I felt like a stranger, standing on the outside looking in. Wanting to belong. Wanting to be a part of that world. Not knowing if I ever would. Not knowing if I ever could.
It wasn't as if I didn't belong in there. I had graduated at the top of my class at the academy after all, and I had paid my dues. I felt that I really did belong in there. It was just that I was different to the rest of them. And for that, I was sure to pay.
"Are you going to stand there admiring the view all day?" a deep voice suddenly asked, from somewhere just behind my right shoulder.
Not having heard anyone approach I was startled, and spun around to see a rather solid, almost formidable looking woman, her blonde hair razor cut short, standing there frowning at me.
"Errr… sorry ma'am," I stammered. "The names Cooper. Rick Cooper. I'm the…"
"I know who you are," she said, cutting me short. "Now you better get yourself in there and introduce yourself to the rest of the team, otherwise they might arrest you for loitering, and I don't think that would look too good on your resume."
"No ma'am. I mean, yes ma'am…"
"Put a sock in it Detective, before you really fuck up," she replied, her hard features finally softening with the beginnings of a smile. "The name's Helen. Helen Wheeler. Most of these assholes just call me 'Hell On Wheels', but you can call me Helen, Helby or just plain Hel. Just don't call me Sarge, O.K.? I bloody hate that."
"Thanks. And I won't," I replied, shaking the offered hand, which had a grip that wasn't unlike that of a wharfie.
"Come on, we better get you introduced to the rest of them before they issue an A.P.B. for your arrest."
I smiled inwardly at the term she used, trying to remember when it was that I had last heard it used.
I think it was from an old episode of 'Starsky and Hutch'.
She pushed past me and placed her hand on the door, as if she were about to open it, but then she paused and looked straight back at me.
"Just don't show them any fear, alright?" she said to me.
I nodded grimly, and said, "Thanks," then we both walked into the squad room, with all heads turning our way. They were mostly older heads, a few with faces softened by too many years behind desks, but the remainder looked like hard heads to me.
"G'morning everyone," Helen cheerfully said to them, then cocking her thumb in my direction added, "You can call off the search party, I found our Golden Boy."
"Jesus", I thought. "That's all I needed." I hadn't had a good night… again, and the fact that I was running late because I couldn't find my way into this fortress they called Darlinghurst Police Station certainly wouldn't go down all that well with the powers that be. It certainly hadn't gone unnoticed.
I looked around the office and counted six heads pointing in my direction. Three of them simply nodded at me. I nodded back. The remaining three of them disengaged themselves from their desks and came over to us with outstretched hands, which I obligingly shook.
"Jim Harris. Welcome aboard," one of the soft faced guys said to me.
"Thanks. Pleased to meet you," I replied, looking him up and down. He would be in his late forties, I would have guessed. He gave the impression of being a once powerful man that was slowly going to seed.
The other two guys would have been in their mid to late thirties and they introduced themselves as Tom Buckley and Scott Willis.
Helen then pointed at the other three and said, "And that's Joe Benevetti, Craig Andarakis and Garry Kwan. They are the crankiest bastards in this office, so I'll warn you now, just don't get under their feet."
I noticed that Jim and Tom and Scott were all grinning, so I wasn't sure if I should have taken the warning all that seriously, but when I heard Joe mumble something like, "Fucking loud mouthed dyke," I figured I probably should.
I glanced at Helen and noticed her studying me intently.
"Yeah, so now you know," she said to me. "And if I hear one wise ass comment about Dykes on Bikes sonny, they'll be carrying you out of here on a stretcher."
"Not a word ma'am, I promise. Not a word."
"Good. Now it's time to meet the boss. And if you think these guys are a bunch of hard asses, you ain't seen nothing yet."
I followed her out of the squad room, through the opposite end to that through which we had entered and into a hallway, which ran between several offices. As I went through the doorway I heard one of the detectives say, "My, he sure is pretty. Won't the locals just love him?" which was followed by some laughter.
"Don't take any notice of them," Helen said. "They're just jealous they aren't young and pretty any more themselves. Come to think of it, I don't think any of them ever were pretty."
At the end of the hallway we came to a heavy timber door with a name plate attached that said Inspector Richardson. Helen knocked twice and we heard a voice from the other side of the door say, "Enter."
She opened the door and we walked into a room with plush royal blue carpet, photographs on the timber paneled walls, where a rather surly looking man was sitting behind a large desk, speaking into the telephone.
He pointed to the two chairs in front of his desk and we both sat down, while he continued to listen to whoever it was on the other end of the line.
"Yes sir, he's here now."
"No sir, I haven't spoken to him yet."
"Yes Commissioner, I will keep you informed."
Helen and I glanced at each other as Inspector Richardson placed the receiver back onto the telephone, then he looked at me from across his desk, leaning on his elbows, with his arms out in front of him and his hands clasped together.
He considered me for a moment, then sat back in his chair.
"So you're the new Golden Boy they've sent me, eh?" he finally said.
I wasn't sure what I should say, so I said nothing. After a silence that seemed to stretch on for far too long he got to his feet and came around to our side of the desk and perched himself on one corner, looking down at me.
Finally he said, "Helen, will you excuse us please? I need to talk to Detective Constable Cooper for a few minutes. Then after that I think he can tag along with you for a while, if you don't mind."
"Yes sir," Helen replied, then got to her feet, giving me a rather quizzical look, which was followed by a wink, as she turned and faced me, before heading to the door and leaving.
After she had closed the door behind her, the Inspector stood up and walked back around to the other side of his desk and once again sat down.
"Right now, Cooper, the rest of them all think you are in here having the riot act read to you. That I'm ranting and raving and carrying on about being landed with some hotshot rookie who is still wet behind the ears."
"Well, they can think what they like. I'm not going to explode, and I'm not really the cranky old bastard that they think I am. But for the sake of appearances, I won't be telling them any different. I will be honest with you though, I wasn't happy about you being stationed here. But there's nothing I can do about that. Your posting to this station has come from the very top. The Commissioner himself, no less, who you've just heard me talking to."
"Yes sir," I answered, wondering how the hell the Commissioner even knew my name. I had never even met the man.
"You are twenty three years old, and while you may have been a star at the academy, to be perfectly honest you have very little experience. You are bright however, and because of that you are possibly one of the youngest Detectives that has ever been appointed in this state. A bit of a Golden Boy, so to speak. Do you have any idea why you've been posted here?"
I shook my head and said simply, "No sir, I don't."
"Well, I do. It seems that it's all about improving the image of the force. And improving relations with the gay community, what with the Mardi Gras just a few weeks away and everything. It seems that your appointment is a political one Cooper, and I don't like that very much!"
"I don't understand, sir?," I answered, still trembling at the mention of the word 'gay'. They couldn't possibly know that I was gay, could they?
"What's wrong? Don't you like it being known that you are gay?"
It was like I had just been punched in the guts. I could feel my insides contracting and the blood draining from my face.
"Just can it Cooper. It's all in here," he said, patting a manilla folder that was sitting on his desk in front of him. "I don't care about that, or whatever it is that you do in your private life. What I do care about is your being an effective member of this team, so provided you work with the other detectives and get results, then that's all I'm worried about. If you can't do that, well you'll be back on the beat quicker than you can flash those pearly whites of yours."
"Good. I'm glad that we understand each other."
"May I ask something sir?"
"How could the force possibly know about me? How could the Commissioner know about me?"
"Secrets are always hard to keep Cooper. Especially in the force. You should know that by now."
I just shrugged, although inside my head, I had a million thoughts flashing around my brain, like who? And when? And how?
"I wouldn't feel too bad about it if I were you. Like I said, it doesn't worry me, unless it effects your performance on the job. And as for the rest of them out there," he said, waving towards the squad room, "…well, I don't know if they know about you or not. If they already do, I can tell you this much, I know it won't worry Helen. But if any of the others have a problem with it however, well, they'll just have to get used to it, won't they?"
"Yes sir," I answered meekly.
"Anyhow, Helen is the only one who really matters, as far as you will be concerned, so if I can offer you one piece of advice Cooper; just keep on her good side."
He picked up the manilla folder and passed it across the desk to me, saying, "I know that I shouldn't be showing you this, and it can't leave this room, but perhaps you might like to know just what the force does know about you."
I took the folder from him and said, "Thank you sir."
Opening the folder up I found that it didn't contain very much information, just a few pieces of paper, or so it seemed.
The first things I came to were my personal records. The usual stuff was all there; name, date of birth, and sex, and to the back of which was attached a photograph of me, taken on the day I first graduated from the Police Academy at Goulburn.
At the bottom of the sheet which showed my personal details there was a note, scrawled in pencil, in the handwriting of one of my previous Commanding Officers. It said simply, "Spotted in Ceasar's in compromising position when the place was raided by the Drug Squad. Obviously gay."
I glanced up at the Inspector, who I found was studying me intently, then turned to the next page, where I found an assessment form from my first performance review. Then there was a report on one of the cases that I had been involved with at my previous command, which had given me a bit of a leg-up towards the Detective ranks.
Then I found the killer. It was a five year old case report from the investigating officers in Newcastle, where I was originally from, about an unsolved murder. I had been seventeen, and it had hit me hard at the time.
I quickly closed the folder then handed it back to the Inspector and said, "Thank you," unable to hide the emotion in my voice.
He just nodded and placed the folder back on the desk in front of him.
"So now you know what we know," the Inspector said.
"Yes sir," I said rather quietly.
"And they didn't ever find Martin's killer?"
"No sir, they didn't."
"Well, we can't win them all you know, son."
At that he got up from his chair, so I figured that the interview was over and got to my feet as well.
"If anyone asks, tell them I really did read you the riot act, O.K.? I can't have them thinking I'm going soft now."
"Good. Well then, welcome aboard Cooper," he said, with his hand outstretched. "Just keep what I've said in mind, alright?"
I shook his hand and said, "Yes sir, I will."
As I walked back down the hall toward the squad room, with the Inspectors words still ringing in my ears, I couldn't help but realise that I did indeed just have the riot act read to me.
* * * * *
When I entered the squad room once again, looking suitably forlorn after my supposed roasting from the Inspector, all heads turned my way once more.
Helen had been standing by a window, talking to Tom Buckley. She immediately excused herself and headed toward me.
"You O.K.?" she asked, looking concerned.
"Never better," I answered, in a tone that mirrored how I truly felt. She took it as meaning that I had indeed been given a going over by the Inspector, however it wasn't that which had me feeling down, it was the fact that the subject of Martin's death, five years ago, was actually in my personnel file.
"He's not really as cranky as he seems at first. He can be a real soft touch sometimes…"
"Is that so?" a voice suddenly boomed from somewhere behind me. It was the Inspector.
"How about we discuss that in my office Detective Wheeler?"
Helen rolled her eyes at me and then said, "Yes, sir."
As she left she said, "I'll be back in a few minutes, then we'll hit the streets, alright?"
"Fine," I replied.
Helen disappeared down the hallway and from where I stood I heard the door shut at the other end. Not really knowing what I should be doing, I looked around at the faces which were still staring blankly at me.
"I hope the old man didn't give you too much of a going over?" Tom asked me, from where he was still standing.
I just shook my head and said, "No, it wasn't too bad. He laid down the law to me pretty good though."
"That's understandable I suppose. So, where were you stationed before this sudden rise to fame"
"Most recently, it was Maroubra."
"Ahhh, right on the beach, just about."
"It's nothing at all like the inner city though. You'll have to keep your wits about you here."
"I guess I will."
"So, do you surf?" someone asked from across the other side of the room. I turned to see that it was Craig.
"I used to, but I haven't for a while now. Not since… well, not for about five years I don't suppose."
He simply nodded and just then Helen blew back into the room, looking flustered.
"O.K. Golden Boy, how about we introduce you to some locals then?" she said as she swept past me, heading for a desk, which I assumed was hers.
"Sure," I replied, a little too cool, being slightly annoyed by this new Golden Boy tag I seem to have picked up.
"What's the matter with you? First day here and we're already seeing attitude."
"Nothing wrong here," I answered, hearing the chuckles that were already coming from the others.
"That's good then. Now I've got some news for you. I've been assigned as your baby sitter, so try and keep up with me, O.K.? We've got us some walkin' to do!"
"Way to go Hel," one of the guys said. "At least he'll be safe."
"Honey, well that makes two of us that'll be safe," she replied, looking at me out of the corner of her eye as she did so, then turning on her heels and heading for the door, receiving curious stares from the others.
I hurried after her and caught up with her just as she reached the elevator.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
"That crack about that making two of us that'll be safe," I replied.
She looked at me for a long while, then said, "Look, seeing as we've been assigned to each other, the boss showed me your file."
"What?" I exclaimed. "He can't do that. Can he?"
The doors to the elevator opened, then closed again, and we were still standing in exactly the same positions. We listened to the sound of the elevator heading off to some other floor before stopping for some other people.
"Just relax a little will you Rick," Helen said to me. "Your posting here has come from very high up, and there's more at stake here than just me or you and your career, there's the whole force to consider… or so I've been told. The boss just figured I should be in on the loop, that's all."
"I know about Martin. And I know about Caesar's. And you know I'm a dyke."
"That hardly makes us even," I said.
"No, it doesn't," she said with the beginnings of a smile.
"Have you always been such a hard arse?" I asked, as I pressed the button for the elevator once more.
"Only since my girlfriend left me. I was a real pussy cat up until then."
We heard the sound of the elevator coming to us once more. It stopped and settled into place again, then the doors opened and we stepped inside.
Helen pressed the button for the ground floor and the doors closed again.
On the way down she asked me about the incident at Caesar's, so I told her about going there a couple of times with friends. It was back when I was going through the Police Academy and I had visited them in Sydney a few times, and then also afterwards when I had received my first posting up along the coast.
On the night it was raided by the drug squad I happened to be in a pretty serious lip-lock with a guy I had met there, only to be tapped on the shoulder by one of the boys in blue, complete with baton in hand.
"What did you do?"
"Damn near shit myself."
"That's charming, that is."
I just grinned at her.
"So did anyone else ever find out?"
"Up until today I thought the answer to that question was no."
"Ah well, it can be a bit hard to keep secrets in the force sometimes."
"Yeah, I'm beginning to find that out."
"So, was that before or after it moved from Leichardt out to the old APIA Soccer Club?"
"After. It was only about a month or six weeks after it re-opened, I think."
She nodded, just as we came to a halt and the doors slid open once more.
I followed her out through the marble foyer, through the tinted glass doors, which slid back at our approach, and onto the busy street. Cars and buses whizzed by and workers were scurrying along the street, all with somewhere to go and something to do.
"Have you been into the inner city much?" she asked as we headed off down the street toward Hyde Park. The flower shop across the street with its big windows full of large brightly coloured arrangements of flowers caught my eye. The rest of the scene looked like any other party of the city, nothing special to notice apart from the green burst of the big trees in the park a couple of blocks down to the right.
"No," I answered. "I've been along Oxford Street a few times with friends, and down to the cinema strip, but that's about all. I've really only been stationed in the Sydney area for less than a year, and there is a fair bit to do here you know."
"Yeah, there is. So, what about the friends? As in boyfriends, you mean?"
"No, just friends, so don't go getting excited. There isn't really anyone special just at the moment… but I am working on that," I replied, while casting my mind back to this morning, and the real reason I was late. His name was Adam Bennett, and he is a Systems Programmer for one of the big computer firms in town. He has his own unit overlooking Bondi, and even drives a BMW convertible. Quite a catch, even if I do say so myself.
I glanced back at Helen and noticed her flash a conspiratorial grin my way. "Well, that's good to hear at least," she said.
"Yeah, well, we have a few issues to work through. We'll just see what happens. So, how about you? Any lucky ladies about?"
"Let's just say that I get by," she answered.
"Of that, I have no doubt," I replied.
We ended up spending almost the entire morning walking the streets of inner Sydney, meeting friends and acquaintances of Helen's and various shop keepers that knew her well enough by sight.
There was a fair bit of talk about the upcoming Mardi Gras and what was going to be in it. Floats that were being built and dance routines worked out. For me it was sort of an exciting time, having never seen the Mardi Gras before, so I was actually looking forward to it, provided of course, that I wasn't actually in it.
At one of our stops a café owner, a young, good looking Greek guy, looked me up and down and fluttered his eyelids at me when she introduced us, but she said to him, "Settle down there Alexis, he's already taken."
I glanced at her, as if to protest, but her eyes told my to keep my mouth shut, so I did just that.
After he had left us she said to me, "Rule number one. Don't get involved with them. They'll wrap you up so tight that you won't be able to breathe."
"O.K." I answered.
"And quit grinning at them will you. Christ, you're like a kid in a candy store. This ain't a shopping expedition. You're supposed to be a hard arsed Detective, or so I've been told."