"You're out the other side.
"And when it happens, boy! The relief!!!"
Astor contacted Kiron again at the end of the week to test a fresh batch of Charm. Given the close attentions of Inspector Farne, he was reluctant to have exotic pharmaceuticals on the premises but, as the chemist had reminded him, Charm was uncharted territory as far as the law was concerned. Possession of that particular chemical wasn't an offence because the nation's legislators were not yet aware of its existence.
The sense of timeless vastness seemed subtly different when Astor plunged into the realm of shapes and colours. Kiron seemed much the same, however, and more than satisfied with Astor's recent performance. The previous day had been particularly good for energy surges. Encouraged, Pete Astor returned to the question of the possible existence of other extra-dimensional beings.
"I've been asking around," Kiron told him, "and it seems humans have mentioned the names Lihmahl and Dendrashi to other members of my species, but always separately."
"Mentioned in what context?" said Astor.
"Just asked if they'd heard of them. But the other humans never explained why they wanted this information. And none of my species has ever been interested enough to follow it up."
"When did they ask and how many asked?"
"We're talking about two or three individuals of your species asking over several decades, human time."
"But you yourself have never heard of these other extra-dimensional species? Let alone met them?"
"Or heard of their secret war. Which is no guarantee that they don't exist, Pete. There's more than enough room in the great sweep of the known pancosmos for hundreds or even thousands of major wars to be raging in total isolation."
"Nobody else, no other humans, have asked you about them?"
"Unfortunately, Pete, you are my sole human contact at this time. My last one was some time before the period we're talking about."
"When was that?"
"We established contact during your First World War. I think he must have died in one of the battles."
"Sobering thought," remarked Astor.
He emerged from the Charm excursion with the impression that human contacts with Kiron were even more rare than solo multiple-rollover lottery jackpot winners. Astor still had no guarantees that Kiron was being entirely straight with him, but as he was going along for the ride whatever happened, he just had to make the best of it.
When he felt back to normal, he switched on his computer and started a database program, which Caroline had installed for him. The program allowed him to connect to the Astoria's booking computer by modem and update his file containing details of which artistes had appeared at the theatre on which dates. He could then tell the computer to run a correlation with dates when Kiron had reported a good energy spike.
The program allowed him to identify possible sources of energy spikes so that they could be invited back for further screening. It had told Astor that the Welsh band Caradoc was worth encouraging, and it seemed to be suggesting that Carol Bannister was also someone to be signed up in view of the response to her second audition the day before.
Astor found it a little strange that the presence of one individual should make the difference between a quiet day and a dramatic spike, energy-wise. But as he had no idea how the energy was produced, he had no idea what was normal and what was strange. Telling himself that Carol was having some sort of catalytic effect made the notion seem almost reasonable to someone who knew next to nothing about chemistry.
Getting her taken on as apprentice wasn't likely to be a problem because Hugo Wolfe, the conductor of TC, knew which side his bread was buttered on. An association with Kiron Sounds gave the orchestra a base and a rehearsal hall, and its members could look forward to added income from recording contracts in prospect. Hugo Wolfe was bound to think that any extra effort involved in developing Carol Bannister's talent was well worth the investment in the context of the welfare of the orchestra.
Astor made a note to give his friend Hugo another push in the right direction next time they met. And then it was time to switch from tycoon to performer mode. The Dead Junkies had a couple of gigs over the weekend and he was expecting a bunch of musicians to descend on his home within the hour for a combined rehearsal and musical strategy session.
Pete Astor had become rather suspicious of the Talmy Group through their actions – or rather, their lack of them. The group had seemed very keen to get Astor, Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken along to one of their meetings but no invitation had been forthcoming. Astor suspected that they were playing hard to get. Wendy, however, seemed to think that it was reasonable to wait until the right sort of meeting came along.
Caroline intercepted Astor when he arrived at the archive to meet Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken at the end of a chilly Thursday afternoon at the beginning of February. She had received an email from a Danny Di Mento, who wanted to know if his old cobber Pete was interested in setting up an Australian tour for Drachensblut in May.
"What, Demented Danny?" said Astor.
"So you know him? It's not someone messing us about?"
"Well, the Danny Di Mento I know was on the same gig circuit with me a few years ago. He's a Scottish Eyetie. His family's a big part of the Glasgow ice cream mafia. So he's in Australia now?"
"There are a lot of Italian families in Australia, Pete."
"Not to mention Greeks and all sorts of others. Okay, send him an email back telling him to send us a contract. Then we'll send one back that's not a total rip-off from our point of view. You can send an email to James, too, asking him to check Danny out and see if he's for real. You know what weird ideas ageing rock musicians get. Some of them even think they're the head of a huge combine with an international market."
"I'd normally phone James. Unless you'd particularly like me to send him an email?"
Astor shrugged. "Whatever. You know what you're doing."
"I've always fancied going to Australia."
"Is that a hint, Caroline?"
"How's Nick going to manage without you? And Padraig?"
"Same as anybody else manages when someone takes a break."
"So you reckon you could do a good job on our problem-busting team in Oz?"
"I think so."
Astor shrugged. "Okay. If you fancy the gig, go for it."
"D'you mean that?"
"Is that you harassing female persons again, Pete Astor?" said Wendy's voice behind him.
"What, talking to Caroline in a corridor is harassing her?" scoffed Astor. "Mind you, just being on the same planet with them counts as harassment to some bloody women. Did you know Caroline's going to Australia?"
"No?" Wendy said with a frown.
"You mean, she was planning to sneak off without telling you? Well, isn't that rotten!"
"What, are you emigrating?" said Wendy.
"The Drachs might be going on tour there and I might be going with them," Caroline explained.
"Are you going to stand around all day chatting or are we meeting up with Padraig and going for some grub?" demanded Astor.
"Oh, he's in one of those moods, is he?" sighed Wendy. "See you later, Caroline. Come on, you."
The split in the Talmy Group had become more pronounced since the last contact, Padraig M'Cracken mentioned during an evening meal at the Merion Hotel. Bert Norton and his mainstream faction now seemed to think that Alice Hraldy and her lieutenant Jane Polon were working some sort of scam. For that reason, Padraig wanted Astor and Wendy to avoid mentioning the heretics.
Norton had refrained from spelling out his suspicions in full, but Padraig's impression was that Norton believed that Hraldy was taking money from people, who then committed suicide in the belief that she would help them ‘go on through' to the other side. The enterprise sounded positively criminal to Astor but he decided to reserve judgement until he had met the ‘Official Wing' of the Talmy Group.
The group's headquarters turned out to be what had been a rich businessman's house in its own third of an acre of grounds. The place had been modified, extended, changed again and generally knocked into a shape that would be unrecognizable to the original architect. Astor's first impression, on passing through the front door, was one of comfortable space at a comfortable temperature and an atmosphere of noise-absorbed contemplation.
Bert Norton took the visitors into one of the reception rooms, which had a high ceiling, shadowless lighting and seemed to contain as many books as a minor town's public library. Coffee and an interesting array of decanters arrived as Norton and his visitors were arranging themselves around a table shaped like a four-leafed clover. Everyone agreed on coffee and brandy. There were no ashtrays on show.
Astor noted that the brandy was the good stuff, then he invited Norton to tell him what his ‘product' was, ignoring Wendy's look of outrage.
"The ‘product'," Norton said with a smile, "is our evidence of a subsequent plane of existence, an afterlife, if you will."
"Which is what?" frowned Astor. "Free beer and a good time for all eternity?"
"From what we've found out, it's not at all like the physical existence that we know now, or the traditional notions of an afterlife, such as the Christian Heaven and Hell or the Islamic Paradise or Nirvana. And only a limited number of people seem capable of ‘going on through' as we call it. Most people just come to a dead stop when they die. One of our Group's main objectives is to find out more about what this subsequent plane of existence is."
"And how to get there?" said Astor.
"I should think a means of improving one's chances of ‘going on through' would come out of the investigation of what's there. But before we get to that, we should be asking the important question of whether we want to go there. Or what sort of people the further plane of existence would suit. After all, there's no point in going somewhere if you're going to end up miserable or you could end up regretting it for, well, eternity. Or a very long time."
"Good point!" laughed Astor.
"Perhaps if you could talk Wendy and Pete through some of the things we've discussed," suggested M'Cracken.
"Yes, indeed," nodded Norton. "Where do I start?"
Rightly or wrongly, Astor gained the impression that Bert Norton wasn't working from a script that he had followed hundreds of times before with rich mugs. In fact, his feeling was that if the Talmy Group really was on to something, then its members were going about their research in a very sensible way. Of course, he knew that he was more inclined to believe they might be on to something in the light of his own special relationship with Kiron, a being from a quite different and separated plane of existence.
Astor found the notion of subsequent planes of existence for humans interesting at an intellectual level, especially as Wendy had been chasing that concept for most of her life. As Bert Norton talked, and tried to present his group's work in the best possible light, he became aware that Astor was showing a different sort of scepticism from that displayed by the usual run of prospective supporters.
The usual ‘punters', apart from those like Wendy Xanadu who desperately needed something to believe in, started off by doubting the possibility of a further plane of existence. Astor, on the other hand, seems to be comparing conclusions that he himself had reached with what Norton was telling him, as if hoping to find out if they were on the same or parallel tracks. Bert Norton concluded that Astor seemed to be a very bright prospect as far as financial support was concerned.
The Talmy Group charged people £100 to attend their lecture seminars. The fee was intended to support further research work. Astor's reflex scepticism took over when he learned that the group made contact difficult for outsiders in order to weed out people looking for a cheap night out.
Norton believed that sceptics or professional trouble-makers, such as journalists hoping to boost their publication's circulation with a good exposé story, should be made to pay their way. He was careful to stress that the whole research project might come to nothing while holding out the possibility of exciting things ahead.
There was a lecture arranged for that evening, and the guests were allowed to attend it without charge. About thirty people were gathered in another of the spacious, book-lined rooms, which contained a horseshoe shaped arrangement of very comfortable chairs with a lecture console at the focus of attention. Bert Norton showed his guests to three adjoining seats at the side of the horseshoe, then he moved to the console to join an assistant who, Pete Astor assumed, was there to do a warm-up routine.
The lecture was more of a progress report than a complete account of the group's aims and achievements to date. Members of the Talmy Group had been placed into electronically or chemically altered states of consciousness, and they had reported contacts with inhabitants of the subsequent frame of existence. Communications were difficult due to problems in establishing a common frame of reference. The other plane of existence seemed to be quite radially different from the one being experienced by Norton's audience.
Even so, the group had established the identities of several people who had ‘gone on through'. It was now engaged in extracting information which only these individuals would know, and which could be checked to prove that they were, indeed, still ‘alive' in some way and the whole business wasn't a hoax or self-delusion.
Norton's role at the meeting was to present the latest ‘evidence' and ask the audience how credible they found it, and how it could be checked to prove that it had come from a genuine contact and it wasn't just an invention of the experimental subject's subconscious, for instance.
Astor surprised Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken by coming away from the meeting without scoffing. They had found the evidence convincing to the point of needing further investigation. They had been expecting Astor to call them idiots for being taken in by some high-tech conjuring tricks.
Astor didn't think that his contacts with Kiron could be taken as any sort of evidence of a subsequent plane of existence, but he did know that Wendy had also contacted Kiron; and more or less as accidentally as his own first contact. It was interesting to hear that the Talmy Group was achieving the same sort of contacts –with humans on a subsequent plane of existence, with extra-dimensional beings pretending to be humans who had ‘gone on through', or with some twisted, self-delusional part of their own minds.
If anything, it was the breakaway group run by Alice Hraldy that sounded like the real con job. Padraig M'Cracken mentioned on the way home that the Hraldy Group were supposed to be working on ways to enlist the aid of those who had already ‘gone on through' to the other side to help get marginally qualified people ‘across' at the end of their lives on this plane of existence.
Wendy thought that his acceptance of the Talmy Group with an apparently open mind was just further evidence of either Pete Astor's general weirdness or his awkwardness. He could see that Wendy and Padraig M'Cracken were intrigued by the group's claims and that they would be looking at them more closely. Astor decided to use Wendy as a filter for the moment and wait until the Talmy Group showed her something to prove that their experiences were along the same lines as his own with Charm and Kiron.
Jane and Peter Vance had enjoyed separate and extended Christmas holidays in the United States, and both had spent a fortune. Now back in Europe, they were looking to build up a portfolio of claims for expenses, from which they could divert a healthy share for their own devious purposes.
Jane had not given up hope of laying her hands on Astor's copy of the Rixborough grimoire. Working independently from her brother, she had hired an ex-CIA agent, a friend of a friend, to carry out a thorough search of Astor's home. Her ferret had reported that there had been no sign of the grimoire. He had been unlucky enough to carry out his search on the day after Wendy had lent the volume to one of her friends.
The only thing out of the ordinary that the investigator had found was what he took to be a small stash of an exotic pharmaceutical. Jane Vance had shopped Astor to his local police by anonymous phone call to repay him for not having the grimoire in his possession. The resulting police raid had turned up Wendy's re-odourized Oxo cube.
The same idea had occurred to her brother a few days later. Peter had also realized that if he could lay his hands on the grimoire, any profits made out of the venture would belong to him alone. Peter Vance's investigator had assumed that Astor's stash of Charm was cocaine. Peter's anonymous phone call to the police had resulted in the raid on the day of Julie's arrival.
The investigators had also made copies of letters to Wendy from Bert Norton. The Vances had already carried out some research into the Talmy Group but its restrictive membership practices had sent them looking for more strikeable targets elsewhere while they carried out necessary research work.
The Vances knew that Pete Astor and Black Magic Rock music were nothing more than a useful way of running up expenses claims when nothing more threatening was available. The musicians didn't believe that they were spreading any sort of twisted evangelical message. They were doing a job of work and earning a living. The Talmy Group, on the other hand, was putting up a front of belief and posed more of a threat.
The Vances had rejoined forces with a view to being ready to take counter measures if the Talmy Group switched from being a private conspiracy to a more public danger. Peter Vance had changed their plans within a few days of their reunion. He brightened up a wet, January day in London by handing his sister a parcel as she was wondering what to do about entertainment for that evening.
"What's this? A late Christmas present?" said Jane.
"Why don't you open it and find out?" said Peter.
Jane found a pair of scissors and attacked plain brown paper sealed with transparent tape. She stared at two somewhat battered copies of the Rixborough grimoire when she had opened the parcel. "My God! You got the one off Astor? And another one?"
"No, I just walked into this little bookshop in Chelsea and there they were. The guy didn't know what they were. They were just old books to him. So I got one of them for twelve pounds and the other for eleven because it's more battered."
"I don't think we should turn them both in at once," Jane said thoughtfully. "I mean..."
"I'm way ahead of you, Sis," laughed Peter. "I heard there's a copy of this grimoire for sale by a dealer in Prague. So I'm heading on out there tomorrow. I reckon it's going to be a pretty expensive trip, too."
"Yeah?" laughed Jane, "well, I just heard there's one in Budapest, Hungary. But I guess it'll take a lot of finding."
Peter glanced at his watch. "So anyway, I'm meeting this guy who's going to clue me in on the places to see in the Czech Republic. So I'll see you around, Sis."
"Right," nodded Jane. "I wonder if the Orient Express goes through Hungary?"
Peter Vance returned to his own room, leaving his sister making her travelling plans. The experiment seemed to be going very well. And if it worked out, there was a lot more mileage to be had from it in the future.
Peter had decided to take a look at the M'Cracken Archive out of a curiosity which he knew that his sister would not share. Her idea of knowing the enemy did not extend to going to some suburb miles from civilization to look at a library. Jane's plan for the archive was to let it become established and then send in a team of specialists either to steal the more dangerous books or to burn the whole place down. She saw actually going there as a waste of her valuable time.
Peter had found the trip very rewarding. There was quite a large public access area at the front of the building, and he had found the staff friendly and informative. Entry to the library was permitted only to subscribers –somewhat like access to specialist on-line services. Members could choose to pay an annual subscription of £100 for unlimited access or £20 for a 30-day access period.
There was also a ‘shop' area in the entrance hall, which sold a multitude of softback booklets and a few hardback books. Peter was astonished to find a facsimile edition of the Rixborough grimoire on sale at a mere £22.50.
Through his astonishment had come the realization that his sister did not know about the reprint and the trustees of his uncle's estate most certainly didn't know about it either. He had also discovered, while browsing on the World Wide Web, that the archive had just established its own website.
Peter Vance knew that his sister and the trustees weren't net-heads like himself. He bought four copies of the grimoire and headed back into London with a plan forming. A trip to an Internet café for his lunch told him that anybody who bothered to look would find the news that the grimoire was on sale and freely available. As long as no one did bother to look, he would be all right.
Back at his hotel, he unwrapped one of the grimoires and discarded the dust jacket. He rubbed his hands on that day's edition of a local newspaper to get them good and inky, then he flicked though the pages of the book, handling all three open sides –top, right side and bottom –until the book had a well-read appearance. His aim was to take the newness off it and make the book look as if it had received a lot of use over the years – but careful use.
The reprinted grimoire contained an extra page with a printing history. Once that page had been carefully removed, there was no other indication that the grimoire was a facsimile rather than the genuine 19th Century edition. Of course, analysis of the paper and other materials would show it to be a 20th Century creation, but Peter Vance wasn't expecting the trustees to turn it in for laboratory analysis.
He completed his ageing process by dropping the book onto the tiles in his shower so that it landed on the edges of the hard covers. A little ‘distressing' with the sandpaper on a matchbox and some vigorous polishing with a handkerchief wrapped finger made the exterior of the book look as well-used as the pages.
By the time he had given another book the same treatment, the afternoon had flown. The second time around, he removed the additional page then he used a pencil to write an inscription in careful copper-plate script on the title page – All best wishes for the season, James. Christmas 1899. Then he cut out the title page too, more obviously, leaving the impression of his message available on the next page for anyone who wanted to indulge in a little detective work.
As he admired the fruits of his afternoon's labours, Peter Vance knew that the result of matching a distressed book costing thirty-some dollars with a suitable story would be to screw several thousand dollars in expenses money from the trustees of his uncle's estate.
He decided not to let Jane in on his secret until she had been through the process of taking a trip to some exotic part of Europe, or even further afield, and reporting ‘finding' a grimoire to the trustees. Peter wanted to find out just how convincing his artificially aged books were to someone who wanted to believe in them, and whether the trustees would notice anything wrong with them.
If neither Jane nor the trustees did notice anything wrong with them, then Peter could see the reprints as the key to a lot of touring the world on searches for copies of a dangerous book –trips which would have a guarantee of success attached to every one.
Visiting the archive had also made Peter decide that his sister's idea of an arson attack on the building was a bad idea. What they should be doing, Peter had realized, was to identify the people using it as a means of charting the spread of the evil influence of black magic.
The Vances would be able to skim a ton of money from a surveillance operation on the archive and the expense of identifying the owners of cars and following others to their homes if they used public transport. And building up a database on the people who used the archive, and their contacts, would provide the trustees with concrete ‘proof ' that the money had been well spent.
The scam with the books was something of a life-line as the trustees were being difficult over funding a compensation case against Kiron Sounds over the deaths of the young Black Magic Rock fans. The trustees had sought independent legal advice from a top firm in London and they had been told that there was a less than 50% chance of success. Unlike Jane and Peter Vance, the trustees felt obliged to make sure that the late Hobert Vance's money was spent only on worthwhile projects.
The Vances were used to such set-backs, but they hated to admit defeat. But the book scam would soften the blow. Even though he would not have admitted it under torture, Peter Vance was starting to look on Pete Astor as a benefactor. The musician was providing the Vances with a whole raft of channels through the defences around their uncle's legacy. And even better, Pete Astor wasn't taking a cut of the action.
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.