuff on trolleys. All there was was a lousy little buffet with a couple of foreigners in it. One of them asked the punters what they wanted and the other one to get it ready. Then the first bloke got out this huge keypad thing and worked out which keys to push to describe the order. And he was so bloody slow, it looked like he had no short-term memory at all."
"Yes, Carly said he didn't seem to have memorized the keypad."
"He just seemed to be too thick to remember what area the coffee key was in and so on. And then when he'd punched in the order, he had to know which currency the customer was paying in. That he had to hunt for that bloody button too. And the prices were totally off the wall! Something like twenty-five quid for a cup of coffee. Even worse than bloody Switzerland."
"Just as well some of us won the lottery. And was the coffee worth that much?"
"We never found out. Someone had warned us the service was going to be crap so we took some supplies with us, just in case. No, we only went along to the buffet for a look – just to see if it could be as bad as this bloke made out. And I have to tell you he wasn't lying. Cazzer nearly fainted when she heard how much one poor sod was being charged. Except he was probably on expenses."
"So how are you getting on with Carly?"
Wendy put on a mocking smile. "I hear it's a bit more than okay. Must have been the ocean voyage that did it."
"Set the hormones flowing in foreign parts."
"You two been discussing my performance, or what?"
"From memory, in my case," smiled Wendy.
"Right. It must be a couple of years since you last had the pleasure. I think the last time was just before you met Jeff. When you were wondering if a normal bloke would ever fancy you again."
"Jeff made quite a change from a weirdo like you."
"You know Cazzer thinks you're weird, don't you?"
"I know she thinks you're weird," countered Wendy.
"But she thinks you're weirder than me."
"No, she doesn't. She thinks we're as weird as each other."
"That's what she told me but I thought she had to be joking. I bet she doesn't think we're as weird as your Welsh mate with no vowels in her name. So what does Cazzer reckon to me as a human being? Zed minus?
"No, she reckons you're an okay sort of guy. It's safe to go to bed with you because you don't see it as a commitment. Sex is just something you can enjoy when you're in the mood."
"That sounds terrible Sixties."
"So now she's cracked it with a weirdo like me, does that mean she's repaired her self-esteem after the trauma of the divorce and she's going to try and pull someone normal next?"
"Possibly," laughed Wendy. "I think she might get seriously interested in you if you weren't so weird. She might even put up with the weirdness if she knew just how rich you are. How about you? Do you fancy her?"
"When you take a good look at her, she's eminently fanciable. And she's also a very nice person. In the best sense of the word, I mean. Not nice, sneer, sneer. No, she's a friendly, sincere sort of person. You can take her anywhere and she won't show you up. Even into the same room as the rock 'n' roll animals I used to work with when I was poor. And she can stand up for herself. She's not afraid to tell someone he's behaving like a jerk."
"She must have got a lot of practice at that in the run-up to the divorce," nodded Wendy.
"Right!" Astor passed the joint to Wendy to give her the last drag before they reached the tobacco tip. "I mean, either she's got some really outstanding but very well-hidden personality defect or her ex-husband's certifiable for ditching her."
"I think he's just a typical man. Didn't know when he was well off and daft enough to let himself get trapped by a younger bimbo. So do you fancy her or what?"
"Yeah, I guess so. But I don't see any future in it. Not unless I stop being so weird."
"Define weird," said Wendy, mixing two medium-strength gins and tonic at the well-stocked bar.
"Dashing off to Scandinavia by boat on a whim. And just buying everything I need until it's time to come home. And not having a structured life that lets me predict roughly what I'll be doing a week on Thursday. Having complete freedom to do my A and R work when I want and where I want. Letting a woman do all the driving and not exerting my masculine right to the steering wheel."
"That's not weirdness. That's pure laziness in your case."
"And in your case, darling Wendy, weirdness is standing up for daft causes no reasonable person gives a monkey's about."
"Not all the causes are daft. And in my case, weirdness is all about standing up to the sort of bullies most people are afraid to offend. And people involved in under-the-counter deals that betray the people who pay their wages. So what happened in Asperles?"
"In relation to what?" frowned Astor.
"Carly got a bit embarrassed when she was telling me about the hotel you stayed at before the Chunnel train ride home."
"Oh, right," grinned Astor.
"Go on, what?" demanded Wendy.
"One of the embarrassing things for Cazzer was the couple in the room next door. They were quite loud. I nearly phoned down to reception to ask if they had any ear-plugs. I was even making plans to swap bedrooms with Cazzer before they shut up."
"You sod!" laughed Wendy. "What else was embarrassing?"
"Oh, I couldn't tell you that. Not if Cazzer couldn't."
"Are you going to tell me, or am I going to have to get violent?" Wendy put on a dangerous expression.
"It was two blokes at it in the next room. Jambon and Louis, who we thought was Louise at first. Which Cazzer found rather disgusting. So I phoned them via reception. ‘I've got a message for Jambon. You'll be getting visitors in about nine minutes so I advise you to be out of there in seven and a half.' Then I put the phone down. That's when we heard sounds of a hasty departure next door."
"You sod!" laughed Wendy.
"But talking about gentlemen, I've realized I could do with a gentleman's gentleman. Or lady. Someone to do all the tedious stuff like housework, painting, decorating, messing about in the garden. All the stuff you and I only do when we're forced into it, or we can't get a slave to do it, like Jeff. And if you're thinking of getting... married!" Astor made the sign of the Cross with his fingers and aimed it at Wendy. "You're not going to be here to do a share of it. Any ideas?"
"What, a sort of home-help kind of thing? I think we had a leaflet round about that. Long before we became filthy rich. Some agency offering trustworthy people for five pounds-odd an hour. I remember thinking it sounded extremely desirable if we ever won the pools."
"I think millionaires like you and me should be able to offer more than five pounds something an hour. And I need someone with more expanded frontiers than a pure home-help."
"Sort of a live-out housekeeper, you mean? One of your gang of personal slaves with mobiles? So you can ring her up and say, ‘Job on for you today, Mrs. Mopp. My so-called mates have trashed the place during a party.' Like that?"
"Yeah, that sounds great. Can someone like yourself with extensive local knowledge come up with a suitable candidate? Seeing you're here more often than me."
"I'll give it a try," nodded Wendy. "So the Pete Astor empire grows by one more body?"
"Pete Astor, re-investing his national lottery pay-out in people," quoted Astor. "How's that for a mission statement?"
"Sounds a lot less likely than Pete Astor, re-investing his notional robbery pay-out in causing trouble."
"I wouldn't dream of pinching the Wendy Xanadu mission statement," laughed Astor. "What time is it? Getting on for seven. Did you say you've had your tea?"
"Why, are you going to take me somewhere posh?"
"I was just going to phone out for something."
"What, a pizza?" scoffed Wendy.
"No, that guy at the Chinese up the road will deliver a great steak, chips, mushrooms, tomatoes and green beans if you ask for a Pete Astor special. And he does some pretty brilliant ice creams, too."
"Sounds like you've got him well trained."
"So are you up for it, or what?"
"You bet," nodded Wendy.
"Don't you get chucked out of the female weirdo club if you're not a veggie?"
"Not if you're in the carnivore branch. Are you going to find out if Carly's had her tea yet? If you invite her over, I can feed her some of your good red wine and see if I can get her talking about what else you got up to."
"You're as bad as a bloody journalist," scoffed Astor.
"To know people is to know all," Wendy quoted wisely. "And talking about Caroline, you know you've got Tom Maddox checking out new recruits to KS? Did you have Caroline checked out?"
"She was wondering. She mentioned it to me."
"So what did you say?"
"I said it's probably only for people you don't know."
"That's about the size of it. She knew Inspector Wezzer of the Yard, so I assumed she's okay. So am I still an okay guy with Cazzer, or what?"
"I'll let you know when I've had you checked out properly."
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.