Two elements of a trend,
Three brain cells in use, none working properly!
By chance, Pete Astor was visiting the Kiron Sounds PR office when a call came in from one of Nick Pennington's contacts. Nick had asked for an early warning of the result of the inquest on the young lad who had died of an overdose on the Astoria's opening night. Nick's tense expression relaxed almost as once. He was smiling when he replaced the receiver.
"Good news?" said Astor.
"The verdict was misadventure which is an avoidable accident," said Nick. "And as the kid was seen taking the drug in a pub on his way to the Astoria, and there was no way for our security staff on the door to tell what he'd done ..."
"... not to mention he died off the premises, too ..."
"... so no blame can be attached to the Astoria. In theory."
"Meaning you expect the bastards to try?"
Nick just looked at Astor.
"Yeah, right, stupid question," he admitted.
"So it would be useful if we had a statement prepared ..."
"As far as I'm concerned, this is not something we want to get into in any way, shape or form. We didn't encourage the kid to take whatever he took. We didn't force the stuff down his throat. It was entirely his own choice."
"Which is fine, accuracy-wise, but a bit short on the milk of human kindness, Pete."
"It's unfortunate the kid died and we have every sympathy for his parents, but we're not about to declare that it's all our fault when it wasn't."
"Okay, I can see the direction you're taking. What you're saying is we regret the loss of a customer, the way any other business would, but we feel about as involved in it as the bus company."
"Yeah, right," approved Astor. "Let's blame it on the bus company. If he hadn't been running for one of their bloody buses, he wouldn't have dropped dead."
"Yeah, right," said Nick patiently.
"That you telling me I'm saying the unsayable?" grinned Astor.
"Something like that, yes."
"Well, I'm sure you know what to say to put an acceptable human face on the right message." Astor glanced at the digital clock between the windows. The time was five to one. "Okay, I think I'll go and have some lunch now. If I can drag Caroline away from the photocopier."
"Her neighbour's kid doing another school project?"
"Something like that."
"You know she pays for all the copies she does?"
Astor nodded. "Yes, I know. It's a really terrible defect in her character. You'd never get Cazzer nicking the firm's pencils, like any normal person. Anyway, I'll be lurking round the theatre after lunch, if you need me, Nick."
"You've got that German band doing a rehearsal this afternoon, haven't you? I might get an eyeful of that myself. From what Caroline was saying, they've got quite an act."
"Right, see you then," said Astor.
Caroline was counting money into the petty-cash box when Astor reached the side office where the photocopier was housed, mainly as a security precaution.
"That you subsidizing the educational system again?" Astor said. "Making up for what our dead loss of a council doesn't spend on the basics because it's too busy trying to buying votes from undeserving minorities?"
"If you've got it, spend it, to quote a certain Pete Astor," Caroline told him.
"Are your table manners still civilized?"
"If that's you inviting me to lunch somewhere posh, like the Meridan Hotel, they're perfect," smiled Caroline.
"So this is where you're hiding," said a familiar voice.
"Reptile alert," remarked Astor.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Drew," Caroline said with her usual politeness.
Reg Drew, reporter on the local paper, took a cassette recorder out of his pocket and switched it on ostentatiously.
"I should see Nick for any statements," said Astor. "That's his department, not mine."
Drew switched the recorder off, equally ostentatiously. "Not even a tidgy off-the-record comment? About an obvious link between Black Magic Rock music and a tragic death? I take it you've heard the inquest verdict?"
"Yes, and I see no obvious link," Astor said firmly. "A lot of people enjoy this kind of music. Are you saying no one should be allowed to enjoy it because one person did something foolish? And dare you extend that argument to things like motor cars? Ten or fifteen people get killed by them every day. And a lot of them because someone did something foolish. Like pigging too much of the drug alcohol."
"So you're not admitting any liability? Is this after talking to your lawyer?"
"I know you reporters are only there to cause trouble, but we're living in the real world, where people won't stand for one hundred per cent regulation of their behaviour, where people choose to do dangerous things and where some of them, sadly, die. If people choose to take drugs, then they're responsible for the consequences. I hope you've got your recorder switched on, Caroline, to confirm all that was off the record?"
"Oh, yes," smiled Caroline.
"So you'd better go and see Nick now," Astor added, "because we've got a very busy afternoon coming up and we have things to do."
Reg Drew smiled at him, letting Astor know that he was due for a rough ride in the local paper because the editor had taken a very public anti-drugs stance. Astor smiled back, letting Drew know that it was all water off a duck's back.
The front end of the stalls was well filled when Drachensblut began their set, telling Astor that at least 500 people were skiving off work or had no work to go to on the Monday afternoon. James had been rather doubtful about letting an audience in to a free show, but Astor had given his approval for two reasons. The band felt that they would give a truer performance in front of a decent crowd and Astor was hoping that Kiron would derive useful benefit from the show.
Astor was very impressed by what the band was doing. The sequence of rituals was full of light and smoke effects, some rituals succeeding, some failing initially, as the band built up to the grand climax. The object of the rituals had also changed. Instead of opening up a gateway to admit some malevolent entity, the sequence was now directed toward kindling the Torch Of Universal Enlightenment. In effect, the act had become a morality play, in which dark compromises were made for an ultimately good cause.
Astor and Caroline were joined on the front row of the balcony by Megan Glyndwr, an energetic Welsh woman, who had been in the video business for about ten years since leaving university. Jim Welch of Melody Studios had known her in his student days. Introducing her to Astor was a follow-up to his suggestion of making a video of Drachensblut's show. Video had seemed a very appropriate vehicle to Astor and the act had a lot more to offer than the standard rock video. Jim had been worried about the cost of the project and he had taken pains to point out to Astor that fans would still come to Drachensblut gigs after buying the video, just as they came to live gigs after buying live audio albums. The material remains similar but the performance is always different.
Showing some business sense, Astor had been encouraging without crossing the border into wildly enthusiastic. He saw no reason not to make the project well-crafted, just as he saw no reason for failing to demand value for money even if he had a lot of spare cash to throw about. Megan seemed to have got the message that her task was to sell a workable form of the project rather than the project itself.
There was another Pete on the balcony, a recent graduate from the London School of Film & Video Production. He was on the small side, dark and Cornish rather than Welsh. He was operating a video camera at the centre of the balcony to record a reference overview of the performance, which Megan would use when she planned her segments and camera angles.
The audience enjoyed the show and offered enthusiastic applause all the way through, perhaps as a hint that the Astoria should put on more free shows. Then the free-loaders made their way out of the theatre, under the watchful eyes of the security staff, suffering the usual shock of finding that the October afternoon was still light.
"I really enjoyed that," Astor remarked, sitting back in his seat and putting his shoes on a padded area of the balcony rail. "Still a few rough edges but they're getting there."
"It reminded me a bit of that Intoxicant number in places," said Caroline. "You know, the banned one."
"That's probably because they're using some of the same source material for their show," said Astor. "The words seem to demand a certain rhythm. What do you reckon, Megan? Can you do us a video for under a million quid?"
"Maybe just under," Megan replied with a patient smile. "It should provide you with a nice tax loss, too, if it gets banned."
"That's what I really love about the Welsh," laughed Astor. "The buggers are always so bloody cheerful about everything."
Pete Astor began to feel that there was a conspiracy against him when, two days later, the news services trumpeted the verdict from the inquest on another teenager. The seventeen-year-old had been found dead at his home in Sheffield during the previous week. The post mortem examination showed that he had taken too much of some impure amphetamine derivative before loading the Italian Intoxicant bootleg in his CD player and turning up the volume.
This inquest returned an open verdict because the jury had been unable to decide if it was an accident or suicide. The boy had not left a note, and none of his family or friends had noticed any signs of depression, but the jury had chosen to keep in their minds past links between rock music and suicides.
Astor evaded a gang of media vultures at the headquarters of Kiron Sounds by meeting Nick, very reluctantly, at the small hotel where Drachensblut was installed.
"Policy directive from above," Astor said as Caroline was handing out cups of coffee. "We're not making a statement on this one."
"It's a mistake, cutting lines of communication," frowned Nick.
"You're not being cut off, Nick. You can go on buying pints for the vultures and talking off the record. But KS is not going to make an official statement about something that happened in bloody Sheffield, two hundred miles away, that we had nothing at all to do with. What do you reckon, Caroline, in your capacity as a normal person?"
"I can't see what it has to do with Pete," Caroline said. "He's not in Intoxicant any more. And the album is a bootleg, released without anyone's permission."
"The real art behind crisis management is to make a positive contribution at all times," said Nick, looking betrayed.
"Where does not letting yourself get sucked into other people's crises figure in that?" said Astor.
"It's not a question of not letting yourself be sucked in, Pete," Nick said patiently. "You're already in it. The problem may be a media creation, but you're stuck with being a part of it. That has to be your starting point, not just turning your back on everything."
"Okay, looks like we're back to the usual situation," Astor admitted. "You're the PR professional so we trust your judgement. But I'd like you to bear in mind what's happened in the States, where greedy lawyers have persuaded relatives to sue the arse off record companies and the bands, if you'll pardon my French, Caroline, in an attempt to get millions of dollars in compensation for a very ordinary life."
"I hope to hell this bloody room isn't bugged," laughed Nick.
"So do I," grinned Astor. "But the point is, there's never been anything in these recordings to make anyone either take drugs or commit suicide. It's been all about crooked lawyers trying to frighten record companies into buying them off. Well, no, perhaps not crooked. They're just taking advantage of a corrupt system. But it's the same sort of thing as heavy smokers trying to sue the hell out of tobacco companies."
"Yeah, well, we don't want to go down that road too soon in case we give people ideas," said Nick.
"Okay, do your best job of stonewalling them. But I'm not going to accept responsibility for the alleged effect of a recording when I'm not getting paid royalties on it. That's a form of taxation without representation, which is supposed to be why the American colonies set themselves up as an independent organization. If it was good enough for them, then it's good enough for me."
"Following that line," said Nick, "there are published song sheets with the words and music of your numbers. Perhaps we can invite people to feel free to buy one and go through the words and let us know if they find anything that tells them it would be a good idea to go and kill themselves. Because there's no sense in it. If we're trying to sell albums and seats at concerts, why would we encourage our customers to top themselves? Where's the benefit in it for us? On a purely business basis, it just doesn't make sense."
"I reckon we can go along with that," nodded Astor. "What do you reckon, Caroline?"
"Yes, it knocks the ball back into their court," nodded Caroline. "Put up or shut up, style of thing."
"Okay, Nick, sock it to them on that basis," Astor invited.
Nick spent a busy afternoon issuing a press release and giving brief interviews to various radio and television companies. Scanning through a selection of his efforts on video, and as reported in the papers the next morning, Astor felt that Nick had made the best job possible of distancing Kiron Sounds of Croydon from a drug-related death in far-off Sheffield.
Encouraged, he spent a little time setting another project in motion. There had been a great deal of interest in the grimoire that he had picked up in Manchester and Astor was getting fed up with handing out photocopied pages. In his current circumstances, he was well able to afford to cost of reprinting the volume. He was fairly certain that it was well out of copyright but he wanted to be sure. He was perfectly willing to pay royalties and that was why he passed on to Tom Maddox the task of finding out the copyright position.
Having briefed his investigator, Astor set off to Lincoln with Caroline. Intoxicant had invited him to their next gig and their message contained veiled hints that he was about to see something spectacular. When Astor and his driver arrived back-stage at the venue, Syd Melchior and the others had nothing at all to say about the coming gig but they were full of the enjoyment of a good conspiracy.
Pete Astor's suggestion that they bootleg the Italian bootleg album, and even put it out as an official Kiron Sounds album when the fuss died down a bit, gave them something to discuss and take their minds off the occasion to come. Syd and Co. were all for making more money out of work already done and they thought that bootlegging a bootleg was a great idea.
Astor also showed the score of his piece for five pianos to Syd Melchior while having a moan about how impossible he was finding the task of making a decent recording of it himself. Just by chance, Syd happened to have received a letter from a former girlfriend from his school days. Cherryl, a pianist, had told him how much she had enjoyed a recent Intoxicant gig, and she had mentioned that she was working in Astor's vicinity with the Croydon Symphony Orchestra. Astor accepted another dollop of Kiron's Luck and collected enough details to allow him to make contact. Then he gave himself up to the pleasures of watching other people work.
Like a good, reliable opening band, Intoxicant took the stage at seven-thirty and played forty minutes of driving rock music which had the audience yelling and doing the usual overhead clapping out of time. Sitting on the front row of the balcony, Astor felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise when Syd ended a brief period of tuning up by stepping to the front of the stage and releasing a long wolf-howl.
A chorus of howls flew back to him. Then the band went into a new number. Astor recognized the cadence of the words and the sort of language found in the grimoire. Another new number in the same vein followed, creating a sense of pressure not by sound volume but by the sheer intensity of the playing.
Another wolf-howl took Intoxicant into The Portal. Astor felt a vast, open space unfold before him. He saw the geometric shapes and vivid colours without greens of a Charm excursion. He sensed a formless, approving presence close at hand in another near dimension. He had a feeling of close contact with a boundless, infinitely desirable place for an unknown time.
And then infinity slipped gently away. He could hear Blood Axe knocking hell out of his huge Chinese gong and Dexie moving sounds and vibrations around. Syd was winding up for the final wolf howl. Astor felt a sense of great peace and accomplishment. There was an almost endless period of silence as the audience sagged in their seats and the band just stood on the stage, as if wondering what to do next.
Eventually, Astor got up out of his seat and started clapping. It seemed the only thing to do in the circumstances. Intoxicant retired back-stage to their first standing ovation from an entire audience. There were none of the usual cries for More! As Astor told to himself, what more could there be? He felt quite sorry for the Anglo-French headliners Sindycal. They had no hope of topping such a powerful performance.
There was a very strange atmosphere in the Intoxicant dressing room when Astor and Caroline reached the back-stage area. There were none of the usual extremes of self-satisfaction for a particularly good performance. The band was just getting on with the business of changing out of working clothes and packing up after a job with an air of deep, lasting contentment that had no hope of lasting. Angela Melchior seemed to be buzzing with the excitement that her husband should have been displaying.
"Was that brilliant or was that brilliant?" she beamed at Astor.
"Almost good," he admitted. "You guys have really gone places with The Portal."
"It feels like we've done nothing but rehearse it in secret since Syd came back with the extended words and music," remarked Dexie. "It was worth it, though."
"Tell you what," remarked Blood Axe, "I feel like we've just destroyed the universe down to the atomic level."
"And we don't care," Syd added with a grin. "I really enjoyed that. I mean, was that our best phucking gig ever, or what?"
"So what do you follow that with?" said Astor.
"Who cares?" said Blood Axe.
"And who has to?" remarked Ryan. "If we've just destroyed the universe down to an atomic level, we don't have to do anything until Big G puts it back together again. That should give him a busy week!"
"Right, are we going to take this town apart now?" said Astor. "Where are we, by the way?" he added to Caroline.
"Lincoln," she told him with a laugh. "Isn't it great when you don't care where you are?"
"I didn't get where I am today by knowing where I am," Astor quoted. "Are you lot up for it? Or are you all too knackered?"
"I want some grub before I start taking anything apart," said Dexie. "I feel like I've been working on a chain gang all day. I could do with a Texan steak. One that hangs off all four sides of your plate."
"Quadruple egg, bacon, sausage, tomato and baked beans with fried bread," said Blood Axe. "And a Texan steak."
"A pizza the size of a duck-pond," said Syd.
"A chicken tikka pizza with Worcestershire sauce," said Ryan.
"Egg, bacon, sausage, tomato, baked beans and fried bread pizza with mushrooms and a Texan steak," said Blood Axe. "With a side order of chips."
"Are you into adventurous eating?" Carol-An remarked to Caroline. "Like, wondering if the guy next to you is going to explode?"
"I certainly don't fancy baked beans and fried bread on a pizza," laughed Caroline. "Or being showered by them."
"Hey, let's do something really radical," said Syd. "Let's ask Ange and Carol-An where they want to eat, and then go there and don't moan about it!"
"Wow! Far out!" marvelled Blood Axe.
"I don't think I could take something as radical as that," said Angela.
"I can," Carol-An said quickly. "And you guys are on. And you're picking up the tab, okay?"
"Hey, let's not get too radical," laughed Ryan.
"Have you got to be anywhere tomorrow, Pete, or are we making a night of it?" said Syd.
"No, my personal minder has booked us into a hotel somewhere," said Astor.
"The local Meridan," said Caroline.
"Do you always travel four-star, you bastard?" frowned Syd.
"Only if there's nowhere with five," grinned Astor. "Are we out of here, or what?"
"We're definitely going to have to sign up with this guy's record company," said Syd as the group began their final checks for stray possessions.
"What makes you think they'll have you?" scoffed his wife. "You need to get in with someone who doesn't know you."
"Bloody women, eh?" sighed Syd.
"Always so bloody practical," nodded Astor. "I'd abolish them, given half a chance."
"Yeah? You and whose army?" mocked Angela. "Come on, let's get out of here before the trouble starts."
A long e-mail message from his cuttings service flooded onto Peter Vance's computer when he logged on to his Internet service provider at lunchtime on Friday. The agency had scanned eight reviews and grouped them as a text file for convenient electronic transfer. All of them told much the same story. Intoxicant had revived the number that had been excluded from their act and extended it.
The result of the band's defiance had been show-stopping. Syndical had done their best but the stuffing had been knocked out of the audience by the time the Anglo-French band had appeared on stage.
"Some guys never learn," said Jane Vance, reading over her brother's shoulder as he scrolled through the file.
"It's like a game to them," said Peter. "They get told not to do something, so they do it."
"Okay, time to get tough with them. If they want to play games, they can pay for it."
"Are you going to call Oscar at the record company?"
"Dead right. Maybe these guys will get the message if they suddenly find themselves out in the cold."
"Maybe these guys don't want to get the message," Peter remarked.
Jane put on a gentle smile. "If they don't respond to training with kindness, we'll just have to get a big stick and larrup it into them. And I've thought of something else we can do to your namesake, Pete Astor."
"All these deaths associated with his music ..."
"Associated?" scoffed Peter.
"... leave behind relatives with broken lives, who are entitled to compensation for their misery. Financial compensation."
"Oh, right, drop him down a deep hole with a pack of greedy lawyers chewing at him. That would be real good, Sis."
"And just think how much we can skim off the top of all the legal fees," said Jane with a smile of anticipation. "It's going to be real expensive if we have to do it all from behind the scenes through intermediaries."
"Yeah, those lousy Trustees won't know what hit them," laughed Peter.