Many Heads Are Better Than One
Ch 23, in which the Syndicate writers retreat gets under way
The beachside Serai Café at the Four Seasons resort in Langkawi is decorated in shades of blue, inviting the sea and sky in, and embracing the view. The authors who have flown in from Sydney are already seated when I arrive, the table set within an arched alcove directly overlooking the water, the pale-blue high-backed seats designed not to distract the eye from the Andaman Sea.
I snap a picture of them from behind, my chest swelling with pride that I am so fortunate both to be acquainted with such talented people, and to bring them here to introduce them to Leann.
“Hi!” Carol gives an excited wave when she spots me being shown to the table.
Carol’s hair, lilac the last time I saw her, is now leaf-green with a black streak either side of the middle parting. She is petite, her features delicate and pale, giving her the overall air of a pixie or sprite. I can almost envisage her running into the sea fully clothed after brunch and returning with a mermaid’s tale glinting like emeralds. In complete contrast, she is wearing a loose silk dress in fiery shades of red and orange.
I bend to kiss her cheeks and she throws her arms around my neck, hugging me tightly. “This isn’t quite a café overlooking Sydney harbour, is it?” she says, grinning.
Not quite, I tell her, and ask about the decision to go green.
“Why not?” she says. “It was time to embrace my inner witch. That and I was bored with people adding ten years to my age because of the blue rinse.”
I move around the table to Bonnie, a natural blonde with a penchant for stilettos. Her hair is styled in a neat bob, tiny gold earrings in her ears, her complexion so fresh and clear, it is impossible to tell whether she is wearing any makeup at all. She is like a bottle of iced water beside Carol’s can of fizzy Lilt.
“You’re looking’ relaxed,” she says. “This trip is clearly good for you, and I can understand why.” Her gaze takes in the pale sandy beach and foamy turquoise sea. “If you’d told us this was where you were coming, I’d have joined you sooner.”
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I tell her that is a story I could not have written myself. Roy, the third author, rises and shakes my hand warmly. Roy is a sportsman with a firm grip, the kind of guy who wakes in the morning with the intention of excelling in everything he does; anything less simply doesn’t sit well with him. He has the wide toothy smile and wrinkle-free face to match the confidence. Roy has had three books on the New York Times bestseller list and is still growing with each new novel he writes.
The waiter sets a coffee cup in front of me and hands out crisp white menus. While we are choosing our food, I tell my guests about the direction my trip has unexpectedly taken since my arrival in Singapore. I confirm that I have accepted Bernard Arnault’s biography as my next commission, and that, as Bernard’s guest, I lingered longer in Singapore than originally intended, before heading to Resorts World Genting as the guest of Lim Kok Thay. I also namedrop into the conversation, Cathie Wood and Beth Moses.
Carol whistles. “Do you have some kind of celebrity magnet attached to your forehead?” I shake my head and tell her about Ann’s prediction that this trip was going to lead me to people and places I would never have expected to see.
The waiter takes our orders, and we are left to discuss our current and future projects over coffee and with the rising sun turning the sea to liquid gold.
“I get the impression you have more than one commission arising from this trip,” says Bonnie.
I nod and stir cream into my coffee. I describe my meeting with Lim Kok Thay over a game of golf in Genting Highland, and how impressed I am with his father’s legacy and outlook on Malaysian culture and community. I have tentatively agreed to write his biography also, I tell them, because I feel the world will have much to gain from learning about this gracious and powerful family. I add that Lim Kok Thay stole the show with his karaoke performance at our rooftop welcome dinner.
“Sounds like a character,” says Roy.
“Sounds like a Netflix adaptation in the making if ever I heard one,” says Carol.
I smile, and tell them this idea has already been thrown into the mix by Olivia, Bernard’s PA.
“Although, I’m sure I saw an actress from Asian Dynasty on the beach earlier,” she adds, glancing around. “Now that would be a biography and a half to write.”
I ask if she is talking about Ivana, and Carol’s eyes widen.
“Don’t tell me you’ve already met her too,” she squeals.
I elaborate on the meeting in Paris, and Ivana’s introduction to Leann, trying to play down how impressed I was by Ivana’s glamour and style, her overwhelming aura of a woman born to walk the red carpet.
But it seems that Bonnie can see right through me. “And she has asked you to write her story too,” she says.
Carol is shifting in her seat like a schoolgirl at a One Direction concert and I am waiting for her to leap up, hand in the air, and say, “Pick me, please.”
I tell her that I might need some help and would relish her input if she would care to be involved.
“Silly question. That’s exactly the project I was waiting for. When do we start?”
I tell her that I will arrange an introduction for later if Ivana hasn’t already left the country. I ask Bonnie and Roy what they are currently working on. The three authors have very different writing styles – there would be no point to the Syndicate if everyone worked the same way and wrote on similar subjects and in identical genres – and our discussions often result in helping one or more of us to plot a potential project or to at least view a subject from an alternative perspective.
“We’re working together on this one,” says Bonnie, “a book about Abe Saffron, the Sydney crime boss.”
“Or more specifically about his involvement with the disappearance of Juanita Nielsen,” adds Roy.
Think of The Godfather. Think the Krays. These people don’t make their money from controlling launderettes and sweet shops.
They expand a little on the man’s background. The original king of Kings Cross, also referred to as Mr Sin, controlled almost every brothel, strip club, and bar in the Sydney area for three decades in the mid-twentieth century. He allegedly had much of Sydney’s police force working to protect him from prosecution, and was a known womaniser who, according to his son, often had three mistresses on the go at any given time. But it is the disappearance of heiress Juanita Nielsen following a meeting with Abe Saffron, that he has never been directly accused of, despite the knowledge that she was opposed to his proposal to build more properties in the Kings Cross area.
I ask them if the heiress’s disappearance will be the focal point of the book. I have some recollection of the event from my own past research of the area and period and recall that Juanita Nielsen had been vocal in her opposition to Abe Saffron’s proposals, and that despite his shady reputation, she had still attended a meeting with him alone. The woman was never seen again.
“We want to use this as the pivotal moment in Abe’s career,” says Bonnie. “Until then, he was a crime boss, a kind of Sydney mafia figure, who had his fingers in every strip joint and nightclub and any other seedy affair that was going on in the area. Think of The Godfather. Think the Krays. These people don’t make their money from controlling launderettes and sweet shops. But when Juanita Nielsen disappeared, it was as though he had elevated himself from known kingpin to something altogether more ruthless.”
I highlight Bonnie’s choice of wording – known kingpin – and ask if she thinks that it was the unknown element of the heiress’s potential demise that propelled him into a more brutal notoriety. He, of course, denied any involvement as one would expect.
“We’re always drawn to a good mystery,” says Carol.
Our brunch is served, the food elegantly presented on speckled sea-blue plates. While I tuck into eggs Florentine, I consider the lifestyle enjoyed by Abe Saffron, and the age in which he lived which lent itself to a wholly different kind of gangster to any in existence today. It was Bonnie’s mention of the Krays which flagged up my own perception of the man in question. It took someone with a ruthless sense of authority to achieve the status that Abe Saffron had, and someone who was also prepared to threaten people to get what he wanted. It was the reason why Abe Saffron, and others like him, had so many important police officials in their employ, because they were not afraid to find and use information against anyone in a position to protect them.
I share my thoughts with the others.
“Exactly that,” says Roy. “Everyone knew that he had some involvement in Juanita Nielsen’s disappearance, even if he wasn’t personally responsible, but no one was prepared to speak up and risk their own life. It’s that essence of fear and threat that we want to capture in the book. The kind of Sin City setting, so that the reader pictures the world in sepia shades to a backdrop of swing music.”
“Business owners don’t willingly hand over their hard-earned cash and control of their establishments to a wiry gangster with a penchant for dancers,” adds Bonnie. “And when it became common knowledge that the police were turning a blind eye to his crimes, the man was on a clear highway to earning the kingpin title. But still …” – Bonnie pauses, a forkful of smoked salmon midway to her mouth – “… this reads like a Kray biography, and that’s not what we want to achieve with this.”
Bonnie and Roy have collaborated in the past, working on stories that hit hard, stories from the seedier walks of life. For all her unruffled charm and approachable exterior, Bonnie is not the kind of author I would expect to write a romantic comedy set in the country town of Gungellan.
I ask what they thought of Alan Saffron’s biography. Alan was Abe’s only legitimate son and was effectively cut out of his father’s inheritance and legacy when he moved to LA.
“It was as expected – bitter,” says Bonnie. “There is no doubt that he looked up to his father, but considering Abe’s relentless womanising, and a lifetime of watching his mother being cheated on, it is a predictable story.”
“And how much can we believe from a son who lost out on a huge chunk of his father’s fortune?” asks Roy.
“Alan Saffron was on Kitchen Nightmares with Gordon Ramsay,” says Carol. “Not sure there’s anything trustworthy or loyal about him.”
“And yet, Abe’s wife Doreen remained with him, the long-suffering wife with a fabulous art collection.” Bonnie gazes out across the sea, squinting slightly against the sun’s reflection on the water’s surface. “And he had all these other women throwing themselves at him. For what? Money? Was he an amazing lover? Did his prowess in bed make up for his lack of stature?”
“You’d be surprised what people will do for money,” says Carol. “And, of course, Juanita Nielsen would not have been impressed because she was an heiress. So, bribery would have been out of the question when she met him to discuss his construction plans.”
“And she would have had no sexual interest in the man.”
I can see Bonnie mulling over the idea.
“What else did he have?” asks Roy.
“Thugs,” says Bonnie. “Thugs who would carry out his dirty work for him. Drug dealers. Arsonists. Cops.” She tilts her head to one side as though she has spotted a school of dolphins in the distance and gives an almost imperceptible shake of her head.
I wonder if she is on the cusp of understanding the angle from which they should write this book.
We reflect for a while on Abe Saffron’s life. He clearly loved his lifestyle, running nightclubs and strip joints, mixing with strippers and dancers and wealthy businessmen, but he was also known for being a family man who adored his children. He was regularly seen around Sydney with his young son Alan. He was not a known boozer or gambler and worked from a sleazy office with pictures of American gangsters on the walls. A relative once claimed that he made his family sit shiva – the Jewish mourning ritual – for his older brother over a money-dispute, while his brother remained alive.
I ask Bonnie and Roy if they have considered writing the book from Juanita Nielsen’s perspective. Any thoughts we have on Abe Saffron and his lifestyle, we have gained from the way other people perceived him, as is the case with writing about any prominent historical figure, and as authors we must learn to differentiate between the facts and the fiction. What did Juanita hope to gain from her meeting with Abe Saffron? What did she stand to lose if the meeting was unsuccessful? Was she afraid? If so, who did she warn about the meeting, and why did they not come forward to implicate him? Did she trust the wrong people and was that her downfall?
“She obviously didn’t see herself as a victim,” says Carol. “Unless she didn’t believe the stories about the man.”
“She’d have done her research; she was a journalist.” Roy pours himself another cup of coffee and gestures to the rest of us to ask if we would like a refill.
“So, let’s make this difficult for him,” says Bonnie. She sits forward in her seat, eyes wide, hands steepled beneath her chin. “Juanita Nielsen wasn’t another dancer from a dead-end family with little support other than any sugar-daddy she managed to hook herself. She was an intelligent woman with a solid support network. She knew exactly what she was involved in and she’d have fought back with everything she had.”
“Yes!” Carol is still eating long after the rest of us have finished our meals, as though she is relishing every mouthful, savouring the food and the view, making a memory that will remain an imprint on her life for future reference. It makes me ponder how many meals I enjoy for the experience rather than for sustenance. “A feisty superhero for the modern woman.”
Bonnie smiles at her and nods. “No one’s life is as charmed as Abe Saffron’s. Someone must have made his life super-difficult at some point, and I think Juanita Nielsen was the one. I think he had to fight to shut her up – now all we need to do is find out how he did it and work out how he covered his tracks. How many favours did he call in to eradicate this one problem? As a journalist, she must have had a network of leads all tracing away from Abe Saffron. What happened to them? And you’re right, of course. Who did she trust?”
Roy raises his coffee cup to her. “To different perspectives,” he says.
“To villains and superheroes,” says Carol.
I ask how they think this story would have played out today.
“People still go missing,” says Roy. “And people will always be susceptible to blackmail, despite technology and media intervention. In fact, potentially because of technology and media intervention.”
“Imagine if Abe Saffron had connected with the US mafia,” says Bonnie.
Carol’s cheeks puff out, a reflection on what we are each thinking.
“There’d have been no stopping him. From what we understand, his wife Doreen kept him somewhat grounded, as did his religion. Remove those constraints, and what do we have? A man with no morals? A man who might not have paid others to carry out his dirty deeds because he was comfortable carrying them out himself.”
“Because he would have had even more leverage with the police,” adds Roy.
I suggest that this version of the man may not have accepted any weakness in his son, in which case Alan Saffron may have ended up even more ruthless and powerful than his father, given the wealth Abe amassed during his reign. His father’s business acumen and unfettered brutality coupled with today’s technology – would there have been any stopping them? Would they have joined forces with the billionaires purported to control and manipulate western media? I ask if this is a comparison Bonnie and Roy can use when working on the project. It may help them to understand the methods the crime boss used when covering his tracks not only in this case, but others also. The Luna Park Ghost Train fire was allegedly linked to Saffron, killing several people, so that he could gain control, redevelop the site, and install poker-machines. Luna Park was followed by other establishments which also burnt down in the ensuing years, prompting questions of fraud for which he was never charged. Imagine this brutal regime on a global technological scale.
“There’s no doubt Alan would have been brought up on greed and cruelty,” says Roy. “Murder, fear, these things would have been commonplace to him because I don’t think his mother would have had the opportunity or strength to gainsay his upbringing. They might still be controlling Sydney’s streets now.”
It is a sombre thought, more so because it is believable.
“And who knows,” says Carol, “they may have discovered an Australian Frank Sinatra.”
We all laugh as the waiter escorts Leann to our table. I rise and greet Leann with a hug and a kiss on each cheek before introducing her to the other authors seated around the table. Carol gives a little wave and a wide smile. Bonnie and Roy reach forward to shake Leann’s hand. I inform them that Leann is the newest recruit to the Syndicate. I sense Leann’s anticipation beside me, and I tuck her arm around mine to show her my support.
The waiter clears his throat and informs me that Josiah Peterson’s flight from New York has been delayed and that he will now not be arriving at the resort until this evening. Josiah will be the final syndicate member to join us. I thank the waiter, and he asks if we would like to continue our discussion at the Rhu Bar.
Everyone agrees that the Rhu Bar will be the perfect place to relocate to.
We follow the waiter to the exotic bar area with its heavy Eastern influences. Again, the tables are seated undercover but overlooking the sea, with large, comfortable, cushioned seats, and tall greenery that brings the outside in. It feels slightly more secluded and conducive to discussions about crime bosses and mafia families.
Once we are seated and drinks ordered, I explain to the other authors about Leann’s invitation to join the Syndicate and her first commission writing Cathie Wood’s biography.
“How exciting,” says Carol. “How do you feel about that, Leann?”
“I can’t wait to get started,” says Leann. “I am acquainted with Cathie anyway through my father’s business ventures. I only hope that I can bring something special to the biography, to do her life justice.”
“Welcome aboard,” says Bonnie.
“Yes, welcome,” adds Roy. “I hear that you introduced Bernard Arnault and sparked a chain reaction of a vacation.”
“Guilty as charged,” says Leann, raising her hands in mock-defeat. “But did you also hear that Bernard was persuaded to ride the tallest duelling rollercoaster in the world?”
Carol laughs out loud. “No, that was kept a secret! I never had you down as a theme park kind of person.”
I confess that I’m not and that it was all part of his PA’s plan to trick Cathie Wood onto the ride, which sounds far more childish than it felt at the time.
“Oh, we’ve played Doubles Poker,” adds Leann. “He’s sung karaoke on a rooftop, and rode a cable car through the clouds at Genting Highland. You would not believe what this man is capable of.”
I accept the simultaneous laughter, and praise, and remind Leann that none of this would have been possible were it not for her introductions, and that despite the years of writing experience I have on her, I still did not feel able to accept the Cathie Wood commission.
“That’s unlike you,” says Roy. “Would you care to elaborate on your reasons?”
I politely decline and inform Carol that Leann is a dear friend of Ivana.
Carol leaps from her seat, circles the table, and pulls another seat closer to Leann. She takes Leann’s hands in hers. “You must tell me all about her. Has she always been larger-than-life, or did she used to pour salt on toads’ backs to watch them squirm when she was a little girl?”
“Carol!” says Bonnie. “I think the question we would all like the answer to, is did you pour salt on toads’ backs when you were a little girl?”
Everyone laughs. I glance at Leann and am happy to see the light behind her eyes at her acceptance into the group. I had no doubt that she had something special to bring to the table and I know the others have already recognised this too.
“I collected snails,” says Carol, wrinkling her nose. “I kept them in plastic pots and pans in the back yard and fed them lettuce and strawberries and cried profusely when they all managed to escape.”
“But you didn’t pour salt on their backs?” asks Bonnie.
Carol shakes her head. “I gave them names. You can’t kill a snail called Willow.”
“I collected shells,” says Leann.
“I get the feeling there’s more to this story than that,” prompts Roy. “You didn’t give them names and draw faces on them?”
“No, but I had all sorts of graphs and charts, recording them in order of age, size, and beauty.”
“Oh dear,” says Bonnie with a smile. “I have a star named after me, courtesy of my grandfather.”
You’ll have to do better than that, I tell her.
She rolls her eyes. “Okay, Keith Urban signed his name on my arm once and I didn’t wash it off for a whole year.”
The table erupts with laughter as the drinks arrive.
I sit back and am filled with pride at the group of amazing people I have been lucky enough to bring together in this stunning setting. I raise my glass and toast the Syndicate.
Leann seems like she fits in perfectly with the group. I’m excited to meet the last writer to arrive.
Each of these book ideas that they are writing sounds so interesting! I'd love to see a story of their writing process panning out. Maybe a sequel ; )