He hit the guy’s number and heard a phone ringing on the other side of the apartment door.
Trying again, he stared at the flashing screen as it rang out for a second time.
‘You in there?’
He thumped the door. Harder. Louder. The noise echoing down the hall.
John Bailey had been standing in the steamy corridor for the last five minutes. Calling. Knocking. Waiting. Where the hell was he? Why would he leave his phone behind?
Pressing his ear against the door, Bailey thought he heard footsteps. A chair dragging. A tapping sound. Then it stopped. It could have been next door. Downstairs. They packed the apartments tightly in this part of Sydney. Doors only a few metres apart. Windowless corridors, trapping the heat. Warm air, laced with smells of spiced cooking and smoke, difficult to breathe. Especially on the top floor, outside apartment 1023.
During his years as a war correspondent in the Middle East, Bailey had been stuck in worse places for a lot longer.
The boot of a car. That bedroom in Mosul with the bloodstains on the wall. The house in Fallujah that had been cut in half by a mortar round while Bailey was hiding inside. Those places were much worse than the humid hallway of the rundown old apartment building where he was standing right now. But the heat was getting to him. A sheen of sweat had formed on his brow, sending a salty trickle into his eye. His throat was dry, his lungs heavy. Bailey looked at his watch: 9.28 pm. He decided to wait outside.
An elderly woman with a box of wine was walking in off the street just as Bailey was walking out. He offered a half-smile. ‘Hot one again tonight.’
‘Tell me about it,’ she said. ‘Don’t mind the heat so much, bloody smoke that gets me. Are they ever going to put out those fires?’
‘Rain’s the only thing that’ll fix them.’
The woman stopped beside him, squinting and laughing, like he’d just uttered one of the stupidest things she’d ever heard. ‘Rain? Can’t even remember what it sounds like.’
Bailey sat down on the front steps, the warm breeze feeling surprisingly cool as it tickled the sweat on his neck, his stubbly cheeks. He thumbed through his phone. Checking his messages. Killing time. Anything to distract him from the sinking feeling in his gut.
He heard a voice, someone calling out in the distance, followed by a loud fluttering of birds.
Bailey looked up just in time to see a body falling from the sky.
Leaping to his feet, he fell backwards into the wall, hands hugging bricks, seeking shelter from the arms and legs flailing
in the air until, almost in slow motion, the body landed with a loud thud on the footpath.
Bailey froze. Heart drumming against his chest. Arms shaking as he watched the pool of blood spreading across the concrete, gathering in cracks.
He took a step towards the dead guy on the footpath, kneeling down beside him, catching the moonlight on his broken face.
Bailey knew exactly who he was.
TUESDAY ONE WEEK EARLIER
It was the summer Australia burned.
A nation stricken by drought, reduced to a giant tinderbox. Hundreds of fires burning since spring. Thousands of homes destroyed. Dozens of people dead. Cars. Sheds. Shops.
Farm animals. Wildlife. Pets. Even the insects that would have devoured what was left of the smoking carcases.
Vanquished by fires so powerful, so aggressive, they created their own weather systems, sending embers leaping through the air, starting new fires in places that couldn’t see them coming.
And the smoke.
Acrid, lung-burning, eye-stinging smoke.
It was everywhere, in everything.
Including the warehouse in Surry Hills where Bailey was slowly making his way through the crowd, head bowed, avoiding eye contact with the mostly white men with fashy haircuts, tattoos and ill-fitting stone-washed jeans. Some of them with Australian flags tied around their necks. All of them with hard faces. The patriots.
‘Excuse me, brother.’
Bailey felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, turning to see a tall man with a square jaw looking down on him. He had a web tattoo inked into his neck and a spider climbing the side of his shaved head. Thug art.
‘Me and my boys are up front,’ he said, motioning to get past.
Bailey stepped aside, nodding at the trail of men with crew cuts and union jacks plastered on their blue t-shirts. He recognised them instantly. The Blue Boys. A far right nationalist group that had recently had its Facebook page shut down after they were caught praising the gunman who had shot up those mosques in Christchurch, killing fifty-one innocent people.
Bailey checked his ticket on his mobile phone. Thankfully, he’d been seated up the back where he could make a quick exit, if things turned ugly. He stared at his ticket a moment longer, shaking his head at the price tag – a thousand dollars to listen to Augustus Strong. The race-baiting doyen of America’s alt-right movement and favourite among Neo-Nazis and far right nationalists. What a rip-off. At least Bailey hadn’t personally paid for his seat. The magazine had picked up the bill because he was there for a story. Different from the ones he’d spent years chasing in the Middle East. His first article for Enquirer Magazine. A feature about Augustus Strong’s visit to Australia.
The warehouse reminded Bailey of an old mechanic’s garage. Grease stains on the floor. Corrugated iron roller doors tarred with paint and rust. Brick walls chipped and scarred. There were dozens of old warehouses in this part of Sydney. Most of them had been converted into trendy apartments, cafés and restaurants, clothing outlets, or function spaces for parties and events like the one Bailey was attending tonight.
The location of the warehouse had been kept secret, with a message sent out to ticketholders an hour before to let them know where to go. Bailey had made it with plenty of time to spare because the Darlinghurst end of Surry Hills was next door to Paddington, the suburb where Bailey lived in a single-storey townhouse. The warehouse was so close that Bailey had decided to leave his car at home and walk.
The protesters hadn’t taken long to get there, either. On his way in, Bailey had counted at least a dozen people holding placards on the footpath outside, and he knew the number would swell. Before Strong had arrived in Australia, he had been front page news after it emerged that the home affairs minister had personally intervened to grant him a visa, despite warnings from intelligence officials that the controversial figure’s visit could incite violence.
‘Everybody, please take your seats. The event will begin in five minutes.’
A woman’s voice echoed through the hall.
‘And a reminder to audience members, no photography or recording equipment is permitted. Anyone found to be taking photographs or recording tonight’s event will be ejected.’
Bailey plucked his phone from the inside pocket of his jacket, subtly activating a video recording before bringing his ticket back up on the screen so that he had a good reason to be holding his phone, should anyone ask. Steering his way through the crowd, he walked past the row of temporary chairs where he was supposed to be seated so that he could keep filming faces. If he was going to write about Augustus Strong,
he needed to know about the people who had paid to hear him speak. How far the tentacles of the alt-right movement had spread in Australia.
When Bailey was done filming he returned to the back row, shuffling past the knees of the people already sitting down, and settled in his seat. Checking that he wasn’t being watched, he stopped the video and activated the voice memo app, beginning an audio recording, before slipping his phone back inside his jacket. Out of sight. The sound would be slightly muffled, but it would pick up most of the speech and the crowd’s reaction. Experience had told him that.
‘Best keep that phone in there, mate.’ A bloke in a sharp suit and a fashy haircut was backing into the empty seat beside Bailey, pointing at his jacket. ‘Heard the Blue Boys belted some guy for taking pictures at Strong’s talk in Melbourne the other night. Ended up in hospital.’
‘Probably a reporter from some commie newspaper like The Journal,’ Bailey said, knowing that his sarcastic dig at the newspaper that had employed him for thirty years would be lost on the bloke beside him. ‘Just making sure I’d switched it off.’
‘All media’s the same these days. Leftist mafia. Out of touch. No idea about what real people want. What we think.’
Bailey had met his first real person for the night.
‘Tell me about it,’ Bailey said. ‘World’s going to shit. Thank god for truth-tellers like Augustus Strong, eh?’
‘Amen to that.’
The lights dimmed as the woman’s voice echoed throughout the hall again.
‘Please take your seats. Tonight’s program will begin in two minutes.’
‘I don’t agree with everything Strong says, mind you, but by god I’ll defend his right to say it.’
The guy beside Bailey kept talking as the last of the crowd hurried to their seats. More men with slogans plastered across shirts and singlets, declaring their allegiances to one group or other. Freedom Front. Real Australia. National Action Coalition. Some of the groups Bailey recognised, some of them he had never heard of before. In any other place he would have had his notebook out, scribbling observations. But not here. Not with a hostile gathering of far right nationalists, including the bloke beside him.
‘. . . not really a fan of the outfits and makeup. He’s a weird cat. All about the performance, I guess. But he’s not afraid to speak the truth. He knows that conservatism is about maintaining a tradi¬tional way of life, right? Keeping out not just immigrants but also corrosive influences that eat away at our Aussie values, right?’
He paused, waiting for a response.
‘Yeah, mate.’ Bailey nodded. ‘Strong’s good on that stuff.’
The room went dark and the crowd erupted in a loud cheer. Bailey followed everyone else by getting to his feet, cringing at the backslaps he was getting from the man beside him.
‘Here we go, brother!’
Bailey pumped his fist in the air, feeling like he was betraying every rational thought in his head. The price of fitting in.
Electronic music was blasting from the two large speakers positioned on either side of the stage. A song that Bailey had never heard, heavy with synthesiser sounds. He wondered whether it was one of those fashwave bands. The alt-right’s own brand of music.
A cloud of artificial smoke blew across the stage and out strode Augustus Strong, spotlights beaming rays of light like he’d been transported down from heaven. Wearing sunglasses and a bright red blazer, Strong was pumping his arms, revving up the section of the audience chanting his name.
‘Strong! Strong! Strong!’
It didn’t take long for the entire hall to catch on. An earthquake of excitement for their man.
Bailey had to remind himself that the guy on stage was merely someone who wrote opinion articles for right-wing online publications. He wasn’t a politician. He wasn’t a busi¬nessman. He hadn’t starred in movies or had a hit song. He hadn’t even written a book. He was just a guy who found an audience through social media by being a contrarian. A self-declared culture warrior who liked to boast and offend. And his targets were always the same. Feminists. Muslims. Socialists. Politicians. The mainstream media and basically anyone who disagreed with him about anything.
During the ninety-minute sermon that followed, Bailey didn’t hear anything that would change his view that Augustus Strong was nothing but a great pretender.
When the cheering finally stopped and the house lights came back on, Bailey just wanted to get the hell out of there. But there was one more thing he needed to do.
During his lap of the hall before Strong’s speech, Bailey had noticed Chrystal Armstrong loitering by the side of the stage. The publicity queen of Sydney who’d been ignoring his emails and phone calls for the last week. With the event now over, she was
gliding down the brick wall towards the exit, where Bailey was determined to catch her.
‘Have a good night, mate.’ Bailey tapped the chatty man next to him on the shoulder. ‘I’ve got to run.’
‘No worries, brother. Good to talk. What did you think of Strong?’
‘Solid, mate. Solid.’
Bailey pushed back his chair and slipped through the gap, walking quickly towards the back of the room.
‘Chrystal Armstrong,’ Bailey said, holding out his hand. ‘John Bailey.’
She gave him a blank stare, ignoring his hand, keeping one eye on the security guard nearby.
‘I’ve sent you a couple of emails this week about possibly getting some time with Strong?’
‘Sorry, who are you?’
Chrystal had had so much Botox that Bailey wasn’t even sure that the words had come from her swollen lips.
‘John Bailey,’ he said, letting his hand flop by his side. ‘I emailed you about an interview.’
‘Who are you with?’
The crowd was starting to build around them and Bailey was conscious about not drawing too much attention, especially knowing that journalists like him were not welcome.
Grabbing his notebook, he scribbled down his phone number and email address, tearing out the page and handing it to Chrystal. ‘Enquirer Magazine. It’s new. First edition comes out in six weeks. I’m doing a story on Strong.’
Chrystal’s face moved, miraculously, with her smile. ‘Jock Donaldson’s magazine?’
Jock fucking Donaldson.
Of course Sydney’s PR queen knew about Jock. The billion¬aire financier who had grown a conscience in later life, deciding to bankroll Enquirer Magazine as some kind of vanity project to ‘save journalism’.
‘That’s the one.’
Chrystal took the slip of paper out of Bailey’s hand. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’
‘Hey! This guy’s a fucking reporter!’
A hand landed on Bailey’s shoulder and he turned around to see a face he knew well. Benny Hunter. The leader of the Freedom Front and Australia’s most notorious racist.
‘I’m just leaving, mate.’
Bailey tried to move towards the exit, where Chrystal had just done a runner, but Benny had a hold of his jacket. He pulled Bailey close, their faces only inches apart.
‘What did you think of our boy Augustus?’ Benny said, nodding his chin. Testing Bailey. ‘Impressive, huh?’
‘Yeah, clever guy,’ Bailey said. ‘Loved his simple solutions for complex problems.’
Benny took a moment to process Bailey’s words. ‘Are you getting smart with me?’
‘No, mate. Just sharing observations.’
Benny clenched his jaw and Bailey noticed the size of his pupils, guessing that he was on something more than a nationalist high.
‘You’re a fucking smartarse, y’know that?’
‘It’s been said.’
Benny pulled Bailey even closer so that their heads touched, momentarily, before letting him go. ‘I’m an avid reader, Mr Bailey. I look forward to your article.’
Unnerved by the fact that the leader of the Freedom Front knew his name, Bailey took a step back. ‘Glad to hear it.’ But he was determined not to be intimidated, despite the posse of skinheads gathered around him. ‘You have a good night, gents.’
Bailey started walking towards the exit, adrenalin pumping, bracing for Benny, or one of the other men, to stop him. To finish their conversation with fists.
He made it outside without incident and when he reached the top of the stairs he stopped, turning briefly to check that he wasn’t being followed. He was met by a push in the back that sent him tumbling down the half-dozen or so steps to the street. He landed hard on the concrete. Right shoulder aching. Ears ringing. An all too familiar taste of blood in his mouth, reminding him of darker times when he’d been made to understand the meaning of violence.
‘Next time watch your manners.’ Bailey looked up to see Benny Hunter leaning over him, patting his cheek. ‘You never know what might happen.’
‘Everything all right there?’
A policeman called out from his position in a cordon that was separating Augustus Strong’s supporters from the protesters across the street.
‘Poor bloke slipped on the steps.’ Benny waved at the cop, pointing at Bailey. ‘You’re okay, aren’t you, buddy?’
‘Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine.’ Bailey reached into his jacket for his phone, turning the camera towards Benny, who was already walking away. ‘Hey, Benny!’
Benny turned around.
Bailey snapped a picture.
‘That’s a beauty,’ he said, holding up the screen.
Benny took a few steps back towards Bailey, fists clenched, before changing his mind when he noticed the police officer still watching him.
He opted to give Bailey the finger instead, before walking in the opposite direction with his gaggle of disciples.
‘You all right, mate?’ the policeman called out.
The policeman turned away to yell at a lone protester who had broken away from the picket line and was trying to cross the road.
‘Stop! Stay where you are!’
Bailey couldn’t see the protester because the policeman was in the way. But he could hear his voice.
‘I know him. That guy on the ground. John Bailey. I know him,’ he shouted.
The mention of Bailey’s name seemed to be enough for the policeman, who stepped out of the way to let the guy cross over.
‘I see you’ve been making friends.’
The man dangled a bottle of water in front of Bailey.
‘Here. Take this.’
Jonny Abdo. The former refugee from South Sudan, now a lawyer. It had been so many years since Bailey had seen him that he almost didn’t recognise him. A boy back then. A man now.
‘Are you okay, Bailey?’
Bailey stood up, rotating his shoulder, a sharp pain pinching his neck.
‘I think so.’
‘You’re lucky that policeman was there. Benny Hunter’s a violent man.’
‘So I gather.’ Bailey accepted the water, shaking Abdo’s hand. ‘It’s good to see you, Jonny.’
‘What the hell are you doing here?’
‘I came with my students. I’m leading a demonstration against Augustus Strong. He should never have been allowed in the country,’ Abdo said, watching Bailey roll his shoulder. ‘Sure you’re okay?’
Bailey took a mouthful of water, rinsing the blood from the cut on his lip. ‘Yeah, thanks. Few bruises. I’ll live.’
‘Plenty of witnesses if you want to press charges?’
‘All good, mate. Good fodder for the article I’m writing.’
Abdo laughed. ‘It’s always about the story with you, Bailey.’
‘It’ll get more traction than some drawn out assault case that probably won’t go anywhere.’
‘I was joking,’ Abdo said, frowning.
Bailey realised how defensive he’d just sounded. Standing alongside Abdo took him back to the first time they’d met. A refugee camp in Egypt. Little Jonny Abdo clinging to his mother’s legs while Bailey interviewed her about the civil war that had claimed the lives of her husband and three other sons. Getting her reaction to the news that she and Jonny had been granted asylum in Australia. The Abdos had a powerful story to tell. Bailey had written it. But he didn’t like the insinuation that newspaper headlines were all that he cared about.
‘I’d better get back over there.’ Abdo pointed at the people holding placards across the street. ‘Make sure this doesn’t get out of hand.’
‘Hey, Jonny?’ Bailey stopped the younger man as he made to walk away. ‘You doing okay? How’s your mum?’
‘Good. We’re both good. Mum’s retired now, she’s . . .’ Abdo stopped speaking, distracted by the sound of a glass bottle smashing on the road. ‘This country has been good to us. I don’t want people like Strong messing that up. I’ve got to go.’
‘You got a card, Jonny? We should catch up.’
Abdo dug his hand inside the pocket of his jeans, handing Bailey his business card.
‘I’d like that.’