Mason glanced at his phone and made a quick mental calculation to determine the time in Los Angeles. After firing up his laptop, he sent Jeremy a text to check if he was available for a chat. Minutes later, Mason was viewing the grinning face of his friend on his laptop screen. From the background he could see, it appeared that Jeremy was having lunch at Subway.
“Dude! How’s life in Australia?”
Mason laughed. “It’s been one day, Jeremy. So far, it’s been okay.”
“Hey, you can learn a lot in one day!” Jeremy’s grin broadened. “Like the one day I had with that girl back in our sophomore year when her parents were away for the weekend.”
“Don’t remind me!” The negative feelings Mason had been feeling were dissipating as he reconnected with his good friend. “You went on and on about it for weeks afterwards.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Even if you only pretended to be interested at the time, I know the other guys were happy to hear all the details.” He cocked his head. “You told me that there’s a five-hour time difference between here and there, so it’s around dinner time there? This would be a good time to catch up regularly, then.”
“No fucking way!” Mason smiled. “You’ve got to subtract five and add a day, not add five. It’s a bit after seven in the morning here, and in the future, I intend to still be in bed asleep.”
“Seven? And you’re up and dressed?” Jeremy shook his head in disbelief. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Jet lag.” Mason sighed. “I crashed just after four yesterday afternoon and then woke up at three this morning. I’ve just come back from having breakfast at the hotel restaurant.” He smirked. “Since you’ve reminded me of that girl, would you like me to tell you all about the cute chef who was cooking breakfast this morning?”
Jeremy chuckled. “I’ll pass. You and I have very different ideas of who’s cute, Mason.” He paused for a moment. “Where are you staying, and what are you plans for Day Two?”
“I’m at the Marriott near the Sydney Harbour Bridge for two weeks while I settle in and try to find somewhere to stay permanently. Today, I’m going to try to master the art of catching trains while checking out some of the places up for rent I’ve found on the ’net.”
“Trains?” Jeremy frowned. “You don’t have a car?”
“Not yet. To be honest, I’m still trying to decide if I’ll get one. The college doesn’t have much in the way of parking, and their website recommends that people walk, bike, or take the train. Then there’s the fact that everyone drives on the wrong side of the road here.” Mason rolled his eyes. “It’s hard enough being in a new place with no friends, but learning a new way of driving and weird road rules isn’t a priority.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.” Jeremy narrowed his eyes. “You’re hiding something. What’s going on, dude?”
Mason stiffened and then sighed. Jeremy knew him too well. “It’s only been a day, but I’m already finding it harder than I expected. I knew I’d be all alone here, but I didn’t expect to be this lonely.”
“What do you mean?”
“There’s no one here I can turn to. Absolutely no one, zilch, zip. I knew it in my head before I flew out, but it only really struck me this morning when I woke up. I had no one to turn to, no one to go see, no one to just spend some time with.”
Jeremy nodded slowly. “I get that, but wouldn’t you have been the same if you’d gone to college here like you originally planned?”
“It’s different.” Mason grimaced while he organised his thoughts. “If I went to college at USC, yes, I’d be there not knowing anyone, but almost everyone else in the dorm would be in the same situation. We’d all be together and could support each other. Here…there’s no one.”
“Give it time. As you said, it’s only been one day.”
“I know, but that doesn’t make it any easier. I woke up at three and had nothing to do until the hotel restaurant opened for breakfast.” Mason sighed and then forced a smile onto his face. “I’m going to try to do something about it tonight, though.”
Jeremy’s eyebrows rose, and then he grinned. “Planning on bringing some company back to your hotel room?”
“If I can. There’s a few gay bars not too far from here. I’ll catch a cab tonight and check them out. There probably won’t be a lot of action on a Tuesday night, but I won’t know if I don’t go.”
They continued to chat until it was time for Jeremy to end his lunch break and return to work. Mason felt a lot better as he closed his laptop. While being alone in a strange country was still scary, Jeremy had given him a shot of encouragement that Mason hoped would last until he started building a new support network in Sydney.
* * *
Liam grinned at Neil, who was sitting next to him on the sofa, while he completed the phone conversation. “Thank you! I’ll see you at ten on Thursday.” As soon as he finished his call he pumped his fist. “Yes!”
“You’ve got a job?”
“Not yet, but I’ve got a job interview.” Liam rolled on top of his boyfriend and gave Neil a quick kiss. “He had already received a recommendation from Keith Sutherland and had been expecting my call.” He kissed Neil again. “That’s another one I owe you.”
Neil went red. “It’s really Keith you owe, not me.”
“One, he’s not here; two, you’re the one who told him about me needing a job here in Sydney, and three, I’ll take any excuse I get to kiss you.” Liam proceeded to make good on his last point.
Keith Sutherland was the marketing manager at Pride FM in Melbourne, the gay-and-lesbian radio station where Neil had worked part-time during the last half of his previous school year. When he learnt that Neil and Liam were moving to Sydney, he had offered to contact Pride FM’s sister station in Sydney about employing one or both of the young men. Neil was planning on concentrating on his studies initially, but Liam needed a job to help pay the rent, hence the phone call that had just concluded.
When the two came up for air, Liam sighed before settling into a comfortable embrace with Neil. “Fuck, I wish we weren’t waiting for those delivery men. There are so many things I would prefer to be doing, especially since we’ve got the unit to ourselves. What time are they supposed to be here?”
“Sometime this morning, that’s all they would commit to.” Neil grinned. “And then we’ll finish putting together your bed and…” He ran a hand lightly down Liam’s chest.
Liam grabbed the wandering hand. “Unless you want to be caught in a compromising situation when the delivery men arrive, I suggest you stop.” He let go and then snuggled closer to his boyfriend. “But if you don’t think you’ll be embarrassed, I’ll do whatever you want.”
“I think I’d die…” Neil sighed and then leant over to give Liam a quick kiss. “But it’s tempting.”
Liam laughed as he broke away and stood up. “We’ll have plenty of time in the future. For now, let’s work out what we still need to get. Mum told me that if we come up with a list, she and Dad will get as much as they can before they and Noel head back to Melbourne. Come on, there’s work to be done.”
Neil’s expression was a mix of exasperation, lust, and disappointment as he rose from the sofa. “You know, you’re still a bully at times.”
Before Neil could continue, Liam had him engulfed in a bear hug. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I didn’t, either.” Neil relaxed into Liam’s body and sighed. “Sometimes, I still can’t believe you’re my boyfriend. This time last year, the idea would’ve horrified me.”
“That’s over. I’m here now, and I’m sticking with you, no matter what.” Liam leant back to open enough space between them so he could meet Neil’s gaze while still holding tight. “We’re here together, Neil. There’s nowhere else I want to be.”
* * *
Mason smiled to himself as he left Redfern train station; he had successfully navigated Sydney’s public-transport system from his hotel to Redfern, the closest train station to the University of Sydney.
While there were some similarities to train trips he’d made in other cities, there was also something different. The train stations were certainly not the clean ones he remembered from Washington D.C., nor were the trains as crowded as the New York subway, but that wasn’t the difference. It was only as the train was pulling into Redfern that Mason had worked it out: it was the people.
He had been initially surprised by the racial mix he encountered. He had been expecting Sydney to be largely white, and while Caucasians were the dominant population, the number of people who appeared to be from Asia had startled him. Similarly, the number of train travellers from India was something he hadn’t expected, though in hindsight, both should’ve been obvious based on where Australia was located with respect to both regions.
Despite looking for it, though, Mason had been unable to see any overt racism. White stood patiently next to yellow and brown, and even Mason’s black skin gathered little more than a glance. He would’ve been happier if those glances were from guys rather than smiles from girls, but he didn’t mind being appreciated. He wasn’t so foolish as to believe that there was no racism, but that short trip was enough to indicate that tolerance was dominant.
Mason followed the crowd out onto Lawson Street. He knew he had to head west to the first of the units he would be looking at, but he was early for his appointment and didn’t see any reason to rush. He turned right and strolled along the bridge over the train tracks until he reached the Redfern police station. There he stopped and frowned. He glanced back the way he had come and then pulled out his new Australian phone to check the map. He was sure that the police station, clearly marked on the map, was in the opposite direction to where he needed to go.
“Idiot!” Mason chuckled at his mistake and headed back across the bridge. He had glanced at where the sun was and instinctively assumed that it was to the south, forgetting that in the southern hemisphere, the sun was in the north. Thus, when he turned right after leaving the train station, he was heading east, not west. Mason made a mental note to remember that for the future. He knew he was likely to make that mistake again if he didn’t concentrate.
Fifteen lazy minutes later, Mason was peering up at a five-storey, student-apartment complex. It was bright and colourful, had secure entry via a swipe card, was only a short walk to the university, and according to their website, it included a fully-equipped gym as well as several communal areas. What made Mason hesitate was the size of the place. He wasn’t sure he wanted to live with such a large crowd.
He shrugged and entered the building. There, he approached the slightly chubby-looking young man behind the reception desk. “Hi, I’m Mason Rivers. I’ve got an appointment to be shown a couple of the studio units.”
“Thank you. If you’d like to take a seat, Ronan will be with you shortly.”
Since he was early, Mason was surprised when a smartly dressed guy in his late twenties showed up only a couple of minutes later. “Hi, Mason, I’m Ronan. Sorry to keep you waiting.”
“No problem. Actually…” Mason checked his phone, “…you’re a few minutes early. My appointment isn’t until nine-thirty.”
The sales spiel started almost immediately, with Ronan pointing out all the features as they headed to the first of the units. Mason was interested, but he was also concerned about how much the place was designed on the assumption that the students would be mixing. He didn’t mind that, but he didn’t want everyone to know his business, either, especially if he was bringing guys back at night.
“Are you sure you don’t want to look at one of the apartments? You’ll still have a private room and ensuite, but you’ll have three to five other people to get to know Sydney with.”
“Ensuite. That’s a bathroom, right?”
“Yes. Sorry, I didn’t realise you don’t use that term in America.”
“I value my privacy, and I’m looking for a place for the long term. But I don’t want to live with people I didn’t pick and who may change each year. That’s why I want one of your studio apartments; I won’t have to worry about who I’m sharing the place with.”
“I understand.” Ronan winked. “No comments from the others when you have someone stay the night that way.”
Mason didn’t respond. If he hadn’t been looking for somewhere to live for four years, he would’ve been tempted by one of the apartments. It would be like living in a dorm, with the opportunity for getting to know new people and an instant group of potential friends. But Mason didn’t want to change living companions each year, and so he had his sights set on something less volatile.
It was almost thirty minutes later before Mason found himself outside the apartment block. The studio he had seen had been nice, but it was a single room with an ensuite bathroom. He would be living, studying, cooking, and sleeping in the one room…and he couldn’t see himself doing that for four years. He had thought he could when he had viewed the plans online before making the appointment, but once he was in the room and looking around, he had realised it wasn’t for him.
Unfortunately, the next two places he looked at were worse. One he almost rejected before looking at it simply on the unkempt appearance from outside, and the other would require him to be travelling up and down a dingy stairwell each day. The first place, despite his reservations, was the best place that Mason had seen so far.
* * *
“I take it that house-hunting is no longer a priority.” Clarissa’s dry tone was accompanied by a raised eyebrow.
Deon reddened as he ran a hand through his hair. “It’s still something I need to do, but you’re more important.”
The two were sitting side-by-side in the train heading towards the centre of the city. Deon had booked lunch for two at one of the restaurants in the old Rocks district of Sydney. The plan was they would spend a couple of hours wandering the area around the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Sydney Opera House before lunch and then meet up with Kevin and Daphne in the afternoon.
To his surprise, Clarissa didn’t tell him that of course she was more important. Instead, she sighed and rested her head on his arm. “Thank you.”
Deon wasn’t sure what she meant, but he knew what she wanted was comfort, so he slipped the arm she was leaning against around her shoulders and gently pulled her into his chest.
“It’ll take me a little time to get used to being here,” Clarissa said after a few moments. “I didn’t think I would miss people after only a few days, but I do.”
“Yeah, I’m the same. There are great people here, but I’m missing the guys back in Melbourne, too. The club’s psychologist told me that was normal.”
Clarissa snorted and looked up with an almost sardonic smile. “You’ve been here less than a month and you’re already seeing a psychologist? What does that say about you?”
Deon guessed she wanted to keep things light-hearted. “Hey, I’m dating you. I can’t be completely crazy.”
The smile slipped from her face. “No, that would be me. Moving to a strange city simply because I’m dating a football player who only gets one day off a week.”
“While I’m working most days, I don’t always work normal hours. We’ll have time on other days, too. If I’ve got a morning or afternoon free, I’ll be there for you. And I’m free most nights.”
Clarissa rested her head back on his chest. “It would help if you could…”
When she didn’t continue, Deon gave her a soft squeeze of reassurance. “What do you want me to do?”
She sighed. “Liam found that unit we’re sharing pretty quickly, but I could see that it was a case of being in the right place at the right time. Decent places in Sydney get snapped up quickly, and if you and Kevin are only able to go looking at places one day a week, you’re not going to be able to be too fussy about location when you find the right place.”
Deon kissed the top of her head. “Kev and I have already discussed it. We’re only going to be looking around where you and Liam are living. That’s a bit further away from Daphne than he’d like, but I think he’s hoping she’ll move in with him once we get settled.” He shrugged. “If it means it takes us a few months to find a place, so be it. It’s not like we desperately need a place to stay.”
After a few more seconds of being held tight, Clarissa pulled away. She wiped her eyes and then scowled at her boyfriend. “If you want me to visit you wherever you end up living, the place is going to have to meet certain standards.” When Deon chuckled, she hit him on the chest. “And don’t expect me to move in with you. I’m not that sort of girl.”
Deon grinned. “I know, and I’m happy with that. It’s your pleasant, charming, and always sunny personality that’s made me fall in love with you.”
Clarissa tossed her head in an aristocratic fashion, but spoilt the action by allowing a smile to appear on her lips. “And don’t you forget it.”
Deon leant over to give her a quick kiss and then glanced up as the train pulled into Wynyard station. “This is where we get off.” He rose, held out his hand, and smiled. “Let’s go sightseeing.”
* * *
Mason decided he needed a lunch break. He told himself there was no need to rush into renting a place, but he was conscious that he would need to check out of his hotel room in less than two weeks. He hadn’t started looking yet, but he was keeping the option of a short-term rental in the back of his mind. It was part of the advice from the university’s website for international students—rent something short-term upon arrival in Australia, then look for more permanent—but he had thought the hotel room his parents had arranged would suffice. He didn’t want to move twice, but he wasn’t seeing anywhere he would want to stay until he graduated.
He considered the café on the opposite side of the street, and then his lips twitched into a half-smile as he spotted the hotel bar a few doors to the left of the first shop. He was old enough to drink here, and in his humble opinion he needed a beer. He didn’t know if the bar also sold meals, but there was no harm in checking it out.
He glanced to his left and, not seeing any cars, stepped onto the asphalt…only to jump back as a horn blasted him from the right.
His heart pounding, he watched as the SUV that had nearly hit him drove down to the end of the street and stopped as it waited to enter the busy main road. He took automatic note of the number plate, though he wasn’t sure what he could do with it.
“Are you okay?” a feminine voice asked.
Mason turned around and gave the dark-skinned woman a weak smile. “I think so.” She looked to be in her thirties, and she was pushing a baby stroller in which a small girl was asleep.
“Ah…that explains it.” She smiled. “I saw you look the wrong way before you stepped out. You’re American, aren’t you?”
As his heart rate slowed down, Mason chuckled. “The accent gives me away. And before you say anything, yes, I know you drive on the left-hand side of the road down here, but looking to the right isn’t automatic yet. I’ve only been here for two days.”
“Why don’t you join me for a bit while you calm down? I’m just about to head over to that café for a bite to eat. At least I hope to, as long as Shelley here stays asleep.” She gave the little girl an affectionate smile. “She has a habit of waking up at the most awkward times.”
“I was planning on having lunch, too, so why don’t I buy for both of us?” Mason silently abandoned the idea of a drink at the bar.
“You don’t have to. You’re the one who’s just had a big shock, not me.”
Mason gave his best impression of a courtly bow, which he knew wasn’t very good at all. “It’ll be my pleasure.” He dropped the mock-haughty tone and grinned. “You took the time out to check that I was okay. The least I can do is to take the time out to make sure you get something to eat, even if Shelley wakes up.”
She laughed. “Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’m Veronica.”
The two crossed the road, this time with Mason looking in both directions several times before stepping out.
After ordering their meals and finding a table outside to sit down at, Veronica cocked her head. “Are you wandering around here for any particular reason? This isn’t the usual place for tourists to visit.”
“I’m not a tourist. I’ve spent the morning trying to find somewhere to live. I’m starting school at the university soon.”
“Really?” She leant forward, her eyes open wide. “What course are you doing?”
“Engineering.” Mason’s brow wrinkled. “Why?”
“My husband’s a lecturer, but he’s in the Business School, not the Faculty of Engineering.” She settled back in her chair after checking that Shelley was still asleep. She paused for a moment to adjust the sun shade to keep the little girl out of the direct sunlight. “However, if you need anything done on the admin side, look me up. I work in accounts, but I have contacts in all the other departments, if needed.”
“Thanks, but I doubt I’ll need any help.” He grimaced for a moment. “Unless you’ve some recommendations on a decent place to live for the next four years. One where I won’t have to worry about who I’m sharing a place with. Ideally, not sharing at all.”
Her eyes snapped from Shelley to Mason. “You’re planning on staying at one place for your entire degree?” Her surprise was evident from the tone.
“If I can.” Mason shrugged. “I don’t see the point in moving more than once or twice, but I didn’t see anything suitable this morning when I checked out a few places.” He gave Veronica a wry smile. “Now that I’m here, I’m finding that what I thought I could live with when I was checking online from back home isn’t quite the same when I finally see it.”
“Where have you been looking so far?” After Mason filled her in, she nodded slowly. “They’re all the usual student places. I’m guessing you’ve decided that you’re not into that sort of shared accommodation?”
“I could if I had to, but the idea of living in close proximity for the next four years with a constantly changing group of neighbours…” Mason shuddered.
“Rather than student accommodation, have you consider renting a unit somewhere out in the suburbs?” Veronica waved a hand in the direction of the train station. “Almost every train from the south and west goes through Redfern station. Even the trains from the north go through Redfern after stopping off at Central. You don’t have to live around here.” She smiled. “Some students I know find the train trip very productive. It’s a good chance for them to catch up on their reading. The downside is that at night you’re away from any friends you’ve made, though to be honest, that’s true for the majority of students who will still be living with their parents. It’s predominantly the international and rural students who live in the various apartment blocks around here.”
It was then that Mason realised he didn’t know what he wanted. He wanted privacy and consistency in his neighbours, but he didn’t want to be isolated, either. He would give his search another couple of days, but if he hadn’t found the right place by Friday morning, he’d start looking for a short-term rental to buy himself some time.
* * *
Tony Hills, the assistant marketing manager for the Lilydale Leopards Football Club, was busy reviewing a proposed supporter agreement with a new business when he heard a knock at the door. He looked up to see the Leopards newest player entering his office.
“I was told you wanted to see me,” Ben said.
Tony stood up and shook Ben’s hand before waving a hand at the visitor’s chair on the other side of his desk. “I do. It’s my job to find you a sponsorship to help with your finances. Make yourself comfortable while we work out what we can do.”
Tony surreptitiously studied Ben as the teenage football player sat down. Ben’s file provided a lot of details on where Ben was from—his height, weight, and football history—but it was Ben’s interests and personality that were of the most importance to Tony, and Ben’s file was very sparse in that area. Tony prided himself on finding the best possible match between the club’s players and the various sponsors, but to do that he needed to understand the players’ likes and dislikes.
“We haven’t been formally introduced before now,” Tony said once Ben was settled, “but I’m Tony Hills, and I work for Colin, the club’s marketing manager. I help him find sponsorships for both the club and the players and assist in other revenue-raising activities.”
Ben smiled. “You’re also Jim Henderson’s boyfriend and played a major role in making sure the club survived its financial crisis at the start of last year. I know who you are.”
Tony knew he was blushing. “Jim was the one who did all the hard work. I was just there to support him.”
“That’s not what everyone else has told me.” Ben grinned. “They also told me that you tend to be modest about your accomplishments.”
“Well,” Tony said, trying to shift the focus away from himself, “what we’re here to do today is to find someone to sponsor you so you don’t go broke.” He gave Ben a lopsided smile. “Unfortunately, we’re not an AFL club and can’t afford to pay you guys enough to live on, so we need to find some other sources of income for you.”
“You’ve already found me a job. Combined with my match payments, I can live on what I’m getting paid.”
“Maybe, but we want your focus on your football, not on making sure you have enough money. Our sponsors do, too, because we all want the club to be successful. Players who are distracted by financial concerns won’t be focused enough to defend the premiership we won last year.”
Ben nodded, his expression back into one of seriousness, but didn’t speak.
Tony hesitated as he tried to make sure he used the right words for the next part. The club’s grapevine had informed him that Ben was gay and that he was slowly letting everyone in the club know. Tony hadn’t been officially informed, so he needed to act as if he didn’t know. “As you may be aware, I have a lot of contacts within the gay-and-lesbian community, and they’ve provided fantastic support for the club over the last year. Would you be comfortable being sponsored by a gay-oriented organisation?”
Ben grimaced and dropped his head. “Actually, no.”
“No?” Tony couldn’t hide his surprise.
Ben sighed. “I’m sure you already know I’m gay, and I don’t mind anyone in the club knowing, but I can’t afford for the information to become public knowledge.” He looked up and met Tony’s gaze. “I know I’m a hypocrite, but I can’t afford to be sponsored by anyone who’s openly gay.”
Tony settled back into his chair, his eyes never leaving Ben. “Can you tell me why?”
Ben sighed again as he broke eye contact. “I can’t have my family find out. They’re so homophobic that I don’t know what they’ll do if they learn the truth.” He screwed up his face. “I can’t afford to take the risk. They can never find out.”
“Never’s a very long time.” Tony tried to keep his voice soft and gentle. “While there may be a bad reaction at the start, you might be surprised with how it all works out in the end. We had a case here at the club where a father was initially violent, but he’s now a strong supporter of his son.”
A momentary smile flickered across Ben’s face: “Neil Rosewood.” His lips quirked up at Tony’s reaction to the name. “I’ve been getting a good history lesson on the club over the last week. Ollie told me what happened.” The smile faded, and he turned to stare out the window. “I don’t think that will happen in my case. I…”
Tony waited until it was clear that Ben wasn’t going to continue. “Why do you think your parents will be different?”
Ben was quiet for several seconds. “What information do you have on my family?”
Tony checked his computer screen. “Your father’s name is Eric Driscoll, and your mother’s is Olivia. You have an older brother, Jonathan, and an older sister, Eve. Your father is a manager at one of Sydney’s councils, and your mother is a medical transcriptionist.”
“My father had a younger brother. No one talks about him, and I only found out he existed when I had to do a school project on my ancestry. From what little I can find out, he committed suicide when my dad was in his early twenties.”
Tony waited. There was obviously a connection between what Ben was telling him and his family’s homophobia, but he didn’t want to guess as to what that connection might be.
“The rest is reading between the lines, but my dad is the black sheep of his family. Everyone else is moderately to strongly religious, but my dad is so anti-religious it’s not funny. He’s more anti-religious than he is homophobic, and that’s saying something.
“Anyway, I know my dad went to a Catholic school. I’m guessing his brother did, too.” Ben made a face. “You know about the current royal commission into institutional child abuse? The school they went to is one of those being investigated.”
“Ah…” Tony nodded slowly as the pieces fell into place. The logical inference was that Ben’s uncle had been molested at that school and took his own life as a consequence.
“So, he may be okay with finding out that I’m gay, but I wouldn’t want to bet on it. Maybe in a few years’ time I’ll be settled and secure enough for him to find out, but if he never finds out, I won’t complain.”
“What about the rest of your family?”
Ben snorted. “All correctly and completely indoctrinated on the evils of homosexuality and religion. My sister maybe okay in private—I get a few hints at times that she’s not as obsessed as my dad—but she won’t stand up to him. In public, she supports his views, and so do my mum and brother.”
“I’m surprised that your parents didn’t object to your coming here if they’re so homophobic.”
“They would’ve if Jim was still here, but since he’s not, they didn’t stop me. They tried to talk me out of it, but they accepted my decision even if they didn’t like it. They don’t know who you are or that my teammate Roscoe is openly gay, and I hope they never find out. The media focus is still on Jim when it comes to gay football players, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that will be enough.”
“If your family follows the Leopards, they’ll learn about Roscoe soon enough. We may not say anything on our website, but sooner or later there will be a picture of Roscoe with his boyfriend. He’s not going to hide who he is.”
Ben made a face. “I know, but my dad said they weren’t going to follow me like they did when I was with the Swans’ academy in Sydney. I think all they’ll do is check who won each game and whether I get a mention in match reports. If so, I should be safe.”
“Are you sure? Your parents will suddenly stop taking an interest in your football, simply because you moved to Melbourne?”
Ben looked away. “I hope so, but I don’t know.” He looked back and met Tony’s gaze. “I don’t really have a choice. I can’t be myself in Sydney, not with my family nearby.”
Tony didn’t know what to say. Ben was taking a huge risk by playing for the Leopards, but Tony understood his reasons. Jim had been the same. Football was so important to Tony’s boyfriend that he’d sacrifice almost everything to be able to play. Being gay and a football player was tough, and it almost broke Jim before he came out. Ben was coming out in his own way for the same reason; his sanity required it. It was the side-effects that were the worrying part.
* * *
Mason paused outside the Stonewall Hotel in Oxford Street. He knew it was a Tuesday night, but he thought, given it was still the height of summer in Australia, there would be more people out in what was the heart of Sydney’s gay district. After an unproductive day—meeting Veronica was the only high point from his perspective, and that took almost being run over to occur—he wanted some time to be himself, to be openly gay, and hopefully to have some sex.
So far, he had already walked past two gay bars, neither of which had more than a dozen people in them, no one close to his own age. He had two bars left on his list, one of which he was standing outside of.
Unlike the other two bars, the Stonewall Hotel was semi-open to the street. It had by far the most character of any of the places he had seen so far—and also the most patrons. Most were still too old as far as he was concerned, but it was obvious the hotel was a popular place. What Mason wasn’t sure about was what he thought of the décor. The flamboyant decorations on most of the walls kept drawing his attention away from the couple of guys Mason considered attractive. It was possible that he could grow used to the place, but he decided he would check out the last place on his list before trying the hotel.
Checking his phone for the instructions, he walked around the corner and, after a couple of mistakes, found the entrance to the Sportsman Bar. He took a quick look through the window and saw that the bar was even quieter than the other places he’d seen. The only occupant was the bartender, who was sitting behind the counter reading a book.
Despite the lack of customers, Mason went in. He didn’t even try to fool himself as to the reason: the barman was cute, and Mason was going to have him all to himself for as long as possible.
The young man, with bleached hair, smiled as he put his book on the bench behind him and stepped forward. “G’day. What can I get you?”
“A beer to start with.” Mason smiled back. “We’ll see how things go after that.” He stuck his hand over the bar. “I’m Mason.”
“Dexter,” was the reply that accompanied a strong grip and handshake.
“Dexter?” Mason raised an eyebrow, wondering if he should mention the television show of the same name. “That’s an unusual name.”
“I didn’t pick it, but I think it’s cool.” Dexter grinned. “It’s been a lot more popular over the last few years.”
Mason laughed. “As long as you’re not a psychopath, I think it’s cool, too.”
“Before we go into my secret history as cold-blooded murderer—a career that doesn’t pay well, which is why I’m behind a bar serving drinks to sexy guys—what sort of beer do you want, and—” Dexter looked apologetic, “—can I see some ID?”
“Sure.” Mason was smiling at Dexter’s comment as he pulled his wallet out of his back pocket and extracted his driver’s license. When he planned the night out, he’d deliberately left his passport, Amex card, and all but a hundred Australian dollars in the hotel room’s safe. His research indicated that the parts of Sydney he was visiting were relatively safe—certainly in comparison to where he grew up in Los Angeles—but he didn’t want to take any chances. It was best to take only the minimum required for his night out: ID he could afford to lose, some cash, and his new phone.
“A Californian boy, I see.” Dexter grinned as he handed the license back. “Since it has you as eighteen and not twenty-one, I’m going to assume it’s not a fake you use to get into bars back home. Are you here on holidays?”
Mason was momentarily baffled by the holiday reference, but he suspected Dexter meant vacation. “No, I’m here as a student. I start school in March.”
“Oh?” Dexter’s eyebrows rose. “Which school?” He winked. “And you still haven’t told me what sort of beer you want. We’ve got a good range on tap as well as a number of specialty beers from boutique breweries. If you don’t know what’s what, would you want me to pick one for you?”
“Definitely. The only Australian beer I can name is Foster’s.” While Dexter moved the short distance to where the taps were, Mason continued. “I’m doing engineering at the University of Sydney.”
Dexter frowned. “Sydney Uni? I’m not sure if I should be serving you, then.” He winked to indicate he wasn’t being serious. “They’re all a bunch of pretentious wankers.”
“Oh? You know a lot of students from there?”
“Not many, actually, and they’re all nice guys, but it’s the principle of the matter. I call them pretentious wankers, and they call me UTS illiterate scum.” Dexter grinned. “If you come back here on Friday night, I’ll introduce you.”
“University of Technology Sydney, but that’s a mouthful.” Dexter placed a tall glass of beer in front of Mason. When Mason tried to hand over a red twenty-dollar note, Dexter pushed it back. “You can have the first one on the house as a welcome to Australia.” He grinned. “How well do you know Sydney?”
Mason snorted. “I’ve been here two days. I know the Circular Quay, Central, and Redfern train stations and a few of the streets around the university while I was out looking for a place to rent. That’s it.”
“In that case, you would’ve passed UTS. It’s half way between Central and Sydney Uni.” He cocked his head. “If you’re looking for a place to stay, you may end up living with someone from UTS, so I’d better get you prepared. You don’t want to get off on the wrong foot by saying the wrong thing, so repeat after me: ‘UTS is the best school in Sydney. Sydney Uni is for wankers.’”
Mason laughed. “But if that’s the case, that makes me a wanker.”
“Only until I convince you to transfer to UTS. Then you become a megastar.” Dexter ran an appreciative eye over Mason’s upper body. “Assuming you’re not already one, of course. Your license said you were from Los Angeles, you’re good-looking, easy to talk to, and you’ve got enough money to come to Australia to study. Any chance the real story is you’re a Hollywood movie star hiding from the paparazzi?”
“Er…” While off on the wrong tangent completely, Dexter’s guess was a painful reminder of why he was in Australia in the first place.
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.” Dexter started to move away. “I’ll let you drink your beer in peace.”
“Wait!” Mason grimaced and decided that if there’s any chance of having Dexter as a friend, he needed to be open. “I’m sorry, but while I’m not a movie star, I am hiding out here in Australia. Sort of.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.” Dexter reached out and rested a hand gently on top of one of Mason’s. “But I’m a good listener.”
Over the next twenty minutes, interrupted only when Dexter had to serve a group of five guys who had entered the bar, Mason filled Dexter in on Robbie, the shooting, and his exile to Australia. Mason was on his third beer when he finished. “…and that’s why I’m here.”
He stared at the beer in front of him, a golden ale that Dexter had suggested he try. At that moment, Mason realised he was no longer drinking for the flavour, but for the alcohol. He’d ventured out for the night to try to meet people, but now that he’d spilt his history to Dexter, somehow the night had morphed into a time to get drunk and maybe forget about what happened to Robbie for a short while.
“I don’t know what to say.” Dexter glanced at the group at the other end of the bar for a moment before returning his attention to Mason. “I think you need some company, but I’m working until midnight. How about I ring some of my mates and see if any of them can come in and meet you?”
Mason shook his head. “Not tonight. I’m not really in the mood for company anymore.” He drained his beer and then looked up and met Dexter’s concerned gaze. “I think I’ll have a bourbon and Coke, next. Make it a double…no, a triple.”
“Are you sure?” He waved a hand at a sign on the wall next to the bar that seemed to be saying something about intoxication. “I can serve you up until you get drunk, but then I’m going to have to stop and ask you to leave; it’s the law. I can stretch things a bit, but I can’t keep pouring you drinks all night.”
“I can’t get drunk?” Mason read the sign that Dexter had indicated and grimaced as it specified exactly what Dexter had said. “Okay, I’ll stick with beer then.” He turned back to Dexter and tried to smile. “I’ll see if I can last until midnight.”
Dexter’s expression was gentle. “I won’t hold you to that, but if you can, that’ll be nice.”
* * *
Pedro Romero hid his contempt as he settled into the old and stained upholstered chair. The gang member sitting opposite him had not only failed in carrying off a robbery but had failed in a straight-forward shooting, too. The only reason Pedro didn’t simply ignore him was the possibility of milking the idiot first.
“I’m here for the rest of my money,” Pedro said as he settled back into the chair with a practised nonchalance. All the while, his eyes never left José Rodriguez. The young man was trying to act tough, but Pedro could tell he was ready to piss his pants. As he should: Pedro had a justly earned reputation as a cold-blooded killer.
“But you didn’t kill him!”
Pedro let his anger show as his relaxed pose evaporated and he leant forward. “Listen, punk, you paid me to go to Arizona, find this Rivers kid and waste him, all to clean up the mess you made when you failed in a simple robbery. I didn’t need to go, but I thought you might have potential and I’d do you a favour. It’s not my fault that he was gone by the time I got there.” He jabbed a finger in José’s direction while slipping his other hand into his jacket pocket to grasp the pistol he had put there earlier. It was a stupid place to keep a gun, but it was an effective cinematic display to scare small-minded idiots. “That’s your fault for taking so long to find out where he was hiding. Now pay up!”
José visibly swallowed. Beads of sweat appeared on his brow as he reached into the bag at his feet. Pedro had to keep from laughing. He knew that José would never learn that he hadn’t gone to Arizona in the first place. Instead, Pedro had visited his cousin in Mexico, who had offered some interesting suggestions on how they could use the failure sitting opposite him.
Once José had placed a bundle of money on the low table between them, Pedro smiled. “You learn. That’s good to see.” He pocketed the money without counting it. “It’d better be the right amount. You’re already in deep shit; you don’t want to piss me off, too.”
“It’s what I promised.” José’s tone was sullen, but Pedro didn’t care as long as he did what he was told.
“That’s good. And since you didn’t try to short-change me, I’ve got some news for you.” Pedro kept his amusement to himself. He had originally played up José’s mistakes to be bigger than they really were in order to get the payment he’d just received. He had told José that he was in danger of being kicked out of the gang as a liability while the cops were investigating the shooting, and he had suggested that the only way José would be able to stay is if the witness to the shooting was eliminated. Their contact in the police department had indicated that Mason Rivers was the only one able to ID José, so José needed to make sure the Rivers kid wouldn’t testify. Pedro had then offered to take care of the problem…for a suitable fee.
“I asked around, and I know where the kid is now. I’m done, but if you want to fix your fuck-up and get back in the good books, all you have to do is track him down at his new location and make sure he never comes back to testify.”
José gulped. “Where is he?”
“Australia!” José’s eyes were wide with shock.
Pedro chuckled. It was time to activate his cousin’s plan. “That’s right. Sydney, Australia. It’ll be hard, but I’m sure a talented punk like yourself won’t have a problem. Just don’t take too long. The people in charge don’t like the cops asking questions, so your job is to make sure they don’t have a case to chase.”
José was pale, and his shoulders slumped as he pulled himself upright and turned towards the door. “I’m fucked,” he whispered to himself, not expecting Pedro to hear it.
“What’s the problem, punk?” Pedro knew he had to pitch this just right.
José looked back. “How the fuck do I get to Australia?”
“There’s nothing money can’t buy, if you know what you’re doing.” Pedro paused as if a thought had just struck him. “Do you need some more money? I can help there.” He was trying to keep from laughing at the look of hope that appeared on José’s face.
“I’ve got a cousin who needs some goods shipped in from Mexico. If I put in a good word, he may allow you to help out. You’ll get paid, and once you’ve got enough, you’re off to the land of kangaroos to do some hunting.” Pedro didn’t bother mentioning that the amount they’d pay José would be a pittance in comparison to what they’d make from the drugs José would be carrying across the border. The only danger was the punk may be too incompetent to succeed, but Pedro and his cousin were willing to take that risk. They wouldn’t be the ones facing jail if José was caught.
José’s body slumped. “The cops will bust me when they check my passport.”
“We can get you someone else’s passport. You’ll have to pay for that out of your share of the take, but you’ll be able to use it for your trip to Australia, too, so it’s not wasted money.”
José hesitated for several seconds and then nodded his head. “What do I have to do?”
Pedro smiled as he gave José the first set of instructions. Needless to say, Pedro was going to charge the stupid punk an exorbitant rate for the passport. He and his cousin were planning to milk José for as much as they could before they cut him loose. It would be easy money for the two of them, thanks to the imbecile in front of him.
Copyright Notice - Copyright © June 2018 by Graeme. Graeme.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author's expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: Some public figures have been included in this story for effect. This is fiction, and the words and actions of those characters are mine and not those of the real person. All other individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
I would like to thank C James for the advice he gave on early versions, rec for editing this story for me, and a special thank you to Tom and ricky for that crucial final review before publication.