Playing with the boys

She’s late.

Drumming my fingers on the steering wheel I sneak a look at my fingernails. Chewed. To the quick.

It’s a bad habit I’ve tried to kick. One my male colleagues like to comment on. They enjoy critiquing my appearance. My hair … my breasts … my clothes … my bum …. my make-up. They’re not alone. The trolls on social media love to tell me how I could improve my appearance, not my work, just how I look. They have a real hatred for red heads. Or maybe it’s just me.

Without thinking the humming starts, and my fingers tap along to Taylor Swift’s, Shake it Off. It’s my go to song to reset my mood or reduce anxiety.

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Where is she?

If she doesn’t turn up, I have nothing. No story. No big breakthrough to prove I have what it takes to make it in the cut-throat and male-dominated world that is sports journalism.

I wonder again if this is a set-up. If one of the Neanderthals I work with are behind it. It’s absolutely something they would do. Embarrassing me has become an office game.

Like the time I found a gift-wrapped packet of condoms in my desk drawer with a typed note: To be used in the case of an emergency. The ‘present’ appeared after I knocked back the racing editor, Johnno Thompson for a second time. Johnno keeps insisting he can do me a favour, that he needs to take the little lady out for a drink.

I jump at the soft knock on the passenger door.

‘Geez, you scared me,’ I stammer as a tall, slender woman dressed in jeans and a dark hoodie, lowers herself into the passenger seat.

‘Sorry I’m late. I had to wait until my husband was asleep,’ she whispers as she glances at the side mirror. ‘You made sure no one followed you?’

‘Yes. Do you have the information?’ My palms sweat as I wait for her reply.

Nodding she pulls a large envelope from the inside of her jumper. Pushing a run-away strand of blonde hair from her face she passes it over with trembling hands.

‘Are you alright?’ This is the first time we have met in person and even in the poor light of the nearby streetlamp I can see the strain on her face.

My source, Ms X, contacted me two months ago. She phoned a day after my feature article on the mental health challenges facing young, elite athletes appeared in the paper.

She initially called from a public phone and from that point we only corresponded via WhatsApp.

Once I gained her trust, she shared with me the full story behind her son’s death and her suspicions about the Lions rugby league club.

Ms X confided that her son Josh died five years ago from a heart attack. He was seventeen. Traces of steroids were found in his system, but Josh’s death was written off as a tragic and unexpected event. At the time, his club, a feeder team for the Lions, vehemently denied any knowledge and were cleared of any involvement.

After the inquiry, Ms X was offered a job with the Lions – she saw it as a blatant attempt to keep her quiet. She initially declined the position but after her husband lost his job, she accepted a back-office role at Lion’s headquarters. But she never stopped searching for answers.

Ms X confided that her son was told by his coach to ‘bulk up,’ that he was ‘too slight’ to make first grade. He’d turned into a gym-junkie and had just made the Lion’s reserve grade team when he lost his life. My source was convinced performance enhancing drugs were rife at the Lions and its feeder teams. That her son was pushed down the path of dangerous steroid use.

Staring at her lap, Ms X rubs her hands nervously together.

‘Are you alright?’ I ask for a second time. Ms X finally nods. ‘Just make sure I’m not implicated. That my name is not released,’ she replies.

‘Absolutely,’ I confirm as I tear open the envelope.

‘It’s all there. Personal and confidential notes from the club doctor and photos of private emails between him and the coach. But there’s more.’

‘More?’ I breathe.

‘I wanted to get to the bottom of who is supplying this stuff, but I kept hitting brick walls. Until two days ago,’ she says, running a shaky hand through her hair.

‘I heard the coach talking to someone named Bulldog on his mobile after training. I was hiding in the treatment room, listening in. They arranged to meet that evening. After he hung up, the coach took the SIM card out of his phone, broke it in half and threw it in the bin. Then he put in a new one. I waited at the club, then followed him.’ I look at her in awe. This is one brave and determined woman.

‘They met in the carpark of the Star Tavern. I recognised the man. He sometimes comes to the games and likes to mix with the players. He splashes cash around like its Monopoly money. I overhead one of the bar staff saying the man has connections to the Taipans bikie gang.’

‘Bloody hell,’ I mutter.

‘I took a photo on my phone. It’s dark and grainy, but you can just make out his face. I got him handing over a package to the coach. I printed the photo for you. It’s all there,’ she finishes.

‘You know they will suspect you. Because of your son and your job at the club. Maybe it would be safer for you and your husband to get out of town for a while?’ I suggest, watching for her reaction.

‘The truth needs to come out. For Josh,’ she says, tears sliding down her cheeks as she steals another glance at the side mirror. ‘I hope you bring them all down.’ Before I can respond she exits the car and melds into the darkness.

I wait until I get home to go through the package. What I have is pure dynamite. It could be the biggest story of the year.

The next morning, I wait until my boss, the Sports Editor, Dave Rogers, is onto his third cup of coffee before tapping on his office door. Everyone knows it’s not safe to speak to him until he is well-caffeinated. He looks up and motions me inside. ‘What’s up, Sarah?’ Dave grunts, as I close the door behind me.

‘I have a story, boss. A big one,’ I start.

‘A big story hey. Well, let’s hear it,’ he smiles in an amused way.

‘Five years ago, a young, up-and-coming rugby league player died. Heart attack. He was only seventeen. They found steroids in his system and there were rumours his club, the Bay Bulls who are affiliated with the Lions, were involved,’ I pause for a moment before ploughing on. ‘The official inquiry cleared his club and the Lions of any involvement, but I have information proving the Lions are not only aware of the use of performance enhancing drugs in their players but are actively encouraging, supplying, monitoring and covering up their use.’

I survey my boss, a paunchy, middle-aged man whose every second word is an expletive, as he pops a strip of Nicorette gum in his mouth. Whenever he’s agitated, he reaches for the gum.

‘That’s a serious accusation. Who’s your source? Are they reliable?’ Dave growls.

‘My source is rock solid, but I can’t tell you who they are.’

Dave rolls his eyes. ‘The Lions, and the league, are a big supporter of the paper you know. This ‘rock solid’ source better be right, or everyone’s arse is on the line.’

‘It gets worse,’ I say, hesitating.

‘Out with it,’ Dave snaps. I now have his full attention.

‘The information I have connects the Lions, or at least the coach, to the Taipans outlaw motorcycle gang. From what I was told, and the information I have, the Taipans are the suppliers.’

Dave swears as he rips open a second piece of gum. ‘I need to see this information before I make a call,’ he says, shoving the second piece into his mouth.

I hand over a memory stick. I spent last night scanning and saving copies of the documents from Ms X. The originals are in a locked cabinet at my apartment. ‘It’s all on there.’

‘Sit,’ Dave orders. He pops the stick into the side of his laptop and starts scanning the files.

I perch on the edge of the chair where so many hopeful journalists have sat, pushing for their story to get a run. Dave stares intently at the large monitor on his desk, opening file after file. After ten minutes he looks up.

‘Well, you’re right, this is big. Who else knows about it?’

‘Just you and me,’ I reply, trying to keep my voice steady.

Dave stares at me, his eyes cold and calculating, like he is debating whether to place a big bet on the hundred to one shot in the final race at Randwick. Everyone knows Dave likes a punt.

‘This is too big for you to manage,’ he says, and I jump to my feet, accidentally knocking his coffee over in my haste. Leaning across the desk, my face is just centimetres from his. ‘No way,’ I protest. ‘This is my story. I don’t need my hand held. I can do this, on my own.’

‘You’re a junior reporter Sarah, you’ve never pulled something like this off before,’ Dave says staying remarkably calm as I get more outraged.

His measured response has the desired effect, and my anger deflates as I slump back in my chair.

‘Please boss. Give me a chance. The source came to me. They want me to run this, they don’t trust anyone else,’ I plead and hate myself for sounding so whiny.

‘I want copy by Thursday night. Then I need to run it past the legal team and inform the company. But Sarah, the cops will be all over this. Not just the lawyers. Are you prepared to protect your source? At all costs?’ Dave is deadly serious as he says this, and I understand fully what he means.

If there’s a criminal investigation, I could go to gaol for not disclosing a source. I take a deep breath before answering. ‘Yes,’ is all I say as I stand and reach for the door.

Dave nods, gesturing me out of the room. ‘Get on with it. I want an update tonight on how it’s going. Don’t tell anyone what you’re working on. If you’re asked, just say it’s a special feature for the weekend. I don’t want wind of this getting out to our competitors. And Sarah,’ I pause turning to face him again. ‘Good work.’

I cannot help but smile. Not once in the last five years has my boss ever complimented me on my work.

I walk to my desk already punching out the opening line and first paragraph in my head. I am so lost in my own thoughts that at first, I don’t notice the pink post-it note dangling from the edge of my workstation. Scrawled in cramped, untidy handwriting is the message:

You’re being watched.

Scrunching the note in my hand I glance at my colleagues in the newsroom.

Everyone is busy, heads down, tapping away at keyboards or taking phone calls. No one is interested in me, no one looks my way.

My heart races. Does someone know about my meeting with Ms X? Do they know what I know? I stare around the room once more. Johnno, the racing editor, looks up and blows me a kiss. Situation normal.

I almost fall off my seat at the soft voice close to my ear. ‘Hi Sarah, what were you and the boss talking about for so long?’ whispers Brendan, a young cadet I have taken under my wing.

‘You frightened me,’ I say, my voice higher than normal.

‘Sorry, didn’t mean to make you jump. Umm … are you okay?’ Brendan asks watching the redness recede from my cheeks.

I wave my empty mug in the air, ‘Yeah fine, too much coffee, that’s all.’

‘Maybe make the next one a decaf?’ Brendan laughs. ‘Are we on for lunch later? The pub on the corner has a great Tuesday Parmigiana and Pint deal for only ten bucks,’ he looks at me all hopeful and excited.

‘Not today,’ I say turning back to my laptop. I hear Brendan grunt before returning to his desk.

Everyone in the newsroom is connected to an instant messaging app that the blokes use to share lewd jokes and Dave uses to keep us on deadline.

As my computer whirs into action, I see a new message from Dave. I click it open.

Sarah, what did Brendan want?  You don’t have time for idle chit chat. You have a BIG story to write, remember?

Typical Dave. Rolling my eyes, I tap out a quick reply.

I know. I’m on it. Brendan wanted to know what we were talking about. I didn’t tell him anything. Boss, someone left a note on my desk. It said I’m being watched. It’s making me nervous. Can I take the laptop and work from home?

Three dots appear. Dave’s writing back. I watch and wait …

Alright take the laptop but keep your head down. If someone knows what you’ve been doing, who your source is or what you know, things could get ugly. Message me as soon as you get home. Do you have a flatmate or anyone that can stay with you?

Dave is an old-school journo who is as tough as they come. He doesn’t frighten easily. My anxiety rises and the humming starts again.

No, just my cat. I’ll be fine boss. I’ll lock the door and message you as soon as I get home.

I cram my computer, charger and notepad into my laptop bag and hoist my handbag onto my shoulder.

I look across to Brendan who mouths silently, ‘Where are you going?’

I nod to the exit, and he follows me to the lift. As soon as the doors close, he turns to me.

‘Sarah, what’s going on? You just got to work and now you’re leaving?’

Brendan’s blue eyes lock on mine. He’s genuinely concerned. But I need to keep this to Dave and myself for now.

‘I’m working on a special feature. It’s a long and complicated piece, and Dave has only given me a couple of days to finish it. I’m going to work on it at home, so I’m not disturbed,’ I reply as we step out of the lift and stride to my car.

‘A special feature? What on?’ Brendan asks.

‘It’s a surprise,’ I say smiling at him. Throwing my gear in the backseat I quickly slide into my ten-year-old Renault.

Brendan has not moved. He just keeps looking at me like he knows I am keeping something from him.

‘I have to go. Deadline, you know,’ I joke, and he finally moves away from the car. I wave out the window as I head for home.

Johnno has a poster at his desk that says:

Write Drunk. Edit Sober

I think about that as I grab a beer from the fridge and crack it open. I can hear my mother tsking. ‘Daytime drinking Sarah, really!’ but I push the internal criticism aside. I need a drink.

All the way home I couldn’t help peering in the rear vision mirror. At one point I was sure I was being followed, then told myself I was overreacting. The note on my desk and Dave’s concern is making me edgy.

A mass of black fur jumps onto the dining table, trying to distract me from my work.

‘Sebastian, get down. Naughty boy,’ I say pulling him from the table and giving him a quick cuddle before depositing him on the floor.

Sebastian rubs against my legs before taking up his favourite position on top of the couch next to the window.

I look at what I have written. Not a bad start.

While the Lions illegal steroid use and bikie links is the lead, the story is peppered with facts about the illegal use and market for anabolic steroids and performance enhancing drugs in Australia. I have been researching the topic since my first conversation with Ms X.

Over the last six weeks I have cultivated a contact in the Drugs and Firearms Squad in the New South Wales Police Force. The facts I included are from public sources, but my contact has given me an insight into the uphill battle the police face in curbing the lucrative illegal drug trade in Australia.

I pull out my phone and call him.

He answers after two rings. ‘Constable Tony Matthews.’

‘Hey Tony, it’s Sarah Jones, from The Advocate. Do you have a moment? I have a couple of questions that I thought you could help with.’ No response. ‘It’s part of my research.’

‘Is this off the record?’ Tony asks.

‘Yes,’ I reply and wait.

‘Ask away. I’ll let you know if I can help or not,’ Tony replies.

‘Thanks. So, in the last two years, official records indicate the number of seizures of steroids has decreased slightly but the weight of seizures has increased. There has also been an increase in arrests of members of organised crime groups for trafficking illegal steroids.’ I pause for a moment before continuing.

‘I hear the Taipans outlaw motorcycle gang is heavily involved in the distribution of steroids and performance enhancing drugs, but I haven’t found any evidence of their members being arrested for this. Are you able to confirm if they are involved in the steroid black market?’ I pause, waiting for his response.

‘That’s not research Sarah. You’re asking about operational matters and I’m not able to comment, either on or off the record. However, if I were able tell you anything I would suggest you visit the Star Tavern.’

‘The Star Tavern,’ I repeat, ‘right. Thanks Tony. One more question. Have you heard of a guy called Bulldog? Is he associated with the Taipans?’ I hold my breath, waiting.

‘That’s two questions. Again, that’s operational, and I couldn’t tell you anything except he likes to hang out at the Star,’ he finishes.

‘Thanks Tony.’

‘Take care Sarah,’ he says before hanging up.

I now have another link between Bulldog, the Taipans, and the Star Tavern.

I want to talk to Dave. Tell him what I have so far and ask him if I should contact the Lions, seek an official comment.

If I confront them, the Lions could threaten legal action which may delay or kill the story. More importantly, I may burn Ms X or put myself and the paper at risk. But it goes against my ethics as a journalist not to give them a chance to comment.

I take a long swig of beer and message Dave.

Story coming along but I don’t have a response from the club.

If I call them, they will know I’m onto something.

I could expose my source, or they could kill the story. If I don’t, I am not giving them right of reply. Advice?

One minute. Five minutes. Ten minutes. No reply.

Very unlike Dave. I start humming again, Shake it off, Shake it off.

After twenty minutes I call Dave’s number at work. His assistant answers.

‘Hi Jen, it’s Sarah, is Dave around? I need to talk to him.’

‘Hi Sarah. No, he’s not. He left over an hour ago. Didn’t say where he was going or when he would be back, but he can’t be far away. He has an editorial meeting in half an hour. Why don’t you try his mobile?’

‘Right. Thanks Jen,’ I hang up and call Dave’s mobile.

It rings and rings and rings, finally going through to his message bank.

I ask Dave to call me as soon as possible, hang up and finish off the beer.

Around 3pm Brendan messages me. The Editor-In-Chief Jack Williams is on the rampage. Dave missed an editorial meeting and Jack’s assistant is searching for him. No one knows where Dave is.

My anxiety levels are so high not even Taylor Swift can allay them. I debate calling the big boss but hesitate.

What if Dave has gone offline to do his own investigation, to confirm what I told him? He may not have informed the Editor-in-Chief yet. If I tell the big boss what I am working on before Dave speaks to him, he will rip out my innards.

At 6pm I take a break, order pizza and feed Sebastian. I am onto my third beer. Still no word from Dave.

The doorbell rings and I call out, ‘Thank you, just leave it at the door.’ I hear footsteps fading away and unlock the door, my tummy rumbling. The pizza smells delicious but as I pick it up there is an envelope underneath. I take the box and envelope inside and lock the door behind me.

In the envelope is a photo of me opening my apartment door. I am in the clothes I wore to work. The picture was taken when I returned home this morning. I turn it over and there is a warning, in the same handwriting as the note this morning.

Remember. You’re being watched.

My hands start trembling.

Someone is watching me at work … and at home!

I try calling Dave again. No luck.

I decide to call the big boss, but I don’t have his number in my phone. As I search through my notebook my phone rings. It’s a private number. I hesitate, then press the green answer button.

‘Hello, this is Sarah Jones,’ I try to sound calm and professional.

Silence.

‘Dave? Is that you? Are you OK?’ I ramble.

‘This isn’t Dave,’ a man’s voice, low and threatening responds, and my heart starts thumping.

‘Who is this?’ I ask, my voice going up an octave.

‘Don’t publish the story, don’t discuss it with anyone. If you do, you’ll regret it.’ Click.

I drop the phone in my lap. I am really shaking now, not Shaking it off, just shaking.

I consider calling Constable Matthews. Confessing to him what I know about the Lions club and the threatening notes and phone call.

My laptop pings. An incoming message.

I rush to the dining table. It’s from Dave. Thank God.

Sarah, how’s the story going? Can you come to the office tonight at 11pm? We need to talk without others around.

I read and re-read the message.

There is no explanation for where he has been. No answer to my questions. I take a deep breath before replying, trying to calm my fractured nerves.

Can we talk now? Weird stuff has been happening and I just had a threatening call.

I wait …

No. We need to talk tonight in person, in private. Do not approach the club, not yet. You can tell me about the call tonight.

Seriously? That’s his advice.

I plonk myself on the couch. Without thinking I shove a slice of pepperoni pizza into my mouth, chewing and thinking about my next move.

Finally, I return to the dining table and keep working on the story, trying to push the notes and phone call from my mind. More than once, I pull out my phone, my fingers ready to dial Jack Williams or Constable Matthews. Each time I hesitate. I’m worried, but I also don’t want to jeopardise my chance of a front-page scoop.

At 10.30pm I climb into my car and head back to the office, my laptop stowed in the front seat beside me. Traffic is quiet and it only takes 20 minutes to get to the office. When I pull into my space the car park is almost empty. I swipe my afterhours pass and take the lift to the newsroom.

There should be no one left in the newsroom. The printing staff are working the presses, but they operate from another part of the building. As I step out of the lift the overhead fluorescents flicker on, and the light is still on in Dave’s office. Through the frosted glass walls, I can see the outline of a person crouched over the desk.

I knock on the door and hear a muffled, ‘Come in.’

As I open the door several things happen at once.

First, my laptop’s wrenched from my hands. Second, I’m forced into the chair opposite the desk. Third, it’s not Dave facing me.

‘Good evening, Ms Jones. I wish I could say it’s a pleasure to meet you,’ I recognise the voice from the call earlier and his face from Ms X’s photo.

‘Bulldog, isn’t it?’ I ask, as my hands are yanked behind the chair and tied together.

Bulldog grins, white teeth gleaming. ‘Ah, you know who I am. How unfortunate,’ the smile never reaching his eyes. ‘You’ve been busy Ms Jones. Let’s get to the point. What do you know and who have you told?’ he asks leaning back in Dave’s chair and placing his large feet on the desk.

‘Go to hell,’ I say, trying hard to maintain the bravado I don’t feel. ‘Tell me where Dave is.’

‘He’s safe, for now. Tell me what you know,’ Bulldog replies as he picks up an old-fashioned fountain pen from Dave’s desk, takes off the cap and starts twirling it between his fingers.

My mind is whirring. There are security cameras all over the building. I pray the night guard has seen me arrive and will come to check on me soon.

‘I know you are supplying illegal steroids to the Lions club. I know the club is privately sanctioning the use of performance enhancing drugs for its players. And I know you will go to gaol, for a long time, when this gets out,’ I finish.

‘Ah, but Ms Jones, it won’t get out,’ he smirks, placing a mobile on the desk and hitting the speaker button.

‘Put Mr Rogers on,’ he says, and I hear shuffling and grunting before Dave’s voice comes across the line. ‘Sarah, are you okay?’

‘Dave, I’m alright. Are you hurt?’ I stammer.

‘Mr Rogers is fine. For now. So, Ms Jones, I ask again, who have you talked to about this?’ Bulldog’s eyes are cold and hard.

I try stalling for more time.

‘How do I know you won’t still hurt me, and Dave?’ I ask.

‘Ms Jones, please. Don’t test me. If you don’t tell me who knows about this, I will have to take drastic action,’ Bulldog keeps his eyes fixed on mine and I cry out as my arms are pulled down hard from behind, almost dislocating my shoulders.

‘Sarah. It’s okay. Just tell them what they need to know,’ Dave says, pain evident in his voice.

‘Only Dave. Only Dave knows,’ I fire the words like bullets from a gun.

‘Don’t lie to me Ms Jones. What about your friend, the love-sick cadet?’ Bulldog queries, still twirling the pen in his hand.

‘I didn’t tell Brendan anything. He thinks I’m working on a special feature, that’s all,’ I sob as my arms are yanked again.

Bulldog jumps out of Dave’s chair and kneels in front of me, caressing my knee before plunging the fountain pen deep into my leg. I scream and Bulldog presses the pen deeper. ‘What about the cops? Have you talked to the police?’

Before I can respond the door bursts open and police in bullet proof vests storm in, taking down the man I cannot see behind me and throwing Bulldog to the ground. Sauntering in behind them, looking like the cat that ate the cream is none other than the smarmy racing editor Johnno.

‘Hi Princess, thought you might need some help,’ he says winking at me.

I am so confused all I say is ‘You. How?’

Muffled cries of ‘police’ can be heard on the phone as Johnno strides to the other side of the desk, settling himself in the chair recently occupied by Bulldog.

‘I told you I could do you a favour, but you refused my help,’ he says. ‘Dave is broke. He owes lots of money to all sorts of not very nice people, including this mob. He’s dangerous and desperate. One of my racing contacts spilt the beans on him a few weeks ago. I’ve been watching him closely ever since. I never trusted that man. I followed you home the other night. I thought you might be heading to a bar where I could talk to you in private, but you ended up in a dingy back street and met with a strange woman. I thought it was some love affair until I saw you talking to Dave this morning and then hurrying home. I knew something was up, so I followed you and took a photo at your apartment,’ Johnno pauses for dramatic effect before continuing. Through my confusion I can tell he is loving every moment.

‘I left you another note. I admit it was just a bit of fun until Dave failed to return to work today and couldn’t be reached. My contact told me the Taipans were involved. I went back to your apartment, watched you from across the street. I saw you leave and come back here.

‘I went the guard’s station; he was out cold, and I saw you enter Dave’s office on the security camera. I saw what was happening, called the police and ta da, here we are,’ Johno says, putting his hands behind his head and his feet up on the desk.

I am so gobsmacked I cannot speak.

‘Now about that drink,’ he says leaning towards me.

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