They called you a genius.
Is that what you want?
Have you got what it takes?
A somewhat wind-swept solicitor arrived by boat in the early afternoon. Pete Astor supplied signatures where indicated and became the half-owner of the island. The takeover was the signal for an open party in the modest village pub that lasted well into the blackness of another wet, Scottish night.
The helicopter arrived at lunchtime the next day, about half an hour after Pete Astor had crawled out of bed. It unloaded some supplies and took off with two passengers after the pilot had enjoyed a free lunch. Another chartered jet whisked the travellers to the south.
Wendy found herself playing chicken as she aimed Astor's car for their drive. The other motorist slowed down just when she was on the point of braking, allowing her the right of way. Astor recognized DS Flint when the detective unfolded himself from the other vehicle.
"Have a good time?" remarked Flint as he joined them on the drive.
"Yes, thanks," said Astor. "Watch what you say with the enemy about," he added to Wendy.
"Which paper does he work for?" said Wendy.
"No, he's the Handcuff Mafia, not a reptile."
"Oh, that sort of enemy."
"Got lots of enemies, has he?" Flint asked Wendy.
"Too many for the rest of us to keep track of them," she replied.
"I hear we missed all the excitement while we were away?" Astor added.
"We got the bloke, you know," said Flint.
"And he said I set it up for the insurance money?" scoffed Astor.
"He's not saying anything now. He died in hospital a couple of hours ago."
"He did a good job of setting fire to himself?"
"It was more the crash he had when he was making his getaway. Anyway, it was the same bloke who did the job on Philip Hallan in Norfolk. We found some computer stuff he must have lifted when he was there."
"Are you coming in?" said Wendy. "It's nearly as cold as Scotland this afternoon."
"That's because there's no clouds," said Flint. "All the heat leaks out into space. You have to go in round the back. The front's still out of action."
"So what was this guy's motive?" Astor asked as they set off down the side of the house.
Flint shrugged. "He couldn't talk much. And he wouldn't say who paid him to do the jobs. We're sure it wasn't his idea, though. We're pretty sure he did it for a living. As I said, he's tied to the jobs here and in Norfolk on the forensic."
Astor found his back door key. "How's our pal Inspector Fiend taking the news? Cursing and swearing because the arsonist screwed up?"
"A good way to get up his nose is to mention Oxo cubes," laughed Flint.
"What, they've analyzed Wendy's alleged stash?" laughed Astor. "Anyone got the goods on his pal the bent magistrate yet?"
"Inquiries are proceeding," said Flint.
"We'll take that as a no," said Wendy. "So what happens next? About this case?"
"I take you down the station and show you a picture of the bloke and ask you if you've ever seen him. I also ask you if you can think of anyone who's got it in for you enough to want to burn your house down."
"The answer to question two is no," said Astor. "It has to be some nutter. I should start with the Pope and work down through the Church hierarchy to TV evangelists and crooks like that. Can you smell petrol?"
"Not any more," said Flint. "Lucky your batman was on the spot."
"That's like saying Manchester was lucky because the IRA bomb didn't kill anyone," scoffed Astor. "I'd define real luck as a bomb's detonator not going off. Or my arsonist having a fatal car crash on his way here. Are we having some coffee?"
"Sounds good," said Flint. "Is it true you've got D'Iem Hadar doing a gig at the Astoria?"
"Might be." Astor spooned ground coffee into the machine.
"Who do you have to grease up to get a ticket?"
"What, is this a copper offering to do me an unofficial favour? Like losing the evidence if our mate Inspector Fiend gets a legal bust on me?"
"Maybe not that much of a favour. Have you ever been to one of their gigs?"
"And would you say it's as mind-blowing as an Intoxicant gig when they do The Portal?"
"I don't suppose the tickets will be on sale through the usual channels?"
"No, they've got a subscription list. They just find who had the last ticket for the last gig, then they go to the next name on the list and keep on offering tickets until they're sold out. It's going to cost a couple of hundred quid even for the cheap seats at the Astoria. But we might be able to smuggle the odd local phuzz in as extra security, if you're interested."
"Does a fish need a bicycle?" said Flint.
"So what's the story on this magistrate?"
"You didn't get this from me, but there's a bit of a history. Farne did him a favour - something within his discretion, but he had to choose to use it. And the magistrate is grateful."
"So now he knocks out dodgy warrants for Inspector Fiend on demand?" said Wendy.
"Not quite," said Flint.
"But pretty much?" said Astor.
"I've got a good mind to ring the bastard up and yell Oxo down the phone," laughed Astor.
"Ladies first," said Wendy.
"Yeah, well, do it when I'm not around, okay? Or even out of the country." said DS Flint. "Does the name Lihmahl mean anything to you?"
"I've been approached by some outfit called the Lihmahl Support Group," said Astor. "Why, do you think they're behind the arson attacks?"
"What sort of terms are you on with them?"
Astor shrugged. "Pretty much 'hello, how are you?' terms. Why, are they dangerous nutters rather than just nutters?"
"We don't know for sure. I heard there's some pretty heated correspondence with them on Philip Hallan's computer. The Norwich mob have got both sides because he used a scanner to put their letters to him on the machine as well as his letters to them."
"What was his problem with them?" said Wendy.
"Basically, he reckoned they're a bunch of charlatans. You've not said anything like that to them?"
"Nope," said Astor. "I suspect they may be planning to ask me for a donation but we've not got to that stage yet."
"What about your private eye? Tom Maddox? Has he checked them out for you?"
"I've not had anything back from him."
"What does that mean?"
"He hasn't found out anything worth telling me."
"Right. Can we head on down to the station now? Get your statements sorted out?"
"How serious are you about this Lihmahl bunch?" said Wendy.
"To be honest with you," said Flint, "we have so few definite leads, we're just chasing down anything to see where it goes. We're got your guy in the frame for quite a few arson cases - all where the owner of the property didn't pay to have it burned down. The bloke kept a few newspaper cuttings as a sort of personal CV, but he must have been paid in cash and he didn't keep a list of his clients."
Astor found the media pack waiting for him when he and Wendy emerged from the police station after supplying a string of negatives. He told the gathered reporters that they were seeing hubris in action.
After slagging the police off for all the random drug busts, he had been forced to go crawling off to them because some bastard had tried to torch his house. Worse, any Indignants of Warleigh who had been burgled recently were bound to write more letters of complaint to the local paper about Pete Astor receiving more than his fair share of police resources.
The story lacked the polish of one of Nick's press releases but it was one that appealed to the reporters. Astor considered ringing them to ask for commission the next day, when he found that his quotations made up most of the articles printed. Then he gave his attention to more deserving matters.
Kevin David was amazed when Astor showed him the policy on the house to prove that his reward amounted to 15% of the insured value. Astor had got rid of millions with no trouble at all but smaller sums seemed to require some selling.
After an afternoon at the recording studio, Pete Astor was wondering if there was anything that he could do to take him up to dinner-time when the phone rang. Tom Maddox was having problems.
"I've had a strange experience," he told Astor. "It started when I got a phone call telling me to keep my nose out."
"Of what?" said Astor.
"The bloke didn't say. I asked him a couple of times but he just kept telling me to keep my nose out of other people's business or I'll be in deep dog-shit."
"Isn't that illegal under the EU's fair trade and fair access to trade regulations?" Astor assumed from Maddox's relaxed tone that he wasn't taking the threat seriously.
"The guy rang off before I could tell him that," laughed Maddox. "Guess what happened next."
"Someone chucked half a brick through your window?"
"Close. I found what looked like a bomb in my car."
"Looked like?" repeated Astor.
"At the time, it looked real enough. But the guy from the bomb squad said it was just a couple of sticks of mocked-up dynamite, not explosive, connected by a whole bunch of wires to a black box with nothing in it."
"Sort of a warning? Next time, the real bomb?"
"That was the idea, I suppose. Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Right after the call, I checked over the house, but there was no sign anyone had been in. And I would have known if they had. Then I remembered the car, which was sitting in the drive because I had to go out again after lunch."
"So you got your threat at lunchtime?"
"Right. So when I found the 'bomb', I shot back into the house to phone the local police. And I'd just picked up the receiver when I had the mad idea. As you know, I record all in-coming calls in case they're business, so I had this guy's voice on tape. So I thought I might as well dial 1471."
"What, in case the guy was phoning from his home?" laughed Astor.
"Just to see if there was a number. And there was."
"You're telling me this guy was dope enough to make a threatening phone call and let you find out his number?"
"He may have just borrowed the phone. Or made the call without the owner's permission."
"True," Astor admitted.
"So anyway, my local police are checking the whole thing out. The phone number, the dummy bomb, and they'll have a voice-print from my tape. So I might even find out which job the guy was trying to warn me off."
"Very strange," laughed Astor. "Let me know if anything comes of it." As he replaced his receiver, he decided that he could indulge in a quick Charm excursion to make a progress report to Kiron. A contact would also give him an opportunity to check up on the state of his luck.
"Yes, Pete, you're getting general protection as a matter of course," Kiron told him when Astor had supplied the details to date of the D'Iem Hadar gig and then moved on to more personal matters. "I'm rather surprised you haven't asked for more than you've had in that line, personal benefits. Your species usually does."
"What, like health, wealth, eternal youth and power over all the women I can handle?"
"Something like that," laughed Kiron.
"You mean you can make any woman I fancy beat a path to my door?" said Astor sceptically.
"We can make you more attractive, but only at a general level, as I said. Luckier, more protected, a brighter aura, and so on. But not as applied to a specific individual."
"What about the lottery wins? They were pretty specific."
"They were still covered by what we term the general."
"And you're okay about what you're getting out of the deal?"
"At least as okay as you are about it. Why, are you starting to wonder if I'm paying you peanuts for something of immense value? That's another direction your species takes."
"Yeah, I've read the Arabian Nights. But if I've got no way of telling I'm being paid in peanuts in relative terms, and if I'm happy enough with my peanuts, who cares?"
"I have a feeling you really don't, Pete."
"Life's not long enough to do any serious worrying about things you can't guess at. One thing I was going to ask you. Will you both get a hit from the Gems gig? You and Valefor?"
"That's something we've discussed without getting to a firm conclusion. We believe you have what could be called a certain catalytic and focussing action. Your way of working for us is certainly entirely different from that of the members of D'Iem Hadar, for instance. But the honest answer is we're not sure how you do what you do. So Valefor will 'get a hit' and I might. We'll just have to suck it and see, as your species says."
"How many more legends have your species got working for you?"
"In the rock music field, just D'Iem Hadar and yourself, Pete. Members of your species who can contact us and make a directed interchange of benefits come along perhaps three or four times in a generation. And most of them tend to have a personality that becomes severely unstable when confronted by a species as different as ours. To be honest, most of them start perceiving us as a threat of one sort or another. Perhaps things will improve as your Age of Science develops, but we're not feeling too optimistic."
"Oh, well, enjoy it while it lasts, that's my motto," said Astor as the sense of vastness began to shred at the edges. "Let's just keep on trucking and see where it gets us."
Pete Astor happened to be looking out of his bedroom window on Saturday afternoon, wondering whether he could have the moron with the loud car radio assassinated, when he spotted a black cab turning into his drive. The passenger had paid off the cab by the time Astor reached the front door. He found himself looking at a grey-haired man of his father's age and a lot of luggage.
"I thought some idiot had tried to burn this place to the ground, Pete," remarked Jim Collier, Wendy's father.
"Yeah, this is just a façade to fool the neighbours," said Astor. "How the hell are you, Jim?"
"Struggling on, you know. In need of a bit of floor to crash on, if you've got some to spare." Like Clive Astor, Jim Collier belonged to the cool, unflappable school.
"We can always give you Wendy's annex and make her sleep on the floor. Let me give you a hand with the bags."
"Careful with that one. It's got some liquid souvenirs for you two."
"Great." Astor picked up the case with due reverence and took it into the house, calling Wendy's name and demanding her presence.
The party began right away and lasted through the weekend. Jim Collier had read about the arson attack in a discarded copy of the Daily Mail and, feeling quite wealthy after his assault on the Euro-money Mountain, he had hurried over to Warleigh to make sure that everyone was all right.
His illusion of wealth evaporated when Astor casually passed him a cheque for two million pounds and told him that it was the going rate for chunks of his lottery win. Jim Collier's cool was blown as thoroughly as Clive Astor's had been. In fact, it was only a long discussion on the phone with his old friend that convinced him that young Pete wasn't having him on.
Hearing that Clive Astor now owned a castle and a Scottish island, and that Pete was running a serious musical empire, damaged Jim's cool even more. He was still looking as if his grip on reality had been shattered and tacked loosely back together again when a taxi arrived on Monday morning to take him to Gatwick for his flight to Scotland and a reunion with his old mate Clive Astor.
The D'Iem Hadar gig at the Astoria had been arranged for Bathin's Eve, a festival that Pete Astor had never heard of before, which fell on March 29th. Two weeks before the big day, Astor accepted an invitation from Dave Briggett to drive over to his country mansion cum music workshop to see how a legend lived. He let Caroline be his driver for the day as she had become quite a fan of the Gems after consuming his CDs of the band comprehensively.
Caroline's van travelled about half-way to the coast along the A22 before she turned off to the east. The house stood on a low hill in about five acres of grounds and it had an imposing set of electrically operated front gates and the usual array of surveillance cameras. Astor was expecting to have to stop to announce himself, or to show his face to the cameras, but the gates opened as the van neared them and Caroline drove straight in. "Very posh," she remarked as she followed the winding, tree-lined drive.
"Are you going to buy a place like this for yourself?" said Astor. "Now you're a double-millionaire?"
"A bit of a long way to drive to work, Pete."
"Millionaires don't have to work."
"True. And I suppose you can't call this working."
"This is PR work, Cazzer. Keeping a client happy."
"Rubbish," laughed Caroline. "This is Pete going to see one of his heroes and having a good time."
"No fooling you, is there?" said Astor.
When he saw the legend in his home, Astor was surprised to find that he was leading a fairly ordinary life. Dave Briggett had been married to the same woman for twenty-seven years. The eldest of their four children was working in television, two more were at university and the youngest was in the sixth form at her school.
Astrid Briggett had completely lost her native South German accent in favour of a Posh Home Counties accent. She was a horticultural expert and she used the grounds of the house as an experimental nursery for exotic new breeds of plants. After saying hello to the visitors, she returned to one of her greenhouses.
Dave had converted the west wing into a rehearsal room outfitted with a whole range of conventional and weird and wonderful instruments, and a state-of-the-art recording studio. Andy Agary, the drummer, and Loko Moko, the keyboard player, had come over for the day for musical discussions.
Loko, born in England of Scandinavian parents, homed in on Astor while his friends were showing Caroline a collection of exotic musical instruments. Astor soon gathered that Loko was the main channel of contact with Valefor, their Extra. The others made contact only rarely, and none of them had ever experience Purson's Music in parallel to Astor's Kiron's Music, which suggested that its real source could be Astor's own musical talent.
Loko wanted to find out how Astor made contact with his Extra. He seemed surprised to hear that Astor was doing it on Charm. Loko and his friends were using a blend of three designer drugs and they were having frequent quality problems.
Astor promised to let Loko have a sample of his Charm and to introduce him to his supplier if Loko decided that Charm was an improvement on his current cocktail. In return, Loko provided Astor with a pack of designer pills that could block what he called a general 'flaky' feeling. He used them at times when he needed to focus on a task because the pills helped to shut out peripheral distractions.
The pills were disguised as a herbal vitamin supplement type preparation in a printed blister pack. Astor was impressed by the quality of the production job. Loko assured him that it could pass through the customs checks of most fairly civilized nations. Astor decided to show it to his own pharmacist.
Just for the hell of it, Astor swallowed one of the pills to see if it stopped him shaking with awe in the presence of three rock legends and let him get on with the job of discussing details of the up-coming gig. After a while, he felt as if he might be much more laid back and analytical, but he had no idea whether it was the pill working or just a placebo effect.
The visitors left as clouds were gathering on the horizon and swallowing the setting sun. Caroline had decided to take a short cut that she had spotted on the map. She noticed the dark blue van travelling in convoy with them at a subconscious level but thought no more of it.
Caroline had no idea that Jane Vance was feeling particularly angry about the bungled arson job on Pete Astor's home and a final decision by the trustees of her uncle's estate that they would not fund a compensation case against Kiron Sounds -which meant that all the effort that Jane and Peter Vance had put into the project to date had been wasted and there would be no more skimmings.
Jane's follow-up had been something of a rush job but she had managed to hired someone else to take a swipe at Astor while on a quick trip back to England from Hungary. 'Give him somefink to make him stop feeling so cocky, madam? No problem,' a thug with what he thought were perfect manners had assured her after taking charge of a roll of £20 notes. Rolly Stenson was now about to start earning his fee.
There was a loud, metallic bang and a jolt from the back of the van. Caroline took her foot off the accelerator, assuming that something had gone disastrously wrong with the van. The next impact told her that the source of the trouble was external.
Sensing panic in his driver, a totally self-possessed Pete Astor tried to take charge. Caroline told Wendy later, in total disbelief, that Pete had wanted them to change places so he could drive. After receiving a flat and very emphatic No! Astor told Caroline to stand by for manoeuvring to his orders. The other van drew alongside and moved out to the limit of the narrow country road to get a good swing into them.
Astor yelled, "Brake!"
Caroline's van shuddered as the blue van shot in front of them.
"Go! Full speed ahead!" Astor yelled.
Caroline trod on the accelerator.
She slammed into the rear of the blue van, hitting it to the right of centre. The other van leapt off the roadway to pile head-on into a wall that became the parapet of a bridge.
Caroline lost control and spun right round. She crossed the bridge going backwards and rammed into a heap of building materials at the side of road. A scaffolding pole came crashing in through the rear window, spearing between Caroline and Astor and exiting through the windscreen.
"Missed me," laughed Astor.
Caroline found that her door was jammed. "Pete, I can't get out," she screamed.
Astor tried his door. It refused to open. "Hey, calm down," he told Caroline. "Just recline your seat and we can get out through the side door in the back."
"Hurry, Pete, what if the van blows up?"
Logic told Astor that Caroline she was worrying about a remote possibility. Logic also told him that she didn't want to hear that. Taking the lead, he lowered the back of his own seat, remembering to release his seat belt first, and clambered into the back of the van. The rear door slid open easily.
Caroline leapt out of the van as heavy rain began to descend. Astor pulled her back into the shelter of the van.
"What if it catches fire, Pete?" she protested.
"We bale out," said Astor. "But no fire's going to have any chance in that lot." He pointed out at rain that was bouncing back six inches from the roadway. "Here, you need one of these." Astor took out his blister pack of 'control pills'.
"What are they?" said Caroline suspiciously.
"Something to stop you worrying about what might have happened and let you get to grips with what to do now. It's okay. I've had one myself."
Astor produced a bottle of mineral water from a locker in the back of the van. Caroline swallowed the pill doubtfully. Astor found her coat and passed it to her. The warmth of the van had flooded out into the chilly wastes of a darkening, very wet, early March evening.
It was full night when they arrived at Astor's home by taxi after spending a lot of time with assorted police officers. Pete Astor was feeling exhausted and his pill had worn off. Caroline was still enjoying the benefits of hers.
"Are you all right?" Wendy asked when she met them in the hall. "You're sure you're all right?" she added when Caroline smiled and gave her the sort of slow, unconcerned shrug that Wendy associated with Clive Astor at his most laid-back.
"Shaken but not stirred," said Astor.
"Pete gave me something after the crash," said Caroline. "One of his pills."
"You've been taking drugs?" Wendy marvelled.
Caroline shrugged again. "Well, yes. And I have to admit now there's a lot to be said for taking the right drug at the right time. I only wish I'd had some of what Pete was on before the crash instead of after it."
"And he deliberately tried to run you off the road?" said Wendy.
"Looks like it," nodded Astor. "It was a bit more serious than just playing dodgems."
"So what happened afterwards?" said Wendy as they arrived in the kitchen. Wendy filled mugs with coffee and the others flopped down at the table.
"We were still sitting in the van when the phuzz turned up," said Astor. "Trying to work out who's got it in for me."
"You mean, this is connected to the attempt to burn the house down?"
"The police seemed to find that credible," said Caroline.
"Then the phuzz tried to give us a hard time for not trying to rescue the bloke who tried to kill us," added Astor.
"What happened to him?" said Wendy.
"They had to get the fire brigade to cut him out. He was supposed to be still alive when they took him to hospital."
"I think Cazzer's pill must have started to work just after the phuzz turned up," said Astor. "You could see quite a fast transition from flaky to Mrs. Spock."
"It was like a bad dream at first," said Caroline. "Especially with Pete just taking it all in his stride. And you know what he did after he rang the police? He only phoned Walter and told him the van's a write-off and we need another one like it from wherever he got it from. Then he just casually mentioned that I was okay when Walter started worrying."
"Talking about phoning people, I've got a couple of calls to make." Astor took his mug of coffee up to his music room.
"I know it's a bit of a joke, calling him weird," Caroline added, "but I don't see how someone can care so little about someone else trying to kill him. Drugs or no drugs."
"One thing you've got to realize about people like Pete," Wendy told Caroline, "is they're convinced they're never going to get old. Not like Peter Pan, never growing up. Pete's sure he's not going to live to any great age. So he keeps his bags packed, ready to check out at any time. Like that song he wrote, he's Just Passing Through. Until he has an accident or because he takes something that's dangerous."
"That was no accident today. That was a deliberate."
"But it comes down to the same thing. So Pete lives very much in the present and he concentrates on enjoying himself while he's got the chance. He admits there'll be a tomorrow, and a next week, and if you push him, maybe next year. Anything further away than that is just unimaginable. He's never bothered about pensions because he expects to be dead long before he'll need one. About the only responsible thing he's ever done is not have kids - because he never expected to be around to provide for them and he doesn't expect his relationships to last much more than a couple of weeks anyway."
"Yes, a lot of people in the music business talk like that," nodded Caroline. "But Pete actually lives like that?"
"I remember on his fortieth birthday, Pete kept telling me he was asleep and it was a nightmare and there's no way he'd lived that long. He's solved the problem by telling people he's thirty-nine and a bit. Which will be a bloody big bit if he ever gets to sixty!"
"So how do you get like that?" Caroline asked with a frown.
"He grew up with lots of dead heroes - like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. And then he went into a business where an early death or burn-out from taking drugs are quite normal."
"I suppose having a weird dad didn't help any."
"No, I think Clive's always been a very good influence on Pete. He let him go his own way but he gave him a very strict moral code - do what you want to do as long as you don't get in anyone else's way. Unless they've got some grief coming to them, of course. If Pete rebelled against anything, it was always his mother's attempts to steer him into what she thought was real life. Do you want to stay here tonight? In case it all catches up with you when your pill wears off? We're used to people freaking out after a bad trip. I don't think your aunt is, though."
"No, it's okay. Pete reckons I'll be fine and I'm feeling very together. I don't suppose there's any danger of him going to pieces."
"Knowing Pete," said Wendy, "by now, it's all just a story he can tell his mates to give them a good laugh."
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.