Around the next corner,
Is your life's ambition or your worst nightmare.
Oh, the suspense!
Pete Astor and Wendy Xanadu arrived home on the first Thursday of the new year. The first telephone call, received five minutes after they had opened the front door, was from Clive Astor to thank them for birthday greetings received two days earlier. Ten minutes later, James Faucumberg was on the line with an apology. The Drachensblut video was selling like the hottest of hot cakes and James and Walter now realized that Astor had been making an investment in the German band - one which had paid off in spades.
The next call told Astor that he had upset the officers investigation his complaint against Detective Inspector Farne. The investigators took a dim view of people who made complaints and then shot off to the United States on holiday and out of interviewing range.
When they did catch up with him in person, the next day, Astor made a point of getting in a few cracks about their sense of urgency. Almost six weeks after the event, his insurance claim for the broken jade statuette had not been settled and Inspector Farne was still insisting that his informant refused to let his identity be known to anyone else.
If everything seemed to be going smoothly at Kiron Sounds without any input from himself, Astor decided that he could concentrate on his CD-releasing plans. He had the signatures of all the co-composers, and performers where necessary, on contracts. All that he really had to do was decide which two of sixteen tracks to leave off the first CD.
He found the choice so hard that Wendy returned home from a day spent at Padraig M'Cracken's archive to find him wondering whether to draw names out of a cardboard box. Astor postponed his decision in favour of finding out what was in the boxes that she had brought back from their local Kashmiri takeaway.
"Hard day at the office, dear?" he remarked as he tried to decipher hieroglyphs on lids of white card in the kitchen.
"Quite interesting, actually," said Wendy. "Are you setting the table, or what?"
"I'm just trying to work out which wine to have."
"Why not settle for the usual? Whatever's open and two glasses?"
"And some people accuse me of having an unstructured life," Astor complained over the sound of taps running as Wendy washed her hands.
"I found a postcard from my dad with a phone number today. It must have got buried in the accumulation."
"So is he still swindling Euro-cash and not in gaol yet?"
"I don't know. He must have sent the card about a week before Christmas, while we were in the States. He's moved on since then."
"Don't tell me. Not leaving a forwarding address. Doesn't the guy know he's got two million quid waiting for him here?"
"Obviously not. Do you remember I mentioned some people calling themselves the Talmy Group?" Wendy added as she joining Astor in the dining room.
"No." Astor completed arranging the heat-resistant mats into a symmetrical shape.
"They wanted access to the archive but they were being very mysterious about why."
"I'd tell them to sod off, in that case."
"I don't think that's Padraig's style, actually. And the bloke, Bert Norton, is a very pleasant sort of person. He gives the impression he's not being mysterious to be awkward, he's doing it for a good reason."
"Which he doesn't feel you can be trusted with?"
"Apparently not. Anyway, we've had another approach from what looks like a splinter group from the original setup. Led by someone called Alice Hraldy ..."
"She's got to be a Yank with a name like that."
"From Fresno, actually."
"What, did you tell her we've just been there and grill her about the place to be sure she wasn't lying to you?"
"No, we listened to what she had to say for herself."
"Sounds pretty radical to me."
"They reckon they have real evidence of the existence of an afterlife. By which they mean a subsequent plane of existence."
"Evidence?" scoffed Astor, pausing with a spoon plunged into the saffron rice. "Are we talking 'stand up in court' or something not quite as evidential?"
"Solid enough to interest Padraig. And Caroline thought Alice sounded quite sane and genuine. We brought Caroline in as a 'real person' like you and James and Nick do."
"What, Caroline's working at the archive, too? We're going to have to get her cloned to make sure there's enough of her to go round."
"She's learning to use a database program and retrieval techniques. So she can log in book titles, author information and so on when you and Nick don't need her. To speed up searches and keep track of what there is."
"I hope Padraig's paying her the going rate."
"Actually, she's probably getting paid out of the grant Kiron Sounds gave him. So you're still paying her."
"So what did this Yank have to tell you?"
"She's invited us to one of her group's meetings. To let us make our own minds up."
"Oh, right, standard selling technique. Give the mug punter some free hospitality and let her convince herself she's on to a good thing."
"You're an appalling cynic, Pete, you know that?"
"I reckon if there were more people like me around, the world would be a much safer place."
"If more people were like you, mate, the world would give up! I tell you what, while I was browsing around in the archive, I came across several references to an angel called Kiron. And also a demon called Kiron. If they're the same entity, he seems to have an equal effect, positive and negative, on the people he comes into contact with."
"Unless it's some sort of generic name. For his, her or its species."
"Yes, that would make sense."
"In as much as any of this magic nonsense makes what a real person like myself would call sense."
"Your trouble is you've got a closed mind," scoffed Wendy. "You think you've got all the answers and you're not prepared to let anyone else get a look in."
"Whereas you've got an open mind and you're prepared to let other people stuff it with their junk?" scoffed Astor. "And I'd say I've got a full mind. So if anyone wants to put any strange ideas in it, they're going to need a bloody good reason to turf something else out to make room."
Wendy put her fork down and frowned at him. "You know, I hate to say it, but that's a pretty sensible attitude."
"Oh, Lord, please preserve me from being called sensible," scoffed Astor.
"So how's your album going?" Wendy looked from her glass to the bottle as a hint.
"Pretty good, actually. Why, are you after a first pressing?"
"It's just that Padraig was thinking about selling that grimoire you got and other Rixborough editions from his archive. And we were wondering where you're up to with seeing if you can get permission to do another edition."
"I'll have to have a word with Tom Maddox about that. He made contact with the bloke who owns what's left of the Rixborough Press. That must be about a couple of months ago now. I'll need to refresh my memory."
"What did Tom say about reprinting?"
"The company got wiped out by a fire a couple or so years ago. And their insurers haven't paid yet, last I heard. So the guy should be strapped for cash and interested in a deal."
"That's good news. Padraig sees selling Rixborough editions as a source of revenue and publicity, and a means of letting people know the archive exists. Are you going to ring Tom for your update?"
"Do I get to finish my dinner first?" Astor demanded.
Wendy shrugged. "I suppose so. If I've gone to all the trouble of getting it for you."
"And anyway, he'll have gone home by now. So it'll have to wait until tomorrow. No, Monday if it's Friday today."
"Procrastination, thy name is Pete," sighed Wendy.
"Pestilence, thy name is Wendy," returned Astor.
Pete Astor resisted Wendy Xanadu's active encouragement for a while on Monday morning, being awkward, then he phoned the private investigator's office. A female voice replied. Astor conjured up a mental image of Gail, Maddox's personal assistant, a frighteningly efficient woman in her mid-fifties, who had been hired at the end of November to replace the answering machine. Maddox was doing well enough to feel the need of a human interface when he was out of his office.
"Ah, yes, Mr. Astor," said the efficient Gail briskly, recognizing his voice, "I'm expecting Mr. Maddox back from his travels any minute now."
"He's been off on a trip?"
"Yes, your job in Italy."
"Oh, what job's that?"
"The job for Mr. Clive Astor, in fact. Your father."
"Oh, right." Astor decided not to get involved in trying to find out why his father would need the services of a private detective.
"Ah, here he is now," added Gail.
The receiver changed hands. Astor hit the yellow bar on his own phone to switch the speaker on, then he replaced his receiver.
"Is this black magic, or what?" said Tom Maddox. "Ringing me the instant I get back?"
"Just luck," said Astor. "I wanted to talk to you about Rixborough and our friend Mr. Hallan."
"Interestingly enough, I had a call from him just after you went over to the States. I think the time is right to talk serious turkey with him. I get the impression he's in urgent need of cash."
"What, his insurance still hasn't paid out?"
"Not yet, no. Actually, I have some more background info that you might find useful. Gail is just looking the file out, now. Thank you. Yes, it seems Geoffrey Hallan had two separate editions of his Registry made back in the sixteen hundreds. There's the one that collectors and archives have, which is described as the authentic, definitive Registry, but there's also another version that may only have existed in manuscript."
"If anything, it could be seen as a marketing ploy of sorts. The printed edition contains a lot of information on magic rituals - the setting up, the location, etc. But the spells in it are all Christian flim-flam. If Geoffrey Hallan was selling it today, he'd offer the main printed edition to the public to make them think they were getting something shocking, and then he'd sell a private, limited edition of the other version to magic adepts as an add-on to make the first set of information work."
"That's interesting, because Padraig M'Cracken is hoping to sell a new edition of the grimoire at his archive. That sort of marketing wheeze sounds just what he could use."
"It just shows you," laughed Maddox, "the marketing mob were as on the ball three hundred years ago as they are today. Anyway, what the Rixborough edition you've got seems to have done is combine the two editions, to a large extent. You've got the rituals and the words in the Rixborough edition. All that's lacking is accurate instructions for preparing the seals."
"You sound almost convinced you could get the spells to work if you had the right seals, Tom."
"I think that's the effect of all this secrecy rubbing off on me. You tend to start talking as if you're dealing with something that's real. Anyway, I think it's worth noting that Rixborough and Co. has always had close associations with people called Hallan."
"So close, they took the firm over eventually?"
"That's right. The thinking is that the Rixborough edition of the Registry was prepared with the aid of both of Geoffrey Hallan's original manuscripts and source material that's been passed down through the family's archives."
"So you're saying we could publish three versions of the grimoire if we wanted? The original, sort of 'mug-punter' edition, the secret add-on, and the Rixborough combined edition?"
"If you can strike a deal with Philip Hallan. I should think he's gasping for a call from you now."
"In that case, I'll not disappoint him," said Astor. "And I'll let you get sorted out after your trip. Cheers, Tom." Astor pushed the yellow bar again.
"Padraig and I could go with you," said Wendy. "When you go and see this Philip Hallan."
"Don't you think that's a bad business tactic? It's going to drive his price up if we start looking too eager."
"Oh, well, if you put it like that," laughed Astor.
"Get on the phone and get a meeting sorted out," ordered Wendy.
"Ja, Boss," sighed Astor.
The next call brought Wendy's crusade to a temporary halt. Astor spoke to a housekeeper at Philip Hallan's number and learned that he was away on business until the next day. He left his name and number, and a request for Hallan to contact him about 'the matters discussed with Mr. Maddox' on his return.
Wendy's expression suggested that she thought Astor that had arranged for Philip Hallan to be kidnapped just to inconvenience her. The phone started ringing as soon as Astor put the receiver down, depriving Wendy of a chance to vent her impatience.
"Pete Astor?" said Astor.
"It's Tom," said his private investigator. "Can we meet?"
"Guess so," said Astor. "How does lunch sound?"
"What? Like, now?"
"Yes, it's this job I've been doing for your Dad. I had a call from him more or less as we finished talking. It's all turned pear-shaped."
"Okay, I'll meet you at the KS offices. In half an hour?"
"Great. See you there."
"Is that you going into town?" said Wendy. "You can give me a lift."
"Is this you off for some plotting and planning with Padraig at the archive?"
"We need to sort out what we want to do publishing-wise and what we're going to pay for it before next week."
Astor found the maintenance log on the driver's seat of his car. Kevin David, their live-out housekeeper, had checked the tyres for pressure and tread depth, made sure that the battery and hydraulics were topped up with the appropriate fluids and given the vehicle a thorough hoovering, including the boot, after having it washed between the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Wendy smiled at him when Astor stopped for too long at the end of the drive. She knew that he was reminding himself which side of the road to use after their trip to the western United States, which had taken them from California to Oregon and up to Washington state.
Astor left his car at his personal space in the theatre's staff car park. Wendy headed for the M'Cracken Archive as Astor made his way to the suite of offices. He ran into Nick in the reception area.
"Ah, Pete, I was going to call you," said Nick.
"What were you going to call me?" demanded Astor.
Nick Pennington smiled dutifully. "Are you coming to the award ceremony on Wednesday?"
"If there's free booze on offer, count me in," nodded Astor. "Where's it at?"
"Our small function hall next door. The architect who did the re-design work on the Astoria has won an award. The presentation's going to be covered in full by press and TV. And Dominik's going to be there for his TV prog."
"Sounds a bit incestuous," laughed Astor. "When's the kick-off?"
"Eleven o'clock. A.m. Are you going to be out of bed by then?"
"And Caroline wants to know if you've got that blurb you promised her for Under Alien Skies yet. She wants to add it to the website info. She's got the art-work for the cover from Melody."
"Just as long at Net-heads don't expect to be able to download the album for free. Is she in her personal and private computer room?"
"Was last time I saw her," nodded Nick.
"Tom Maddox is on his way here to see me," Astor added to Mandy, the receptionist. "We'll use the conference room, if it's free?"
"You might have to climb over a few boxes, but it's free otherwise," said Nick.
Tom Maddox was looking worried when he joined Astor in the conference room a short time later. Astor poured him a cup of coffee and accepted one of the investigator's cigarettes, then they got down to business.
"Background first," said Maddox. "Your father used to know a Sylvia Jordash. After he was divorced from your mother, right?"
"Right," nodded Astor.
"And they had a daughter called either Giulia with a G or Julie with a J, depending on whether she's feeling Italian or British."
"I think Dad calls her 'Jules'."
"Apparently so. Do you know her, at all?"
"I'm just trying to remember the last time I met her. It's got to be about twenty years ago. She must have been about seven or eight. My Dad had a bit of a do to celebrate when I got my degree. I think Jules and her mum were living in Spain then, but they'd come over here for some reason."
"As I understand it, the mother went to Spain about a year after the daughter was born. That particular meeting was one of several reunions, which lasted one or two months on average. They lost touch eventually. So, getting closer to the present, your father commissioned me to find Ms Jordash and her daughter a couple of months ago."
"And that's when the trouble started?"
"Well, almost. I had to do quite a bit of digging before I found that Ms Jordash had managed to transform herself from a Hungarian illegal immigrant into a Spanish citizen with all the proper documents. She died three years ago after a heart attack. I traced her daughter to Italy. And that was when the trouble started."
"What, real heavy trouble?" frowned Astor.
"Your half-sister is currently in prison on remand in Verona on smuggling charges. Cigarettes and cannabis. That's pretty heavy."
"Nice one, Jules!"
"Of course, your father's reaction was to try to get the charges reduced or dropped. Which involved dropping bribes on local officials, who claimed they could get the case pushed forward and the charges reduced to time already served. Jules has been in gaol for four months now, by the way."
"Everything seemed to be moving along nicely, but your father started to get pissed off with the routine run-around he was getting. You know the sort of thing. Apparently firm arrangements kept falling through and greedy Eyeties kept shoving the price up. Eventually after he'd payed out about sixty thousand pounds, he got too impatient. And that call I got from him was to tell me he's been arrested too."
"What, for bribery and corruption?" frowned Astor.
"No, it's some trumped-up, purely technical charge. But it amounts to them holding him to ransom, really. He's shown them too much cash and let them know he's good for a whole lot more."
"My reaction exactly," nodded Maddox.
"So what do we do about it?"
"Pay up or fight back."
"Do you know any good dirty tricks, then?"
"I was hoping you'd say that," laughed Maddox. "It'll take a couple of days to set up. Say Thursday to be on the safe side. And it'll cost a bit. I mean, this is straight, honest payment to experts, not inflated fees to me."
"I'm sure we can trust you, Inspector."
"Oh, yes, talking about that, I was having a word with one of the local Old Bill the other day. He reckons your pal D.I. Farne is that close to being suspended for pulling another dodgy stroke." Maddox held his left index finger and thumb about a cigarette's width apart.
"And how do you feel about that?"
Maddox shrugged. "If you bend the rules and you get a genuine result, it's all part of the game. If you do it stupidly, like lying to a magistrate to get a warrant, and you come unstuck, you deserve what you get. I'll need about five grand in cash for up-front money."
"In that case, it's a bank job," said Astor. "Let's sneak out before the mob here find something that needs doing that only I can do."
An average six people were waiting for attention when Astor arrived at the bank. He made out his cheque while standing in the queue. The teller glanced at the cheque then looked up at him with a startled expression. Astor began to feel as if he had pushed a note through the security trap telling her that he had a gun.
The manager was walking through the till area on the way to her office. She stopped, looked at the cheque, smiled at Astor and invited him to join her in the interview room at the end of the public space. Astor included Tom Maddox with a significant sideways nod of his head, which brought a smile to the private detective's face.
"We just like to be a little discreet when we hand over large sums in cash, Mr. Astor," the manager explained. "Good morning, Mr. Maddox."
"You know each other?" said Astor.
"Socially rather than professionally," said his bank manager.
"I'm pleased to hear that," said Astor as Maddox began to count the contents of two packets of £20 notes and one of £10 notes.
"We were pleased to hear about the award for the Astoria."
"Yes, I was just thinking, Nick slipped up there. We could have started our own award scheme and generated the publicity around the time of opening night."
"All correct," said Maddox as the bank manager was trying to think up a suitable reply to Astor's notion.
The bank manager settled for a handshake apiece for the customers. They did a little dance in the doorway around a man in a crash helmet, who was delivering a steel case of cash and documents, on their way into the public area. As he was in the lead, Astor pulled the street door open for Maddox. He held on to the door as a woman followed the detective.
"Hello again, Mr. Astor," she said to him.
"Hi!" Astor smiled at her but failed to recognize her.
"I'll be in touch, Pete," Maddox told him as he headed for his car.
"Right, see you," said Astor. "Okay, I give up," he added to the woman.
"Milton Keynes? It's nearly six months ago now."
The woman was fiftyish, smartly dressed and wearing a minimum of make-up. Something was missing. Astor suddenly realized it was a stethoscope. "Yeah, you're a police surgeon? On that bad drug bust?"
"You won't believe the ear-ache I got from my daughter for not getting your autograph."
"She's a fan, is she?"
"She was all for marching on the record company's offices and picketing them when you were chucked out of Intoxicant. I think it was only your getting your present job and starting your own band that's kept her out of trouble. And she's quite a fan of your record company's Internet site. And she buys all your CDs, of course."
"I'm glad to hear somebody visits it. So what are you doing in Croydon in January? Not on holiday, surely?"
"Actually, I'm working in Orpington now. Or I will be when I've finished a refresher course in psychology. I just came over here for a look at the shops."
Astor glanced at his watch. "I can let you have some posters and things, if you think your daughter might be interested in them?"
"If I brought a truckload home, she's still want more."
"But it's probably a good idea to have lunch first, to make sure the publicity bunch are there when we drop in on them. It's on the record company, of course, the lunch."
"Are you allowed to do that?" said the doctor doubtfully.
"I have this generous entertainment budget. And who better to entertain than the mother of a fan? Go on, live a little. Your daughter will never forgive you if you tell her you didn't blag the free lunch."
"Oh, well, if you insist. My name's Gale, by the way, as in storm force ten not Gail with an I. Gale Bannister. I don't think we were ever formally introduced in Milton Keynes."
"I'm Pete. It's just down the street."
They were walking into the Meridan hotel before the doctor realized that Astor was offering a free lunch in rather grander circumstances than she had anticipated. But, as she had spoken to him on impulse, she decided to let the encounter go its own way.
"So, is this part of your police work? The psychology course?" Astor asked when they were sitting at their table, waiting for their starters.
"Pretty much," nodded Dr. Bannister. "They're getting increasingly concerned about the people they have to deal with who are supposedly getting 'care in the community'."
"So you have to be able to distinguish between harmless and harmful nutters?"
"More or less. Although I'd be shot for putting it in those terms."
"Okay, so how do you tell if someone's sane? With great difficulty?"
"With very great difficulty, in some cases."
"And does it matter in a lot of cases? People keep calling me weird. How does that match up to sane and insane?"
"Do you yourself think you're weird? Or insane."
"No, I think I'm completely normal and one hundred per cent average. But doesn't everyone?"
"Well, asking yourself if you're sane is generally taken as a sign of sanity, and if your behaviour isn't obviously abnormal, you probably are. But having said that, most quote sane unquote people don't ask that question because it never occurs to them that they might not be. On the other hand, most quote insane unquote people don't ask it either because they assume what's normal for them is normal for everyone else. Either that, or they think they're perfect."
"Sounds like you've got one hell of a job to do, Gale."
"It's certainly a challenge."
Their waiter delivered a citrus cocktail and a prawn cocktail, then ghosted away.
"So what do you do to get away from it?" said Astor. "Go shopping in exotic spots like Croydon?"
"When I'm not lunching with rock stars," nodded Dr. Bannister. "And I might be back here quite a lot over the next month or two. You have some very interesting classical concerts advertised at your theatre."
"Mention my name and they'll give you the best seats. Yes, Roddy, our assistant manager, is involved in sponsorship deals that local firms have with a couple of quartets and our local orchestra, The Croydon."
"And I also got dragged to a concert by one of your rock bands last month. My daughter needed a lift here. Dragon-something?"
"Drachensblut. Dragon's blood, in German. What did you think of them?"
"I rather enjoyed them, actually. Their offering had quite a touch of the Wagnerian operas about it. And Carol bought the video, of course."
"So how old is your daughter, by the way?"
"Carol's twenty-two. Six months out of university and she hasn't a clue what to do with herself."
"What did she study? Something really useful?"
"Music, would you believe?"
"You have a degree in music? Sorry, I didn't mean that the way it sounded. But I thought going to art college was the usual qualification for being a rock musician."
"Some of us used to be astronomers and nuclear physicists, and like that, before we got corrupted. Doctors, even. So what does your daughter play?"
"Viola and harpsichord. And piano when she has to."
"What, and she can't get in anywhere?"
"We don't have enough culture vultures around to support enough orchestras, unfortunately. She keeps doing auditions. And busking with some friends while she waits for the results."
"Has she auditioned for our local mob? The Croydon?"
"Not that I'm aware of."
"I can probably fix one up for her, if she fancies it. The leader is working on a young musician apprenticeship scheme at the moment. Exposing promising young talent to the orchestral environment so they know what it feels like. So they can concentrate on their playing rather than being overwhelmed by strange surroundings."
"There wouldn't be a quid pro quo behind this?" Dr. Bannister said cautiously. "Forgive me for being cautious, but ..."
"But do I want you to write out prescriptions for heroin and leave the name blank?" laughed Astor. "No, it's just that I'm in a position to give a leg up to people quite randomly. Just people I know or people I happen to meet. It's my way of undermining the system. Advancement by merit rather than the quids pro quo you were worried about. One thing I have to warn you about, though - if your daughter can't hack it, she won't get in. I can open the door for her but she has to get through it herself."
"I'd be a lot happier on her behalf if she got her audition on those terms. So you see yourself as an underminer of the system?"
"I have this friend called Wendy who's been doing it for years and she's corrupted me."
"I take it nothing ever came of that business in Milton Keynes?"
"No, it looks like someone panicked and ditched some coke. And my pocket happened to be convenient."
"And you're not a cocaine user yourself?"
"Been there, done it, got the T-shirt, as they say. But not for ages. There are lots of better things you can abuse your body with."
"Well, if you're looking for a professional opinion, you show none of the classic physical signs of the drug abuser. Or the paranoia associated with certain classes of drugs. Such as cocaine."
"Or I could be good at hiding it?"
"Certainly to a superficial examination across the lunch table."
Astor toyed with the idea of inviting a little more analysis, then he switched the subject to music. Asking a doctor whether it was normal to believe that he was generating energy pulses which an extra-dimensional being could use was asking for trouble, he decided. Even so, he was starting to question more and more whether Kiron and the other Others really existed.
After all, he met Kiron only when he was high on Charm and hardly in his right mind. And the same applied to Wendy's surprising contact with the mysterious entity. The lottery win seemed like conclusive proof that Kiron existed, but in reality, it was no proof at all.
Astor had entered the lottery convinced that he was going to win, but most people part with their money on the same terms. Somebody has to win, and it was as easy to believe that Pete Astor had been favoured by blind chance as by an extra-dimensional being.
It would be interesting to ask someone with medical qualifications if he had developed a mania about Kiron, and whether that mania wasn't just a harmless eccentricity on the level of a religious mania. After all, even if Pete Astor thought that all religions are con jobs, the world is full of people going around with an unshakeable belief in an invisible super-being. And lots of others make a hell of a good living out of that belief.
He had let the opportunity to discussing Kiron with Dr. Bannister slip away, Astor realized, because he was comfortable with being thought somewhat weird. But he had no wish to take that extra step. It was all right for religious leaders to claim that they were in direct contact with an invisible deity, but not for an ordinary guitarist and multi-millionaire to claim that he was manipulating the world with the aid of, and on behalf of, an extra-dimensional being.
His meeting with Dr. Bannister had served the useful purpose of forcing a decision out of him - namely that there was no point in wasting time over doubts about Kiron. Whether or not Kiron was bringing him artificial good luck, Pete Astor was doing what he wanted to do and the only sensible course of action was to enjoy it while it lasted.
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.