ZDNet Australia is proud to bring you a serialised version of Phil Dobbie's novel The Incumbent. A new chapter will be published here as part of his blog each week on Tuesday. You can also buy the entire book by clicking here.
Sydney Musson was, apparently, quite mad, but extremely lucky. The court proceedings had been unusually rapid. Under legal aid he had been afforded a surprisingly strong defence team, who urged him to play the lunatic card so he would be seen to have acted under diminished responsibility. He performed this role impeccably from the beginning.
'How do you plead, guilty or not guilty?' the magistrate, Justice Brice, had asked.
'Ostrich,' replied Musson.
'Fair enough,' said Brice, who had empathised with Musson from the outset. He had been having some issues with his own VastTel bill, and understood the compunction to go and kill someone in charge over there.
He had been having some issues with his own VastTel bill, and understood the compunction to go and kill someone in charge over there.
'Although clearly you did kill a police officer and this cannot be overlooked,' the judge said in his summation. 'I can't let you go scot-free; it would set a bad precedent.'
If it hadn't been for social pressure he probably would have let him off. He hated the police, although it wasn't something he would generally admit to, but he recognised that murdering one of them was wrong, probably. On the other hand, he hadn't really met any that he had liked. Still, that didn't mean you should allow people to kill them. But what if they deserved it?
It was one of the many battles of right and wrong that were fought perpetually in the magistrate's mind, which is why Brice rarely reached a decision quickly.
He hated putting people away and had, consequently, earned a reputation of being a bit of a soft touch.
'Look, if you kill someone again I'm going to have to send you to prison,' he'd once said to Spicer T. McCloud, one of the most feared characters in the Sydney underworld. He was nicknamed Spicer the Slicer and no one was quite sure how many people he had killed, but he seemed to be forever relaying the patio tiles in his backyard. The police were certain this was where he buried the bodies, but they weren't game enough to ask him to dig it up. Someone did ask once. 'What and ruin this basket weave tiling effect!' he had protested to the officer in question, whose career (and life) was somewhat foreshortened.
'Shocking affair,' Spicer had said, as he redid his patio area, which was, by this time, two metres above the surrounding lawn. The coroner had recorded on the death certificate that 'breathing difficulties' was the reason for the death, on Slicer's recommendation, who had objected to the coroner's original, more accurate, use of the word 'garrotted'.
There was nothing sinister behind Spicer's suggestion, he just didn't like the word 'garotted'. And the coroner didn't like the idea of meeting a similar fate, even though the jury was out on just how deadly a character Spicer really was. No one had ever seen him commit a murder and there were mixed estimates as to how many people he had killed, but it was generally considered the figure was quite considerable.
An attempt had been made to gather reliable statistics by asking the question 'has a member of your household been killed by Spicer the Slicer?' in the national census, but little credibility can be given to a survey that reports Jedi as a major religion. One academic had tried to estimate the true figure using a mathematical formula that examined the ratio of disappearances by distance from Spicer's home, to the height of his patio. The academic hadn't been seen since starting on the project, but that was hardly surprising — no one had seen him before either.
Spicer himself knew the true answer — he hadn't killed anyone, but the reputation of serial killer that had been bestowed on him did seem to be useful for getting freebies from, well, basically everyone. No one would dare ask him for money. Even the tax office. And Adam Willis, who was an outspoken critic of just about everyone and everything, didn't dare to say anything derogatory about him.
Justice Brice, on the other hand, was an easy target for Willis and his shock-jock brigade. He regularly complained on-air about the judge's soft approach to crime. As far as Willis was concerned, more people should be sent to prison, especially migrants. And people doing drugs. He hated drugs. He found them too expensive to partake in personally and, as a talkback radio host, he didn't need artificial substances to detach himself from reality. Mainly though, he didn't like the people who sold drugs. He'd met huge numbers of them. Many of them were account executives working for advertising agencies. The rest, according to Willis, were foreigners, single mothers and people who listened to FM radio. 'All these people,' he often told his audience, 'are on drugs and are not to be trusted.'
'Lock them all up!' was his repeated catch-cry. 'There can never be too much felafel and tabouli served in the prison canteens as far as I am concerned.'
Naturally, Willis had a lot to say about anyone who didn't slavishly follow his own view of how the law should be applied. He hated people who didn't bow down to authority, in particular the authority he had afforded himself.
'I won't rest until this character, this Justice Brice, is struck off,' he said to anyone who cared to listen.
His constant attacks were becoming damaging to the magistrate. It became apparent the only way to silence Willis was through some form of defamation action, which, strangely, turned into a series of passionate nights of homoerotic trysts between the two men, neither of whom were supposedly homosexual, even if Willis did deny it rather too vehemently.
Heading the Adam Willis legal team was a stunning, intelligent young French lady, whose fulsome lips, large brown eyes and slow sensual movements would drive any man to distraction. Justice Brice's legal representative was a pale, overweight, 55-year-old man, deprived of sex for more than 10 years. It seems during negotiations he had indicated that he would like to engage in some sort of intimate encounter with the French lady, even suggesting a few ambitious positions he would like to embark on. Although she saw the proposition as entirely inappropriate and an affront to her professional reputation, she was curious as to how these positions would work. They seemed somewhat intricate, verging on the physically impossible but, at the same time, highly arousing.
With Willis off his back, although now quite often on his back, sometimes with his right leg resting under his left armpit, Brice was able to apply himself to his job with less attention from the public.
This initial discussion — and future discussions, because they returned to this topic at each meeting — was fully minuted by their junior legal people, who were too young to understand such matters, but nonetheless found themselves a little moist at the end of each session. As if these notes weren't compromising enough, they somehow found themselves as an attachment — Annex 4B — in the final contracted negotiation. The agreement itself read that Justice Brice would not pursue any further court proceedings provided the conditions of the attachments were met in full.
Although Willis found it highly irregular, he was secretly attracted to the idea of experimenting with Justice Brice, even though he generally preferred young Latino men. Brice, for his part, was curious as to whether any of the positions outlined were attainable and so entered into the proceedings as more of an educational exercise and, being a judge, he relished the position of dominance he was offered in most of the poses.
So the two men met and worked through Annex 4B — in fact they had already worked their way through clauses 1.1 to 1.5a before the mistake had been realised. By then their legal representatives agreed it was too late to turn back because the truth would be fatal to their respective careers. Besides, the men seemed to be enjoying it, displaying a level of gymnastics that surprised both the participants and their lawyers. It wasn't long before they were asking whether Annex 4B was supposed to contain just 24 clauses, or was there more? And so the two lawyers would meet again and again to discuss what further sexual encounters might be embarked on, with the French lady increasingly aroused by the 55-year-old's personal knowledge of such an enormous variety of highly arousing erotic activities.
Willis and Brice were satisfied with the outcome. With Willis off his back, although now quite often on his back, sometimes with his right leg resting under his left armpit, Brice was able to apply himself to his job with less attention from the public.
Yet, away from the constant media attacks, significant issues remained, one of which was overcrowding in state prisons. Brice had solved it in part by offering every criminal bail, so most suspected terrorists, murderers and rapists could quickly flee the country. It was a convenient arrangement for people smugglers who could fill their boats in both directions — asylum seekers into the country, hardened criminals out of the country.
Yet, even though Brice took a soft approach on criminals, other judges were bowing to public pressure and handing out tough sentences for minor misdemeanours, like planning to break the speed limit, or using suggestive language in a brothel, or supporting the wrong side in a football match. Police authorities were onto it, too, with closed circuit cameras everywhere. You couldn't pick your nose in public without attracting some sort of fine. For their part the legislators would justify their salaries by introducing more and more laws. Otherwise, what would they do all day?
So, with more laws and tougher sentences, a vast proportion of the population were finding they had fallen foul of some ruling or other and the prison system was ready to burst. In many cases prisoners were sharing beds, sometimes involuntarily. Long queues were forming outside the front gates of institutions and freelance security personnel were contracted to manage the crowds. This helped the overcrowding problem a little, because most were nightclub bouncers who, of course, were programmed to deny entry to anyone wearing unfashionable clothes, looking a bit nerdy, not having an attractive female companion on his arm, or refusing to pay some sort of bribe to get in. Consequently, many of those convicted, particularly those in suede shoes and eighties stone-washed jeans, were simply turned away at the gate.
For their part the legislators would justify their salaries by introducing more and more laws. Otherwise, what would they do all day?
On those rare occasions when Justice Bruce did convict someone, he tried hard to stop prison overcrowding by finding alternate destinations.
'You have been sentenced to a fortnight in Fiji,' he once heard himself saying to a delighted money launderer. Other sentences were a little harsher: 'I sentence you to Christmas with your entire family', for example, was rarely welcomed.
He had sentenced all the housemates in the 2009 series of Big Brother, because it was one of the most secure prisons in the country. Only one person managed to escape each week, and then only after a phone vote.
Of course, a more severe sentence was required for Sydney Musson. You can't let someone off lightly for murdering a police officer.
'Was the murder premeditated?' Brice had asked Musson.
'Tadpole Rembrandt Venice,' said Musson, continuing to play the lunatic card.
He didn't have to try too hard. Professor Zimple Whimplestein had already vouched for the authenticity of Musson's madness after a full and frank assessment, taking well over 10 minutes, possibly as much as quarter of an hour. Then the psychiatrist spent two hours with the legal team discussing his fees. For $2,000 he could argue to the court that Musson was a mild depressive. To declare him a psychopath would cost $10,000, but that would probably mean he would be institutionalised for life. To be on the safe side he suggested a stress-induced psychotic reaction that could be cured through ongoing counselling at an agreed upfront cost of $500 per session. The respected psychiatrist said such an observation would cost in the region of $100,000, plus the ongoing counselling, with all payments delivered to an offshore bank account, no further discussion permitted.
Professor Zimple Whimplestein had already vouched for the authenticity of Musson's madness after a full and frank assessment, taking well over 10 minutes, possibly as much as quarter of an hour.
'That's a lot of money,' Musson had said, when his legal team explained the rate structure, 'and not altogether ethical.' His lawyers looked amongst themselves, finding it a curious word to use given their profession, and went on to explain that Whimplestein's evidence could reduce the charges to manslaughter, maybe even 'minor ruckus with intent to cause disagreement'. With Justice Brice presiding, either could mean having to wear a tie for a week or, worse, a little bit of community service, raking leaves or being nice to old people, but only for an hour or two. No one should be expected to do it for more than that.
And so, following his psychiatrist's advice, he started answering all questions with totally unrelated answers.
'Who is the Prime Minister of Australia?' asked the psychiatrist in one of the many dry-runs, wondering if he knew the answer himself.
'A lukewarm cup of Earl Grey tea,' answered Musson, almost without thinking. 'Excellent,' said the psychiatrist.
'If I have two apples in one hand and two in the other, how many apples do I have?'
'A cold pebbly beach in northeast England.'
Clearly he didn't need any practice in this at all. Whimplestein briefly considered that Musson might actually have some form of mental condition, but it wasn't really his field of expertise.
Whether it was real or not, when it came to face the court, Musson played the part of a lunatic to perfection.
'In many ways you are the victim here,' Justice Brice said, starting his summation. The assembled crowd slid back in their seats. They knew this could go on for a long time.
'But a clear message has to be sent to the community. No matter how hard you are pushed by the incompetence of the VastTel billing department, it is no excuse for killing someone.'
'Des O'Connor!' Musson yelled out, for good measure.
An hour later, possibly two hours, the judge was ready to hand down the sentence. 'Manslaughter,' he said. As for the sentence: 'A new low security prison has opened in a converted guest house in Double Bay,' he explained. 'It has medical staff on hand who can help manage your condition. I sentence you to two years in this establishment, full board, with dinner daily at 5 in the afternoon.' He handed Musson a full-colour brochure.
It was hardly a gruelling sentence, although his legal team questioned whether 5 was a bit early for dinner.
Before Musson was escorted from the court Justice Brice summoned him to the bench and looked down at him over the brim of his spectacles.
'I'm sure you paid handsomely for your psychiatrist's assessment,' he said, holding up the report and tearing out a cheque from the back page. 'And when it comes to these matters I'm always happy to take my cut.'
Musson was astonished. He hadn't realised bribery and corruption was so rife in the legal profession. Goodness knows why not.
'You don't think I afford my lifestyle on a magistrate's salary alone, do you?'
Moments later, somewhat disillusioned by the legal process, Musson was moved to the low-security converted guesthouse in one of Sydney's richest suburbs. It had the grand name of Eton Towers, but wasn't as salubrious as Musson had imagined or as it was represented in the brochure. It was particularly claustrophobic and Musson's small damp room was decorated with garish brown flock wallpaper, to which prolonged exposure would start to mess with your mind. It was run by an elderly German couple, who ensured that every meal involved boiled cabbage to a greater or lesser degree.
In desperation, many were forced into transvestism just to join the Ladies Bridge Club, the closest the suburb had to any form of social life.
Although the prisoners could leave during daylight hours, they were confined to Double Bay by ankle bracelets, meaning endless days spent gazing through the windows of overpriced jewellery stores, wondering what to do next. In desperation, many were forced into transvestism just to join the Ladies Bridge Club, the closest the suburb had to any form of social life.
The Incumbent is Phil Dobbie's first novel and these excerpts have been used with his permission. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. To purchase the entire novel in digital format, click here. It is also available in printed format ... for more details click here.