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's Kings Cross has always been seedy. Lowlifes walk the streets all day here, not just at night. There are hookers, pimps and European backpackers, all equally likely to be carrying an infection you'd regret if you came into contact with them in an intimate fashion. The hookers openly displayed their grotesque bodies on the street at night, whereas the backpackers, whose bodies were considerably more pleasant, did the same during the day down at Bondi Beach.
Everything and everyone was for sale here, or at least for rent. The hookers were like packaged goods waiting to be picked off a supermarket shelf, only to be quickly repackaged and resold shortly afterwards. Of course, you had to be careful of what you were buying — not everything was as it seems. Transvestism was rampant and there were no labelling laws to protect consumers. It would be very useful, wouldn't it, to know that the woman you were picking up was 40 per cent fat, 15 per cent testosterone and 10 per cent syphilis?
The hookers were like packaged goods waiting to be picked off a supermarket shelf, only to be quickly repackaged and resold shortly afterwards.
The Stank was a downtrodden pub located in one of the alleyways off Victoria Road, the centre of the action in the Cross. It was one of the last pubs in town where drinkers would be asked to step out onto the pavement while the place was cleaned with a high-powered hose. That was fine when the floor was covered in tiles, but unfortunately the owner didn't tell the staff to switch to a vacuum cleaner when it was refurbished with high quality carpets and materials. It didn't take long for the carpets to acquire a damp odour of chlorine and vomit, outranking the pungency of the patrons, most of whom hadn't had a bath since, well, since the midwife gave them one.
On this particular day a fight had broken out in The Stank. There was nothing unusual about that. Patrons got uptight about anything from drug deals to family feuds to local planning matters. That's right, they took an interest in local council affairs. Even though they were callous underworld lowlifes, it didn't mean they were exempt from some degree of community spirit. The previous night there had been a particularly fierce battle after one local identity voiced his opposition to a new bicycle lane on William Street to One-Eyed Jake, a mass murderer who had spent a lot of his time on the inside studying community transport planning. One-Eyed Jake took exception to anyone who dismissed the notion of alternative transport remedies and most bike lanes in the city had been created at his insistence. Nobody used them, but their existence had kept several councillors' limbs intact.
Tonight's fight was mild by comparison. Steel-legged Eddie had taken objection to whoever had put Kajagoogoo on the jukebox. He wasn't sure who it was, so he decided to lash out at everyone. Everyone that is, except Spicer the Slicer. People always stayed away from him. He was a fierce-looking character, so intimidating that he had mirrors removed from his house because he scared the living daylights out of himself. Across his pale greasy skin ran an alarming scar, stretching from his cheek and down his neck. Nobody was quite sure how far it went, but rumour had it that it ran cheek to cheek, only one of them on his face.
Folklore had it that, in one of his gangland battles, he had literally been sliced open. It should have killed him, but his attacker was a surgeon by day, underworld gangster by night. He had noticed a malignant growth in Spicer's kidneys and his professional ethics demanded that he sought treatment immediately and rushed him to hospital.
That was the story and since then no one messed with Spicer, in part because they were scared of him, but also for fear that he might split open again and no one really wanted to see his innards spewed across the newly refurbished decor.
Eddie's fight over Kajagoogoo had turned violent. As chairs and tables were tossed around him Spicer sat at the bar, looking particularly fierce for a Thursday. He was engaged in conversation with a stranger. No one at The Stank had seen this person before and they thought that it took a brave man, or an idiot, to talk to Spicer the Slicer without an introduction. He hated intrusions from strangers, mainly because, underneath it all, he was quite shy and he didn't want his nervousness around unfamiliar people to show through.
'So tell me,' said Spicer, looking straight towards the bar, a little saliva running from the side of his mouth as he spoke, 'is this your last time in the Stank?'
'Well it's my first time,' said the timid, slight man in a well-pressed suit with immaculate shoes.
'Same thing,' spat Spicer, trying to appear intimidating. 'People like you don't come back…'
'Really? Well I wouldn't take it personally,' said the man, completely missing the threat. 'Anyway, let me tell you why I am here.' Spicer really didn't want to know.
'I have a couple of questions…' The stranger stopped in mid-sentence as Spicer turned to him quickly and raised his hand. The fight started to die down as the others looked on. Who was this man who seemed to be upsetting Spicer the Slicer?
'You interrupted me,' said Spicer eventually. 'No one does that.'
The man didn't know what to say. He decided to say nothing, giving Spicer a chance to pause for effect. Spicer liked to use a pause. They'd taught him that at drama school, where he had done several terms to develop his underworld persona. Pauses were good. He'd also noticed how well it worked for Adam Willis. Eventually the pause finished.
'People like you don't come back here,' he repeated, 'mainly because they don't get to leave.' He turned round to see if he had an audience. If he was going to be menacing people had to hear it. Drama school had taught him how important it was to play to the crowd.
The fighting had stopped completely now and the assembled crowd watched quietly.
'So what's your name, stranger?' he asked. He spat out a bit of beer mat he had nibbled earlier, hoping others would assume it was a bit of chewed tobacco, before he decided that it probably all looked a bit clichéd.
'Jeremy,' said Parsons who, although he was nerved by the whole conversation, was quickly starting to doubt the true ferocity of the man he was talking to.
'Got any other names? We're not on first name terms round here,' said Spicer. He took a sharp intake of breath through his gritted teeth, a move designed to showcase his three gold fillings, but it made him choke slightly as he inhaled too quickly and sucked up some remnants of the beer mat. He tried to stop choking but it made his eyes water. He knew he wasn't giving his best performance. This Parsons character wasn't as worried as he should be and that was making Spicer nervous.
'I have other names,' said Parsons. He waited a moment before adding, 'you don't need to know them'.
'Nice pause,' thought Spicer, but if he was impressed he wasn't going to show it.
Parsons had decided he should play tough, at least until it became life threatening, although he found it difficult to pull off without breaking into an impression of John Wayne.
'Jeremy,' said Spicer. He grunted a little, then asked, 'what kind of name is that?' before turning to face Parsons, his eyes still watering a little.
The consultant wasn't really sure how to answer. It was a stupid question, he thought, so he stayed silent again.
'Another pause,' thought Spicer, a little annoyed at how good he was at them. He spat onto the bar between the two of them, hoping that was the last of the beer coaster. The bartender quickly wiped it clean then scurried back to safety behind the cash register.
'This lot want to know who put Kajagoogoo on the jukebox,' he sneered, moving his face within an inch of the stranger. 'I think I know who it was.' Parsons again was silent.
'Shall I tell them?'
Even though Parsons thought Spicer was becoming less convincing by the second, some of the others looked particularly nasty. He didn't want to be getting in a fight, not in one of his best suits.
'I like Kajagoogoo,' said Parsons, three words that had rarely been used together in the entire history of the planet. 'But I don't think they need to know do they?'
'That depends. Maybe you could start by telling me what you're doing here?'
'It seemed like a nice place for a drink,' said Parsons, playing the unintimidated stranger nicely.
'Give me the truth, shy-boy!' spat Spicer, the saliva hitting Parsons in the face, 'if you want me to be hush-hush.'
He didn't want word to get around that he had never killed anyone and didn't know how to use a gun. Or a knife. Even a bread knife.
'Nice,' thought Parsons, amused by how Spicer had displayed his knowledge of some of the finer points of the band's lyricism. He considered retaliating with words from other Kajagoogoo hit songs before remembering there weren't any. Besides, he figured now was the time to come clean. He'd stepped a long way out of his comfort zone to meet a killer. Perhaps now he'd met one, although he somehow doubted it.
He looked closely at Spicer. Yes, the scar was intimidating, but it looked far too surgical to have been the result of a random act of violence. His hands were too soft to have been involved in any real fight action and he wore a pair of stonewash jeans that had been meticulously ironed. There was a severe nerdiness in his dress sense, but no one had dared tell him, just in case the rumours about him were true.
'I'm looking for a killer!' said Parsons. He'd cleared his throat, lowered his voice a couple of octaves and tried to sneer a little as he spoke.
'Really?' said Spicer, rather uneasily. He almost added 'we don't get many of them round here', before he remembered his underworld persona.
'A hired assassin,' reaffirmed Parsons.
Spicer didn't say anything. He lent forward on the bar and glanced away, trying to pretend the conversation wasn't taking place.
'Are you listening to me?' asked Parsons, touching Spicer on the shoulder.
There was an intake of breath from the assembled crowd. No one had seen anyone touch Spicer the Slicer on the shoulder and get away with it. In fact, no one had seen anyone do anything to Spicer, so they couldn't be entirely sure what the consequences would be. Now they thought of it, Spicer managed to avoid involvement in any fights at The Stank and he'd often quietly slip away if the action got a little too intense.
'Hired assassin?' Spicer mumbled, still looking away from Parsons.
'Are you up for it?'
Spicer noticed that some of the regulars were now moving forward to get within earshot. The more he mumbled the closer they came.
It was an awkward moment for Spicer. He couldn't afford to lose face. He didn't want word to get around that he had never killed anyone and didn't know how to use a gun. Or a knife. Even a bread knife. He was okay with a butter knife, but only if the butter hadn't come straight out of the fridge.
Spicer certainly didn't want anyone to find the truth behind the scar on his cheek. It was a paper cut he got from his local council office job. It only went a short distance from the bottom of his left cheek down to the top of the polo neck jumper that he always wore, even in the height of summer. He lived in fear that they'd discover the real reason he frequented The Stank was to see all the butch boys in their leather trousers.
'Well?' repeated Parsons, after waiting a few seconds for a reply.
'You want me to kill for you?' said Spicer, throwing himself back into his role as best he could. He decided a definitive stubbing of his cigar would add a certain gravitas to his questioning, forgetting that he wasn't smoking and instead pushing his middle finger hard into the ash tray in a highly painful manner.
'Owww!' he said.
'Seventy dollars to kill someone. That's cheap.'
'I'll pay you good money,' said Parsons, pleased with how he was commanding the conversation and sensing that he might escape the evening alive after all. 'But I need you to work fast.'
'How fast?' asked Spicer, who realised that he could maintain the tough-guy pretence as long as he kept sentences short. Sometimes, if the sentence got too long he'd just have to stop halfway through.
'Well, I'm meeting my client tomorrow. I need a plan by then.'
'A plan,' said Spicer, looking straight at the bar. He couldn't face Parsons. He knew this guy was starting to see through him. That's what sobriety did, damn it!
'It'll cost you!' he said. He saw this as a good moment for a short pause, before he continued. 'What sort of plan is it that you are...'
Parsons waited an awkward few seconds for Spicer to finish. Spicer knew he'd put too many words in the sentence.
'…after?' Parsons volunteered.
'Yeh,' said Spicer.
'I don't know. How do you normally plan for this sort of thing?'
Spicer didn't have a clue. He kept quiet hoping Parsons would volunteer a suggestion.
'I normally put plans together in PowerPoint,' Parsons said eventually. 'My client likes PowerPoint.'
'Okay,' said Spicer. 'I can do that.'
'How much money do you want?'
Parsons waited. He knew how to negotiate on price. He'd wait for the questions. No point in him volunteering a figure. It just gave Spicer a chance to talk it up. Better to wait for him to offer a figure and try to talk him down.
Eventually Spicer the Slicer spoke.
'How many slides do you want?' he asked.
'No more than 10.'
'Do you want me to do builds?' Spicer asked, referring to the rather annoying way people reveal the contents of slides one line at a time, often flying in at peculiar angles.
'If it'll help,' said Parsons.
'I can do transitions.'
'That'd be nice.'
'I like the box-out effect.'
'Keep it simple. Give me a straight fade.'
'Okay. It's your money.'
'So how much?' asked Parsons again.
'Couple of hours work. I'd say about seventy dollars.'
'Seventy dollars to kill someone. That's cheap.'
'That's 'cos he loves it so much,' said Steel-legged Eddie, who had caught the last few seconds of the conversation.
'No!' said Spicer the Slicer rather definitively. 'That's just for the PowerPoint. Murder is extra.'
'Okay. We can discuss that later,' said Parsons, who wasn't too concerned about the price. He'd simply mark it up and charge it on. 'Look, I need you at this address at 10 tomorrow. We're meeting this man.' As he spoke he wrote down the VastTel address and Twistie Buffet's name on the back of a napkin.
'Is this who we are killing?' asked Spicer, coughing slightly. He recognised the name.
'No. This is the man who wants the job done.'
He seemed surprised.
'Alright. I'll be there,' said Spicer gruffly, wishing that Steel-legged Eddie hadn't moved in to join the conversation. He scared the hell out of him.
Parsons placed the napkin on the bar, then turned to walk away.
'I'll see you there,' he said and headed for the door. Almost every pair of eyes followed him across the floor. They were impressed. There was a new player in town. Someone in the same league as Spicer the Slicer.
Even though he'd held his own, Parsons was keen to get out of the place. His wife was far more intimidating than anyone in The Stank and he'd promised her he'd be home by 11. He hoped she wouldn't be able to smell the alcohol on his breath.
'One last thing shy-boy,' Spicer yelled across the room in his most commanding voice, although it sounded a little too thespian to be convincing.
'Yes?' Parsons shouted back, the room now bathed in silence.
'Do you need me to bring a projector?'
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.