Everybody, it seems, knows how to do a journalist's job better than they do; with more integrity, greater insight, fuller imagination and better "splleing". Not many of these people have worked in news rooms. I wonder what you'd do in this guy's position? ...
- ORRRR, POOOOH, says our driver every time he catches a whiff of himself.
- Jesus, Kevin, I say, powering down the window.
- Did you do that? he says, chuckling to himself, a smug terrorist.
- That's f---ing objectionable, says Cisco from the back seat and puts down his window as well.
Cisco insisted on buying McDonald's for breakfast and while I've declined and sip my coffee instead, our driver, Kevin, is suckin' his thick shake, wedged behind the steering wheel, his beer belly pressed into unnatural shapes like an astronaut's face during blast-off.
– Woo hoo! Look at the fun bags on that! he says, elbow out the driver's window like he's leaning on a bar.
An angelic-looking whore is parked outside the Pleasure Machine strip club, nodding off every now and then, but still managing to stand upright. She does have quite amazing breasts and is uncommonly attractive for Kings Cross, with almost white blonde hair, a petite ski-jump nose and tapered legs and ankles. It's hard to fathom that such a pretty girl could ever be reduced to prostitution, let alone streetwalking, but the dope fiend lean and the bruises on her legs tell us all we need to know.
Approaching her is a young guy in a blue tracksuit holding a packet of Winfield Red cigarettes like he's pitching a baseball. He nudges the girl and there's recognition. She clutches a small pink handbag to her stomach and tries to walk away from the guy.
Kevin cruises slowly past them doing 10 kays an hour, not giving a f--- about the honking cars piling up behind us on the strip.
- Whattaya call a whore with a runny nose?
- Full? says Cisco wearily.
Like every other photographer in our building, he's heard Kevin's joke eight gajillion times.
- Yeah heh haaaair, says Kevin, who finishes his Quarter Pounder, tossing his head like a waterbird swallowing a frog.
Across the road, the guy in the blue tracksuit is pointing back down the hill, getting in the blonde whore's face. She looks repentant and zips open her bag and hands the man something. He spits on the ground at her feet and jogs off. Kevin punches the accelerator and the big V8 engine pushes us back in our seats.
Every shitbag on Darlinghurst Road is watching us from doorways and corners because our Commodore looks so much like a police detective's car, right down to the two-way radio aerial poking out of the rear of the roof. The only thing that gives us away as media is the well-known sprawling shadow of Kevin obscuring half the windscreen, and the jumble of cameras, lenses and flash batteries piled around Cisco in the back seat.
It looks like another beautiful day in Sydney. You could do anything in this city this morning: surf, swim, go sailing, have a picnic or ride horses, but I'm going to be in this car with Kevin's arse, perving on whores, doing laps of Kings Cross because everyone but me is driving my life.
It's another Saturday and I have drawn the short straw and been assigned to the early news car. Instead of hiding behind my computer monitor avoiding work, I will now travel to whatever crime or news events materialise in the next five to six hours. It's a respite from underwear models and beer launches and soap stars but it won't be any easier, particularly if the bashing we're waiting to hear about turns into a murder.
Ahead of us, the guy in the blue tracksuit is jogging down Bayswater Road. Kevin accelerates, driving just a bit faster than is needed, displaying his driving skills and letting us know we're in the hands of a professional. Because it's the vehicle of choice for the NSW Police Force, the sound of a revving V8 Commodore engine is imprinted on shitheads' brains like air-raid sirens are on wartime Londoners.
Blue tracksuit immediately slows to a walk and ducks down a side street, taking a set of keys out of his pocket. He pretends to open the door of a new Mazda that's parked nearby. Kevin slows up beside him, jowls shivering with contempt, and for a moment I think he's about to avenge the honour of the white-haired whore.
- You don't own that, says Kevin. - Where'd ya steal that from, C district? Why don'tcha just take it back and we'll call it square?
The shitbag tries to look cool as he turns to check us out, but when he sees it's just Kevin, not the police, he rushes the car.
- F--- off, you fat c---!
- Aww right, nice. On me birthday too, says Kevin and accelerates away from him.
Twenty minutes later my mobile rings as we head out along the Pacific Highway. It's Sass with the address in Wahroonga we've been waiting for and the news the cops have finally confirmed that the bashed girl died just after 2am. As soon as I hang up, Kevin makes an intake of air like he's just burned his finger.
- Oooooh, Sass Black, I wouldn't even take her undies off, I'd just punch straight through 'em, he says.
- She's my cousin, Kevin.
- She's not mine, he says and makes the noise again.
- They got an address? asks Cisco from the back seat, his wock eye making him look stoned or sleepy - he's probably both.
- Yeah, the chick's dead.
- Woo hoo, says Kevin. - A dead un, haven't had a dead un for a while.
- Can you just shut up for a second, Kevin? I say.
- Aww right, on me birthday too.
- It's not your f---in' birthday.
Kevin shakes his head in mock disappointment, but stays quiet.
- Who is she? asks Cisco.
- A schoolgirl. She was at an 18th birthday party last night and someone bashed her with a rock and raped her.
- Poor thing. That's heavy, says Cisco.
Now I've spoken to Sass, I feel the pressure of what I have to do settle on my chest. This will be big for us. Young girl. Wahroonga's not too ethnic, so it probably means she's white, and white people always get a bigger run in the Sunday Observer than an Asian, wog or, heaven forbid, Aborigine. The editor will splash with this if I can get pics and quotes, though words are less important. I know what's coming and it sets off a hiss of anxiety in my bowels, like I've drunk too much coffee.
- What are you doing? I say to Kevin, who's turning in to a petrol station.
- Gotta get the pursuit juice, Neddy, he says. - Woo hoo, a dead 'un.
The girl's name is Kelly Beatty. She is, was, 17. It's now 7am and we're parked outside her house, and as far as we know neither the Tribune nor any of the TV networks have yet got the address, which is some consolation. The house is lit up like a prison because, I can tell you, the night your daughter gets murdered, you don't sleep.
Kevin has been prowling the street looking for signs of the competition, while Cisco fusses with his gear and I talk on the phone to Patricia, the photo editor, about tactics. I have already been to the house's side gate and patted the family dog, writing down the phone number on its identity tag in case I get the door slammed on me and have to harass the family via telephone.
There are certain conversations you have as a journalist that move you inside, that shift the mass of principle and morality that should provide your momentum and guidance through life. Patricia and I are discussing me driving to the nearest convenience store and buying flowers, as a softener for Kelly Beatty's parents, but quickly discard the idea in case a journalist from a rival news organisation happens to arrive while we're absent.
I have had this conversation many times before, when I was a newcomer to my profession, and they did their work. They moved the substance of me to my very edges, thickened my skin to the unnecessary complications of conscience and I became another hollowed-out media babushka doll, filled with tinier versions of me until the essence of Ned Jelli was a single, diamond-hard granule of disgust.
Now, as I go through the process again, of deciding how best to manipulate the family of a murdered teenager, there's no resistance; the decisions were made years ago.
I hang up as Kevin gets back inside the car and it sinks on its shocks like the boot's been loaded with firewood.
- They want you to knock 'em?
- What do you think?
- Want me to go with you? says Cisco, who's cradling his camera in his lap like a puppy, the long lens staring at me as implacably as my editor.
- Lemme suss it first, I say.
Kevin, who's been watching the rear-view mirror, nods behind him.
- Watch out for natives, I saw someone rustling around in the bushes before.
I get out and walk towards the house, tucking my T-shirt into my jeans, then pulling it out again when I realise I'm not wearing a belt. I wish I was in a suit, but it's a Saturday and I'm dressed casually. I look like a dole bludger who's gone up the shop for a packet of cigarette papers, so I try to smooth down my shirt and push my notepad into the waistband at the back of my jeans.
I take another look around the street. It's upper-middle class but not crazily cashed-up. The car in the driveway is a new Golf GTI, with a late-model Subaru wagon behind it. Again, it means cash but not silly money. These people won't be stupid, they're not white trash, so I watch the house carefully before I open their letterbox and find a health fund newsletter addressed to Mr David Beatty.
I put it back and walk in through the front gate, take some deep breaths and try to imagine what these people are going through. I put myself there, picture the dead girl as if she were my own child, and slowly my eyes soften, my expression lights with compassion, my game face appears.
I knock at the door and within seconds a huge man opens it and stares down at me. He's a giant, with crazy blond curly hair and a bent nose that speaks of years as a boxer or football player.
- Sir, I'm very sorry to bother you, my name is Ned Jelli from the Sunday Observer newspaper.
The guy makes a half-hearted attempt to close the door but I move inside a little, blocking the entrance. I am a piece of shit.
- Sir. David. What's happened to Kelly, it's just horrifying and I'd like to extend my and my newspaper's sympathies, but ...
The guy's looking at me like I've just stepped off the mother ship. He can't fathom I know his or his daughter's name. I've seen the expression before. It's what a normal person looks like when they realise what journalists actually have to do to get the stories they read in a newspaper each day. We're like cops and soldiers: you know it's bad news if we turn up on your doorstep.
- If I could just ask you a few questions?
The bloke says nothing, just looks at me like I'm wearing a G-string and heels. I'm not even actually human any more. I'm just a hairy, greasy turd that's grown legs and dragged itself upright. I want to vomit but this is the moment where he'll give me something or not, so I push.
- Perhaps you could tell me how you and your wife are coping?
I'm assuming he's married, but as I say it, through the open door, I see a middle-aged woman sitting by herself on the lounge staring blankly ahead. F---, that's bad, I think. It's been five hours and they haven't even got relatives here yet. It's not even real to them.
- Maybe you could tell me something about your daughter? I say and the big man moves towards me. I step back thinking he might take a swing but he's actually collapsing. He grabs at the doorframe and I move to help him but he waves me off.
- I'm sorry, I can't talk to you.
And then he starts to sob.
I'm shattered for the guy, but I'm already thinking about my next question. I am just about to ensure my place in hell.
- David. Do you think we'd be able to get a picture of your daughter?
He continues to cry. When I get back in the car, I lean my head on the dashboard.
- That was f---ed.
- What he say, what he say?
- Can you just shut up for a second, Kevin, and don't tell me it's your f---ing birthday.
Kevin looks wounded. I turn around to Cisco.
- You get a picture? he says.
A quarter of an hour later The Moof, my editor, has arrived at work and is less than impressed I've not obtained a photograph of the dead girl. Sass gives me the bad news.
- He's going to make my life misery, Ned.
- The guy was sobbing, Sass, I say into my mobile phone.
- I know, Neddy, and I know this sounds disgusting and exploitative and it's why everybody hates journalists but this is the best time to hit him. Give it 10 minutes then go back again.
- Or you knock on grass, Ned, it's up to you, but if you do it and the Tribune gets that picture you know what's going to happen.
I hang up my mobile and sag.
- So what happened to this chick anyway? says Kevin.
I stare out the windscreen at the neighbours poking looks up the street at "The Death House". News of Kelly's murder is trickling out, so it won't be long before we see the Tribune's news car or one of the networks. Then it really will get ugly.
I talk slowly, thinking how I'll write it, about what Sass and Big Bob, our police roundsman, have told me over the phone. Bob has been talking off the record to one of the detectives who've been interviewing the killer. He's 17 as well. It's hard to know which set of parents you'd least want to be.
- She was at a party and she's friends with one of the guys there. No sex, just mates, been friends all through school. They go for a walk outside. He's drunk and he must have thought this was the time and he puts it on her, tells her he's been in love with her for years, tries to kiss her. She freaks out on him and tries to go back to the party.
I look absent-mindedly at my notebook. I can barely read my shorthand.
- He grabs her, rapes her, and when she won't quieten down, he bashes her head in with a brick. They found her body in the car park of a pub at closing.
- We got a picture of him? says Cisco.
About 10 minutes later I open the car door and am met with a spray of water from a neighbour's hose. The girl's name is now on the radio, but we're still the only ones with an address.
- I know where you're from, you vultures. What are you doing here? says a woman in a lavender-coloured dressing-gown.
I close the car door as the water cascades down the window. On the other side of the road, a group of neighbours stands glaring at us. Cisco checks his camera hasn't gotten wet.
- We're the vultures? he says.
Kevin starts the car and drives down the street and parks.
- Needed a wash, he says.
I think about what Sass said about knocking on grass and it makes me almost as nauseous as knocking the family. "Grassing it" entails pretending I went back to the house and telling the editor the family didn't want to talk. A lot of journos do it and it's hard to tell whether they do out of cowardice, laziness or ethics. I know why I'd do it.
I wait another 10 minutes until the neighbours thin out and head inside to have their showers and shove the kids off to rugby and netball. I'm getting paid to stare at the house; they aren't, so civilians always get sick of it first. Once the coast is clear, Cisco and I walk back to the front door and knock.
This time there's no answer, so I knock again and the door clicks open of its own accord. I push it wider and we see the lounge room is empty. They must have gone upstairs, maybe to sleep. On the hallway table is a picture of a young girl laughing with David Beatty and the woman I saw on the couch.
Cisco doesn't even hesitate.