Books

Black Cat
Black Cat
Black Cat

Seven Mile Beach

by Tom Gilling

“Unusual, fast, light, short, suspenseful, meaningful, and filled with an immigrant’s pointed observations about identity and the possibility of changing it. . . . [With an] appealing stench of paranoia that comes partly, one suspects, from the author’s demanding more of his main character than any satanic real estate agent ever would.” —Josh Bazell, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Page Count 224
  • Publication Date June 23, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-7059-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $14.00
  • Imprint Black Cat
  • Publication Date June 23, 2009
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-9986-7
  • US List Price $14.00

About The Book

Long regarded as one of Australia’s most gifted novelists, Tom Gilling is the author of The Sooterkin and The Adventures of Miles and Isabel—both New York Times Notable Books and Australian best sellers. Now Gilling returns with a skillful, fabulously addictive story about the complex relationship between self and identity.

It was just a harmless lie—to say he was driving Danny Grogan’s car when it was caught speeding down the Sydney streets on New Year’s Eve—and Danny’s father, a billionaire real estate tycoon, has promised to make it worth his while. But when former reporter Nick Carmody stands up in court to profess his guilt, it suddenly becomes clear that he doesn’t understand what he’s admitting to—until it’s too late.

Nick’s “good deed” hurls him into a world of secrets, drugs, corruption, and murder. To save his life, he has no choice but to disappear and become someone else. What he doesn’t realize is that a new identity can be even more dangerous than the one left behind. As his new life in Melbourne veers out of control, Nick has to question whether chance alone is responsible, or whether more sinister forces are at work.

A darkly comic page-turner, Seven Mile Beach is a haunting modern fable from a seductive novelist who never fails to thrill and surprise.

Praise

“Gilling delivers a taut, suspenseful reflection on identity that never pauses for a breath.” —Publishers Weekly

“Unusual, fast, light, short, suspenseful, meaningful, and filled with an immigrant’s pointed observations about identity and the possibility of changing it. . . . [With an] appealing stench of paranoia that comes partly, one suspects, from the author’s demanding more of his main character than any satanic real estate agent ever would.” —Josh Bazell, The New York Times Book Review

“A deftly constructed psychological thriller . . . Gilling creates a pitch-perfect slice of urban Australian life and compelling, multifaceted characters whose experiences raise as many questions as they answer.” —Library Journal

“Fresh and urgent to the last page.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Highly suspenseful, with several intriguing twists, Seven Mile Beach is an excellent Australian thriller, one that will leave readers wondering right to the end.” —Jessica Moyer, Booklist

“Gilling’s touch in Seven Mile Beach is light as a feather, deft as a pick­pocket’s. . . . Sure-footed moral entertainment.” —The Age

“A crime thriller, a road story, a meditation on identity, this taut, suspenseful novel is imbued with contemporary concerns and anxieties. . . . Gilling’s prose is as vivid and precise as ever.” —Australian Literary Review

“Australian novelist Tom Gilling may not be that well known outside of his native Australia, but if his latest book is any indication, he surely should be. The surprisingly funny mystery/thriller Seven Mile Beach is far more interesting than any of the last few John Grisham and Dean Patterson tomes lining the book shelves. . . . Gilling uses the most of his time and space, filling the pages with original intrigue from the very beginning. His knack from writing compelling characters and use of dark humor in even the most suspenseful turns will remind readers of the greats like Stewart O’Nan. . . . Here’s hoping the rest of the book buying public realizes there is more to life than Dan Brown’s next Bible mystery.” —John B. Moore, Innocent Words

Excerpt

I

The Crypt nightclub on Oxford Street was a crimson cube of blistered concrete and weeping gutters, diagonally across the road from the Supreme Court. Its metal awning hung like a half-closed eyelid above the pavement, where at 10.59 p.m. on New Year’s Eve a queue of emaciated clubbers was already forming in the sheep race between the barriers and the wall.

Nick Carmody joined the end of the queue. He’d spent the last couple of hours perched on a window stool in the Judgment Bar, watching a human statue startle passers-by. Painted gold and standing on a milk crate, the statue would suddenly reach out and prod pedestrians with his trident. You expected a kind of serenity from a human statue but this one was so aggressive that Nick kept waiting for someone to turn around and pull him off his pedestal. The fact that he was still standing as the clock approached midnight owed less to the tolerance of New Year’s revelers, Nick suspected, than to the presence of two paddy wagons on Taylor Square.

The Crypt wasn’t Nick’s sort of place. It never had been his sort of place, though he’d been there on the night it opened, drinking bottles of Steinlager as a personal guest of the proprietor, his old classmate Danny Grogan. Danny had been a resentful boarder at St Dominic’s since the age of seven, although the Grogan family home, with its bluestone turrets and flagpole, was visible from the school playing fields. Nick was a scholarship boy from Maroubra Beach. A wary friendship developed between them: an alliance of outsiders.

Since leaving St Dominic’s he and Danny had made the effort to meet up from time to time, although there was now a sense—at least to Nick—that what lay behind these encounters was something other than friendship, or even the memory of it.

The queue behind him now stretched around the corner. Nick gazed along the line of faces, searching for a girl—any girl—he would not feel absurd trying to chat up. He was twenty-nine and none of them looked older than—fifteen?

The phone message from Danny had described it as a wake. Of course, this being the Crypt, there was a dress code, which Nick had ignored. The dead boy (even now, Nick found it impossible to think of him as an adult) was their contemporary at St Dominic’s, Julian Glazer. He’d just been found at the bottom of a cliff near Bondi Beach, steeped in Jim Beam, with a head wound that could have been the result of falling but could equally have been made to look that way. Nick hadn’t seen Glazer since the day they left school, but Danny had made it sound as though he ought to be there—as though he had something to gain by coming.

It wasn’t as if he had anywhere else to go. He wondered what Carolyn was doing, then realised he didn’t need to wonder. Carolyn would be at a New Year’s Eve party, probably at the harbourside home of one of her legal colleagues. They—the few who didn’t know—would be asking where Nick was and she’d tell them, as she’d been telling everyone, that she and Nick had called it a day. Called it a day—the sort of phrase her father was always using. Carolyn’s parents fought like cat and dog but it would never have occurred to either of them to call it a day. Whereas their daughter had called it a day after just seven years. Not that they were married or had children, thank God. Nick would have been tempted to give it a bit longer but in the end he’d had to agree that seven years was long enough. He was surprised—horrified, in a way—to find how little he missed Carolyn, how quickly he’d adjusted to the absence of the woman he’d once imagined spending the rest of his life with. He’d anticipated a difficult few months of mutual hostility and recrimination but what he’d felt instead was relief. Sadness, too, but mostly just relief.

There were two bouncers. From what Nick could see they were turning away as many people as they were letting in. The pair of girls in front of him were clutching cards: tickets to the wake of someone they’d probably never heard of. Typically, Danny hadn’t bothered with a formal invitation, just a terse message on Nick’s voicemail.

The girls were standing with their arms in the air being frisked. For what, Nick wondered. Pills? Cameras? Weapons? Or was being groped by the bouncers just part of the cover charge?

He half-recognised one of them, or thought he did. Somewhere beneath her Gothic disguise she resembled the daughter of one of his colleagues at the Daily Star—a gamine teenager who used to sit in the staff canteen on Sunday afternoons with her Nintendo while her father hammered away upstairs at his weekend football round-up. Even if it was her, she and Nick had only exchanged a few dozen words five years ago, and this was hardly the moment to jog her memory. He half-smiled and got a half-scowl in return and decided it probably wasn’t her after all.

The bigger of the two bouncers had his palm on Nick’s chest. “Ticket?”

“My name’s on the door,” said Nick.

“Yeah?” answered the bouncer, looking down the list on the clipboard dangling from his neck. “And what name is that?”

“Carmody. Nick Carmody.”

The man didn’t look like the steroid-crafted automatons Nick was used to meeting outside Sydney’s nightclubs. With his gelled hair, olive skin, white shirt and cufflinks he looked more like a guest at an Italian wedding. He let go of the clipboard. “Sorry, mate,” he said. “Name’s not on the list.”

You’re not sorry and we’re not mates, Nick wanted to say. “Look,” he replied. “Danny Grogan asked me to be here.”

“Show me the invitation.”

“We spoke on the telephone.”

“Listen, mate. If your name’s not on the list, you’re not coming in. It’s as simple as that. No invitation, no entry. This is a private party.”

“It’s a wake, not a party,” said Nick. “And Mr Grogan invited me personally.”

The small group behind Nick—each of them holding a ticket—was becoming impatient. Nick wasn’t sure why he was even arguing. The bouncer was refusing him entry to a club he had no desire to enter in the first place. He was only here because Danny had invited him. Nick pushed his right hand into his pocket. The bouncer watched, vaguely curious as to what he might do next. Nick’s wallet was full of business cards, souvenirs of his protean reporting career at the Daily Star. Most of his colleagues disposed of their old business cards the moment a new set arrived from the printers but Nick always kept a few in his wallet: a portfolio of his former selves. There was a journalists’ code of ethics that, among other things, prohibited misrepresentation, but three years of consorting with criminals and corrupt police had taught Nick to interpret the code loosely. He wasn’t above flashing an old business card when the need arose, as it did from time to time. His fingers hovered for a moment over a card that said:

NICK CARMODY

ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER

He was on the verge of pulling out the card when he noticed a familiar hawkish profile standing on the corner. He called out, “Bruce.”

The hawkish profile turned slightly. For the great self-publicist he was, Bruce Myer had always seemed self-conscious about hearing his name. Myer spat the boiled lolly, or whatever it was he was sucking, into a paper tissue which he then disposed of in the pocket of his peach-coloured suit. Nick walked towards him. “Bruce. Am I glad to see you.” He extended his right hand. “Nick. Nick Carmody. The Daily Star. You fixed me up for the Elton concert.”

“Of course I did . . . Nick . . . how nice to see you.” Myer paused. “I think we got a few words out of you, didn’t we?”

Elton had been in his cocaine and powdered wig phase; Nick had panned the concert without mercy. “It was a great night,” he said.

“They were all great nights,” Myer remarked ruefully.

Now in his sixties, Myer liked to think of himself as the doyen of Sydney publicists. When the Crypt had first opened its doors Danny Grogan used to fly the odd big-name British or American DJ to work the turntables for a night and Bruce Myer often handled the publicity, though his own tastes ran more to Bruckner and Judy Garland.

It was said that Myer would advertise his own funeral if he could be sure of getting a couple of paragraphs in the next day’s Herald. It was probably Myer himself who’d said it, back in the days when his name was on every second hoarding in Sydney, before he let his own publicity go to his head and tried his luck as a promoter. As a publicist you couldn’t lose money—Sydney was a publicist’s town—but as a promoter you couldn’t help it, and Bruce Myer Promotions went bankrupt inside two years.

“Don’t tell me you’re behind this,” said Nick.

Myer looked aghast. “No, no . . . Julian’s parents asked me to represent them. You’d know how awkward these things can be. I’m just—how shall I put it—managing the message. If you know what I mean.”

Nick knew exactly what Myer meant. Marks Park, where Glazer had been wandering before he stepped off the cliff, was a notorious gay beat. Somehow Myer had managed to keep the precise location out of the papers. Nick only knew about it after speaking to an old mate in the police.

Myer looked around distractedly. “Did you know him?”

“We were at school together.”

“Poor fellow.”

Nick nodded. The Glazer he remembered was a fat timid boy whose father owned a string of laundromats. Nick remembered hearing jokes about front loaders and rear loaders—trivial schoolboy stuff, but Glazer probably hadn’t seen it that way. He’d never thought of Glazer as being a friend of Danny’s—but then what did he really know about Danny these days? Apart from what he read in the paper, and occasionally what he wrote in the paper, not much. If Glazer was a friend of Danny’s, good luck to him. And if not . . . what did it matter anyway? The poor bastard was dead.

“So what have they got you doing now, Mick?”

“Nick,” said Nick.

“I beg your pardon. Nick.”

Since his brief incarnation as the Star’s second-string rock critic, Nick had done the standard Cook’s tour of reporting jobs (property, courts, local government) before winding up as the paper’s crime reporter, with his own tiny office beside the stationery cupboard. But for a two-bit villain named Darren Milhench, Nick would still have been the Star’s crime reporter. While out on parole, Milhench had broken his pregnant fiancée out of the remand section at Mulawa Correctional Centre. The pair fled west and for the next few weeks Milhench had taunted the authorities with phone calls to the media, earning himself a catchy sobriquet: the Phonecard Bandit. A caravan park attendant on the south coast recognised the fiancée and Nick had received the tip-off ahead of the police. Nick had always intended to share his information, but not until he had his exclusive. The fact that Milhench and his fiancée absconded before the tactical operations group arrived wasn’t his fault—the police had gone to the wrong caravan park—but Nick found himself the scapegoat, accused by a hysterical police minister of conspiracy to obstruct justice. Since then Nick had been cooling his heels on the Star’s foreign subeditors’ desk.

“This and that,” he replied.

“Wait a minute.” A lopsided grin spread across the publicist’s face. “Carmody. Nick Carmody . . . the Phonecard Bandit. You’re the one who found him.”

Nick shrugged.

“He had the cheek to ask me to represent him.”

“Milhench?”

“The fiancée, actually. She was rather a charming girl. Told me her boyfriend was writing a book and needed an agent. I reminded her that I’d handled Patrick White’s first play. I don’t think she knew who I was talking about. Anyway, I told her I’d love to represent her boyfriend only my books were full.”

“Listen, Bruce,” said Nick. “Do you think you could get me in? My name was supposed to be on the door but—”

“But someone left it off by mistake. It happens all the time, Nick. Of course I’ll get you in.”

Until Danny Grogan got hold of it, the Crypt had been the Church of St Sophia, a dilapidated shell that provided solace to the second-hand building trade through looted supplies of lead flashing and copper pipe. Danny had saved it from demolition with a couple of million dollars from the family trust fund and turned it into one of Sydney’s hippest venues.

The main room was long and low and narrow. Rusty dance cages stretched from floor to ceiling. The décor—or what Nick could see of it in the crepuscular strobe lighting—evoked an S&M dungeon, mock-stone walls adorned with whips and chains and leather masks. The whole room pulsed with sound: “Temptation,” by New Order—one of Nick’s favourite songs, and incidentally one of Carolyn’s too. (Which was ironic, Nick couldn’t help thinking, since of all the people he knew, none was less susceptible to temptation than Carolyn.) The Crypt was a goldmine, as notorious for its stratospheric bar prices and strategic lack of airconditioning as for its regular drug raids and fire safety violations.

Nick looked about for Danny, or at least for the still point in the crowd that might imply his presence.

As the only son of Harry Grogan, AO, billionaire founder and chairman-for-life of Grogan Constructions, Danny would have been a celebrity even without the Crypt.

From its beginnings as a subcontractor in the outer western suburbs of Sydney, Grogan Constructions had turned itself into one of the powerhouses of the Australian building industry—the developer, manager and majority owner of the Dreamland hotel on the north shore of Sydney Harbour. A Byzantine network of family trusts owned more than half the company and controlled nearly 75 percent of the voting stock. Analysts attributed the lion’s share of its billion-dollar valuation to faith in Harry Grogan himself, whose genius in staring down his creditors and pulling the company back from the brink of bankruptcy was the stuff of stock market legend.

The Crypt was a symbol of Danny’s rejection of the future his father had planned for him, the rejection of his inheritance. By the age of twenty-nine, playboy Danny was supposed to have metamorphosed, under the inspirational example of his father and the shadowy cabal of American executives who ran the company, into hard-headed Daniel, heir apparent and future CEO of Grogan Constructions. Danny was the dynasty in waiting, and he didn’t want any part of it. Meanwhile the Crypt had made him a rich man—and a staple of the tabloids and weekly magazines.

A year ago Danny had got himself on the cover of Who Weekly, dancing with Dannii Minogue. Nick remembered the cheesy cover line: DANNY HITS THE CRYPT WITH DANNII. There were hints in the article that they were—or were about to become—an item, although Dannii’s people soon scotched that. Danny had spoken to Nick just as the next week’s issue (DANNY AND DANNII—IT’s OVER) hit the newsstands. It had been a fiction from the start but Danny played it for all it was worth. He was coolly disparaging of his media image but at the same time in thrall to it: as if some part of him actually believed the rubbish that was written about him. And at some level, of course, the rubbish was true. The more they wrote about Danny’s glamour and notoriety, the more glamorous and notorious he became.

At the bar Nick discovered that he didn’t have enough for a bottle of Steinlager and had to settle for tomato juice. Glancing at the angled mirror above the bar, he finally caught sight of Danny. He had his arm around a wasted-looking girl—she couldn’t have been more than seventeen—who was trying to drag him away.

Nick called out his name.

Danny turned around. He was high on something, Nick realised. Danny stared at him for a few seconds. He seemed to have trouble focusing and Nick wasn’t sure Danny recognised him. Finally he murmured, “Nick.”

“Thanks for putting my name on the door.”

Danny nodded vaguely.

“I was being sarcastic,” said Nick. “Your bouncer wouldn’t let me in.”

Danny kept staring, and shifting his focus. Behind him, Nick recognised a couple of faces from St Dominic’s. He couldn’t put a name to either of them but he thought he remembered the taller man as one of Glazer’s chief tormentors. St Dominic’s didn’t have the kudos or the sporting heritage of most of its rivals but made up for it by charging the highest fees. The school had been named after St Dominic (1170-1221), founder of the Dominican order and patron saint of astronomers, but a more plausible guardian, Nick had come to realise, was his namesake St Dominic Savio (1842-1857), patron saint of juvenile delinquents. There was something about the dynamics of power and wealth at St Dominic’s that Nick had never been able to understand because he was excluded from it. It wasn’t the immorality of privilege; it was the amorality of privilege—a sense of entitlement that belonged, in some macabre way, to both Glazer and his schoolboy persecutors. This wake was the perfect expression of that amorality—a send-off for a dead man that nobody could remember liking, in a converted church where the bouncers sold drugs to under-age dancers.

The girl was still trying to pull Danny away. She shot a fierce glance at Nick and said, “Danny’s sick.”

He didn’t look sick to Nick. He looked frightened and disoriented. “Danny,” said Nick. “Are you all right?”

“He’s fine,” the girl insisted.

“You just told me he was sick.”

“He is sick. I’m taking him home—aren’t I, Danny?”

Danny didn’t answer.

Nick put a hand on his shoulder. “There was something you wanted to tell me.” He didn’t know whether that was true or not. Information came to Danny: because of who he was, because of who his father was. Sometimes he gave Nick a story to see what he would do with it. Maybe that was why Danny had invited him here. Maybe it was why Nick had come. But Danny could hardly speak.

“You should get him home,” said Nick.

“Yeah,” the girl said. “That’s where we’re going, isn’t it Danny?”

She kept looking for his consent although it seemed to Nick that in the state Danny was in, he would have consented to anything.

“Call me,” said Nick, although even as he said it he knew Danny wasn’t going to.

A taxi pulled up outside the club and disgorged three girls onto the pavement. Nick thought about getting in, then changed his mind. A walk would do him good.

He wandered past the cafes and pubs and pizza shops and turned left into Crown Street. In a cobbled lane near the primary school, a metallic blue Audi TT coupe sat among the overflowing wheelie bins—not so much parked as abandoned. A sign beside it said “No Standing.” Even without its customised numberplate, CRIPT, Nick would have recognised the car as Danny Grogan’s.

The Audi’s offside headlight was broken and the wing panel and passenger door were dented. The engine was still warm. Nick looked through the passenger window. A small sequined handbag was lying on the seat. The glove box door gaped open, but the glove box was empty.

It was a ten-minute walk from here to the Crypt. Yet Danny had his own private parking spot at the back of the club. Why would he have got out and walked, Nick wondered. He stared at the handbag on the passenger seat. Either Danny hadn’t trusted himself to drive—or someone else hadn’t.

Nick crossed the road and lit a cigarette and kept walking. He thought about what had happened at the club. He’d turned up because Danny had implied there might be something in it for him—but what? Danny was always good for a tip-off, a piece of second-hand underworld gossip worth a few paragraphs on page three of the Star. But in the back of Nick’s mind there lurked a hope of something bigger: the story, the real story behind the fire that claimed three lives and made Harry Grogan a millionaire. If Nick was honest about it, that was the reason he couldn’t let go of Danny. So tonight wasn’t going to be the night. There would be other nights, other let-downs. It was a story worth waiting for.

A nearly full moon hung over the city skyline. Nick was conscious of being followed—not by a person but by a dog. The dog was sitting—or rather, crouching—on the pavement, about twenty metres behind him. Nick had noticed it sitting forlornly under a tree in Prince Alfred Park. It looked like a greyhound. That is, it had the shape of a greyhound but not, somehow, the elastic quiver that a greyhound ought to have. They had locked eyes and the animal had taken this brief intimacy as an invitation to accompany Nick to wherever he might be going. Nick faced the dog and tried to shoo it away but the greyhound just cocked its head and stayed where it was. Nick glanced at his watch. It was after midnight. He turned the corner into Abercrombie Street and kept on walking.