It wasn't supposed to be like this.
Everything should have made sense.
But, stuck down this blind alley, I have to make the best of it.
At the end of the week, Pete Astor received another call from Henry Hall-Carter to tell him that his accountant was looking quite cheerful. The Department of Inland Revenue was admitting nothing but the evidence suggested that they had acted on a tip-off without checking the basic facts behind it. Now, they were in the process of damage limitation, of withdrawing accusations while pretending that had never been made in the first place.
"Good news, then?" said Astor.
"Yes," said Hall-Carter. "My accountant reckons that even though the taxman's still treating me like a major criminal, nothing's likely to come of it."
"Sounds like a sensible bloke, your accountant."
"And to my advantage, he expects the Inland Revenue to be slightly more generous about my expenses if nobody asks any embarrassingly awkward questions about the reason for their investigation."
"Sounds par for the course, H.H. So everything's okay?"
"Well, okay-ish. My current play's coming to the end of its run and I still don't have anything lined up to take its place. I don't know how your negotiations with this new band are coming along...?"
Astor gained the impression that Hall-Carter had mentioned his plight 'just in passing' as a gentle hint. "To a conclusion, is where the negotiations have got to, H.H. We're planning to sign them up at the weekend, as it happens. So you could go on the payroll as their stage-presentation advisor and director whenever you're free."
"Ah, that would be great for me."
"It also occurs to me that Damaged Goods might just be interested in a little coaching to make their mock fist-fights with one another look a little more convincing."
"You mean, they're not bunch of psychopaths who knock lumps off each other when they're not doing it to innocent hotel rooms?"
"You sound disappointed, H.H.," laughed Astor.
"If I am, it's a tribute to the quality of their acting."
"So you're up for it?"
"Yes, indeed" said Hall-Carter. "I must say, life is certainly very interesting and very informative in the service of Kiron Sounds."
Pete Astor spent the weekend with his A&R hat on. Astrid seemed quite content to be his non-drinking driver, with her friend Alice Smith in the front passenger seat watching out for police cars. The arrangement allowed Caroline to spend a non-working weekend with Walter. Wendy insisted on going along as a chaperon, but Astor knew that it was just an excuse to do some clubbing herself.
All three occupants of the Astor residence had a late start to their Monday morning. Pete Astor had just returned from posting his mother's birthday present when the doorbell rang. Moments later, the house was full of people. The members of Intoxicant had come to call. Astor crammed them into the front room.
"We thought we'd drop in for lunch," said Syd Melchior, acting as spokesman.
"You'll have a bloody long wait," scoffed Astor. "Some of us have only just had breakfast."
"We don't mind starting without you, mate," said Blood Axe Stoker. "I wouldn't say no to coffee and some of your famous cake. What do you think of the car?"
Astor glanced out of the front window at the car in the drive. "Yes, I did notice you turning up in a flash Roller. I suppose this is you lot doing a pop-star routine?"
"Actually, no," said Syd. "It's yours."
"What, you've borrowed the KS executive Roller?"
"No, we bought it for you. Ange has been going on at us about how unfair it is that the band became mega right after you got the bullet from the Japs. So we thought we'd buy you a decent car to show our appreciation."
"You're telling me you've actually bought me a Rolls-Royce?" said Astor incredulously.
"Flash car for a flash git," remarked Blood Axe.
"Well, thanks, fellers, it's great. If this bubble ever bursts, I can always get a job driving people around for funerals and weddings."
"Yeah, right!" scoffed Syd. "This is the same Pete Astor whose old man owns two castles and an island? What's it like being a member of a family that's seriously loaded?"
"If your bubble doesn't burst in the next couple of weeks, you might find out for yourself," laughed Astor.
"Did you know we've got a Rolls-Royce parked on the drive?" said Astrid's voice.
Astor turned to the door to see his niece inspecting the company and enjoying being the focus of attention. "It's mine," he said. "This lot have just delivered it."
"Great! Can I have a go of it?" said Astrid.
"Not till the ink on your driving licence is dry," said Astor.
"Hey, who's your little friend?" said Blood Axe.
"This is my niece," said Astor.
"Yeah, right," scoffed Syd.
"Sometimes, I think my name's become No, really, she is," said Astrid. "Any chance of some autographs on my CDs?"
"You're Pete's niece?" said Dexie Jordan sceptically. "I thought he was an only child?"
"So he is," said Astor. "But my parents acquired several other kids independently of each other."
"Like the Italian drug-smuggler?" laughed Syd.
"She's Anglo-Hungarian, actually," said Astor. "So we're having coffee and cake, are we?"
"Sounds good to me," said Syd.
When Astor returned with a trolley laden with supplies, he found Wendy keeping the musicians in order and Astrid busy grilling them about their American tour.
"So what are you guys up to now?" Astor asked Ryan Calvin as he distributed coffee and plates.
"We had this accountant ring us up and tell us to spend lots of money, so we're following his advice," said Blood Axe.
"In your dreams!" laughed Astor.
"Hence the car," added Dexie.
"We're just looking for a change." Ryan helped himself to a slice of a solid fruit cake. "There's only so much time you can spend messing about in Spanish clubs. So we thought we'd do some club gigs to try out some new material. Unless you've got another tour coming up?"
"Nothing before your ten-day belt round European capitals next month. James is still looking at possibilities, like Japan, but there's nothing firm yet. Mainly because you lot said you don't want to do any work after a long tour."
"So you're still thinking of sending us to visit your mates the Japs, Pete?" laughed Syd.
"I think James was planning to discuss the offers with you if you ever came back from holiday," said Astor.
"You don't fancy going there yourself?"
"Did you know the Japs have a phrase tsuji-giri, which means to try out a new sword on a chance passer-by? You have to wonder about a culture that needs a phrase for that."
"We'll all hide behind R.V. if things get dodgy," laughed Ryan. "And I think you ought to know, the real reason Syd's here is to find out what you've been composing recently."
"Funny you should ask." Astor went over to the music centre and flipped through the CD rack. "This is the next big piece in embryo. Working title: Out Of The Box."
The musicians gave their attention to coffee, cake and sounds. When the third of the short pieces ended, they all looked at Syd.
"It's like Under Alien Skies but it works on a guitar," said Syd. "Kind of weird and weirder. We'll take it off your hands when you've finished it, if you like."
"It sounds dead evil to me," remarked Blood Axe. "I like it."
"Yes, Pete reckons it could be the psychopath's national anthem," said Wendy.
"Talk about creepy," Astrid added.
"This is what's going to come after the Portal sequence," said Astor. "Next year's noises."
"You really ought to get back with us, Pete," said Syd. "We can hack it as a five-piece. Especially if you're turning out stuff like this."
The telephone began to ring, sparing Astor the need to reply. Wendy was nearest to the receiver. "It's for you, Pete. Your Aussie mate, Demented Danny."
"Not, Danny Di Mento?" said Syd. "That Scottish bloke?"
"You know him?" said Wendy as she passed the receiver to Astor.
"Pete's mentioned him," said Syd. "Now, there's a weird guy."
"Yo, Danny, how's it going?" said Astor.
"Could be going great with the right deal," said Danny. "One of my associates saw your band Intoxicant in the States on their tour and he's all for getting them to do a tour of Oz."
"Funny you should call now. They've just dropped in on me."
"You're kidding!" said Danny. "I've been going to phone you all evening but I've only just got round to it."
"If you'd called any earlier, all you'd have got is the answering machine."
"Yeah, that's why I knew it was okay to put it off," laughed Danny. "I didn't think you'd be out of bed."
"What's the deal on the tour, Danny? A couple of small clubs in the outback somewhere? And they pay their own air-fares getting out there? Or hire a camel-train?"
"It would start here and go on to New Zealand and various bits of the Far East..."
"Just a minute," said Astor. "Anyone interested in touring Australia and the Far East?" he asked the room at large.
"As long as we do Darwin," said Syd. "Ange has got some relatives there."
"Is this including Japan?" said Ryan. "I've always fancied going there."
"You bastard!" said Astor. "Hello, Danny?" he added to the telephone. "The guys seem up for it. If they can play Darwin."
"No problem about that, Pete. So I should get into signals with James at the Astoria?" said Danny.
"That's a good starting point," said Astor.
"We're also interested in getting a band called the Dead Junkies on the tour too. Their album's getting a lot of air-play on the radio at the moment. And there's some guy in the band called Pete who's shifting a lot of product in his own right. Sci-fi stuff about aliens, mainly."
"I'll have to get in touch with the other guys and find out who's up for it," said Astor. "You realize the Junkies isn't a fixed line-up? It's me and a bunch of mates. And not even me, sometimes."
"No problem as long as we have you fronting them all the time so we can prove it's the genuine article. Can I say hello to the guys from Intox if they're there?"
Astor passed the receiver to Syd, who was the nearest of the four. "Say hello to Danny."
"I quite fancy going to Australia," Wendy remarked as Syd was getting to know Danny Di Mento.
"All you have to do is start a band and make it famous," said Astor. "And get in with an Aussie promoter."
"Fancy a trip to Australia?" Wendy asked Astrid.
"Me? I'd love to go," nodded Astrid.
"What about all your trouble-making here?" Astor asked.
Wendy just looked at him.
"Ask a silly question,..." Astor remarked.
"My brother's going to be as sick as a pig when he hears I'm going to Australia," Astrid told him with an evil grin.
"It's going to cost your Grandma a few bob in phone calls, too," said Astor. "When she wants to give me ear-ache about keeping you properly supervised. I wonder if you can still buy chastity belts?"
"Someone not recovered yet from the ear-ache he got over Barry spending most of Easter messing about on the Internet at your Dad's Number Two Castle?" laughed Wendy.
"The thing that gets me is she was trying to pretend she think's I'm more of a responsible adult than my Dad!" Astor complained. "So I should have been looking over the kid's shoulder. Presumably, to make sure he found all the best porn sites."
"Yes, that was a great bit of double-think," laughed Wendy.
"She can do even better than that. She reckons its okay for Astrid to live at her Uncle Pete's place because you're here as a chaperon!"
"You're making that up," scoffed Wendy.
"You couldn't make something like that up," Astor assured her.
"The thing I find like totally weird about this whole situation," remarked Blood Axe, "is we got together to have a practice session today, and then we decided to drop in on you instead. And the next thing you know, one of your mates is ringing up about a tour."
"Very lucky bloke, is our Pete," said Wendy. "It's amazing how well things work out for him."
Syd nudged Blood Axe and handed the telephone on to him so that he could say hello to Danny Di Mento, who seemed not at all concerned about the size of his phone bill. "Did you know there's an Aussie band playing The Portal?" Syd asked. "As a sort of a guest number in their act the way we'd put in an old rock 'n' roll number or whatever. They're doing it because they like playing it and their audiences likes hearing it."
"Yeah, I've heard there are three or four bands in the States are doing the same," nodded Astor. He had discovered what was going on after Kiron had reported more energy sources than Astor could account for. "Bastards aren't paying me any composer's royalties, though."
"Bastards," agreed Syd. "And Danny said there's an Aussie tribute band called the Undead Junkies. They all come on dressed as vampires and do your stuff. I bet you don't get any royalties from them, either."
"Sounds like you need to go there to sort them out, Uncle Pete," Astrid remarked.
"Hey, I wonder if we can nick some Abbo culture and patch it in to the black magic stuff when we're over there?" added Syd. "Broaden the scope of the whole thing."
"This would be you still pretending to take black magic seriously?" scoffed Astor. "Leading to even more cynical journalists saying you're just doing it to poke fun at the opposition?"
Syd shrugged. "If you're making a living out of it, you're allowed to take it semi-seriously. Maybe we ought to do some practising tomorrow, just in case this tour comes off."
"Seriously, but not too seriously?" scoffed Wendy.
Syd gave her a lazy grin. "Not seriously enough to get in the way of having a good time."
"Pete, someone's stealing all your best lines," said Wendy.
"Used to it," said Astor, deciding that he had room for a bit of chocolate cake before it all disappeared. He realized that he could use his mobile to ring round his Dead Junkies to find out if they wanted to tour Australia. Then he realized that so many musicians had played with the band that he was likely to end up having to organize a lottery draw with trips Down Under as the prizes.
Two days on from his sister's funeral, Peter Vance felt that he was starting to get over the shock of the whole business. In public, he was shaken and saddened by the loss of his sister at such a young age, and Jane's death had made him think about his own mortality. In private, he had to admit that he felt a sense of liberation, of release from a heavy burden.
Jane's air of 'can-do' ruthlessness had been growing despite her hired arsonist's limited success and her assassin's fatal encounter with Pete Astor. Taking action using such incompetent third parties, and not having the police calling on her as a consequence, have given her the confidence to set in motion even bigger and even more dangerous plans.
If anything, her death had been the ultimate expression of that unwarranted confidence. Jane had gone sneaking around a bunch of dangerous people with some high-tech gadgets, like a female James Bond, and she had taken that one fatal step too far. And as a result of her recklessness, her brother had been spared a similar fate.
Peter Vance had thought and thought about the problem, but he had seen no obvious way out. The situation before Jane's death had been simple: if he wanted to keep on milking the trust fund, he had to accept a part in his sister's schemes. There was some degree of limited independence to be had, such as his solo trips to the European mainland to 'discover' distressed grimoires, but he had to work with Jane to get his hands on the serious money.
Peter Vance had seen himself as a passenger a train that was trundling across a desert toward the edge of a cliff. The cliff was high enough to make going over it the end of everything. If he decided to jump off the train and saved his own life, he could do so without injury. But he would be left stranded in the desert with just the contents of his pockets to sustain him. And when they ran out, he would be in real trouble...
Suddenly, his train had been derailed in an unfortunate accident, which he had survived but his sister had not. And that was where the analogy broke down. In real life, he was not dependent on whatever supplies the train had been carrying. He still had the fairly limitless resources of the trust fund to tap - except that his plans to swindle the trustees wouldn't even keep pace with accumulated interest. Jane had come up with most of the really profitable ideas.
Peter Vance lacked the daring and the imagination that his sister had brought to the task of extracting really big chunks of cash from the grasp of the trustees. He was good only for small-time swindles, such as padding his sister's funeral expenses, and he knew it.
A telephone demanded his attention and scattered his thoughts. The building's receptionist told him that someone from his late uncle's law firm wanted to make a delivery and she required his signature. Peter Vance welcomed the diversion of a trip down to the lobby.
A girl in a rather severe suit wanted to see his driver's licence as proof of identity. Peter Vance's presence in the building and his being addressed by name by the receptionist were not good enough. Back in his apartment, Peter Vance attacked the padded bag with a pair of scissors. He found a CD inside and nothing else. The liner in the box told him that it contained a recordable CD with a capacity of 650 megabytes.
He tried putting the CD in his music system. Nothing happened. When he put it in his computer's CD drive and let it autorun, he found himself looking at a fancy, red screen with a dialogue box in the middle, which wanted him to enter a password. There was nothing on the CD's box to offer any clues. There was nothing written on the label. When he looked at the wreckage of the padded bag, all he found was a label that read: Peter Vance, instruction #12.
The late Hobbert Vance's lawyer was a model of efficiency. Peter Vance knew that because the man himself had told him so at least once at every meeting. Which meant that if Peter was supposed to get a password with the CD, it would have been delivered with the CD. Which meant that his uncle had figured that Peter or Jane would know what to use as a password. The only problem with that was Peter was fresh out of inspiration.
An early-morning drug bust at the Astor residence in Warleigh was becoming a tired cliché, but DI Farne had managed to persuade his usual entourage of hopeful reporters and photographers to attend another assault on The Most Dangerous Man In Warleigh, as Astor had been dubbed in the Rag Mag of the local technical college. Farne had even brought along a video-cameraman to make an official record of the search.
Wendy happened to be up and about early, having had a not very late Friday night out with her friend Mwrdn, and she let the invaders in. The search began while Pete Astor was getting himself out of bed and dressed. The first thing that he did on arriving downstairs was to demand to see the cameraman's credentials on the grounds that there was no way he was having some idiot from a TV company strolling about his home uninvited. The cameraman turned out to be a bona fide member of a police forensic team.
Astor acquired a cup of coffee and stayed in the kitchen with his mobile phone and the warrant for a discussion with his solicitor. He had to cut the call short to go upstairs to talk to Astrid, who was refusing to let DI Farne into her room.
The reason for her reluctance seemed to become clear when one of the searchers found a small, self-sealing bag of white powder in her sock drawer. DI Farne's expression of triumph vanished when further bags of blue, green, yellow and red powders turned up in other drawers of her clothes unit.
The inspector held his face expressionless when his team found a plastic bag of fibrous substance labelled 'Very Dangerous Dwugs' in Wendy's room and a box of multi-coloured tablets with a similar label in Astor's room. DI Farne had thrown the dice one last time, and they had come up snake-eyes for him. His garden-gate press conference, held a few minutes later, was brief and factual. His information had come from a normally reliable source but the search had failed to locate the items described by his source.
Astor told the same journalists that he had just been on the phone to his solicitor. When he sued the police, the amount of damages claimed for stress and trauma caused by yet another unwarranted invasion of his home was going to be gi-normous. He made sure that Astrid stayed indoors and out of the photographs. He knew that he would be in deep trouble with his mother if he let his niece share the wrong sort of personal publicity.
Astrid seemed to be stuck with a permanent fit of the giggles when the street returned to normal again. Astor had to admit that he was very impressed with her sense of humour, especially as it matched his own and Wendy's.
Four days after receiving the CD message from his uncle, Peter Vance burst out of sleep and made a dash for his computer, clinging to the last shreds of a dream, in which he and his sister had been struggling through a mob of people in a television studio. The time was two thirty-eight a.m. on the morning of May Day. As always, the latest version of Windows took forever to start up.
In his dream, his Uncle Hobbert had been telling a vast television audience that they had to help him to generate a flow of positive energy for the Lord. That fragment had set off a chain of memories. Peter Vance tapped out the word Kiron on the keyboard, confident that it would be accepted as the password when earlier guesses had locked him out of the program.
To his utter surprise, he found himself looking at his uncle's face. Peter realized that the strange files on the CD with the .ptl extension were encoded movie files. He had guess that .ptl stood for Praise The Lord, a routine phrase in any evangelist's vocabulary, but that had not taken him any further forward.
The movie clip was quite short. Peter was so surprised to see his uncle's smiling face that he failed to take in its content right away. All that he grasped was that the CD contained a final message from beyond the grave to Peter and Jane. Peter made himself a cup of coffee before he played it again, wondering if he would return to the computer to find that the CD had self-destructed in his absence, Mission Impossible style.
Hobbert Vance wanted to remind Peter of something that he had told him in confidence. Peter was now allowed to share with his sister, the secret of Uncle Hobbert's contacts with the spirit entity Kiron. Uncle Hobbert wanted to assure both of them that Kiron was able to generate a flow of positive prayer energy to the Lord, and that they were to consider Kiron an ally in their work and take any measures that they thought appropriate against anyone who tried to block that flow.
Sipping coffee in the early hours of the morning, feeling tired but wide-awake at the same time, Peter was half inclined to dismiss his long-dead uncle's words as the ravings of someone who had cracked up under the strain of a life of sustained deception. And yet Uncle Hobbert had always worn that same expression when delivering a private message that he believed to be the absolute, no-bullshit truth.
The really good news came right at the end. He played the end of the message through three times. His uncle told Peter and Jane each time that if they were still working on the project five years after his death, then they were obviously committed to the cause and they could have unrestricted access to the balance of his estate; free from the trustees' stewardship.
Uncle Hobbert was sure that Peter and Jane understood the need to keep up the battle against anyone who tried to dilute religious faith and sought to block the flow of energy to their benefactor. That meant dealing vigorously with anyone who used the name Kiron in a negative context.
When his uncle's image faded to a glowing cross on a shadowy, dark background for the third time, Peter Vance sat back and thought about his future. Later that morning, he would have the extreme pleasure of firing the trustees now that their job had come to an end. He no longer had to chase his tail for cash. He could approve his own expenses now, whether or not he chose to continue the good fight. He was fabulously, disgustingly, rich, rich, rich!!!
For the first time, Peter began to see his sister's death as the waste that it had been. If he had been able to check Jane's fatal impetuosity, he would been sharing his uncle's fortune with her and he would still have ended up with more millions of dollars to spend than he was ever likely to need.
But that was the same as wishing for the Moon for Christmas. Jane Vance had been an unstoppable force. Her brother knew that, at a practical level, he just had to be glad to have escaped her dangerous influence and glad to be in control of his own destiny at last.
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.