DEADLINE SAMPLE CHAPTERS
THE BEARDED man waited in the shadows, one hand inside his jacket to keep his fingers from freezing up. He’d need them soon enough. Otherwise, the cold and the sleet tickling his toes and spotting his dark hair was of no concern.
His companion, a tall thin youth, stamped his frigid feet; he had been skittish since they left the squalid flat in Newham that had been their flophouse for the last two nights, his restless black eyes darting at the passers-by.
The bearded man also watched them with disgust. Drunk men, half-naked women. Laughing, smoking and drinking out of bottles in the street. One girl lay in her own vomit in the gutter, her legs splayed open to reveal the absence of underwear. Her friends stood by, shrieking hysterically and taking selfies with her. Degenerate kuffars, he thought, they are all bound for hell. Alhamdulillah. Praise be to Allah.
The garish lights from the club entrance did not extend as far as the shop doorway where the two men had stood for nearly three hours. Finally, at 2:37am the bearded man saw two men, both with Hawaiian-style garlands around their necks, emerge arm-in-arm from the club’s mirrored doorway. Laughing and chattering, they ducked past a small knot of noisy women smoking and shivering on a wet pavement painted a sickly red, lime and yellow by the nearby traffic lights. Stopping at the kerb, the men kissed greedily. Then one stepped back and said: ‘I’ll call an Uber.’
As he wrestled with his phone, the bearded man took three strides forward from the shadows, his right arm coming free from inside his jacket and rising high above his head. A flash of neon bounced off a long metallic blade before it descended down and across the tilted throat of his prey. The knife sliced through the man’s scarf before severing his carotid artery, followed by the trachea and spinal cord.
There was a loud sigh like a rubber bag expelling air. The man’s body dropped to the cold, hard ground, his head at an appalling angle, attached only by a ragged shred of skin, his eyes already dulled.
Thick dark blood pooled around the ragdoll body as the screams from the women mingled with a long drawn-out shout of triumph from the bearded man.
Two hours later, Shiv O’Shea stood across the road from the same spot behind a familiar blue and white cordon tape that said POLICE LINE – DO NOT CROSS. The sleet had stopped but it was still dark and bitter. She had been wakened by a call from one of her Met contacts. He hadn’t said much, just, ‘Get your arse down to the Kahlua Club in Mayfair. Now!’
No shower, just a quick face rinse followed by a wake-up call to Juggs as she left her apartment in Camden. The photographer said he would be there soon. She looked around ... no other hacks here yet. That was good news but she knew it wouldn’t be long before others appeared like wolves scenting vulnerable prey.
She showed her Press Card to a uniformed copper keeping the small crowd of half-sober revellers and other rubberneckers at bay. He told her there had been a paparazzo at the scene, waiting to snap the victim and his new husband as they left the club. She didn’t recognise the pap’s name but it didn’t matter, the cops would seize whatever pictures he had as evidence.
Then, just as Juggs arrived, she saw a detective she knew and waved him over. After looking over his shoulder to see if his boss was about, he came towards her. Out of the side of his mouth, the detective told her the name of the victim. Juggs whistled.
Fuck me, Shiv thought. That makes it interesting. ‘Was it a hate crime then?’ she asked the DC. But he was already crouching under the tape and walking across Curzon Street which had been sealed off to traffic.
Juggs rubbed his hands together to warm them and said: ‘This’ll make a good start for the new guy.’
‘What new guy?’
The new editor. Whatshisface – Bligh.’
Shiv blew her cheeks, a cloud of vapour almost enveloping her colleague. ‘Ah, yes, Jonno Bligh. Another bloody Aussie.’
‘You know him?’
‘We worked together at the Daily Tribune for a while. He was a good reporter then … before all that Hollywood bullshit.’
I STOOD for a moment, closed my eyes and inhaled the feral atmosphere, that whiff of the Big Top you get in a tabloid newsroom: a heady mix of inspiration, perspiration and desperation.
Christ, it was good to be back. Two years since I was last in a newsroom. Too bloody long. So much had happened since: fame, fortune and assorted fuck-ups. But, hey, that’s another story.
Opening my eyes, I sensed the curious looks sent my way by the usual cast of colourful characters – at this early hour, mostly reporters. Some dressed casually, others in suits and bow ties. I had been a reporter once but now here I was – the editor. I saw them measuring me up: this Aussie who would have a big impact on their lives and careers over the coming years. For better, or worse.
‘So, what do you think of UK Today, Jonno?’ The deputy editor, Bill Todd, was showing me around. The man looked as sleek and sly as a dunny rat. He was of medium height with a slight paunch, chipmunk cheeks and a weak chin. His thinning grey-black hair was slicked back and his moustache bristled with self-importance. I had met him the evening before at a welcome dinner organised by Martha Fry, the managing director of UK Today, in a private room at the Dorchester. I had taken an immediate dislike to him. I knew he’d been pissed off not to get the top job.
‘Fantastic,’ I said, as the clack of keyboards and the low murmur of news monitors and hacks on the phone made me feel at home. ‘It’s great to be back. I’m looking forward to hearing what’s on the newslist today.’
Todd looked at his watch. ‘Talking of which, we should head to the morning conference.’
On the way to the conference room at the far side of the vast, throbbing expanse of desks and chairs and computers, I said to Todd: ‘That bloke you were speaking to earlier in the corner? The big guy in the dark suit? That’s Carlos Macrae, right? I met him last night. He’s Mr Bolshakov’s associate?’
‘Consigliere, more likely.’
‘You mean like a fixer?’
‘Yes, he’s a regular Robert Duvall.’ Todd suddenly looked as if he’d said too much.
‘Does he come here often?’
‘Yeah, quite a lot. I reckon he’d like your job.’
Vernon Sharp was already in full flow when we arrived at the conference room. Sharp was UK Today’s Head of Content; he nodded in my direction when I took the empty seat at the top of the table. About a dozen men and women, occupied the other seats with a few standing. Todd introduced me to the usual suspects who attend these daily meetings: the heads of features, sport, politics, pictures etc. Plus a few non-editorial people with a vested interest – circulation, marketing, and the online chief – Harvey Finkelstein, an American. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Macrae sitting at the far end, his dark bulk squeezed into a chair. What the fuck?
I gestured for Sharp to continue.
‘Hugo Morgan was a well-known gay rights leader. He had been at the forefront of the same sex marriage campaign here in the UK for years.’ Sharp looked at me: ‘Mr Bligh, you may not know this, but gay marriage was made legal here a few years ago, partly down to Morgan’s efforts.’
‘He was forty-three, had just married his partner of two years at the Kahlua Club. It’s a well-known venue, just off Berkeley Square in Mayfair. He and his partner celebrated with friends there until after two am. As they were leaving …’ Sharp checked at his notes, ‘… the terrorist came out of nowhere and slashed Morgan’s throat with some sort of big blade, probably a machete. Nearly took his head off.’
I grimaced. ‘Jesus. What do the police say?’
‘Looking for a male in his early twenties, middle-eastern appearance. Also an accomplice, a young black man.’
‘How do they know he was a terrorist and not just some nutter?’
‘Cos he shouted the standard codeword as he attacked.’
‘Allahu Akbar,’ Sharp deadpanned.
‘Right. Of course.’ I felt stupid. My brain was still circling Heathrow after the flight from Sydney the previous day. And it didn’t help that I’d also screwed up a BBC interview that night. These guys must think I’m a total twat. But at least the story was a ripper. As it happened after midnight, I knew it would only have managed a brief mention in the final print editions. Today, of course, other media were all over it: radio, television, social. It had all the hallmarks of a ‘runner’ – a story that would be headline news for days, if not weeks: celebrity, violent death, Islamic terrorism. It had legs all right. As my old mentor Percy Mimms had drummed into me on many occasions: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’
So, on my debut day, the machete murder of Hugo Morgan was bad news for him, but good news for me. What have we got so far?’ I asked Sharp, who looked even more jaded than I felt. I knew of him from my days as a reporter at the Daily Tribune. Then he had been a distinguished journalist with an impressive career. But now he just looked like a football manager after a string of bad results.
‘There are a number of angles. We’re tracking down witnesses, both wedding guests and passers-by on the street. A few have already posted on social media. We’re also trying to hunt down some video believed to have been taken by a guest on his phone. That might cost a bit, so you’ll have to okay that.’
I nodded. ‘Photos?’
‘We’ve got good stuff from the wedding ceremony earlier,’ the picture editor said. ‘They let the media in for five minutes. Good enough for the front.’
‘But everyone else will have it.’
‘True. The police say they will be releasing a picture of the suspect at the scene – ’ he looked at his watch ‘– about now. Presumably a photo from either a phone or CCTV. We have our own pictures outside the club taken this morning. A pap saw the whole thing apparently, but the cops whisked him off and I doubt we’ll get a whiff of his pics.’
Bummer. ‘What else are we doing?’
‘We’re all over our contacts in the Muslim community to see if anyone knows the killer,’ Vernon Sharp said. ‘Meantime, the usual tributes are pouring in.’ He looked at his notes again. ‘There’s one here from Princess Izzy.’
Sharp looked at me as if I were an idiot. ‘She’s a European aristocrat – one of the most famous women in Britain. Her face on the front sells plenty of newspapers and magazines. Like Lady Diana’s used to do.’
‘James Marvell, the Prime Minister. And another from the Opposition leader. They didn’t waste any time. Gay rights is still a hot issue here.’
‘Ditto Australia,’ I said. ‘How can we get ahead of the pack?’
‘We have good contacts in the LGBTQI community. UKT has been supportive in the past, particularly on the SSM issue, so we’ll get plenty of good quotes from sympathisers. But the real prize would be an interview with Morgan’s husband, David Marinello. I think we have a good chance of getting an exclusive sit-down with him. That would provide a top page one tomorrow plus an inside spread.’
The features editor, a smart-looking woman in grey, pitched in: ‘We’re working on a centre spread on Hugo’s career as a gay activist. How he battled incredible odds to improve the rights of the LGBTQI community, and how it led to this terrible end on what should have been the happiest day of his life. And a sidebar on previous attacks on gay icons.’
‘That will give us a decent run … Strong front, four news pages and a features spread. Seven pages in total,’ Sharp said.
‘So Jonno, what do you reckon?’ Todd asked. A twist to his mouth indicated he thought I was some colonial clown who was in over my big blond head.
When Todd spoke at the morning meeting, I could see guarded looks and pursed lips from the others. Not a lot of love for him, I deduced. On my mental whiteboard, I scrawled a note that, like Vernon Sharp, Todd might also be past his sell-by date.
‘What about an editorial?’ I said. ‘Perhaps expressing sympathy for a significant life wasted while demanding more scrutiny of home-grown jihadists? That sort of thing.’
Todd looked at me as if I were mad. ‘But that would open up the paper and its staff to possible retaliation from these dangerous people. We’ve always taken a more softly-softly approach. I think that’s what Mr Bolshakov would want in this case.’
‘Well, perhaps it’s time we were a bit more robust, show some leadership,’ I snapped, feeling suddenly emboldened. ‘I’m sure our employer will understand that.’ Todd’s lips thinned as if he’d just been given a pineapple suppository. The others tried hard to conceal their smiles.
‘And one last thing – in future, could everyone please just call me Jonno.’
IN TIME I came to think of seven am as my sphincter-tightening moment. That was when a package, wrapped in brown paper and bound by blue metal tape, was delivered to my door. It contained copies of the other national newspapers – all eight of them. Know thyself, know thy enemy. Cutting that blue tape made my heart jackhammer as I scanned the front pages for any evidence we’d been scooped.
Not that morning. Everyone had splashed on the Morgan murder, except for one redtop that trumpeted a new FF-cup boob job for a C-list celebrity. We had totally kicked arse. Most of the other papers had conventional headline/picture fronts along the lines of GAY ACTIVIST MURDERED IN TERROR ATTACK and a standard shot of the wedding ceremony. The Guardian had a poster front using a full-page stock photo of Morgan with megaphone in hand at a gay rights rally with a simple RIP headline and cross-ref to the story inside superimposed on it.
UK Today stood out from the pack. We had taken the story forward with an exclusive picture and interview with the grieving husband and quality photos inside of them together ‘in happier times’. The front-page headline said: WHY MY HUGO DIED WITH PRIDE IN HIS HEART. A tearful David Marinello explained that his partner had always feared being attacked but felt it was the price he would willingly pay to achieve equality for his LGBTQI brothers and sisters. It was a great piece, emotional but resolute. I looked for the byline: Shiv O’Shea, Chief Reporter. Ah shit. The distinctive name was all too familiar to me: we had once worked together at the Daily Tribune and had enjoyed a drunken one-night stand after an awards bash. I hoped that wasn’t going to come back and bite me on the bum.
Our reporters and photographers had done a great job of putting words and pictures together. By the time of the Page One conference at 5:30pm the previous day, most of the content had been pulled together. The police had released a grainy CCTV shot of the suspect’s face. There were others trawled from Facebook and Instagram. All in all, a great result as befitted Britain’s biggest selling tabloid. I was stoked.
‘So you should be,’ my wife Annie said, when I FaceTimed her in Sydney late that night from my swanky suite at the Langham Hotel. Her wide smile and sparkling green eyes beamed out at me from my laptop screen. Our one-year-old son, Percy, was on her lap, blowing spit-bubbled raspberries.
‘I wish I was there to provide some comfort,’ she said.
‘What sort of comfort?’
‘I can think of several ways.’
‘Such as … washing your underwear or cooking your favourite meals.’
‘Oh, that sort of comfort.’ I faked disappointment.
‘Why, what sort did you think I meant?’
‘Mmm, you know …’
‘No, I don’t. Tell me.’
I told her. In exquisite detail. And at one point, blushing, she put her hands over Percy’s ears, even though he couldn’t understand a word. He was named after Percy Mimms, my mentor and the best man I had ever met. I once asked the gritty Glaswegian how he’d got the scars on his knuckles. ‘Ever thought what it would be like growing up in the Gorbals with a name like Percy?’ he’d replied.
‘Tell me about how the day went,’ Annie said.
‘I had forgotten just how great it feels to trounce the competition. I even got a call from Bolshakov.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Just what you’d expect: great front page, good job, etcetera.’
‘That’s fantastic. Did Bolshy mention the BBC interview?’ Annie’s face was impish.
I squirmed. ‘Shit, how do you know about that?’
‘There was a mention of it in The Australian this morning. The Media Diary.’
‘Aw, bloody hell. Trust them. What did it say?’
‘It was a bit garbled. Didn’t really understand it.’ Thank God for that.
‘So I watched it myself on YouTube. 429,000 hits and counting. You are a star, my darling!’
‘Jeez. I thought you said you wanted to comfort me? You know what, this isn’t helping.’ Despite my embarrassment, I couldn’t help smiling back at Annie’s mischievous look on the screen.
‘You were saying about Bolshy?’
‘Yeah. He was positive about the paper but I sensed underneath he wasn’t happy about something.’
‘Dunno. He was a bit off. It just seemed as if I had done something to piss him off. Maybe it was the editorial. I wrote a leader about the whole Muslim thing. Todd warned me he wouldn’t like it.’
‘What did it say?’
‘I called for the government to stop posturing in the aftermath of terrorist acts and put more pressure on Muslim community leaders to preach more tolerance to both gays and women.’
Annie looked puzzled. ‘Sounds okay to me. Not sure why it would upset him.’
‘You’re right. Must be something else. Probably my devious deputy Bill Todd feeding him some rubbish. He’s a bit too tight with Bolshy’s offsider Carlos Macrae for my liking. Anyway, I have a meeting with the managing director, Martha Fry tomorrow so maybe I’ll ask her.
‘Sorry darling, I must go,’ Annie suddenly said. ‘I’m taking Percy to the park to meet up with Posh. Take care. I love you.’ She blew me a kiss.
‘Love you too,’ I said to the blank screen.
On her way to the park, Annie thought about her husband. He had looked strained. There were lines on his open, handsome face she hadn’t noticed before. Faint, like the thin contours on an ordnance survey map. And dark smudges under his soft blue eyes. Maybe it was just the moody light in his hotel suite, she thought. His thick, golden hair had been mussed and unruly as if he'd just run his fingers through it. But his full lips had still looked highly kissable, she thought. I'd like to kiss him right now.
Later, as she watched Percy’s beaming face while Posh pushed him on a swing, her heart fluttered. God, he looks so like his dad.