Tiptoe in the shadows,
Plan each move before you make it,
And keep the safety catch off and a round up the spout.
Jane and Peter Vance were back at their London base by appointment at the end of March to co-ordinate their next offensive against the main common enemy - the trustees of their uncle's estate. Jane had been expecting her less inventive brother to suggest that they join forces again, but Peter had other ideas. Having distressing another brand new copy of the grimoire, he was able to tell his sister that he had found it while looking around in Prague. And that meant that he still had the one that he had taken over to the Czech Republic left to 'find' on another trip to mainland Europe.
Jane Vance was happy to see Peter go off on his travels again if he had other things on his mind than wondering what she was up to. Jane's spies had been keeping her informed on the Talmy Group's activities, particularly those of the splinter group formerly led by Alice Hraldy. The notions being spread by the offshoot were more than strange enough to be considered a threat to orthodox Christian values.
Jane Polon, who still styled herself the deputy leader of the faction, was claiming to have positive proof that Hraldy had indeed 'gone on through'. She was saying that Alice Hraldy has been able to contact the entity that had been J.S. Bach in a previous existence. As proof, Jane Polon had produced some sketches for a postmortem symphonic choral work, which were supposed to have been composed by J.S. Bach and transmitted to her by Alice Hraldy.
Analysis by a computer program at an American university had confirmed that the sketches were definitely in the style of the composer as far as the vocabulary was concerned, but they showed a
developmental shift in an interesting direction.
The university's professor of music believed that the sketches were the sort of thing that J.S. Bach would have been producing if he had been alive and working in the nineteenth century instead of the eighteenth. His conclusion was all to do with the balance of the instruments and shifts in their roles to take advantage of changes in instrument production and technology.
Jane Vance was sceptical, of course, but she was dealing in matters of belief rather than fact. The claims made the off-shoot from the Talmy Group very dangerous, as defined by her late uncle's will. And if her brother had better things to do than participate in her counter-operation, that was his loss and her gain.
In fact, rivalry between the off-shoot and the mainstream had made the Talmy Group doubly dangerous. Both parts were conspiracy-based pseudo-religions, which offered a chance of 'going on through' to an after-life for the favoured few. If one branch could offer a proof, of sorts, that their after-life really existed, the other was sure to follow in close order. And looking at what they had to offer objectively, it was a better 'product' than the Christian after-life.
There was no question of everyone 'going on through' at the point of death and being subjected to a grand judgement. There was no inducement to lead a good life because evil people would spend their eternity in Hell. The Talmy Group was offering an opportunity based on the ability to pay. It was discriminating, creaming off the richer members of society and leaving the poor to Christianity.
Jane knew that her late uncle would never have expressed the danger in such terms, but he would have recognized a real threat to his money supply. Jane also realized that doing something about the Talmy Group was likely to be the first genuine bit of business that she had done under the terms of Hobbert Vance's will. All of the previous 'threats' that she and her brother had seen off had been fairly illusory.
Taking action against the Talmy Group would also let her take a simultaneous swipe at the Kiron Organization. Jane Vance had been quite surprised to learn that Pete Astor was interested in the Talmy Group. She had considered him too cynical and worldly ever to be taken in by a group with such an intangible product, but she had learned that the world is full of very strange people who can have the oddest beliefs.
She was still not sure just how strange Bert Norton was. Her instinct, on being told by one of her spies that Norton was planning to 'go on through' himself, following the trail of Alice Hraldy, was that some sort of trick was involved. As she looked down on the area where it was going to happen, using a video-camera with a high-power lens, Jane Vance was playing the investigative reporter looking for the piece of evidence that would blow a fraud out of the water.
She was in an area of northern Wales which lay about mid-way between Bangor and Conwy, as far as its longitude was concerned, and around six and a half miles due south from the coast. It was just hills and woodland and farms with no proper roads - certainly nothing that a citizen of North America would call roads, at any rate.
The bleakness of the area reminded Jane Vance of Redneck territory in the south of her own country, where the natives stock-piled guns and ammunition and saw the Federal government as their deadliest enemy. There was that same sense of timeless lack of involvement with the rest of the world which she had noticed in parts of the South and in the mountain regions of the United States.
Of necessity, Jane Vance was some distance from the scene of the action and she had very little idea of what was going to happen. She could see eight vehicles, one of them Bert Norton's, and self-levelling software attached to the drive unit for the camera's zoom lens let her capture clear pictures of the faces of the men and women about half a mile away in a straight line and a couple of hundred feet below her position.
Norton had been talking to his followers for about twenty minutes, presumably passing on his final message. Eventually, as the chill wind was starting to penetrate Jane Vance's cold-weather gear, he got into his car alone and drove on down the track for a further three hundred yards. Then he made a right-angled turn, taking his four-wheel-drive vehicle out over bumpy grass.
The explosion took Jane Vance completely by surprise. Almost as soon as Norton stopped his car, it disappeared. There was no great mushroom of flame, just a cloud of misty, debris-filled haze. The hard bang! of high-explosive reached Jane Vance almost a second later.
When the haze blew away, there was practically nothing left of the car above the level of the floor. The force of the explosion had vaporized the driver and the bodywork alike and forced the wheels straight down into soft ground. Jane Vance kept her camera trained on the scene as the surviving members of the Talmy Group approached with no great haste.
To her surprise, the procession stopped on the track at a point level with the explosion site but no one made any attempt to approach the wrecked car. Then the seven vehicles started to move away, travelling in reverse. There was a lay-by, which allowed then to turn round without leaving the track, about a quarter of a mile away.
The reason for the retreat became clear when a police car charged into view minutes later, all lights flashing and siren blaring in the middle of nowhere. It approached from the direction in which the Talmy Group's vehicles had been pointing.
Jane Vance began to pack up and plan a discreet withdrawal. She didn't want the British cops to stroll off with her videotapes before she could have them examined by her experts. As she headed back for civilization, she was still not sure about what she had seen - even if it had been nothing short of startling.
If Bert Norton really had 'gone on through', then he had chosen to do so in a spectacular and instantaneous fashion. And his suicide had been more public and more credible than that of Alice Hraldy, whose body had never been found after her alleged high-dive off a bridge.
Subject to expert opinions, Jane Vance could see three possible scenarios for Norton's suicide. Number One: he had really, truly believed that it was possible for him to 'go on through' to a subsequent plane of existence, and he had given up the rest of his span on this plane of existence quite willingly.
Number Two: there was some sort of trick involved and he was still alive. Number Three: some sort of trick had been planned, but his colleagues had double-crossed him and there had been no escape at the last minute.
Wherever the truth lay, the Talmy Group had made a major bid for credibility. One of its members had demonstrated that he believed in their cause enough to die for it. Anyone who wanted to prove him a fraud would have to find Bert Norton alive and hiding, and given the resources of the Talmy Group, the search could be as productive as that for the English Lord Lucan.
Two days later, the first solid information began to filter back. Jane Vance's experts were still examining the video footage but they had found no indications that Bert Norton had been anywhere other than in his car at the time of the explosion. Indeed, the first quick and dirty forensic results from the police laboratory confirmed that conclusion. Tissue samples found at the scene of the explosion had provided a first-order match to Bert Norton's DNA.
The Talmy Group had made no formal reply to questions from the news media but the story of Bert Norton's suicide and his motive had emerged as more of a flood than a leak. The media were treating it with a degree of caution because a violent death was involved, but they had not been able to resist poking fun at environmentalists, who had complained about metal pollution of the countryside by debris from the explosion.
Jane Vance would tell that the Talmy Group was receiving the consideration due an organization with a reasonable point of view rather than a bunch of looneys. Her efforts to find out what had happened to Bert Norton were getting nowhere. Cynically, she assumed that those Talmys whom she had approached expected to make a lot more money out of their 'dead' leader than she had felt able to offer. The situation would require careful watching.
Among the reports from her information monitors came the news that one of her brother's bright ideas had backfired. Peter Vance had dreamed up the idea of setting the television licensing authorities on Pete Astor's father, reasoning that Astor himself was too notorious a character to be bothered by something as trivial as bureaucrats with a cause. But getting under his skin via his parents had seemed worth trying.
Unfortunately, Clive Astor had turned out to be a resilient character, who had not been afraid to force a confrontation with 'authority'. The matter had ended up in court, the TV licensing authority had been unable to produce the 'witnesses' to Clive Astor's alleged crime and the trio of magistrates had asserted themselves unexpectedly by sentencing an unfortunate pair of TV licensing officials to two weeks in gaol for perjury.
This action had provoked an immediate strike by licensing staff on the grounds that their gaoled colleagues had offered 'defective' information in good faith when obtaining their warrant to search Clive Astor's home.
In the event, the two victims/villains were released on bail pending an appeal and they were not obliged to spend the Easter weekend behind bars. Even so, the sentences were hailed as a great victory by consumer groups and everyone who had ever been persecuted without cause by the TV licensing authority.
The legal profession remained confident that the gaol sentences would not survive an appeal. Cynics hinted that the magistrates had just been trying to get themselves noticed, like other magistrates who had dished out unreasonable gaol sentences to rock stars and other famous people in the past.
There were the usual demands from the usual suspects for the magistrates to resign and the rules to be overhauled. But out of the affair had come a certain national recognition that anyone who chooses not to have a television set should not be harassed and/or badgered into making an annual declaration of their TV-less state.
Pete Astor was getting bored with people asking if he had a TV detector van parked outside his house, competing for space with police vehicles bringing officers on yet another drug bust. In fact, he had heard nothing much from society's defence force for some time.
The police seemed to have no leads from their dead men. One of them had burned down Philip Hallan's home and tried to do the same to Astor's, and also more or less killed Philip Hallan. The other had made a good attempt to write off Pete Astor; and Caroline too, almost incidentally. When not committing crimes, the deceased pair had made no apparent impact on the world. In Warleigh, the lack of drug busts had left Wendy wondering if she dared replace her home stash. Pete Astor was relying on Kiron's luck to keep his stash of Charm safe. He realized that Wendy was studying him when they arrived in the kitchen to see about some breakfast at nine-thirty after a relatively early night on Wednesday. "What?" Astor demanded eventually.
"You do know we're going to Scotland to look at your dad's new castle today, don't you?" said Wendy.
Astor took his passport out of his hip pocket and dropped it onto the kitchen table.
"I'll take that as a yes," said Wendy. "There's should be enough coffee in the machine, by the way."
"Great. Where's the kid, by the way?. I've not seen her for a day or two. Have you had her assassinated?"
"Astrid's on that driving course. You know, three days' intensive tuition and then you take the test. Then three days' post-test general driving and motorway experience."
"Sounds like fun."
"Only she'll be meeting us in Scotland tonight because it's the Easter weekend."
"Does that mean I've got to buy her an Easter egg too?"
"Too? You mean you've bought me one?"
"Might have." Astor filled two mugs with coffee.
"What time do we ship out?"
"Half-eleven. Will you be packed and ready by then?"
"Probably. Anything in the paper?"
"Not much from a quick scan."
"Saves reading it, then. Are you having some toast, too?"
"No, some of us have things to do." Wendy picked up her mug and left.
Astor found that having something to do at eleven-thirty gave him an excellent excuse for not starting anything. Wendy was quite surprised to find him sitting on a suitcase in the hall when the taxi driver rang the bell. She wasn't used to such punctuality in Pete's private life.
"Uncle Pete?" said a hesitant voice as Astor was busy manoeuvring cases into the black cab's luggage rack.
Astor turned to find a teenage boy in a backward baseball hat looking at him. "You have the advantage of me, sir," he remarked.
"Of course, you are."
"Oh." Astor took out his mobile phone and hit a speed-dial button. "By the way," he added. "Did you know you've got your hat on backwards?"
Moments later, before he could come up with a sensible reply to the question, Barry Sachs found himself trying to explain to his grandmother that he had thought it would be a good idea to invite himself down to Uncle Pete's place for Easter.
"Who's your friend?" said Wendy, joining them in the taxi.
"Astrid's brother," said Astor. "You know, this is all a bit worrying. Am I going to end up hip-deep in my sisters' kids?"
"What, do you think having hordes of grown-up kids calling you Uncle Pete will be bad for your unattached image?" laughed Wendy.
"Is that one of your problems, Auntie Wezzer?"
"Astrid doesn't call me Auntie, despite your best efforts."
"I don't see why not. Genetically speaking, she might be a closer relative to you than to me."
"You know, when you think about it, that's not as daft as it sounds, given the peculiar state of your family grouping. And it must be dreadful for a bloke of your age to have all these grown-up kids turning up and calling you Uncle."
"I'd define 'dreadful' as having kids turn up and calling me Dad."
"Good point," laughed Wendy.
"What's it like to be a genuine only child?"
"A lot less exciting than being an only child with four semi-sisters, two of whom are no relation to him."
Barry finished his call as the taxi was heading for the airport. Being whisked off to Scotland to see his not-grandfather's new castle was a rather mind-blowing event. Barry had been expecting to be told to sod off back home - perhaps, even, with a tenner as pocket money. He tried to be cool and take it all in his stride, but he lacked the composure of an Astor. Making the last leg of the journey by helicopter put the final seal on an amazing journey and proved that his not-relatives were every bit as amazing as his sister had suggested.
The castle was every bit a proper fortified structure. Pete Astor and Wendy had seen photographs of it, but the aerial view as they headed for the incongruous helicopter pad showed the focus of the estate in its full glory. There were massive walls, battlements, towers and huge building units. The castle had a resounding air of impregnable solidity and permanence. It was a place that looked more than capable of resisting the best efforts of warlike locals to get rid of their overlords.
Astrid Sachs arrived by road in the early evening, driving a rented car to prove that she had passed her driving test and feeling like a junior member of the jet-set. Her glow of achievement lost some of its shine when she found that her brother was there too, but Clive Astor had let Barry loose on a computer connected to the Internet via a high-speed satellite link and no one had seen too much of him since he had logged on in the late afternoon.
Pete Astor was amused to find that his father had become something of a celebrity after his famous 'victory' over the TV licensing authorities. Such a blow against oppression from England had won him a high approval rating in Scotland.
Clive Astor could also offer a proven track record for conservation of ancient skills and a positive interest in real people rather than broad, vague ideals. The combination had created an air of optimism among his tenants on the estate and staff inherited from the castle's previous owner.
Everyone who drew benefit from the estate was hoping that their new lord and master would not be a foreign absentee landlord, who turned up two or three times a year. They wanted a man of the people, who could be relied on to make sensible decisions and spend a lot of money on making the estate a profitable concern.
Clive Astor had asked his son to bring a couple of guitars along. Pete Astor found himself volunteered to be a member of the band playing at a ceilidh on Saturday night, which was overcast but dry, and not particularly cold. It was an ancient but neglected tradition to hold an Easter Saturday gathering in the castle's courtyard. Clive Astor had revived the custom as a way of meeting the local people and getting their relationship off to a good start.
The tradition involved a massive bonfire and lots of food, drink and dancing. Even the local police put in an appearance, arriving to investigate a bogus complaint about the noise. It was their traditional way of joining in when they were supposed to be on duty. The occasion served to show to the locals that even if the estate had been taken over by an invader from south of the border, he was fairly okay for an Englishman.
Early on the following Tuesday morning, with the Easter weekend safely out of the way, Astrid and Barry Sachs boarded a helicopter for the first leg of their journeys to England. Barry was going home. Astrid was heading back to the driving school for her post-driving-test course on how to handle motorways.
Pete Astor crawled out of bed in time to hear that his father's victory over the abuses of the TV licensing system had been quite short-lived, which was just what everyone had been expecting. The perjurers had been out on bail since their original trial. They returned to court to hear that their gaol sentences had been suspended for two years.
The good news for the Licence Two, as the tabloids had dubbed them, was that they had got away with it. The bad news for the TV licensing authority was that eight more people had made complaints to the police about invasions of their homes based on either perjured evidence or plain lies. And a mob of hooligans in South London had sought to express the will of the nation by attacking a TV detector van in their area on the Saturday of the Easter weekend.
With nothing much of any significance happening in the middle of April, the news media were addressing the question of privacy again. The pendulum was swinging in favour of the right of the individual not to be harassed before it swung back in favour of the right of the taxpayer not to be cheated by people who don't buy a TV licence.
Jane Vance was feeling particularly pleased with herself. She had set three private detectives on the Talmy Group's trail, giving each of them his own independent line of inquiry to follow. A week later, she had put all the pieces together and she felt that she was close to doing a dangerous organization some real damage.
The private investigators had been following people at a distance and logging their movements, taking special note of where they lost sight of a target if he or she chose to disappear. Jane Vance's success had been a matter of tracing movements and working out where the tracks of known members of the Talmy Group intersected.
The focal point of her tracks turned out to be a farm about twenty-five miles south of the place where Bert Norton had 'gone on through'. Very little actual farming went on there. Most of the land had been included in EU set-aside schemes and a riding school was operating on the remaining part of the farm.
Viewed from a distance through binoculars, the farm buildings were hidden in places by scaffolding and there were heaps of building materials visible all over the farmyard. Very little actual work was going on, however, as if the person in charge of the renovations had spent the budget on materials and had almost nothing left over for labour.
As an experience conspirator, Jane Vance could see that the site had all the flavour of a place where people could meet among chaos piled on regular comings and goings, and attract little notice. The next step in her plan was to sneak on to the site at night and plant a few listening devices. Doing the job herself allowed her to pad out her expenses claim with fictitious expert help. The trustees of her uncle's estate needed to be saturated with detail and diversions if Jane was to get away with anything.
The village at the focus of the local community lay about two miles from the farm along the roads but just a mile away in a direct line. Beside the school was a public car park. It occupied land which had belonged to British Railways when there had been trains to that area. There, Jane watched the sun set punctually behind a hill at 7:53 p.m.
The Moon had risen invisibly at 2:28 on a soggy afternoon. It was flitting in and out of bars of cloud when Jane left her surprisingly comfortable small hotel at just after ten o'clock. She was dressed in dark clothing, including black trainers, and she had a pair of light-amplifying goggles in one of the pockets of her black jacket. She had a collection of electronic bugs and a spray can in another pocket.
She had two basic plans for finding out what was going on at the farm. If she could gain access to the buildings, she planned to install some bugs. If not, she would use a laser device, which shone a laser beam on a window and detected minute vibrations cause by people speaking in the room. If she could approach suitable windows, she wanted to spray them with an enhancement aerosol. The treatment would be quite invisible in daylight, but it would reduce the amount of random noise in the laser signal and make isolating speech easier.
DC Oliver Pak was feeling quite isolated and bored, which was quite normal for an average undercover surveillance job. His superiors had information that something not quite right was going on at the farm and he was taking care of the night watch, logging arrivals and departures and generally watching for anything at all suspicious. Having spent three uneventful nights in a hide overlooking the farm, he was starting to wonder if the bosses had based their suspicions on anything solid. Pak himself had seen nothing much.
Sweeping the area around the farm with his electronic night-sight, which amplified available light 80,000 times on the maximum setting, Pak noticed a movement. It was just a brief tugging at the edge of his vision but it was something real. His field of vision flared into a solid wall of green at the saturation cut-off when the moon looked out again. Pak cursed routinely and adjusted the gain of the amplifier.
There was someone moving on the other side of a straggling hedge, which had been pruned over-vigorously. Pak wondered if it was a poacher. He had not seen anything much worth hunting in the area, such as rabbits. The only wildlife that he had seen, apart from birds, had been dogs and cats and the inevitable humans.
The figure moved through an extra thin part of the hedge. Pak realized that the intruder was heading toward the farm buildings. He wondered if the locals were desperate enough to poach sacks of cement or timber. As usual, he had been brought into the area for this job. He knew that he was somewhere in North Wales. He also knew that the sooner he got out and back to civilization, the better.
As a trained sneaker himself, Pak was able to admire the intruder's use of cover as he crept along dead ground or blended his shape against the land. He was just a dark shape with no pale blob of a face, which suggested that he was wearing a hood or a ski-mask. The intruder was moving cautiously with no great sense of urgency, taking the time to scan ahead and plan each segment of the inward journey.
Pak divided his attention between the approach of the intruder from behind the main barn and the currently empty space of the central yard among the farm buildings. On the stroke of eleven, the smoker emerged. He was obviously forbidden to light up indoors during meetings and unable to resist a regular fix of nicotine.
Pak had counted three vehicles into one of the barns and eight people going into the farm house. His viewpoint let him cover the front and the western side of the farm house, which meant that he had to guard against sun-reflections from his binoculars during the morning - or he would have to if the sun ever shone in Wales during the morning.
The smoker seemed quite content to perch on a wooden box just outside the porch and breath out clouds of white fumes. He wasn't someone who went for a stroll when he was outside on a chilly but dry spring night. He just kept his jacket zipped up to the neck and sat on his box.
For DC Oliver Pak, it was like watching a silent film in terms of action and reaction. He watched the intruder lose his footing and grab at a handy fence for support. When he looked at the farm yard, the smoker had his head up and he was turning it from side to side, as if listening for another unidentified sound.
The smoker trod out his cigarette and moved over to the main barn. Pak lost him when he went inside. Three or four minutes later, Pak lost the intruder when he passed into concealment, heading round for the far side of the barn. The dark shape moved back into view eventually, passing across the front of a pitched roof on legs, which sheltered some of the building materials from rain coming directly downwards but did nothing about Welsh rain's obnoxious habit of blowing sideways practically horizontally.
There were lights behind drawn curtains at most of the farm house's windows. Pak watched the intruder approach the main rooms and wave his hand up and down and from side to side in front of the windows, as if making sure that no one inside could see him. After about two minutes in the courtyard, the figure sneaked directly across it to the main barn.
Watching his silent film, Pak had no clues as to what happened next. He drew the obvious conclusion when the smoker, identifiable by the lack of headgear, emerged dragging a limp shape by the collar of his jacket. The smoker dumped the still form outside the porch and went into the farm house. Another man emerged with him. They spent some time turning out the unconscious man's pockets and debating their next move. Then the smoker's companion shone a torch on his watch and pointed to the open storage shed.
The smoker raised the still figure by the front of his jacket. The other man slammed what looked like a blackjack against the sagging head, striking just behind the right ear. The head jerked wildly and then fell still. DC Pak reached for his radio.
"Trident for Meteor," he said in a low voice.
"Go ahead, Trident," said a voice in his earphone.
"Our people have just had a visitor. And he got a rough reception."
"He's going to have one hell of a headache when he wakes up again. If he ever wakes up again."
Two long minutes later, a deeper voice took over the radio link. "Trident," said Detective Superintendent Jim Parry, "are we looking at grounds for visiting our people?"
"I'd say if the bloke's not dead, he soon will be if they don't get him a doctor, sir," said Pak. "If you want a reason to go in, this is it."
"Okay. We'll be there as soon as. Keep your eyes open and report if they look like leaving."
"Right, sir." DC Pak put his radio down again and resumed his inspection of the farm. The smoker and his companion had dumped the unconscious or dead man somewhere among the collection of building materials. They returned to the farm house in no great hurry. And then nothing happened for over twenty minutes.
The police cars just ghosted down the lane to the farm without using their lights, taking advantage of a period when the three-quarter Moon was in a wide lane between bands of cloud. From his observation point, DC Pak watched a movie with a muted rather than absent sound-track. He watched a couple of Land Rovers bump out over fields to cut off lines of retreat. He heard the distant shouting as those at the farm voiced protests at the invasion.
He heard the radio reports more clearly, including one exchange that went: "It's a woman they clobbered... Looks in a bad way... No rush for the ambulance."
"You mean she's dead?" said Superintendent Parry's voice.
"As mutton, sir."
"Trident?" said Parry.
"Yes, sir?" said Pak.
"Can you identify the men who did it?"
"One of them has blond hair and he smokes, sir. The other one was a couple of inches taller with dark hair. He had his shirt sleeves rolled up."
"Rowan for DSI Parry," interrupted another voice.
"Go ahead, John," said Parry.
"We've got a bloke here with his face all wrapped up in bandages."
"What, the..?" said Parry.
Yeah, what the phuck indeed! thought DC Pak as he packed up his surveillance equipment.
Whatever the phuck, he and the rest of the team would be out of Wales in the morning and off to somewhere more interesting. The specialist surveillance team's services were in demand all over the country, which had its advantages and its disadvantages. Oliver Pak preferred to work in cities.
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.