Authors: Nick Earls
Tags: #Humanities; sciences; social sciences; scientific rationalism
About the Book
Josh Lang went to London with investigative journalism on his mind, but he carved out a reputation as a fixer instead and mastered the art of spinning any client out of a crisis.
Now he's home in Brisbane, and this time the job is supposed to be good news. The client is a law firm, the talent is Ben Harkin, and the story is the Star of Courage Ben is about to be awarded for his bravery in a siege.
But it was Josh's messy past with Ben that was a big part of his move to London in the first place, and the closer he gets to Ben's story the more the cracks start to show.
Throw in a law student who's an exotic dancer by night, and a mini-golf tour of the Gold Coast, and Josh's pursuit of the truth becomes way more complicated than he'd ever expected.
Written with warmth, humour and a touch of the detective,
will keep you guessing until the very last page.
âA genuinely talented writer' THE SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
âBuy a Nick Earls novel and you need never be sad again' WHO WEEKLY
BEN HARKIN'S FATHER DIED
when his coronary arteries closed over while he windsurfed at Club Med Bora Bora on his honeymoon with his energetic, third and youngest wife. By then the worst of his crimes â all of the white-collar variety and very much of their time â had long before been found out and subsequently prosecuted with results sufficiently mixed that he could still find money somewhere to spend on the business of looking prosperous.
He hit the water dead, more than likely, and, despite his young wife's strong swimming stroke and her quick progress to his body, he was gone and that was all there was to it. Everything had until then been perfect about the day, but there he was with his luck changed in a moment, floating facedown, breath gliding out of him for the final time, gazing dead-eyed at the coral and the clown fish and the anemones and a world that went on.
The day the Courier-Mail ran four paragraphs about his father's death, they also covered the announcement that Ben was to be awarded the Star of Courage.
The stories fell several pages apart and I wondered if anyone but me would think to link them. Kerry
Benson Harkin senior â corporate rogue, dead with the last of his creditors left in his wake and never to be satisfied. Kerry Benson Harkin junior â lawyer, hero. They shared a name, but Ben was always Ben and never Kerry. It put at least a small distance between them, as did the fact that Ben looked more Japanese than European.
Ben Harkin had been out of my life for years by then, and I had wrongly assumed that he would never be back.
* * *
TWO MONTHS LATER,
as the worst of the Brisbane summer heat ebbed, I caught the CityCat from the back of West End into town. Two European backpackersÂ with sandals cut from tyres and skin the colour of hazelnut sat on the back deck with their legs stuck out
into the sun, while I kept to a nearby arc of shade and braced myself to be grateful to my brother.
My brother's PR company had done well while I had been out of the country, and he had booked me in for a week or two on his coat-tails, covering a job for a staff member who was away. From our phone call the weekend before, that was all I knew. No, I also knew that the person I was filling in for was skiing in Aspen.
In families, if things are not set in stone, they are set in something close to it that most days feels no easier to negotiate. Families make up their minds early about who is a big mouth and who is a keeper of secrets, who is reliable and who is a fuck-up. About every minute
characteristic. And then, too often, we do things that reinforce their worst expectations.
Eight years before, when I was twenty and Brett was yet to have staff who skied in the other hemisphere, I had MC'd his wedding. I had heard my father telling him I should be best man, and Brett saying that I'd be shit at it and Dad knew that. I waited for our father to stand up for me, to tell him he couldn't be more wrong, to insist that he ask me. There was a pause, and then our father's voice said, âWell, you could at least make him MC.'
So, when the big day came, I had too much to drink and, as the best man simpered his way through a wasteful speech that denounced none of Brett's foibles, I sat making snide remarks to the bridesmaids, in the hope that it might improve the odds of some of that ill-considered wedding sex people talk about. While the best man went on about true friendship, I simulated gagging and decided somebody had to achieve some balance. I made notes on my place card, but the ink smudged on the way to the microphone and, with a hundred and forty faces turned my way, I blurted out â for the first and only time in my life â something about the teenage crush I'd had on the woman who happened to be the bride.
Francesca was a model, and spectacular as a bride in a way that I had been trying all day not to mention to people. At the podium I owned up to keeping a Bras 'n' Things catalogue in which she had featured hidden on my bookshelf. It was in the middle of a copy of The Catcher in the Rye. I had been thirteen at the time, though I omitted to mention that, and probably made it sound as if the catalogue was still there. Still a visual
prompt for my lonely carnal acts in the very week she was marrying my brother.
âHas everyone read The Catcher in the Rye?' I heard myself saying, in case that fixed it, as the large hands of the best man took my shoulders and turned me without a fight away from the microphone. He was reading emails as I left the marquee to throw up in a nearby bin.
âMeeting Francesca,' the note on the place card said above the smudge where I had wiped my palm across it. I had meant to talk about Brett meeting Francesca. It was a story in which he came out looking mildly foolish.
I could recall one catalogue picture in particular, in which she was on a bed in a black G-string and camisole, the dusky shapes of her nipples clear through the flimsy fabric. Had I talked about that? I hoped not.
The next day we had a breakfast at a hotel with the newlyweds, and I slunk in late and sat next to a deaf great-uncle for whom the speeches of the day before had been as safe as a mime. My mother found me at the buffet, looked disapprovingly at the large pile of bacon on my plate and said, wryly, âJosh, you always wear your heart on your sleeve, don't you?' She told me she had thought about it, and that was the best thing she could offer.
My father sat with his back to me in a booth at the far end of the room. He was boring Francesca's bird-like mother, who picked at a small glass bowl of low-fat yoghurt with a spoon. I was mustering up the courage to go over there when I saw the corkboard photo montage of the reception. There were pictures of the speeches, the bouquet in the air, and bad dancing by people who were respectably drunk. The montage had started in the middle of the board and grown out
from there, a bloom of images overlapping at their edges and corners. Except for one. All by itself, in the bottom right corner, was a picture of the MC, his head in a bin, chucking his guts up.
My father didn't speak to me for weeks. Brett and Francesca never mentioned it.
Months later, when he was angry with me about something unrelated, Brett said, âYou realise Francesca doesn't ever want to be alone in a room with you?' I could only think it had something to do with my brief speech about our catalogue days. Perhaps I had talked about her nipples after all.
As the CityCat slid in towards the Riverside stop, I looked up at the towering buildings above â their blue and bronze glass and concrete, and their blunt geometry â and it felt as if I might be anywhere. I had been called into buildings just like them before, in British cities. I had worked from one in London for two years until, one day, I didn't.
Somewhere, here in one of them, someone had an issue about to pop. Someone was about to need perception management. An issue needed fixing, and I was to be the fixer.
I hoped it was bad news. I was better with bad news. Good news meant a new product or a new deal, and all the effort went into persuading the media to buy into someone showing off. With bad news, I would walk in to the rank smell of fear and I would usually discover that the clients had already fantasised about the most dire outcomes, and all I had to do was shore up the sky and stop it falling as they took their pain and surprised themselves by coming out the other side intact. They had
often hidden something, or bluffed their way through with a half-truth that was starting to unravel. They would want to lie, ambitiously, and had bought me as armour. But, in the job's only moral moment, I would tell them we would start with the truth, and build the fix from there. And I would explain in detail how their lives would be in the days and weeks ahead. They would wear some bruises but, after it was all done, they would find themselves only a few deep breaths away from feeling that they had integrity back within reach.
Brett was sitting at a white plastic table outside the coffee shop where we had agreed to meet. He was wearing a dark suit and, when I got closer, I could see that it had fine pinstripes. He was ignoring his coffee and scrolling through a document on his BlackBerry. For the first time, I noticed that his sandy hair was thinning on top. He looked up as I pulled another chair away from the table and its legs scraped on the tiles.
âDo you have a tie?' he said. He looked as if he had been about to smile, but it didn't happen.
âHello.' I paused to allow him time to get reacquainted with the word. âWith me right now, or at all?'
He thought about it. âEither.'
âNo.' I had ties, somewhere. In a box.
âHow does anyone not have a tie?'
I was a barbarian who had, out of nowhere, appeared on the wrong side of the battlements.
âI had a couple,' I told him. âThey never came back from England. Maybe you could get over it.' He was looking at my shirt by then. âAnd before you ask the question “Do you have an iron?” let me just say, “Don't.” I already have a mother for that shit, and if we
needed a wardrobe session for this meeting you should have told me.'
This whole conversation should have been, in a word, nicer. He should have started with hello, instead of behaving like a housemaster noting a uniform indiscretion.
He looked past me, at Kangaroo Point and the final downward sweep of the grey girders of the Story Bridge. He seemed for a moment to be focusing on the bridge hard enough to count individual rivets.
âLet me just check one thing,' he said. âYou are able to fit this in, aren't you? Your diary is clear until next Monday?'
âPretty much clear.'
âAnd if I hadn't called about this job, how would it be?'
Pretty much clear. âFlexible,' I said instead. âThat's one of the perks. That's the beauty of my present arrangements.' It came out sounding as contrived as it was. âI have some out-of-town commitments for a couple of days from late next Monday, but I'm fine till then.' I added it so belatedly that it probably seemed made up. âThat's for an article.'
âOkay,' he said. He gave his coffee a perfunctory stir, and took a mouthful of it. âI've read the blog you do. That's going well. And Mum said you'd had a few pieces in magazines.'
He had flecks of latte froth on his gingernut-coloured moustache. He licked at it, sensing the froth was there but missing it. He'd had the moustache for close to twenty years, and grew it in the first place to hide the jagged scar on his upper lip from the time he went over
his bike handlebars as a kid. Of course, the scar itself couldn't grow anything, so the rest of it had to be extra bushy to make up for it. It was a mo the Marlboro Man would have been proud of, had he not died of product-related cancer when working for the one industry the Western world could no longer spin. In an attempted concession to the times, Brett's Marlboro Man mo was now paired with a flavour-saver below his lower lip. It missed the mark, and he looked like a ginger cavalier.
âSo, tell me about the job,' I said. He had work for me and I needed it.
He picked up a slim salmon-coloured zip-up document satchel that had been leaning against the leg of his chair.
âHave you seen these before?' he said. âIt's made from an old vinyl billboard skin.'
He showed me the tiny picture of the billboard that was stuck on there. The satchel had been cut from a salmon-coloured exclamation mark. Brett had greened up while I had been out of the country, and the satchel was another green credential. I still wasn't sure if the conversion was sincere or just the right look for the firm.
âHere's the job,' he said, pulling a printout of a scanned newspaper article from the satchel and setting it on the table in front of me. âIt's helping a law firm through this, the highlighted bits, the medal. Getting it some tasteful attention, making it a plus.'
He said something more, but I had stopped listening. He was showing me the article I had read two months before, about Ben Harkin and the medal.
Ben Harkin, his two paragraphs covered in yellow highlighter pen, was the job.
The words had been crunched a little by the scanning, but I knew them anyway. Brett's tone changed. He was asking me a question. He wanted to know what I thought.
âDid you know his father died?' I said. âIt was in the paper the same day.'
âSo you're already onto this? Did I talk about this before? The details of the job?' He leaned across to check the page. âI didn't know his father had died.'
âWe have a past. Ben Harkin and I.' It was the simplest way to put it, even if it sounded more dramatic than I wanted it to. âAnd I read a lot of papers. I'm forever scouting for blog material.' I needed to focus. I needed to put a different thought in my head. The thought of Ben Harkin as a siege hero, as my new job.
The picture was of one of the other award recipients, a pilot who had climbed onto the fuselage to save a skydiver caught on the way out. Both the pilot and the skydiver were leaning against the opened door of a small plane, one of them holding a parachute as a prop. They were laughing. Their story was the first six paragraphs. Ben's Star of Courage, for jumping a gunman in a siege, was paragraphs seven and eight.
âSo why did the pilot get most of the article for the Bravery Medal when it says that Ben's Star of Courage is actually a bigger deal? Is it just that two people and a plane make a better picture?'
âGood question,' he said. âI don't know. What kind of past do you have?'
âWe know each other.' Knew each other.
âOh. Well, that's a bonus.' He rotated the sheet of paper on the table so that we could both read it easily.
âYeah, the Star of Courage is the higher category. Maybe their last PR people weren't on the ball. We've only had Randall Hood Beckett as a client for a month or so. The medal presentation's next Monday. What do you think you can do in a week?'
âA week? Depends if you want quality or quantity. Depends on the story, and what he's like at telling it. A week is fine, though, particularly if he's okay talent. It counts as news on Monday, and news isn't big on lead times. As you know.' My hand was on Ben's two yellow paragraphs, both mentions of his name covered. It was easier to think that way. âEven beyond the news angle, Monday's the day we've got to hang it on. We'll land it on the news and spin it out of there.' It was jargon I had picked up somewhere. I had once thought it sounded good, but maybe it didn't. Maybe it sounded false. âWe should be fine, unless there are bigger heroes around that we don't know about.'