Authors: Geoffrey McGeachin
Melbourne-born photographer Geoff McGeachin has had a varied career shooting pictures for advertising, travel, theatre and feature films. His work has taken him all over the world, including stints living in New York and Hong Kong. He is now based in Sydney, where he teaches photography and writes. His first novel,
Fat, Fifty & F∗∗∗ed!
, won the inaugural Australian Popular Fiction competition.
Fat, Fifty & F∗∗∗ed!
an imprint of
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Penguin Group (Australia), 2007
Text copyright © Geoff McGeachin 2007
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Dedicated to my supermuse, the amazing Wilma Schinella.
Whenever I think I may have gone one step too far she
encourages me to take two more
One sunny Sunday morning a few years back, I popped out early to get the papers and tumbled arse-over-tit over my neighbour’s ugly mutt Dougal, who was snoozing happily on my doorstep. While there was minimal damage to all concerned it was a bit of a shock, so I knew exactly how the live-in caretaker on Fort Denison must have felt when he ambled outside to check the tide gauge early one holiday Monday in October and almost tripped over the 80 000-tonne, oceangoing bulk-transport tanker that someone had left tied up to his Hills Hoist during the night.
Now, Fort Denison, a tiny island bang in the middle of Sydney Harbour, doesn’t actually have a Hills Hoist, and the giant tanker wasn’t so much tied up as parked – or anchored, if you want to get all nautical – but it was definitely a very big ship and the damned thing was right there on this bloke’s doorstep, and it really shouldn’t have been.
At 2.45 a.m. an inexplicable blackout had shut down the surveillance screens in the Harbour Control Tower high above Millers Point. When they flickered back to life at 5.10 a.m. the duty officer spotted the unexpected visitor anchored right across the Manly ferry route, and became both alert and alarmed. Even more so when he couldn’t pick up a signal from the ship’s Automatic Identification System, or raise anyone on board by radio. He called the local cops, who called the federal cops, who called the government security-service liaison people in Canberra, who called Detective Inspector Peter Sturdee in Sydney, who called me. Julie took the call, which was fair enough since she was closest to the phone.
It was just on 6.40 according to the stainless-steel Omega Seamaster wristwatch on the bedside table, and the taste in my mouth and the mild throbbing in my head suggested that tugging the cork out of that third bottle of Graveyard Shiraz hadn’t been such a great idea.
Julie, stretched out on the couch in the bay window and looking one hell of a lot better than she had any right to, was listening and nodding. I was trying to remember if I’d topped up the Panadol supply in the bathroom cabinet after her last visit. The opening of a third bottle, followed by a platonic sleepover, was becoming a recurring theme on Julie’s visits, and it was giving both my liver and my ego a hammering. Julie and I came under the heading of Work Colleagues and Just Good Friends. The last bit was more her idea than mine.
Julie sat up straight and that was definitely a sight worth looking at. She was wearing one of my old Icebergs windcheaters, her tousled blond hair, those long tanned runner’s legs, lacy black knickers and not a whole lot else. I’m pretty sure if Plato had copped an eyeful of that outfit he would have done a quick rethink of his concept of the bonk-free relationship.
She nodded one more time in response to whoever was on the line, added a terse, ‘It’s happening, Peter,’ and tossed the cordless phone across the room in my direction. I came very close to catching it.
‘There’s a Highway Patrol car double-parked downstairs with the engine running,’ she said as I fumbled through the folds of the doona for the phone. ‘Better get your hat on, cowboy. Peter Sturdee needs a senior intelligence officer down at the Opera House jetty, and he needs him there pronto. There’s a problem on the harbour.’
Why the hell anyone would think that problems on the harbour were a job for me or for our agency, D.E.D., was hard to figure. D.E.D. stands for Directorate for Extra-territorial Defence, and the E-word should be a bit of a clue. Our job is spying on the world’s trouble spots, or what the layman might call covert offshore visual intelligence gathering, and we do a pretty nice job of it.
Domestic incidents are usually left to the local agencies, but it was the last day of a long weekend, perfect sailing and barbecue weather, so I guessed that ASIO, ASIS, ONA, DSA and all the other federal security acronyms were as good as
shut down for the duration. Since Peter Sturdee’s call had come through to yours truly, I must have been the most senior intelligence officer available, which was a bit of a scary thought.
I’d been acting Director-General of D.E.D. for almost six months now – six months in and I was already eight months behind in my paperwork. It was pretty obvious I wasn’t cut out to be behind a desk, and recently I’d started a campaign to get myself demoted. So far I hadn’t had much success, but hey, I’m an optimist. Right now, though, just when I was hoping to enjoy a lazy holiday Monday like every other bugger in Sydney, Julie had to go and answer that bloody phone.
Lights and sirens and some aggressive driving by the Highway Patrol officer got us down to the Opera House in no time flat. We skidded and slewed through cross-traffic at major intersections with headlights flashing and tyres smoking, scaring the living daylights out of a bunch of still half-asleep holiday drivers.
I had my eyes closed and my feet jammed hard against the firewall for most of the trip, and when we reached the CBD, amazingly still in one piece, everything was cordoned off. Police cars blocked every intersection and officers in yellow safety-vests were busily directing traffic away from the city.
We screamed through the cordon and on down to the
ferry terminal at Circular Quay without seeing a single civilian. The usually buzzing quay area looked dead as a doornail, the elevated train station was deserted, and a flotilla of abandoned and forlorn-looking ferries was tied up at the wharves. All rail and water traffic had been shut down, and apart from the cops, seagulls, and a CNN news crew setting up a satellite dish, it seemed I had all of Sydney Harbour to myself. Lucky me.
It was just on seven when we skidded to an eyeball-jarring stop at the Man O’ War Steps beside the Opera House. ‘Thank Christ for that,’ I said, glancing over at the driver. ‘I was starting to wonder if this heap had a brake pedal.’
The cop grinned and adjusted his wraparound mirrored sunglasses. He switched off the siren and lights and pointed to a police launch waiting at the pontoon, engines idling. As a rule I’m wary of all boats smaller than the
, but I was bloody glad to have a reason to get out of that car. After checking that the World War II Sauer 9mm pistol was still snug in its holster under my jacket, I grabbed my camera bag and headed for the wharf.
My shoulder had finally healed from a bullet I took during an incident earlier in the year and I was champing at the bit to be back on assignment, either photographic or covert ops. That was the reason I was carrying the camera bag. All D.E.D. operatives, myself included, operate under the guise of photographers for WorldPix International. I’d been a photographer before I got into the spy business and I used
that as a cover for one of my first assignments in Afghanistan in the early 1980s. It worked like a charm, so I came up with the concept of establishing WorldPix, a real photographic agency that could be used to disguise the activities of D.E.D. operatives.
WorldPix provides worldwide hard news coverage, as well as celebrity fluff for the pulp magazines and Sunday trashloids. The agency’s snappers roam the globe supplying images to newspapers, magazines and the advertising industry, and the press passes and camera bags are perfect cover for the ten percent of photographers who are also spies.
All D.E.D. espionage recruits have to learn to be top-rate photographers, to justify their place on the WorldPix books alongside the genuine snappers. Sometimes it’s hard to say if our people are spies who are photographers or photographers who are spies. To maintain cover, D.E.D. operatives have to keep up with the drinking and partying that typifies your average photographer on assignment, and we all take this part of our jobs very seriously. No doubt it was this behaviour that had inspired Julie to christen us Dedheads.
Navigating the swaying gangway to the police launch was awkward, and I’d barely managed to scramble aboard when the engines went to full throttle and the vessel surged forward, throwing me backward and almost over the stern into the drink. I was about to give the skipper a piece of my mind when I glanced past the wheelhouse towards our destination and the thought went right out of my head.
The huge tanker towered above the fort, casting its massive shadow over the tiny island. The letters LNG were painted on the side in enormous white capitals, and rising high above the deck, glistening in the early sunlight, were four gigantic silver domes, designed to hold liquefied natural gas. They were an awe-inspiring sight, which I’ll admit made me more than a little uneasy. My uneasiness increased as we got closer and I could make out the warnings painted at regular intervals on the hull: DANGER! FLAMMABLE CARGO! KEEP CLEAR!
Just last week at the airport, some doofus had left his suitcase by the snack bar while he went to make a phone call, and when he got back the bomb squad had blown up his dirty underwear in the middle of the carpark. And here I was heading in the direction of something a lot bigger than your average Paklite Million Miler, which was holding something a bit more volatile than a load of grubby socks and jocks.