Fast and Loose
“Great crime fiction…these books are not just entertaining, they are educational into the bargain” – Australian Crime Fiction
Joel Fitch used to be a con artist. That is, until his scam paid off but his life went belly up. Now, two years later, at the ripe old age of 22, Joel has a mattress full of cash and no idea what comes next. The movies never tell you what to do after you’ve walked into the sunset.
Besides, Joel’s past is catching up with him. One of the victims from his con artist days has hunted him down. Danny Hemming is a TV journalist on television’s trashiest current-affairs program and he’s looking for someone to give him the inside scoop on the latest scams.
Blackmailed into helping Hemming uncover and expose the country’s biggest swindlers in the murky world of tabloid current affairs, Joel is making more enemies than ever.Read the First Chapter
Catch Nicholas live at Melbourne Magic Festival
Looking for a speaker with a difference for your Christmas party? Get in touch to see how Nicholas J. Johnson can help make your event a success.
Fast and Loose
Rule one: no bullshit.
Want to spin shit? Go work for some other hack show on some other network. Here at Off The Record, you break the golden rule and you’re done.
Out on your arse.
I’ve worked for this show for ten years and you know how many times I’ve put a lie to air? Zero. Zilch. That’s Maggie’s rule.
You know what they call me at Off The Record? The Scambuster.
When you have a con artist you want taken down, I’m your producer. I don’t care if it’s a day trader pulling a pump-and-dump at a Bond Street boiler room or a door-to-door scammer offering to re-seal driveways at rock-bottom prices. One day, I’ll be spear-tackling a sleazy prick in a pinstripe suit, demanding to know where the money is, the next I’ll be comforting a purple-haired nan in the suburbs who just realised that the gleaming black fresh ‘tar’ on her driveway is actually just a fuck-ton of sump oil.
Sure, I’ll do other stories as well. If I have to. Miracle acne cures. Celebrity sex scandals. Maybe a paedophile or two. Hell, I even drew the short straw and got roped into shooting that Chadwick Syndicate package. But con artists, they’re my bag.
You’re looking at the man who brought down the entire Pho Trung counterfeit school-uniform ring, discredited seven fake clairvoyants in one afternoon, completely crippling the Sunshine Coast Psychic Expo, and got the Swinburne Swindler arrested for impersonating a university professor for three semesters so he could hit on students.
I am judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion. So, I know a thing or two about bullshit. And on Off The Record, you can’t just come out and make shit up.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Danny, this is tabloid news, of course you make shit up. The illegal immigrants living in our sewers? The cannibal children of Wagga Wagga? That necrophilic Member of Parliament? Didn’t I see in the paper that those stories were all lies? All I can say is: don’t believe everything you read. Off The Record has never had a successful defamation case brought against it in the fifteen years it has been on air – partly because we have the best lawyers in the business, but mostly because we live by that one golden rule.
We start talking bullshit and we’re no better than the dodgy tradesmen and rorters we make a living from.
You have to imply the lie and bend the truth. You have to make the truth say what you want it to say. Tie the truth to a chair and beat the shit out of it until it confesses.
Lying is for amateurs.
‘Just relax, follow my lead and keep recording. I don’t care if the boom mic ends up in the shot, just get every last word he mutters. You got me?’
Warwick had only been on the team for a couple of months and we hadn’t broken the rookie sound operator’s spirit just yet. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice change not to have to deal with the dead-eyed cynicism that every other crew member brought to work with them, but I was getting sick of the stupid questions.
‘So, you’ll just start talking straightaway? Then we crash tackle him?’
‘Spear-tackle. And don’t worry about us and what we’re saying, just focus on your job. Unless he tries to hit you or grab the boom. It looks fucking amazing when they go for the gear.’
Warwick nodded nervously while Paul, on camera, stubbed out his cigarette against the brick wall of the plastic surgeon’s Cronulla offices. Aurora Magnusson was touching up her eye make-up using her phone’s camera as a mirror. In a few minutes’ time she’d turn on the waterworks and I wanted that mascara streaming down those pretty cheeks.
‘Is this going to take much longer?’ she asked.
‘Natwarlal should be here in a couple of minutes and we can hit him up straightaway.’
‘He better be,’ Paul said. ‘We’ve got an interview over at The Arena in an hour.’
I didn’t like having two stories on the trot at once. I like to focus. But I’d already arranged to meet Fred Fitch in Penrith at eleven when Aurora’s people told us she had a window to confront Natwarlal between nine and ten. Unfortunately, the good doctor was running late.
I’d been chasing Doctor Kumar Natwarlal for months. Maggie had assigned me the story based on a tip-off that the plastic surgeon had been pulling a swiftie on his patients: recycling breast implants. He’d take them out of one socialite during their biennial upgrade and transfer them into the next. Then he’d repeat the scam on his next customer.
This North Shore plastic surgeon is playing the old bait-and-switch with his patients’ breast implants. Mammary film-flam, tonight, on Off the Record.
I bet he got a kick out of doing it, too. Tricking the type of woman who doesn’t even like wearing the same outfit twice into walking around with second-hand breasts. The trouble is, no matter how deeply I dug, I couldn’t uncover any real proof, just a few teary victims. At best, I could only make him look incompetent.
But then I had a brainwave. I remembered hearing that Channel Eight had just signed Aurora Magnusson, a nineteen-year-old runner-up in a modelling reality show. She was supposed to join the cast of our Home and Away knock-off, Sandy Beach.
You talk to casting and they’ll tell you the problem with hiring models is that they tend to be a bit flat-chested. The network was worried about her running down the beach looking like a ten-year-old boy in a bikini. Harry in publicity had let it slip that the network had persuaded her to get her tits done before they started shooting. Nothing too serious, just one size up. They were even willing to split the cost, which isn’t exactly standard practice in this business. Hair? Make-up? A little botox? Absolutely. But full plastic surgery? Unheard of.
So, I convinced Maggie to throw a couple grand more at the girl and we sent her over to Natwarlal to get some work done. The girl didn’t care that she might be getting pre-loved tits, because she got it. She knew how to play the victim. And she knew there’d be a pay-off in the long term. Unfortunately, Natwarlal didn’t just scam her, he completely ballsed up the operation and Aurora got an infection. I felt like an absolute prick when she told me.
Even so, now instead of a shitty plastic-surgery scam we had a celebrity shitty plastic-surgery scam. You can’t put a price on that type of story. Well, you can: it costs about the same as a pair of breast implants.
‘I’m supposed to be having lunch with Lawrence so the paparazzi can catch us together,’ Aurora said with a sigh. ‘Do you have any idea how stressful it is dating a rugby league player?’
‘Wouldn’t know, love,’ I said. ‘I follow Union.’
After the story ran, Aurora would be guaranteed a fresh set of implants, a healthy out-of-court settlement and enough free publicity to kick-start her Best New Talent campaign.
‘Keep calm. Follow Danny. Mic in the face,’ Warwick was repeating to himself, gripping the long handle of his boom mic like a rifle, a solider about to go over the top. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen. His long black oily hair was parted down the middle, and he was trying to pass off tufts of bum fluff as a beard.
‘Mate, you’re gonna be fine,’ I said. ‘Everyone shits themselves when they pop their spear-tackle cherry.’
When you want to make someone look like a crook, you spear-tackle them. The Americans call it an ‘ambush interview’ and news still refers to as a ‘walk-in’ – the method is the same: hijack your subject with an already rolling camera and a ream of tough questions they’ve got a snowball’s chance of answering in a way that doesn’t incriminate them.
What do you have to say to the women whose trust you betrayed?
Don’t you believe in the Hippocratic Oath?
How do you sleep at night?
It’s the journalistic equivalent of being picked up from behind and pile-driven head first into the ground. There’s no right way to survive it. Walk away? You’ll look like you have something to hide. Stay calm? You’re an emotionless robot. Fight back? A psychopath.
‘You want to know what happened the first time I ran a spear-tackle?’ I asked Warwick. He nodded. ‘We’re staking out the offices of some state family-values politician who’d been banging his assistant. Angus Brent was his name. Married. Male assistant. We’d been waiting for him for hours and the guy was a no-show. I figure maybe he’s hiding in his office until we leave, so I back off a bit. We hide around the corner like we’re doing now. Anyway, just when I’m about to give up, the bastard shows up, walking into the building. Somehow he’d snuck past me. I knew I wasn’t going to get a second chance, so I hit him straight up with the tough questions. Should you be running the state? What sort of moral leadership can you provide? Isn’t the young man you’re sleeping with the same age as your son?’
‘So, what happened?’ Warwick asked, eyes wide.
‘The guy loses his shit, is what happened. Punches me twice in the face, once in the ribs. Black eye and two cracked ribs. But that’s not even the best part. You want to tell him, Paul?’
‘You tell him,’ Paul said, smiling. ‘It’s your story.’
‘It was the wrong fucking guy! Brent was still inside. And the guy I’d ambushed was his bloody priest or minister or whatever. He’d come to give Brent spiritual guidance in his time of need.’
‘What did you do?’
‘We just ran the footage anyway,’ I shrugged. ‘Used it to show the type of company Brent kept. The point is, you never know what you’re going to get with a spear-tackle.’
The real trick is finding your subject at just the right moment. Never go for a subject when they’re with the family. Get them when they look relaxed. Guard down. I love catching a target stepping out of a flashy car, maybe wearing sunglasses. The public will never trust a man in sunglasses. That’s journalism 101.
The fact is, this kind of work is easy. On Off The Record we only ever do stories about three types of people. The Three Vs, Maggie calls them.
Once you figure out which one your target is, the rest falls into place.
‘Here we go,’ Paul grunted, heaving his camera onto his shoulder as the doctor pulled up in his late-model Saab. ‘You guys ready?’
Warwick nodded and started recording. Aurora checked her make-up one more time and pulled down the front of her top, revealing her red and swollen cleavage. Her eyes were already welling up in anticipation. What a pro. We waited until the plastic surgeon had got out of his car and locked the door before we made our move. As the four of us emerged from around the corner, his eyes widened behind his aviators.
‘Doctor Natwarlal, we’d like to ask you a few questions.’
Not that I even studied journalism. You’re looking at three years of communications and television production at Parramatta TAFE. I don’t know the first thing about real news broadcasting. You want to hear about real journalists? Head over to the ABC or SBS and you’ll get your fix. Serious reportage. Investigative journalism. The fourth estate.
Of course, that’s exactly how Off The Record started. Some executive decided to bring together the network’s resources to create a comprehensive news and current affairs show. It happens from time to time – someone at the top has a mid-life crisis and gets the stupid idea that we should be making worthy television. It never ends well.
The head of News and Current Affairs green-lit the project immediately. At the time, we were the only major network not running a current affairs program directly after the news. We’d been showing repeats of M*A*S*H in the timeslot for the past two years and it was becoming a joke.
In those first couple of years, Off The Record broke the stories the other guys were too scared to touch. Corporate cover-ups. Political scandals. Government fraud. The show had the best journalists in the country climbing over each other to get on board. It picked up three Walkleys in its first year.
And it tanked in the ratings. Because of course it would. Off The Record screens on the fourth-ranking network in the country every night at six-thirty right after the news. The last thing people want to see after thirty minutes of war, politics and economics is an in-depth profile piece on some one-legged lesbian refugee.
That’s when they brought in Maggie Murphy.
Maggie is a television visionary. A legend. You know those interactive game shows they used to show at two in the morning? She invented those. Late Night Piggy Bank is the most profitable late-night show in Channel Eight’s history. It barely rated six figures but still made a bomb. It was the first show I ever worked on. Those shows cost nothing to run.
Maggie got herself a rotating roster of bimbos and himbos who’d spend three hours a night presenting piss-easy puzzles to the camera. Viewers could phone in and win a hundred bucks if they solved them. It cost them a dollar a call and they weren’t even guaranteed to get their answer on the air. Plus we’d fix it so only the morons got a crack at the prize. Viewers would keep calling and keep paying, screaming at the television because they knew which European city could be spelled with the letters OONDLN. The show paid for itself three times over before a single ad was even sold. Of course, then every other network came up with their own version and killed the format. The moron dollar only goes so far.
It didn’t matter, though, because Maggie was already onto the next big thing. With Off The Record circling the drain, the Channel Eight board brought her in to head up the show. Maggie was surprised they even asked her.
‘I thought I would have alienated everyone on the board by now.’
‘Really? You?’ I replied at the time. I was young and kept my nose a healthy shade of brown.
‘Why else do you think I’ve been exiled to this late-night hellhole?’
It was true; Maggie was renowned for not taking shit from her superiors. Most of the time she’d just smile sweetly and ignore their orders, but she could throw down with the best of them. Legend has it she once tossed a glass of wine in Barry Saxby’s face and called him a ‘puffed-up bogan’ and a ‘gold-plated sack of shit’ after the network CEO copped a feel at a poolside party back in the nineties. Not only did she get to keep her job but, a decade later, he’d promoted her to EP of Off The Record. I guess the man appreciated an honest opinion. Either that, or he liked a good spanking.
Maggie’s first act as EP was to bring in her own crew. She hired me as a production assistant at age twenty-four. I started at the ground floor just like every other pissant. Ten years later and I was a senior producer, her go-to man for the big stories.
And next in line for the throne.
‘Hold on to your balls!’
Paul jammed his foot on the accelerator and the van shot past the red light. A guy in a turning Mini slammed on his brakes and honked, but Paul just kept going. There wasn’t a fire. There wasn’t any breaking news. We weren’t even in a hurry. Fred Fitch would wait. That’s just the way Paul drove.
I’d been working with Paul for years. He’d done half a decade in the Middle East and was happy to be slumming it working freelance for us. Except for a few rusted-on old boys, everyone in television is freelance these days. Nine-month contracts, the lot of them. You don’t pull your weight and you’re out.
‘Get the fuck out of the way!’
‘Jesus, Paul. How many points do you have left on your licence?’ The last thing I wanted was a toddler under the back wheels of a Channel Eight vehicle.
Off The Record. First On the Scene When News Breaks.
Paul always drove the van on shoots. He loved it. According to the old guard, back in the eighties you could cruise down George Street and so long as your car had a network logo on the side, any woman you wanted would just climb on in. The old guard called it the good old days. Personally, it turned my stomach listening to a bunch of old farts wax nostalgic about getting a wristy just for telling women they worked on a television show.
‘I’ve six points to spare. I can take two more hits for speeding or one red light before I have to worry.’
‘That’s all right, then. You’ll have killed us all well before then.’
Paul laughed and changed lanes without indicating. I turned to Warwick, who was in the back seat, blowing on his grazed palms.
‘Sorry about that, mate,’ I said. ‘Should have told you it’s okay to let go. It didn’t look like the bastard was that strong.’
Shortly after I’d asked Natwarlal if he got some kind of sick thrill from causing women pain, the plastic surgeon had grabbed one end of the boom mic and yanked Warwick right off his feet, sending him face first onto the footpath. The gear was fine but Warwick had taken a beating.
‘It’s all right,’ he replied, eyeing his war wounds with equal parts pride and pain.
‘So, what’s the deal with this Fitch interview?’ Paul asked. ‘Isn’t this just another soft sell for the Chadwick Syndicate?’
‘Something like that,’ I said. ‘Got to pay the bills.’
‘Couldn’t we have just interviewed him last night at the meeting? I could have shot him up against the bookcase in the corridor, given him the full egghead treatment.’
Paul had a point. We could have put Fitch in front of a bookcase. Dressed him up in a navy suit with a crisp red tie. Definitely a pair of glasses; tortoiseshell frames. A few establishing shots showing him reading some leather-bound tome, then call him a ‘self-made man’ or an ‘entrepreneur’ and he’d be packing out business seminars in a week. But that wasn’t the angle I had in mind.
‘We don’t want to make him look too brainy.’ I wound down the car window and lit up, in direct contravention of the network’s company-vehicle policy. ‘We need edge, a bit of flash.’
My phone buzzed in my pocket. Kathy. I ignored her call and switched off my phone. I love my wife but I hate talking to her on the job. You’ve got to compartmentalise.
Fred Fitch wasn’t important in the broad scheme of things. We just needed a bit of colour. Like I said, we’d already done four profiles on the Chadwick Syndicate and they’d all been the same. A quick round-up about why whatever self-help bullshit they were touting would change your life for the better, a couple of sound bites from the true believers, and then close with a few seconds from some consumer-affairs suit warning about ‘easy answers’ for balance, and we’re done. It’s the same formula we used for weight-loss programs, real-estate schemes, arthritis cures and miracle cancer treatments. As long as the cheque cleared, who really cared?
‘Cool. We’re meeting him at a bar, yeah? That should sex it up.’
‘Mate, you should see this place. The Arena is wog central. Statues. Columns. The works. Nice and easy shoot, you’ll be happy to hear, Warwick.’
He tried to smile but Paul took a corner, forcing Warwick to steady himself on one of his red,raw palms.
‘Won’t take long,’ I said. ‘We’ll set up, get what we need from Fitch and hopefully be out of there in an hour. You guys want yum cha?’
‘Fuck, yeah,’ Paul said, and sped up.
Working in television, context is everything. Without context, Natwarlal was a successful North Shore plastic surgeon being harassed by the media for no good reason. Without context, Angus Brent was a put-upon public servant prevented from meeting with his spiritual advisor.
I got out of the passenger-side door and threw my cigarette butt in the gutter. Fred was standing on the footpath, grinning at us like every other sucker who thought we were going to make them a star. Standing beside him was a forgettable-looking kid staring at the ground, a mousey-brown fringe covering his face.
Without context, the Chadwick Syndicate story was just some puff piece I’d been roped into doing and Fred Fitch was just another interview subject, a middle-aged self-help junkie looking for his fifteen minutes who happened to have brought his son along for the ride. But when you know the context, when you know the details, the story changes. It becomes something else altogether.
That’s why it’s so important. You have to show where your characters are coming from and where they’re going. You have to tell your audience who to root for.
Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author and collector of scams. Fast and Loose is his second novel.Want to read more? Buy the Book!