If the lights do go out,
If darkness enfolds you in a suffocating embrace,
Panic!!! While you've still got the breath to scream.
She may have been a double-millionaire for two whole days, but Pete Astor just knew that Caroline had been there since nine o'clock that morning when he arrived at the archive. It had taken him until five to twelve to get his act together on that Wednesday morning, and he had arrived in Croydon just in time to see the advance party leave for Italy with the equipment for the Drachensblut tour, which was scheduled to begin on Wednesday of the following week. The band members and their personal entourage would be leaving on Friday.
Astor travelled on the short distance to the M'Cracken Archive, where he found that the Data Section was developing into quite a busy empire. Two middle-aged women were typing hand-written material into the computer system, a girl who looked like she was bunking off school was feeding sheets of printed paper into a scanner and a balding man in a psychedelic sweater was editing documents at another workstation. Caroline, Astor assumed, was doing something clever with the database program.
"Is this a tour of inspection? In your capacity of Vice President In Charge Of Everything?" Caroline remarked when she noticed Astor.
"Nope, this is a take-you-up-on-your-offer visit," Astor told her. "I thought I'd have a trawl round the electronic archives and see how easy-to-use the system is."
"Are you looking for anything in particular? Or just browsing?"
"I just thought I'd see what you've got filed under Kiron," Astor said casually.
"Oh, yes, there's quite a lot. I used that as a search word myself a while ago. Use the green station."
"Right." Astor settled himself in front of a monitor in a dark green plastic case and a matching keyboard. The archive had shunned the routine computer equipment shades of beige in favour of dark shades of red, green, blue and orange, and also uncompromising black.
Half an hour later, Astor was feeling overwhelmed with conflicting information. Before getting to Kiron, he had come across a couple of references to a demon called Asotr, which had started him thinking about dyslexic fortune tellers and wonky crystal balls and whether everyone in the world had a personal anagram demon, given the sheer number of entries in the index file.
Secret writings though the ages contained a large number of references to spirits, demons, etcetera called Kiron. A lot of the writers had nothing good to say about him or it. At best, historical Kirons supplied riches and their protection for as long as their human agents were useful. At worst, they were treacherous and demanding and, ultimately, lethal.
Astor told himself that he had no reason to suppose that there was any connection between his Kiron and the ravings of ancient alchemists and mystics. At the same time, he couldn't help but wonder what he had got himself into.
The lesson of history, he knew, is that no one learns from history. If the past told him anything, it was that he was likely to end up bitter, twisted and meeting his own horrible end. But as he had never expected anything other than a short but eventful life, he had been heading that way anyway.
On the other hand, Astor knew, if people are on to a good thing, they tend to keep quiet about it and keep it to themselves. But if they get burned, they can take their revenge in writing about their misfortunes. Which was no help in working out if he was deluding himself. And yet, he tended to feel that if he was in any danger, it was more likely to come from other deluded people, such as militant Christians, than from his consistent hallucinations.
Astor started violently when a hand touched his shoulder and he became aware of a room full of people again.
"Sorry. Absorbed in it?" laughed Padraig M'Cracken.
Astor swung his chair round. "You know what us academics are like. Off in our own little world. Something I can do you for?"
"I was just wondering if you've heard the news about Philip Hallan?" M'Cracken claimed an adjacent chair and kept his voice at an intimate murmur.
"Ah, no. What?"
"There was an arson attack on his home last night. I just heard he died in hospital about an hour ago. He got out of the fire but he had a heart attack."
"Shit! Do they know who did it?"
"Some militant Christian group phoned their local radio station after it was on the national news but before his death was announced. Probably just trying for some free publicity."
"So what happened, exactly?"
"A couple of gallons of petrol through the letterbox and something to touch it off. Plus another fire round the back. Looks like it was a pretty determined effort to burn the whole place down."
"Just like the other fire he had?"
"Yes," nodded M'Cracken. "I imagine the police are trying to find connections between the two cases. It certainly looks like whoever was behind it had a very personal grudge against him. Or the stuff he published."
"I suppose all that's gone up in smoke now?"
"Actually, no. It could well be nothing much has been lost. We lent him a scanner and a better computer to help him get all his personal reference material into an editable form. And he's been sending us extra back-up copies for storage. In fact, we had some delivered only this morning, along with the original documents and a note saying he was up to date with the scanning and he could crack on with the real job of organizing and editing now. So, luckily, if someone was trying to destroy the information, they didn't succeed."
"Luck being a relative term," remarked Astor.
"Quite," nodded M'Cracken. "So anyway, we're in a bit of a mess now over the copyright situation. Until we find out who his next of kin is and cut some deal."
"I certainly think he'd appreciate Philip Hallan memorial editions of the stuff he was working on, if you're planning to compete them?"
"Yes, I was thinking that myself," nodded M'Cracken.
"Bastard, isn't it? Life?" said Astor.
"But it's all we've got while it lasts, Pete," M'Cracken told him wisely. "Checking up on another copyright?"
The document on Astor's monitor screen was an English translation of a modern Greek translation of an Arabic text. It was full of praise for a generous spirit called Xpov, which the database program had identified as a match to Kiron. The spirit conjured up by the Arab in his drug-induced trances was supposed to have made him lucky. Astor had decided to end his research with the long-dead Arab, letting him have the final word on his benefactor.
"Just looking," said Astor.
"Checking out your company's name? You'll find most of the names of the entities in the literature are Greek or Arabic because those people were their first human contacts and they transliterated what they heard into their own language. Everyone coming after them was pre-conditioned to assume that the names would be Greek or Arabic-sounding. In fact, if the name they give isn't, that's usually a sign the author's not very well read."
"So you reckon a modern necromancer might be told his entity's name is Fred? Or Mr. Jackson?"
"Why not? A name is just a label, an alternative to saying, 'Hey, you!' all the time. Quite interesting creatures, EDLs," M'Cracken added.
"Go on, I'll buy it," Astor invited. "What's an EDL?"
"Extra-Dimensional Lifeforms. Lots of which are called Kiron. Almost like Humans called Robinson. A common name but not as common as Smith. I was reading something the other day about human-EDL contacts, which can be directed toward creating something called a Sotir. That's a form of energy field, apparently. Creation of the Sotir leads to very great benefits for the human member of the partnership."
"And...?" Astor said into a pause.
"That was as far as it went," M'Cracken admitted. "Hello, Andy. Checking us out?"
"Andy Clark of the Talmy Group had lost most of the hair on top of his head and he had tried to make up for the loss by growing the rest long and cultivating a straggling beard. He had struck Astor as one of the more laid-back of a generally weird bunch.
"Looking into swaps of copies of source material," nodded Clark. "We may be able to do each other a lot of good over spare copies of the sort of material you'd never see in a sale. Are you into exotic religions, Peter?"
"I tend to go along with Karl Marx and 'opium of the people' on that," said Astor. "You can get through life without spending time wondering if this is all there is, or if life has a higher purpose. And if it's a supreme being screwing up your life when you thought it was the government all along."
"An optional extra, Peter?"
"Right. If you're the sort of person who asks, 'Okay, what am I going to do with myself now?' Then you might turn to religion if you've really got nothing to do. But if you're the sort of person who says, 'Right, which one of these half dozen things am I going to do next?' Knowing there's always going to be lots you have to leave undone because you'll never have the time to do everything, that sort of person doesn't need religion. Because it's a time-eater that would deflect them from things they need to do or things they really want to do."
"On the other hand, what we're trying to achieve may just address part of the time problem. If we consider the possibility that flesh and blood is a transitory instrument, which can be replaced by another state, something more enduring, if one knows how to achieve the transition, in that more enduring state, who knows how much more someone could achieve?"
"Assuming the things you want to achieve in the flesh-and-blood world don't become irrelevant after this transition."
"But couldn't we make a safe assumption that a creative person in what you call the flesh-and-blood world is likely to be as creative in another plane of existence?"
Astor shrugged. "You can make any sort of assumptions you like. What we're short of is a way to check them out."
"Except that making our leap of confidence could well be all the proof anyone would need," Clark said with a smile.
"Looks like a circular argument to me," said M'Cracken.
"Could be," said Astor. "And I have to get to the bank. So I'll leave you two to your horse-trading."
"I might as well show you the system on this work-station if Pete's got it up and running," said M'Cracken. "And we have Caroline over there, our resident expert, if we get stuck."
"That's one thing we have in common," nodded Clark. "A proper organization of people who know what they're doing."
Right! thought Astor as he headed for the door. Real people like Cazzer doing the real work and a bunch of weirdos doing their thing round the edges. There's a lot of it about.
The phone call from his father came a whole day after Pete Astor had transferred the island-money to his father's bank account. He had also sneaked another million into his mother's personal account, knowing that she kept her chequebook so well balanced that she rarely looked at a statement.
"Decimal points, Pete," his father told him after they had exchanged greetings.
"Huh?" said Astor blankly.
"I think you've lost one."
"Can I go out and come in again?" said Astor. "What are we talking about?"
"You've given me ten million pounds instead of eight hundred thousand. For the island."
"Oh, right. No, I meant to give you ten mil."
"What for? An early Christmas present?"
"Just in case you've seen anything else that needs buying. There's no bargains where I am."
"Oh, right. Funny you should say that. I was just reading about an estate with its own castle. Going for about five million. Or near offer. One of the guys who's working with me on the island project reckons it'll need a couple of million more spent on it to get it in decent shape, but it's a dead bargain otherwise."
"You reckon you could manage another castle on top of your other commitments?" Astor was amused to find his father making the transition from rich to seriously rich with his usual effortlessness.
"Probably. Most of what I do is always going to be overview admin stuff. With the serious stuff delegated to people who can handle it. It's not leaving you short, at all?"
"Not so's you'd notice. The music business is doing well."
"You want to come up here and have a look at the island, you know."
"Can't I wait till it's warmer? But I don't suppose it ever gets what you'd call warm in Scotland, does it?"
"Tell Wendy she's invited too. And I'll need you here to sign bits of paper as half-owner of the island, anyway."
"Can't you just put it all in your own name?"
"It makes more sense inheritance tax-wise. I'm not getting any younger, Pete."
"Join the club. Okay. I'll speak to Wendy and get back to you, Dad."
"What are you going to speak to me about?" said Wendy, joining Astor in his music room as he was hanging up the phone.
"We ought to call you radar-ears. My dad wants us to go to Scotland to see his island. And he's got plans to buy another castle."
"I can just see you Astors owning half of Scotland before you're finished."
"What, and evicting all the natives for a laugh? Maybe if we win the lottery a few more times. I must say, I'm amazed by Cazzer's honesty, bringing that winning ticket round here. If it had been me, I'd have cashed it in and shot off to the Argentine."
"I don't think she thought it through that far. She just reacted in a state of shock. And luckily for you, her instinct is to be honest."
"What d'you mean, luckily for me? If she'd run off with the dosh, all it would have cost me is another quid for another winning ticket."
"Yeah, right! A third win." Wendy abandoned that particular line conversation as pointless. "When are we going to Scotland?"
"I've got some gigs this weekend."
"Okay, we'll go next Tuesday. I must say, your dad's a lot more inventive than you."
Astor frowned. "Meaning what?"
"Your best idea for doing something epic was arranging a happening - like a pub with a fruit machine that pays out too many jackpots."
"So? The idea's got everything needed to get human beings jumping about. Excitement, tension, anger, aggro, death!"
"Or you were going to buy some gold dust and a shotgun and do some salting and start a gold-rush somewhere like the Peak District," mocked Wendy.
"Greed, claim-jumping, aggro, death!" listed Astor. "The papers would have loved it."
"Or you were going to put a million pounds in an impressive heap with floodlights and take people like Bee there blindfolded and show them the dosh. And tell them they can have as much as they can carry, if they want all the problems of being rich. And if they're not afraid of being mugged, raped or killed on the way home."
"Yeah, well, I thought that was a particularly a good idea," Astor said defensively.
"And putting signs on closed shops saying things like: Opening Soon! Vegetarian Butcher?"
"An idea with many possibilities," Astor told his friend even more defensively.
"I think all that money's wasted on someone like you."
"Oh, yeah? And how many castles, theatres and recording studios have you bought, mate?"
"I'm not into possessions."
"So that custom-made van in the garage isn't really yours?"
"I'm not going to argue with you."
"Just as well. You always lose, then you get peevish."
"We'll go to Scotland next Tuesday." Wendy ignored the slur. "Because you're never awake on Mondays. I suppose I'd better book the flights. It'll be a good test of my fur-lined boots, going to the frozen wastes of Scotland in March."
"I hope this island's got central heating," said Astor.
"Doorbell," Wendy said in response to a long ringing noise.
"I'd never have guessed," mocked Astor as he pushed out of his chair and headed for the stairs.
"'Morning, sir," said a man of about his own age, whom Astor found in the porch when he opened the front door. "Detective Chief Inspector Haldane. And this is Detective Sergeant Miln."
"Okay, where's yer sodding warrant?" sighed Astor as he reached for his mobile. "And what's happened to DI Fiend?"
"Warrant?" said the visitor blankly.
"And where's the meeja pack?" Astor added, looking past him through the glass of the porch door.
"Meeja pack?" repeated the chief inspector.
"And how come there's only two of you?"
"Can we start again, sir?" said DCI Haldane. "I'm from Norwich and I want to talk to you about your dealings with the late Mr. Philip Hallan, the publisher."
"You're not here on a drug bust?" said Astor suspiciously.
"Wouldn't it be better to talk inside, sir?"
"Actually, I'm not bothered about the neighbours seeing coppers on my doorstep. We have this local DI coming round with bent warrants on a more or less daily basis."
"Yes, sir, I have heard about your encounters with DI Farne. I'd like to speak to Miss Xanadu as well."
"Right, you'd better come in, then."
Astor showed the visitors to the kitchen, putting them in range of the coffee machine, then he went to the stairs and called "Wezzer, it's the phuzz, come to bust you."
Although he wasn't used to people treating him quite so casually, DCI Haldane managed to keep the interview at a fairly friendly level. He was interested in finding out who Philip Hallan's friends and business associates were, and whether there was any ill-feeling between them. He had already interviewed Padraig M'Cracken and Tom Maddox, and he was seeing Pete Astor and Wendy Xanadu more or less for the sake of completeness.
They could tell him only that they had met the late Mr. Hallan just once, and that they were interested in, rather than active parties to, the publishing programme that Padraig M'Cracken had hoped to organize with the late Mr. Hallan.
Resupplied with coffee and fruit cake, if very little in the way of useful information, the chief inspector and his sergeant went on their way after half an hour.
"Notice how they asked all those questions about Padraig?" Astor remarked as he and Wendy were heading back to his music room.
"What do you make of it?" Wendy invited.
"I reckon they were hoping we'd tell them Padraig was having problems with old Hallan and he had him done in as part of a plan to gain control of all his documents."
"You reckon?" scoffed Wendy.
"Sure. That's the way the devious police mind works. And if you've got any doubts about their deviousness, look at how our local phuzz keep pretending we're major drug dealers."
"Maybe we should give Padraig a ring to warn him."
"I should think he's probably sussed it out for himself," said Astor. "But it can't hurt."
The rest of the week held just one more surprise. Wendy joined the Dead Junkies on stage during their Sunday gig to perform a couple of her favourite Jefferson Airplane numbers and revive her creditable impression of Grace Slick. It was a plot that she had hatched with the other musicians, and they had managed to kept the rehearsals secret from Astor. Wendy's performance told Astor that she was now in that dangerous emotional phase where she was over her busted romance with Jeff and available for another one. She was certainly a lot more relaxed and enjoying life more than in the last couple of months.
The visit to Clive Astor's island began conventionally enough on a chartered jet to Prestwick near Ayr. A helicopter completed the journey and passed over a lot of very uninviting, grey sea and between some impressive mountains. Their pilot gave them an aerial tour of the island when they arrived. According to the map, it was about five miles long from north to south and four miles across at its widest. There were mountains in the north-east and the south-west, and the highest peak was around four hundred metres above sea level.
Segir had three settlement areas, two on either side of a bay in the south-eastern corner, whose mouth was guarded by a smaller island called Huill, and a third behind the northern mountains at the end of a road that just petered out when it reached the buildings. There was another bay at the north-western corner of the island. Wendy was sure that she could see seals lounging about in the bay but the weather was rather too grim and grey to encourage messing about on beaches and harassing the local wildlife.
The pilot flew back along the road, heading for the house at its northern limit. Astor invited him in for a pit stop and a snack before he started his flight back to the mainland. Clive Astor greeted the pilot like an old friend and ushered the group into an enclosed garden at the heart of the house - an atrium that was well reinforced against Scottish storms.
"Well, what do you reckon?" he asked when the visitors had shed their cold-weather and flying gear.
"It looks great," said Wendy.
"Just right for a loud party," nodded Pete. "No problems with the neighbours if they're three miles down the road."
"This is Mrs. McTigh," added Clive as a woman left the kitchen area with a tray. "She's my resident housekeeper and ambassador general. She gets a word in on my behalf when the locals start speaking Gaelic."
"Sounds a useful person to have around," said Pete, deciding that the housekeeper, a fiftyish widow, looked tough enough to be a Mafia boss. "So you've actually bought the place? Or is it still on thirty days' free approval?"
"We've got some bits of paper to sign yet," said his father, "but my solicitor's got a legally binding, non-gazumpable contract in his filing system, so there's no going back by either party without things getting quite expensive. That's the big advantage of the Scottish system."
"When's the grand signing ceremony?" said Wendy.
"It's planned for tomorrow, weather permitting. The harbour's nice and sheltered for landings but things can get quite hairy on the way here."
"What have you done with Jules?" said Pete. "Chained her up in the cellar to keep her out of mischief?"
"She's off with Erica, having an unofficial look at the castle I was telling you about," said his father. "To spot the things they don't want the buyer so see."
"Spies, eh? What do you do about electricity here? Have you got your own nuclear power plant?" Pete added.
"Actually, the island's quite a hot-bed of experiments in alternative energy sources," said Clive. "There are tidal generators anchored in the bay just over there, and we've got windmills too. We use about ten per cent of what we generate and export the rest. And I've been talking to the Highlands and Islands Development Agency about more wave-power experiments."
Pete smiled internally. His father was busy organizing things again. If he could get the development agency organized, he was about to become a focus for natural energy conversion research on behalf of small islands everywhere.
The pilot made his excuses after twenty minutes. He wanted to make a start for his home base before the weather had a chance to turn nasty on him. Pete found himself entrusted with the task of taking all the luggage up to their bedrooms, of which there were eight for guests. His father and Wendy began the tour of the house, which had a roughly octagonal shape around the atrium garden.
"There's this huge tabby cat sleeping on my bed," Pete reported when he found them in the combined office and computer room.
"Oh, yes, we have five of them lurking about the premises," said his father. "They come with the property."
"Define huge," said Wendy.
"You've got big, enormous, vast and then huge. And this cat is huge, man," Pete told her.
"Bollocks!" laughed Wendy.
"No, that's Hamish," said Clive. "He is pretty enormous, and he's got claws that can rip tree-trunks to bits. But he's very friendly."
"They're certainly a tough lot, these Scots," said Pete.
"The secret of getting in with them is to show a common purpose," said his father.
"To do that, you've got meet them," said Pete. "How do you get about? You're not exactly concrete city, road-wise."
"We've got these three-wheelers with balloon tyres. Off-road vehicles. As well as the usual Range Rovers and their clones," said Clive. "And we have a pretty advanced phone system. The last owner was a bit of a telecommunications buff. He put in satellite links and all sorts."
"Don't the natives think it's a work of the Devil?" laughed Pete.
"I think you'll find us pretty well civilized," a female voice said behind him. "I'm away down to see my sister, now, Clive."
"Okay, Beth," said Clive. "Yes, I was quite impressed with the support I got for bringing in even more modern technology when I first met the people here. They're all keen to survive where they are, even if it means changing their ways."
"So you're going to enjoy your Dr. Livingstone act?" said Pete. "Are you going to have time for your present castle? And this new one you were talking about?"
"We'll see," said Clive with a confident smile.
One advantage of living far from cities was the lack of light pollution of the night sky. Clive Astor promised a spectacular display of stars, with the Milky Way visible, if the clouds ever lifted. They remained solidly in place through the night and into the next morning, and fairly active, but the house seemed perfectly weather-proof
The village was situated at the most sheltered part of the bay and it seemed quite a busy place on a morning of light showers. Wendy wanted to see the lighthouse first, which stood at the other end of the road, at the southern tip of the island. The Astors and Wendy toiled up the stairs and they were looking out at the island that guarded the bay when a mobile phone began to ring.
Clive Astor looked at his son. "Sounds like yours, Pete."
"Mobiles work here?" said Pete in disbelief.
"Telecommunications buff, Pete," said Wendy. "Didn't you see the satellite ground station?"
Astor directed his disbelief at Wendy as he switched the mobile on. "Pete Astor?"
"Kevin David here, sir. I trust this isn't an inconvenient time for you?"
"No, we're just up a lighthouse at the moment. What can I do you for?" said Astor.
"Actually, I have some news for you. There's no cause for alarm, but someone tried to burn your house down last night."
"Fortunately, I happened to be on the premises. I was returning a book I'd borrowed, and as there was a full Moon, I hadn't bothered to switch the light on. As I could see where I was going. Then I smelled petrol. Someone was pouring it through the letterbox. So I switched the hall light on."
"Bet that gave him a shock."
"Indeed, sir. I heard a scream in the porch and I saw flames reflected in the window over the door. As luck would have it, I was standing right next to one of the carbon dioxide fire extinguishers you installed. So I squirted it at the bottom of the door to make sure the flames didn't come under the door and set fire to the hall carpet.
"Then the fire extinguisher started to run out. I was wondering what to do next when I realized the porch was dark again. So I got another fire extinguisher and opened the door. The doormat had been on fire and the paint on the front door and the porch door was blistered, and there was soot overhead in the porch. But, luckily, there was no sign of the arsonist."
"The bastard had legged it?"
"I assume so. So I switched the power and the central heating off, as the whole house was stinking of petrol by then, and I phoned the police. Who brought the fire brigade to make the place safe."
"Bloody hell!" said Astor. "You deserve a medal."
"So the situation now is that I'm trying to air the house to get rid of the last traces of the petrol smell. And you're going to need a new hall carpet. And the porch redecorated. And the police want to talk to you."
"Did you tell them where I am?"
"Roughly. I'm not exactly sure myself. It was a Detective Sergeant Flint in charge of the case."
"Not my old mate Inspector Fiend?"
"I should imagine he wishes the house went up in flames, sir," chuckled David. "Mr. Flint left a number in case you called me."
"Okay. I'll probably be back tomorrow. Can you hold the fort till then?"
"No problem, sir."
"In the meantime, I should think of something big that I can buy you. You're on one hell of a big bonus for services rendered."
"One does one's best, sir."
"What was all that about?" said Wendy as Astor switched his mobile off.
"How do you fancy moving to an island or a castle somewhere?" said Astor. "Some bastard just tried to burn our house down."
"You what?" said his father.
Astor amazed an audience of two with a brief recap of Kevin David's story.
"So you've got a houseful of coppers?" said his father. "I hope you haven't got any contraband they could find."
"What, with Inspector Fiend busting us every five minutes?" scoffed Wendy.
"Good point," nodded Clive Astor. "One big advantage of living here is you get plenty of warning of the phuzz coming over from the mainland. And there's millions of little nooks and crannies near the house where you could stash tons of stuff, so you don't need to have it on the premises. So what's your next move, Pete?"
"Get some security guards in and tell Comrade Flint I want twenty-four hour protection."
"You won't get it," scoffed Wendy.
Pete shrugged. "One can but try."
DS Flint was out 'on inquiries' when Astor tried to contact him by phone. The effort made, he decided to leave the next move up to the police.
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.