I was just moments away from pushing SEND on a group email – inviting friends and family to my book launch – when my mobile rang.
The editor at Harper Collins had a last-minute change-of-heart about the opening chapter to my novel, MAKING HEADLINES. Mary thought it was a little DARK for the type of book that was primarily going to marketed in the chick-lit and romance genre.
It was a tough call for me as I really liked the original opening chapter, but I could see her point. And Mary was very reasonable – ultimately giving me the final say. Being my first novel, I was happy to take her advice, but I still think back to the original version and wonder if I DID make the right decision. So I thought I’d offer up part of the original FIRST CHAPTER here – for you all to read – and I’d love to hear your feedback. Especially if you’ve already read MAKING HEADLINES.
To avoid any SPOILERS, I’ll discuss the reasons about WHY this chapter was ditched – in the paragraphs AFTER the book segment. Can’t wait to hear what you think!
MAKING HEADLINES – by Jennifer Hansen
‘Then whack! He slams that cricket bat smack down on your desk, missing your hand by a whisker!’ Julia slapped her hands under Rachel’s chin.
Rachel jumped, vibrations ringing in her ears. ‘And this is the man you think could be our new boss?’ she said, spinning her chair around to switch on her computer. As she reached for a notebook a growing unease began to fester. Her fellow reporter had an uncanny knack of being spot-on with rumours.
‘Yep,’ grinned Julia, leaning back in her chair. ‘That’s Helmut Becker for you. Bit of a nut job, but they say he gets results. And it is all about the ratings after all.’
Beyond their desks the usual pandemonium reigned. Early morning rush hour — TV monitors blaring, phones ringing and people shouting, and Rachel didn’t want the glue that held it together leaving. She stared towards the news director’s office. ‘I wish I could change Tony’s mind.’ It was like the plates beneath her feet were shifting. Too much change, too soon.
‘We don’t know he’s going yet. And stop looking like that. Anyone’d think you had a boss-crush.’
Rachel turned back to Julia. ‘Don’t be ridiculous. He’s more like an uncle. I mean, he’s just so … well, nice. I mean, he gave me my big break and …’ She paused as a striking man with shoulder-length dirty-blond hair strode past their desks towards the edit suites at the back of the newsroom.
‘And don’t get hooked on him either.’ Julia rolled her eyes. ‘That’s the new head editor, Mitch. Really rates himself, and hates working with juniors, so steer clear.’
‘You crack me up,’ said Rachel, shaking her head. ‘You know I’m taken.’ She turned back to her computer, inhaling deeply. The editor had left a scent in his wake and it wasn’t aftershave. It was like he’d just shaken the surf from his hair after riding a wave into work. A ridiculous thought. Who’d go surfing in the middle of winter? She snuck another look as he walked away, taking in his strong physique. As if feeling her eyes graze the back of his neck, he turned, giving a lopsided grin as he caught her out.
Embarrassed, she smiled back stupidly and sucked in her breath. Damn, he was good looking. She wondered what he was doing at work so early. Surely as head editor he could take his pick of the shifts and leave the early stints for the juniors? She shook her head. She had to stop this. No flirting. That’s what had landed her in trouble in Sydney a month ago and she still couldn’t deal with the emotional fallout.
‘Thought there were problems on the home front,’ said Julia, as if reading her mind.
‘Oh, not really—’
‘Rachel Bentley, get your arse over here.’ Rob Kingsbury’s strident voice cut through the mayhem. As Chief of Staff he sat at what was known as the COS desk, the hub of the newsroom. A misogynist with a mission, Rob carried himself like a boxer. Sporting one of his standard check flannel shirts, he was like a lumberjack ready to swing his axe at anyone in his way.
Rachel scurried across and Rob began to read from his computer. ‘Young girl went on a bike ride yesterday about lunchtime. Never came home, believed abducted. Police doorknocking in Torquay. Get your butt down there and if there’s nothing found by six, we’ll do a live cross. That’d be your first live cross.’ He looked at her directly. ‘You up to it?’
More than six months into her job, Rachel was used to Rob’s verbal shorthand, but still felt she hadn’t won his approval. ‘Aye, aye, sir,’ she said brightly, with an enthusiastic salute.
He glared. ‘Fine. Hope you’ve got an overnight bag on standby because you might need it. Get moving. With News Eight.’
Thank God she did have a bag stashed in her car. All reporters were required to have one handy. News Eight was her favourite camera crew. She’d be working with Gary Bouts, a patient cameraman with a talent for turning the most mundane story into a visual masterpiece. She raced about getting organised before heading to the news car. They had to be there by eleven for a media conference with the parents, and the coastal town was at least two hours away.
It was a long trip and Gary drove quickly. The sky was bleak and the strong wind swept clouds across the sky as if trying to keep pace with the news car. Driving over the Westgate Bridge, the car was buffeted by vigorous gusts. Rachel was glad she’d brought her wool coat. It would be cold by the sea.
She used the time to send her partner, Tim, a text message, letting him know she might be away for the night. No reply. Not surprising given he was probably asleep after a late night.
They bypassed Geelong down a long straight road lined with a sprinkling of country properties and scrubby bushland. Finally the ocean appeared, dark and choppy. They were nearly there.
Torquay felt deserted, just a couple of surf shops, an ice-cream store, and a fish and chip shop that would have been crammed with tourists in the summer months. Police had set up a media briefing at the local scout hall. A swarm of journalists, photographers and cameramen were wrangling equipment and vying for the best position in front of the podium. It was a musty building that looked like it hadn’t been used since the 1960s.
At the entrance, Rachel spoke briefly with a junior police officer, then made her way to where Gary and his assistant were setting up the tripod and camera. Through the chaos she saw a young couple, sitting still on the makeshift stage, waiting for the questions to begin. A picture of their daughter, radiant and smiling, was pinned to the wall behind them. Their eyes darted about the room. The woman wore a denim skirt and crumpled floral blouse, and clutched a tissue. Her fair hair was thin and lank. The man reached to pat her knee and she seized his hand, gripping it tightly. Then looking downwards, she wiped her eyes.
A stocky police officer stood on the stage. He checked his notes and placed them on an old wooden lectern, before coughing into the microphone. ‘Okay everyone, this is the situation. As you already know, six-year-old Daisy Beattie disappeared yesterday after going for a bike ride. She left home at approximately 12 pm and didn’t return. Her parents raised the alarm at five o’clock but despite ongoing efforts to find her we haven’t had any leads. Police began a doorknock this morning and will continue a search of the local district today. Right now, we want to hear from anyone who may have seen Daisy, anyone with any information that may help locate her. And her parents, Bruce and Pauline here, want to make a special appeal for help.’
The officer’s eyes betrayed emotions he dare not voice. The police were locals and would know the family. He motioned to Bruce, a sturdy, unshaven man with the body of a labourer.
Bruce’s shoulders heaved under the weight of it all as he stood. His strong hands grasped the sides of the lectern, his head bowed. Without looking up, he began. ‘Our daughter, Daisy, probably just got lost somewhere …’ His voice trailed off. Pauline rose awkwardly and moved next to him, placing her arm around his waist. She whispered in his ear then moved the microphone towards her, eyes anxious and wide.
‘This is a very difficult time for us. Daisy is our life. She is …’ Pauline paused, blinking rapidly. ‘She is just the sweetest girl you could ever meet. And smart.’ Her mouth lifted slightly. ‘We’re just so worried. She’s probably just got lost somewhere and is probably cold and scared and … We want her back so much. So much.’ Pauline’s voice started to crack. Bruce raised his head and took her hand. They looked at each other, helpless.
Bruce took a deep slow breath and turned again to the microphone. ‘We just want anyone in the area to keep a look out for her and call police if they see anything. She was riding her Malvern Star. A red one. You can see her photo and she’s such a good kid. She wouldn’t talk to strangers or anything and she always rides to the corner shop, so it’s not like her not to come back. If anyone can help, it would mean everything to us. She’s our only child and we just … we just want …’ He looked at Pauline in desperation.
‘We just want our little girl to come home,’ Pauline finished and then turned and sank against Bruce, her body shaking.
Rachel stared at Daisy’s photo — her long, light brown hair and carefree eyes — wondering what the little girl was like. Where might she have decided to go? What could have drawn her away from home? The police officer stood. ‘Righto, so that’s all for now. If you want more pictures, we’ll be doing a line search by the beach and continue with doorknocking in the local area. Thanks.’
Gary switched off the camera and looked at Rachel. ‘Let’s get the doorknock first then head to the beach. Bloody hope they find the poor kid.’
Rachel nodded mutely.
* * * * *
Positioned on a stretch of sandy steps leading up from the beach, the camera crew were filming the search through the dunes when they heard shouting from a group of police. They rushed in their direction. Rachel’s head pounded and the scrub scratched her legs as she ran, struggling to keep up with the camera crew. What were they saying? She couldn’t tell from their tone if it was good news or bad, but as she drew closer, she saw a police officer pointing to a red bicycle in the long grass.
‘Have they found her?’ she asked Gary, trying to catch her breath.
‘No, but it doesn’t look good,’ he replied quietly, as he continued filming. Rachel watched the police huddle as forensic officers moved in for further examination. It was Daisy’s bike. There was no sign of her.
Gary reached for his mobile. ‘Better get on the phone to Rob,’ he said. ‘Looks like you’ll be doing a live cross.’
Rachel’s hands flew up to her ears. ‘Oh no, all I can think of is the parents’ faces.’
Gary frowned. ‘Come on, Rach, it’s all part of the gig. Put your emotions in a box and get on with it.’
Rachel knew he was right. Ditch any feelings. Keep walking. Keep talking.
* * * * *
Three hours later, Gary was setting up his camera in a car park overlooking the beach. The Outside Broadcast truck arrived to establish the link and all was ready. Other crews from rival networks were also dotted along the foreshore, preparing for similar broadcasts for the six o’clock news. The light was fading, and Rachel wondered how it was possible to feel both numb and terrified at the same time. The countdown began to her first live cross. Just five minutes to go.
She shivered and pulled her coat tightly around her. It was colder near the beach, sharp winds blowing across the water. Only half an hour earlier, a flurry of police activity signalled a shocking discovery. Now Rachel’s carefully rehearsed report was useless and she would be the one responsible for delivering this news. She stared down at her scribbled notes, trying to memorise the details. Focus. Focus. Get the facts right and keep the emotions in check. She wondered how Daisy’s parents were. She stamped her feet on the ground, trying to rid herself of the shakes.
‘One minute to go, Rach,’ Gary’s voice came calmly from behind the camera.
‘Sure, all set.’ She checked her earpiece for the tenth time as she tried to brush her hair from her face. This was the lead story, which meant newsreader Jack Nolan would be asking her questions. Rachel was mildly relieved it wasn’t his co-reader Mary Masterson, who seemed to have a set against her. But more importantly, she must do the best she could, knowing what was at stake. She could picture Daisy’s small shining face before her and that was all that mattered.
The sound of the news theme burst into her head through the earpiece. Like a runaway train, there was no stopping the inevitable. Gary started the countdown and she heard Jack introduce the story.
‘And now we cross live to reporter Rachel Bentley, who is at the scene in Torquay. Rachel, what’s the latest?’
‘Jack, just before two o’clock today police found what they believe is Daisy’s bike, near the Torquay foreshore. They continued their search in that area and about half an hour ago, police found the body of a young girl in scrub behind the beach, nearly a kilometre from the bike, not far from where we are standing. Daisy’s parents are yet to identify the body. So we … um … can’t confirm that the body is definitely Daisy’s, but police fear the worst.’ She was on autopilot.
‘Rachel, are police able to say how the victim died?’
‘Again, no official confirmation at this stage, but early reports indicate it was a brutal attack. It’s suspected the young girl was sexually assaulted and a knife was used. It’s believed … well, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but she was attacked severely, making identification quite … ah … difficult.’
‘Rachel, this is potentially such tragic news for the parents. How are they coping?’
What a stupid question. ‘Well obviously, we haven’t spoken to the parents as they are with police identifying the body. It has been a shocking day for them. They spoke with the media earlier at a press conference, calling for help from the public.’
A taped piece of the parents’ appeal was played to air. Rachel watched the TV monitor on the ground before her, saw their faces from a time when they still held some hope that their daughter was alive. Then it was back to Jack.
‘So, Rachel, while we wait for the body to be identified, police will also be hunting for the killer. What action are they taking?’
‘Jack, they’ll be conducting a widespread doorknock of the area, as well as following up on clues from forensic. As you can well imagine, this horrific crime has rocked the local community and the town will be rallying behind the parents, offering their support and stepping up all efforts to help police find the killer. So for now, it’s back to you in the studio.’
‘Thank you, Rachel. We’ll cross back to you if further details come to hand. And now …’
‘All clear, Rach, well done.’ Gary took off his headphones, smiling.
‘Thanks,’ she said quietly, unclipping the microphone on her jacket.
‘Oh, and they’ve confirmed we’re all staying the night. Local hotel on the foreshore. That way we can be up early when the police get going on their hunt again.’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘I thought as much.’
She wanted to call Tim but thought it best to wait till she was back in the privacy of her hotel room. Not that he’d be overly fussed. They hadn’t spent a lot of time together lately anyway.
The wind whipped across her face and she could taste the salt in the air. She turned to look over the dark sea. The sound of the waves chopping at the shore beat a rhythm that held a murky secret.
* * * * *
Rachel and the crew were back on the beach just after the sun came up, as police and forensic officers gathered to continue their search. Late the night before, police had confirmed the body of the young girl discovered in the dunes was Daisy Beattie. Now they were intensifying their hunt for her killer.
After filming more footage of the police search and doorknock, Rachel’s next job was to approach Daisy’s parents for an interview. They drove past the same quiet shopping strip in Torquay, then another couple of kilometres until they reached the corner store that Daisy had meant to cycle to last Sunday. They turned into the street and quickly spotted the Beattie home. The front picket fence was lined with flowers and tributes. Mourners gathered outside, standing still, wiping away tears and hugging each other. Rachel asked Gary to wait in the car. Put your emotions in a box, she kept repeating to herself as she tapped lightly on the plain timber door. If they don’t want to talk, run away.
A pale older woman with grey-streaked hair in a bun opened the door.
‘Hi, I’m Rachel Bentley from Channel Six. I’m so very sorry about Daisy,’ she said.
‘Thank you, dear. I’m Daisy’s grandmother, Come in, won’t you?’
‘Oh, well, not if you don’t want me to?’ She wanted to go back to the car. She shouldn’t be here. But it was her job. What kind of a reporter was she? Pathetic and emotional.
‘Oh, it’s fine,’ she said, ushering Rachel in. ‘Bruce and Pauline want as much publicity as possible to find that animal.’
The couple sat on a shabby corduroy couch, surrounded by friends and family. Flowers in vases and glass bottles crowded the room, filling the mantelpiece and overflowing on to the floor under the windows. People were milling about with cups of tea and fruitcake. Rachel seemed to be the only reporter.
‘Bruce, Pauline, I’m Rachel Bentley from Channel Six. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now and if you’d rather I leave, that’s fine.’
The pair looked up at her, as if trying to work out how to fit her into the picture.
‘I don’t think I can talk on camera … right now,’ said Pauline, her eyes wide and vacant. Rachel hoped she’d been dosed up on Valium.
‘No, I’ll do it,’ said Bruce. ‘I’ll do anything. We gotta catch that fucking bastard …’
But as he stood up, he took a deep breath and shuddered. Then, with a guttural roar, he turned, doubled over and fell to the floor, punching the couch with primal ferocity.
‘Oh, I should go. I’m so very, very sorry …’ Rachel looked on helplessly, the stares from the crowded room burning into her as a middle-aged man took her by the elbow and led her away.
‘It’s alright. You’re just doing your job. But these guys aren’t up to talking. I’m Daisy’s uncle. I’ll do the interview, okay?’
‘Of course,’ said Rachel.
Outside, Gary was waiting with the camera. More people filed past the house, leaving bouquets and gifts. One tribute had a photo of Daisy encircled by a wreath of roses. Rachel looked at the innocence in her eyes, and heard the waves crashing on the beach in the dark and the swish of the long grass in the dunes, sounds that now echoed pain and torture.
* * * * *
After driving back to Network Six and putting her story together, Rachel returned to her desk, weary. There was a note of congratulations on her keyboard from Tony, saying she’d handled her first live cross really well. She didn’t want praise. It felt wrong. She was relieved, however, that it hadn’t been a debacle.
That night, she drove home with mechanical precision. Keeping those emotions in a box was draining. On the outside everything had to be done very carefully to stop an implosion. A catch-up with her girlfriends might be the tonic she needed. She spoke briefly on the phone with Kate, who said the girls were heading to the Dogs Bar in St Kilda for a drink. Maybe she would join them.
She drove down a narrow street, craning to search for a park. She was aching to see Tim and put their world back on an even keel. Not only after the events of the last two days, but also after what had happened in Sydney. Rachel needed reassurance they were going to be okay.
Still no spare car spots. That was one of downsides of inner-city living — the shopping was great but the parking was rubbish. Nor was it the prettiest of locations; dotted with abandoned factories and scrappy tea-trees. Finally she found a park a block and a half from their grey weatherboard home. She walked quickly to cover the distance, jumping over cracks in the asphalt paving.
Bursting through the front door, she called out to Tim. No answer. For a moment she wondered if he’d organised a surprise party for her birthday. It was in four days, and he still hadn’t mentioned any plans to take her out or organise something with friends, which made her suspicious. The house appeared empty but as she neared his study, there was tapping on a keyboard. Of course. Tim was ensconced in front of his computer. Relief washed over her. The last thing she felt like was a surprise party.
A technological genius and a Mensa member, Tim had been retrenched from his programming job two months earlier and had made little attempt to find another. But Rachel wasn’t concerned. She knew how smart he was and the type of job he deserved was often difficult to come by. A recent spate of bills meant she’d had to dip into her savings, but she was confident it would only be short term. In the meantime, he kept himself busy playing online medieval battle games.
‘Hey there, sweetheart, still slaying them dragons?’ She swooped on him from behind, hugging him around the neck.
He lifted his cheek, eyes glued to the screen as she planted kisses over his face. ‘Uh huh … How was your day? Ah shit. I was nearing an all-time record!’ He ran a hand through his wavy brown hair. Overdue for a trim, it reached his shoulders.
Standing behind him, she gently massaged his neck. ‘Hmm. Actually, I’ve been away for two days, in case you didn’t notice?’
‘Of course. How was it?’ he said, eyes still trapped by the game.
‘Tim, for Christ’s sake, do you even care where I’ve been?’ She slapped his hands away from the keyboard and planted herself in front of the computer.
‘Jesus, Rach, you arrived home at a bad time! What the …?’
‘Because you’re playing a stupid computer game?’
‘Well, yes, as I said it was a near record and—’
‘I’ve been reporting on the murder of a six-year-old girl. Shit that happens in the real world.’ She walked off to get her phone. ‘I may as well go out.’
Tim followed her. ‘I’m sorry, Rach. Look, hang on, we can—’
‘I’m going to the Dogs Bar. You can join us later if you want to.’
‘Sure. I’ll come in an hour.’
She walked away to dial a cab. Right now she couldn’t even look at him.
So there you have it. Mary also asked whether one option would have been to change the story so that poor Daisy was found alive. Sadly, in the real world, children who go missing under ten years of age are very rarely found alive. As a journalist, I couldn’t write something – even as fiction – that would seem to me to be so completely unrealistic, so I opted instead for an entirely new chapter.
The final opening chapter is a much lighter story about Rachel Bentley covering a story about a children’s Anzac Day service. There’s more humour, but the emotion of the day also let’s the reader see that Rachel has a big heart and is affected by the stories and the people she connects with on the road.
So if you’re looking for something to read tonight, download MAKING HEADLINES and read how the FIRST CHAPTER turned out in the final version of the book.
And please let me know what you think – DID I MAKE THE RIGHT DECISION?