Holding the hat in his hand, Laurence Turner took the elevator up to the mezzanine level of the Burning Bush Winery in the Clare Valley of Australia. The mirrored doors reflected a tall man whose almond-shaped blue eyes were past better days. February, the last month of summer, was as mundane as any other month for him. He was still trying to adjust to his new life here. Not much else he could do to reframe his negative thoughts.
Laurence wiped his Roman nose consciously. Unsatisfied with his appearance, he tucked the white short-sleeved shirt inside his cargo shorts with one hand, then raked his long, blond hair curling over his collar into neatness.
The doors parted to the chattering din of a lunch crowd. Turning right, he proceeded down the hallway to the back of the mezzanine and continued along a balconied hallway on the left with several doors. He arrived at the far end and mouthed out a breath of nervousness. He knocked once and opened the door inward to off-white walls and the smell of rose-scented air freshener.
A young woman with a phone’s earbud in her ear sat behind a wooden desk. Lisa, the young, voluptuous hazel-haired secretary with a heart-shaped face wore a violet one-piece dress. She was also Laurence’s breakfast companion at the refectory. He liked her and detected she liked him more, but he chose not to go that way, his life being uneven. Besides, she was the general manager’s niece, which was worse than a dingo trespassing on a farmer’s property.
Lisa hung up the phone, smiled at him, and pointed for him to go right in to Barry’s office, the door left ajar.
Barry Stewart, the fifty-five-year-old general manager with a paunch, wore a blue striped long sleeve shirt. He sat hunched forward over his baroque desk typing on his laptop. The keyboard chatter, even though soft, disrupted the pervading silence like termites eating wood. A pair of gold-plated reading glasses hung on his short nose.
Barry gestured to the cushioned chair in front of his desk.
Laurence shuffled across the wooden floor and drew up the chair, placing his hat on his lap. He leaned far back and waited, wondering if he was being summoned about yesterday’s incident. An intern, startled by a mouse, had dropped and broken a vintage wine bottle.
Laurence’s eyes roved a landscape painting of the outback on the wall behind Barry’s chair. He did not recall seeing it the last time he visited the office. He narrowed to the green Persian rug underneath the desk. Must be new too—or was everything less foggy because the weight of his worry seemed less after putting in an hour of extra work today?
The posh interior did not camouflage Barry’s brusqueness—he was a man known not to mince his words. But he was qualified to manage the estate. With a master’s degree in viticulture and enology from the University of Adelaide, Barry was also in charge of the estate’s new animal cloning plant, a bid by shareholders to diversify business into futuristic farming.
The typing halted. Barry removed his reading glasses, placed them on the desk, and smiled at his employee. Was the sarcastic smile a prelude to the whiplash Laurence expected to receive? Then again, he had never known Barry to smile any other way.
“How ya goin’, mate?” Barry greeted Laurence in a husky voice.
“Can’t whinge about anything.” Laurence reciprocated the smile, anticipating a backlash any second now. “Is this about yesterday’s mouse incident?”
“It would’ve been if the bottle was a hundred-and-fifty years old,” Barry said. “I wanted to see you about something else. There’s an American reporter coming to town in March. He wants to write about our livestock cloning project. He’ll be here on the twentieth of March for two nights, and he’ll leave on the morning of the twenty-second. Need you to take care of him.”
“Me? Where’s Karyn?” Laurence asked, referring to the estate’s in-house public relations manager, expecting her to oversee such assignments.
“Karyn left us. She’s getting married and moving to Melbourne,” Barry said. “I’ll need someone to fill her shoes until I hire someone to replace her.”
“Put out an ad. I don’t know anything about her job,” Laurence said, worried about the excessive load. “This is too much responsibility for someone like me. Besides, I’m happier doing labor work.”
“I’m not asking you to run a battleship. Just work that charm,” Barry said. “Lisa seems to think you can do it. She’s the one who suggested you. There’s nothing to it, mate. Be polite and assist the reporter with his queries. Let the cloning expert, Peter Hawthorne, do the official talking. To make your job easier, Karyn prepared an itinerary of activities before she left, so there you go.”
“What’s the reporter’s name?”
“Matthew Callahan…he works for USA Today.”
“That’s a big newspaper,” Laurence said.
“Yes, and I don’t want to lose the opportunity.” Barry picked up a folder on the desk and handed it over. “Here’s the media kit Karyn prepared for the occasion. Give it a run through and let me know if you’ve any questions. Make sure Callahan meets our cloning expert on time. Hawthorne is a busy person. He’s not fond of interviews, but I managed to convince him it’ll be good for us. So don’t blow it.”
Laurence opened the folder and perused its contents, which included a press release and accompanying documents.
“I’ll pay you seven hundred dollars extra for this job,” Barry said. “How’s that?”
“You’ve got yourself a deal,” Laurence said, standing up.
Barry picked up a pen and rolled it between his hands. “About the mouse problem—how about we get a cat?”
Laurence felt his lower jaw drop. “For the wine cellar? You want to see an inebriated cat?”
Barry sighed. “We’ll sort it out one way or another. Meanwhile, I suggest you go say hello to Hawthorne and tell him what you’ll be doing. Tread carefully—he’s an acerbic bloke who doesn’t take kindly to visitors. I struggled to convince him it’ll be good for the business.” He pointed again at the media kit. “His bio is in there…he’s an American, by the way.”
“I gathered that from the few times I’ve seen him. Is that why the American newspaper agreed to do this story? As if there are no animal cloning farms in the States. Why bother to come here?”
“Hawthorne was a Harvard professor, a notable bloke back in the States. From what Karyn told me, the newspaper wants to do a story about the cloning farm and a side profile story about him. So, it’s all hand in hand. Doesn’t bother me to share the publicity as long as the focus is on our business.”
“I’ll go see him now,” Laurence said.
“I’ll call him first to let him know you’re on the way. Just remember he’s a cranky one. Calculate your words before opening your mouth,” Barry said.
Laurence grinned. “Hopefully my smile will impress him.”