THE SCOOP SAMPLE CHAPTERS

PROLOGUE

NINE ISLAND, SUMATRA / DECEMBER 2014

THE LUXURY cruiser was moored in the lee of a small, sheltered island that faced eastward to the Strait of Malacca. It was a large catamaran. Sleek, expensive. A charter boat, he guessed. Two women were sunbathing on the foredeck platform. They were topless and the hard sun gleamed on their oiled, naked bodies. The man with the pockmarked face and powerful binoculars smiled. ‘God is great,’ he said.

BamBang Budiman was not a religious man but he was grateful for this opportunity. A few hours earlier he and his crew had tried and failed to hijack a cargo boat in the strait. That fuck-up now presented him with two problems: first, his Chinese syndicate bosses would be pissed off; those merciless men did not like failure. I’ll worry about that later, he decided. The second, more pressing problem was that he had lost face with his men. They were the ones who had screwed up the attack on the freighter but they would blame him. A leader who had bad luck was not to be respected. It had not helped that, in anger and frustration, he had chopped off a crewman’s arm with his parang. The man had then bled to death on the deck.

Now his crew – a mix of Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysian pirates – were in a mutinous mood, frustrated by their earlier failure and angry at the brutal treatment of their comrade. They need something to keep them occupied. Budiman thought. These western women will suffice. The men will have their fun for a while. Good luck to them – the pelacurs, whores, were not to his taste, of course. Too white, too skinny, too old. Ha, much too old. Ten minutes later, two skiffs streaked away from the mother vessel towards the gently swaying catamaran. Budiman and seven of his men, all armed to the teeth with guns, machetes and unbridled lust, were determined not to fail this time. When they reached the luxury craft, the pirates swarmed over the stern, danced up a couple of steps and hurried straight to the foredeck.

Two bules – white men – sat up on their sunbeds, shocked by the sudden commotion. Rising slowly, they stood frozen, mouths opening and closing like blowfish, palms outstretched in supplication. The first of the pirates to arrive on the starboard side shot one man in the chest with an automatic pistol while another slashed the second man several times with a parang. Both victims fell to the deck writhing and gasping, blood spurting on to the pristine white fibreglass.

A white woman was kneeling on a towel, arms over her naked breasts, her features contorted. She began to scream uncontrollably as a splash of blood, vivid red against her blanched face, oozed down her cheek and dripped on to her chest. Budiman pushed his men aside. ‘Shut the bitch up,’ he ordered. He stood over the two prostrate white men as they moaned and gasped.

‘You very unlucky gentlemen. Wrong place, wrong time.’ He shrugged and then shot them in the head, one after the other. Beaming with delight, he gestured for his men to throw the bodies overboard. Then he pointed to one of the crew and told him to go find the other western whore. Moments later, smoking a pungent clove cigarette on the rear deck, the pirate leader heard crashing noises followed by a triumphant shout and a shrill scream. He smiled again, his leathery, scarred face dissolving into a mass of wrinkles as the early afternoon sun glinted on his gold tooth.

PART ONE

Generally speaking, the best people go into
journalism, the second best into business, the
rubbish into politics and the shits into law.

Auberon Waugh

1

I KNOW the exact moment my world turned to shit. And I know the name of the man responsible.

His name is Wes Dreyfus, a country music producer from Nashville, Tennessee. And he’s the one who introduced me to Charlie. Not Charlie Sheen (although he was probably there) but Cocaine.

The movie studio had thrown me a welcome party on my first night in Hollywood. I was feeling a tad shy around the galaxy of stars and household names. Wes suggested that a little coke would smooth away my social awkwardness.

‘Charlie will make you feel on top of the world, Jonno. All your worries will fly away like turkey feathers in the wind,’ he said.

He was right. But the moment he put that little line of white powder in front of me was the start of a downward spiral that would almost destroy me. Until then, my life had been on the up. I had been a top tabloid reporter first in Sydney, then in London. I had written a bestselling book – Hard News - and I was now in LA to collaborate on the screenplay.

While my professional career was going gangbusters, my personal life was less gungho. In my late thirties, I had never married, had never even met a girl I could love. I put it down to a combination of the long hours I worked and my innate shyness. I hoped it was not for any other reason. I was a few inches north of six feet with a blond unruly, hair and blue-ish eyes. My best friend Cody’s sister once described me as a ‘spunk’, so I had always reckoned I was so-so in the looks department. Mind you she was drunk when she said it, so perhaps it was wishful thinking on my part.

I had never once used drugs before; not so much as a wisp of weed. Back in London, I had been offered coke many times but always refused ...perhaps because of the images of my alcoholic mother, comatose on the couch, that always came to mind. But now, for the first time, I was seriously tempted. I was mixing with Hollywood royalty in the epicentre of a crazy, fucked-up, clichéd world. Parties. Babes. Sex. Cocktails. Drugs. Rock ’n’ roll. It was sink or swim. To my eternal regret, I sank.

Unfortunately, it was the most incredible feeling I’d ever experienced. As well as the initial euphoric rush, my diffidence quickly disappeared and I became almost as loud and brash as my American hosts. The white powder was freely available at the party in Beverly Hills – inside the palatial house, in the toilets, bedrooms and even out in the pool area. Wes pointed out film directors, studio bosses and Hollywood stars as well as “bigass lawyers” and businessmen. Most were high as kites.

Despite being a Grammy award-winning producer, Wes dressed like a trucker. Even at that glossy cocktail party, he wore a dirty, scuffed baseball cap with a green John Deere logo; his oily hair curled down under it over the back of his blue- checkered shirt collar. Jeans and two-toned lizard-skin boots completed the ensemble. He had a lazy, wicked sense of humor and he – with the help of his friend Charlie - made me feel like I was the toast of LA. Wes was a good guy really but I’ll curse him for the rest of my life. And if I could go back now to that moment, knowing where that first seductive high would lead, I’d run a mile.

I had jacked in my job as a journo in London to come to LA for the movie project. A few years beforehand I had broken a big news story about the sordid sex life of a Conservative Government minister and his wife. The avowedly Christian couple were enthusiastic participants in sleazy suburban orgies, some of which involved drugs, underage girls and rent boys. The scandal escalated when the pair embroiled other politicians, including two cabinet members in their tawdry adventures. That scoop ultimately led to the downfall of the UK Government. It also changed my life. For better. For worse. A whole lot worse.

The movie studio party with Wes and a galaxy of screen stars set the scene for the rest of my lengthy stay in LA and the downward trajectory of my life. My partner in crime was Estevo ‘Chilli’ Gomez, the professional screenwriter assigned to me by the movie studio who did most of the work. Chilli was both highly skilled and highly sexed. After long days of hard work honing and polishing the film script, he would take me to Tinseltown’s top nightspots for some serious R&R. The Jesuit priests at St Jude’s, my old school in Sydney, would have had a fit if they could have seen me. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. And sinned. And sinned again. In those quickfire fifteen months in Hollywood I made up for the restrained, rather solitary life I’d enjoyed for the previous fifteen years.

But the gods must have been laughing their dicks off because I finally got my comeuppance. On the night our screenplay for the film version of Hard News won an Oscar, I had partied until dawn, sharing a cocktail of cocaine, ecstasy and margaritas with an anorexic actress who had been nominated for her work in a Quentin Tarantino bloodfest. A few hours later, lying semi-comatose on a crumpled bed in the Beverley Wilshire Hotel with one hand clasping the little gold statuette and the other cupping the starlet’s bony buttock, my cellphone beeped on the bedside table. The message shocked me out of my stupor. A disembodied Aussie voice told me that Percy was dead. Ah shit. It was time to go home.

2

ANNIE Greenwood put down her glass, taking care not to lose a drop. ‘You want me to go on a sailing trip to some island in the back of beyond? For Christmas? With people I’ve never met?’ She laughed. ‘You are kidding, right?”

Her husband Martin smiled. ‘Hardly the back of beyond, my love. Langkawi is where we had our honeymoon. You loved it, remember?’

‘But sailing? With me? I get seasick in a jacuzzi.’  He gave her a strange smile: ‘This could be our last opportunity.’ Annie’s dark eyebrows arched in confusion. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re the one who wants kids. We might never get the chance to do something this crazy again.’

She pursed her lips and gave him a sceptical look.

‘Oh, come on, love, say yes. It will be awesome,’ Martin said with the rakish smile that Annie remembered from the time he had first asked her out. ‘Gary and Dani are fun people. Imagine it: soaking up the sun, eating exotic food, anchoring in clear blue waters next to beautiful beaches. And we can stop off in Singapore for some serious shopping.’ He was on his third glass of red and his cheeks were flushed. His left leg, crossed over the other, bobbed rhythmically.

They were sitting on the balcony of their tenth floor corner apartment in Glebe Point, looking north to Anzac Bridge and east over Darling Harbour to the CBD beyond. It was dusk and the lights of traffic on the motorway far below were starting to twinkle. A warm autumn breeze riffled Annie’s shoulder-length chestnut hair. It was rare that they were both home at this time; she had assumed there was some motive for him being back so early. This sailing malarkey was clearly the reason. She took a sip of her pinot gris and pondered.

They had moved from London the year before, after Martin had drunkenly groped his CEO’s secretary at the bank’s Christmas party. Annie had forgiven but not forgotten. In her mid-thirties, she worked as a copywriter at an advertising agency. She was still wearing her office “uniform” – block print silk blouse, black tailored skirt and black heels. Discreet but expensive jewellery. Her face was open and friendly: a wide, generous mouth framed white, even teeth. With diamond-cut cheekbones, a delicate nose and large green eyes, she seemed to glow with health. Only a sharp observer would spot the ghostly mesh of fine lines around her eyes that hinted at sadness.

Martin shifted in his seat and tried again. ‘You’re always saying we should try new exciting things. What could be more exciting than sailing a luxury yacht in South East Asia? It will be a dream trip.’

Annie laughed. ‘More like a bloody nightmare, if you ask me.’ But he’s right, she scolded herself. I’m not usually so negative, but the idea of being trapped in a small boat with total strangers for a couple of weeks sounds daunting. And dangerous. Yet perhaps something crazy like this could bring us back together, make or break us. She looked at her husband and sighed inwardly. He was such a lovely, amusing man when I met him. When did he lose that boyish charm?

‘So Captain Pugwash, when were you thinking of embarking on this voyage of discovery?’

‘I thought we could go in December. Fly to Singapore, pick up a boat there and sail up to Langkawi. We can celebrate our wedding anniversary and spend Christmas there.’

She took another sip of wine. ‘Let me think about it,’ she said.