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205





FALSE WITNESS



by



MARK DRYDEN





Copyright 2017



Cover illustration: copyright Michael Mucci at michaelmucci.com



CHAPTER ONE


After I became a criminal defence barrister, it took me a while to fully grasp that most of my clients were, well, criminals. They were not noble creatures, wrongly accused, who had stepped from the pages of a romantic novel. They had scars, tattoos, missing teeth, long criminal records and woeful communication skills. They were not innocent and they were not nice. Their solicitors were not much better.

Goran Milic was a typical example. He was a low-level cocaine dealer whose residential address was usually a prison. He wandered into my life after some drug squad detectives raided his weatherboard home in western Sydney and found - they claimed - 200 grams of pure coke hidden under some blankets in a wardrobe. They charged him with possessing a trafficable quantity of cocaine. If he fought the charge and was convicted, he would probably spend five to six years behind bars.

He claimed the detectives planted the evidence. That is usually a tough defence to establish. So he should have hired a highly experienced barrister. But he could not afford one and, instead, had to instruct a solicitor at the Legal Aid Office, who briefed a cheap baby barrister - me.

I conferred with Milic and his solicitor, Clint Andersen, in my room. His face had deep lines and fissures, and he wore a Black Sabbath T-shirt specially ironed for the occasion. I had become a connoisseur of sleeve tattoos. His was terrible.

He paced around my room with a jittery stride and raged against the injustice of the charge. "Look, I'm no fuckin' angel. I done lots of bad shit in my time and took me medicine - I copped it sweet. But that weren't my coke in the wardrobe. A cunt cop planted it. I mean, where in hell would I get 200 grams of pure coke? I never get close to pure stuff. Who do they think I am - Al Capone?"

His speech was so impassioned and sincere that I wondered if he should represent himself.

I said: "Detective Ross wore a body camera. It filmed him finding the coke baggie in your wardrobe."

"So ferkin' what? Another detective planted it there before Ross went into the bedroom."

"Who?"

"The guy in charge, Hanrahan, wasn't wearing a body cam. He planted it. That's a fact."

"Why'd he plant it?"

"'Cos he visited me a few days before the raid and tried to shake me down for money. I told him to fuck off. He planted the baggie to teach me a lesson."

"The coke baggie had your DNA on it."

"So what? Hanrahan wiped it on me sheets before he put it in the wardrobe. Easy. But it ain't got my fingerprints, has it? He's a bad dude that one - totally rotten - a disgrace to the police force."

I stifled a sigh. "So, you want to plead not guilty?"

"Of course."

I shrugged. "Matter for you. But how do I prove the coke was planted?"

"You've got my evidence."

The jurors would not be told about his long criminal record, but it was obvious from his scag-ravaged face and jittery movements that he had not devoted his life to the betterment of his fellow man. "I'm afraid your chances are pretty slim. Jurors usually believe cops."

"You can show he's a liar."

"I'll try. But I need some evidence to work with. I'm not a magician."

"Well, I'm not gonna just roll over. This is a matter of principle."

"I understand," I said, not understanding at all.

I looked over at the hefty figure of the Legal Aid solicitor, Clint Andersen, who stopped digging for earwax and shrugged.


The trial was held in the District Court, a few weeks later. The Crown Prosecutor put Detective Senior Constable Terence Ross in the witness box and got him to explain to the jurors how he discovered the bag of cocaine in the wardrobe. The prosecutor also screened film from the body camera Detective Ross wore. The film showed Ross pulling back a blanket and finding the baggie.

I cross-examined Ross: "Detective Inspector Hanrahan and two other detectives arrested Mr Milic in his bedroom, didn't they?"

"Yes."

"You weren't in the bedroom at that time?"

"No, I searched it later."

"How much later?"

"Oh, maybe fifteen minutes later."

"So Inspector Hanrahan could have put the bag in the wardrobe without you knowing?"

The Crown Prosecutor, Philip Drake, often looked and sounded like he was half-asleep. Indeed, his dullness gave him an air of integrity. Now, however, he shot aloft and squeaked. "I object, you Honour. The question asks for an opinion."

The presiding judge, Leon "Percy" Purcell, was bright, mild-mannered, good-humoured and utterly heartless. Anyone convicted in his court soon discovered his bonhomie was an act. Speaking in a kindly tone - more in sorrow than anger - he dished out harsh sentences. Several of my clients who caught his lash said afterward, in a perplexed tone: "But I thought he liked me" or, "He seemed so nice."

As I expected, he rejected my question. But I had lodged the issue in the minds of the jurors, as I intended.

I said: "No further questions, your Honour."

The judge turned to the Crown Prosecutor. "Call you next witness, Mr Crown."

Drake called Detective Inspector Carl Hanrahan to give evidence. Most detectives have criminal miens and look like they went dumpster-diving for their suits. However, Hanrahan had well-coiffed hair, handsome features and an athletic build tucked into a bespoke suit. He sat in the witness box and took the oath with calm authority. Clearly, he would rather be out on the streets fighting crime, but this was an unavoidable part of the job.

The prosecutor got the detective to explain how, after a "confidential informant" informed him that Milic was selling cocaine from his house, he led an early morning raid that resulted in 200 grams of coke being found in the wardrobe.

Constant practice makes most cops - no matter how dopey - good liars in the witness box. However, Hanrahan was obviously a master of his craft. His features remained impassive, and he even sounded slightly bored, while mangling the truth like a paper clip. The jury hung on his every word.

When I rose to cross-examine him, a couple of the jurors looked annoyed at my impertinence and obviously wanted to apologise to Hanrahan.

I said: "Detective Sergeant, you belong to the Western Sydney Narcotics Strikeforce?"

"That's right."

"You claim that you received information from a confidential informant that Mr Milic was selling cocaine at the premises."

"I did."

"Who was that informant?"

He looked at the judge: "I would rather not provide his name, for his own safety."

The usual practice was for the name of the informant to be written on a piece of paper and shown to the judge and me. However, I had no doubt that the detective had lined up an 'informant' to give evidence if needed.

I said: "I don't insist."

I accused him of trying to shake down my client a few days before the raid, and he calmly rolled his eyes. "The first time I met your client was when we raided his house."

I got him to explain how, just after dawn, he and several other Strikeforce detectives bashed down the front door and stormed inside. Three of them, including Hanrahan, found Milic sleeping alone in the main bedroom. "We took him to the lounge room and the team started searching the house."

I said: "During the raid, you didn't wear a body camera, did you?"

"I didn't need to. I was the supervising officer. I didn't make the arrest and I didn't search the house."

"You entered the house?"

"Yes, to observe what was happening and give instructions."

"You could have easily worn a body camera?"

"Yes, I guess so."

"In fact, you only had to clip it onto the front of your jacket?"

"Correct."

"It would have been prudent to do so."

A regal shrug. "Maybe. But I didn't think we would be arguing about this in court."

"You didn't wear a body camera because you didn't want your movements in the house recorded, did you?"

"Not true."

"And, while you were in the house, you went into the bedroom?"

A slight hesitation. "I was there when Milic was arrested. I followed them out to the lounge room."

"Followed? You mean, at one point, you were in the bedroom on your own?"

"Only very briefly."

"And while you were in the bedroom, you put the bag of cocaine in the wardrobe, didn't you, so it would be discovered later?"

"No."

"You're presenting this court with a tissue of lies, aren't you?"

"Definitely not." His relaxed tone accepted I had a job to do, though not much of one.

We both knew he was lying, but the jurors didn't. They looked like they wanted Hanrahan's autograph.

I said: "The bag was inspected for fingerprints, wasn't it?"

"Yes."

"No fingerprints were found."

"True, but the accused's DNA profile was found."

That was not strictly true. The DNA profile matched one-in-a-million people, including the accused, but I was not going to quibble.

"The accused's DNA was found on the bag because you rubbed it on the sheets, didn't you?"

"I did not."

I spent another twenty minutes taking him back and forward over his story, hoping he would contradict himself, without success. He was cool as a cucumber and, most importantly, knew his story backward. His discipline was such that, as he left the witness box, he showed not a hint of triumph.

As I sat down, my solicitor, Clint Andersen, leaned forward and whispered into my ear. "I think you did some damage."

"The jury didn't think so. Did you see their faces?"

Of course, we still had a chance if our client produced the goods in the witness box. He didn't. The prosecution wasn't allowed to adduce his criminal record. But his skag-ravaged face, querulous manner and jittery movements, told the jurors he had spent many nights with his head on a prison pillow. When he delivered the impassioned speech I heard in my room, it sounded like the angry whine of a desperate loser. By the time he left the witness box, the jurors knew that, if he didn't commit this crime, he committed many others without punishment.

In my final address to the jurors, I emphasized the discrepancies in Hanrahan's evidence and said there was at least a reasonable doubt my client was guilty. They didn't agree and took only two hours to reach a guilty verdict. When the foreman delivered it, it felt like a kick in the guts. Normally, when I lost a trial, I consoled myself my client really was guilty. This time, I was sure Hanrahan lied and my client was innocent. I had failed him badly. My pride was stung.

I turned to Milic, standing in the dock and shook my head. "Bad luck."

Most career criminals know that, sooner or later, they'll do a long stretch, and accept being convicted, even falsely, with true professionalism. Milic was not one of them. He shook his head. "Fuckin' bullshit. We're gunna appeal, right?"

He had no good grounds for appeal. The judge made no mistakes and the Court of Appeal wouldn't second-guess the jury's assessment of Hanrahan. "I'll think about it and let you know."

A frown. "Yeah, OK."

After thanking the jury, the judge remanded Milic in custody pending a sentencing hearing. Three hulking Sheriff's Officers hustled him out of the dock and through a side door, whistling tunelessly with no family to farewell.

I turned to Clint Andersen, loading folders onto a metal trolley. He was a small, bald man who had been a Legal Aid solicitor for almost thirty years. Far too long. He was so lazy that any activity seemed Promethean. Getting him to track down witnesses or issue subpoenae was a nightmare. His only mission in life was to catch the 6.05 p.m. train home to Cronulla. He never missed it. Indeed, he glanced at his watch and saw it was just after 5 p.m....

But he was not stupid. Every so often, his sleepy eyes shone like diamonds and a sharp insight showed he missed nothing. He also had a warehouse of experience he occasionally found the energy to ransack.

He gave me a seen-it-all expression. "That didn't go well. But I'm not surprised the jury believed Hanrahan. I believed him and I knew he was lying. No grounds for appeal, I guess."

"Don't think so."

He saw I was upset. "Don't worry, this wasn't your fault. You did well."

"And Hanrahan did better." I shrugged. "Anyway, I'll see you later."

I tucked my wig and gown, and brief, into my bar bag, waved goodbye to the Crown Prosecutor and strolled out of the courtroom, anxious to breath fresh air.

To my surprise, Hanrahan was outside, leaning against a wall, obviously waiting for someone, probably the prosecutor.

He smiled. "Nice try."

I felt a flush of anger and wanted to accuse him of planting the coke baggie. But I'd look naive and he'd deny it anyway. I dished out some false bravado instead. "Till we meet again."

A deep chuckle. "Not if you're lucky."

I strolled off, not realising that I would soon get my wish.



CHAPTER TWO


The Milic trial was held in a refurbished department store called the Downing Court Complex at the southern end of the city centre. My set of chambers was a kilometre away. I could have caught a taxi. But to clear my head and maybe do penance, I slung my bar bag over my shoulder and yomped through Hyde Park. I went down its main path, between huge Morton Bay Fig trees, and cross-examined myself about the trial. Did I ask Hanrahan the right questions? Were there others I should have asked? Was there a crucial submission I should have made to the jury and didn't? Hanrahan was an excellent liar. But it was my job to expose his lies and I failed miserably.

I left Hyde Park and strolled across Queens Square, past the tough-looking 23-storey tower that housed the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The tower was only saved from neo-brutalism by a whimsical brown-pebbledash coating. Inside, a massive legal factory pumped out judgments of varying size and quality.

Sydney's legal community was clustered around the tower. I belonged to Thomas Erskine Chambers, which occupied the fifth floor of a green-tiled building opposite it. The thirty barristers on the Floor did a mixture of commercial, personal injuries and criminal work. Everyone was self-employed. But we congregated together to share expenses, and bitch and moan about each other. The Floor had a good, rather than great, reputation.

I stepped out of a lift into a reception area with heavy leather couches sitting on a marble chessboard floor. Two corridors ran off it. They had mahogany panelling and portraits of notable Floor members. The décor emphasised permanence and stability.

Our receptionist, Tania Carmichael, was an attractive woman in her early thirties with an all-season tan. She always sounded cheerful, despite dealing with lawyers all day. "Hello, Mr Norton. Trial finished?"

"Done and dusted."

"How did you go?"

"Came second, I'm afraid."

"Oh." She gave me a small bundle. "Here's your mail."

"Thanks. Is Bert in?"

"He's in his room."

I strolled down a corridor to my room, overlooking Phillip Street. I bought it three years ago, for $300,000, off a guy who needed money to fund a divorce settlement. He furnished it with honey-coloured panelling and modular furniture that looked airy and functional. I would not have been so tasteful.

I dropped my bar bag and the mail on my desk and strolled around to see Bert Tolsen. There are many downsides to being on a floor of barristers. The gossiping, backstabbing and boasting can be tiresome. But you can always stroll into the room of an experienced barrister for advice or sympathy.

I took most of my troubles to Bert, who had been a criminal defence barrister for more than 40 years, most of them as a silk. During his heyday, he appeared in most of the major criminal trials in the state and won many big acquittals. But he was the first to admit that he also lost a lot of trials and his clients were handed sentences totalling several thousand years.

He had spent his whole career in the same room with the same furniture. A battered managing partner desk sat on a threadbare fleur-de-lis carpet. Cracked calfskin law reports climbed three walls. Dust smudged the long window overlooking Philip Street. An empty revolving bookcase took up a big chunk of space for no apparent reason.

I found him leaning back in his swivel chair, thumbing through a wine magazine. His wrinkled face, cherry nose and large belly were as old fashioned as his room. He rarely appeared in big trials anymore, because his most loyal solicitors were retired or dead and he'd lost his lust for battle. It takes a lot of energy to digest the facts before a major trial. He frankly admitted he no longer had the strength and refused to turn in a second-rate performance. He once told me: "In this game, I've seen too many bastards go on for too long, and I don't intend to join them." Now, he mostly attended Chambers to stay out of his wife's way.

I said: "Doing some legal research?"

He looked up and saw his younger, more impudent self. "No, checking whether to buy a box of this year's Margaret River Shiraz. Do you know much about wine?"

"Only that $10 a bottle is too much."

"Barbarian." He tossed the magazine onto his desk. "What's happening? How's the trial going?"

"Badly. My client's sitting in gaol right now, wishing Legal Aid briefed another barrister."

"What happened?"

I described my duel with Hanrahan and Bert shrugged. "You can't win 'em all. I crossed-examined him a few years ago and got nowhere. The jury lapped up every word he said. Looks and acts like Dick Tracy, but slippery as an eel."

"Your client was convicted?"

"Of course."

"I bet he was guilty. Mine wasn't."

"How do you know?"

"It was obvious - to me anyway."

"You could be wrong."

"I doubt it."

"You're hardly objective. But, even if you're right, so what? You didn't convict him, the jury did."

"I should have stopped them."

Bert laughed at my callowness. "Hah, barristers love to think they control what happens in a courtroom - they win and lose cases - but we're usually bystanders. There are bigger forces at play. So don't be hard on yourself. You can't pull all of your clients into the lifeboat. Some will drown, no matter what you do. Let it go."

I sensed he was right, but had an iron grip on self-pity. "That's not easy."

"I know. The problem with our job is that losing is worse than winning is good. When you win, you pat yourself on the back and dive into your next brief; when you lose, your client goes to the slammer and you wonder what you did wrong. But, if it's any consolation, as you get older, losing gets easier. You get scars on scars."

"I can't wait."

"I bet you can't. But, until then, all you've got is booze. Go and have a few drinks. That always helped me."

I laughed. "OK."

I left his room, determined to take his advice.



CHAPTER THREE


I had arranged to have a drink that evening with a friend at the Grease Monkey Bar in Woolloomooloo, just down the hill from the city centre. The place was basically a huge room designed to resemble a 1930s garage, with vintage cars, pulley blocks and ceiling rope hoists.

When I walked in, a couple of hundred office workers who couldn't change a car tyre to save their lives were milling about in its industrial chic interior. They were buzzing with end-of-week excitement, booze and drugs. The music made my spine rattle.

My friend, Adrian Calhoun, sat at the bar, eyeing a leggy woman in a short skirt lining up a shot at a pool table. His handsome features and broad shoulders often made people wonder if he was a television personality. I had known him since we were both, at the age of 12, assigned to the same class at Scots College, an exclusive private school. Even then, he was marked out for success. Teachers loved him and classmates admired him. He could have easily ignored me because I was a scholarship boy from a modest background. But he was always friendly, maybe because I was a bit different.

We stayed good friends at Sydney University, where I studied law, and he studied economics and almost made the Olympics eights rowing team. Then he joined a merchant bank called Baldwin & Perry and rose to become, at the age of 33, a senior vice-president. He sometimes talked about pursuing a career in federal politics, but fretted about the drop in income.

When I left university, my sole ambition was to not become a cubicle-dwelling solicitor at a big corporate law firm. Instead, I worked for the Director of Public Prosecutions and fell in love with the drama of criminal trials. The only drawback was that, as a solicitor, I was a spectator in court. I got tired of watching barristers claim everyone's attention and spout nonsense. Surely, I could do better. So, after five years working for the DPP, I joined the Bar.

After university, Adrian and I shared an apartment for a while and I saw, close up, that he worked hard and partied even harder. I think he found booze, drugs and chasing women an escape from the heavy burden of expectations resting on his shoulders. In any event, after trying to match his wild lifestyle for a while, I decided that, for the sake of my health and career, I should find other digs, which I did.

We still saw each other quite often, but I sensed we were drifting apart. The past held us together, not the present or future.

He saw me and waved. "Hello, mate. Have you met Mick?"

I suddenly noticed a thin guy in a denim jacket, with stringy hair and a haunted face, sitting next to him. A number of my clients looked like him. All were drug dealers.

I didn't bother extending my hand. "No, how are you?"

A slit-eyed stare. "I'm fine." He turned to Adrian. "OK, mate, I'll see you around."

"Don't be a stranger."

Mick disappearing into the bobbing crowd.

I nodded towards his retreating figure. "Does he work at your firm?"

The jackhammer music forced Adrian to lean close and yell. "Hah, hah. We have a business relationship. He sells a product from Bolivia that I enjoy. Want some?"

I was desperate to take the edge off my day and, several years ago, would have accepted his offer. But I had weaned myself off coke once and didn't want to do it again. I'd have to stick to booze. "Thanks, but I'll pass."

A shrug. "Up to you. How was your week?"

Adrian was amused that I belonged to an antiquated profession which did not allow me to incorporate or employ other lawyers. He once told me: "You can only make big money if other people do the work for you." He did not understand that money was not my god, and I loved the cut and thrust of trial work. Indeed, I only disliked my job when I lost a trial I should have won.

I said: "Not good. Had a three-day trial in the District Court. Client was convicted of possessing a trafficable quantity of cocaine, funnily enough."

My sarcasm did not register because he, like most wealthy people, thought himself immune to criminal sanctions.

He said: "Sentenced yet?"

"No."

"How long will he get?"

"Probably seven or eight years, but he'll only serve five or six if he behaves himself."

A smile. "Good. The judge should throw the book at him."

I rolled my eyes. "You don't approve of drug dealers?"

A grin. "Of course not. They always charge too much."

I didn't want to talk anymore about the trial. "Anyway, how was your week?"

A toothy smile. "Great. We're advising a client who launched a takeover bid for a company called Nutraglide. The client has already gobbled up 60% of the shares, so everyone, including yours truly, will get a huge bonus."

"Congratulations. Wish I could charge a success fee."

"Well, you chose to become a barrister." Adrian noticed someone across the room. "Ah, there's Colin. I arranged to meet him here. Hope you don't mind."

I turned and saw the stocky figure of Colin Douglas bowling towards us, smiling broadly. Colin was one of our classmates at Scots College, though always much closer to Adrian than me. He was a relationship manager at a stockbroking firm, which meant, I think, that he offered clients the "golden opportunity" to invest in shares the firm wanted to dump. I always thought him very pleasant and very untrustworthy.

Colin said: "Evening guys."

Adrian leaned forward, expectantly. "How'd it go?"

Colin gave him a big thumbs-up. "Fine, fine. I'll settle with you later."

"Excellent," Adrian said as they high-fived.

I said: "What went fine?"

Colin grinned. "If we told you, we'd have to kill you. But let's celebrate. What are you boys drinking?"

We both demanded beers and Colin bought three schooners from the barman.

I'd been itching for a beer and almost drained the glass in one gulp. Soon, I bought another, which slipped down just as fast. I passed into a benign and relaxed world where there were no clients, no dodgy cops and nobody went to gaol. Goran Milic got sucked down a chute in the back of my head.

While I inhaled beers - God, they tasted good - Adrian and Colin chatted about the share market, rugby and horse racing. Adrian had recently become very interested in the gee-gees. Sometimes, I contributed to the discussion, but was more interested in downing beers. I had not been seriously drunk for a long time. However, the bar started to pitch and roll, and the world slipped into soft-focus.

At some point, my companions disappeared into the toilets and came back with glazed expressions. A little later, Adrian's girlfriend, Rowena, turned up and I chatted amiably with her about something or other. Then the evening disappeared into a fog. The last thing I realised was that I would not get to my bed unless my bed came to me.





CHAPTER FOUR


The next morning, I woke on the couch in my apartment, still wearing my suit. I felt like a rat had crawled into my ear, gnawed on my brain and died just behind my eyes. My tongue felt flame grilled, but I didn't have the strength to rise and get a glass of water.

Mercifully, I fell asleep again and woke just before noon. When I did, Goran Milic kicked in the back door of my brain and stormed inside, yelling and screaming that I botched his defence. In my weakened state, I was at his mercy.

After stomping about for a while, he disappeared and I mentally replayed big chunks of the trial - I seemed to have the full transcript stored in my head - and started second-guessing my decisions. Why on earth did I think that getting pissed and waking up with a hangover was a good way to blot out the trial? Very immature.

To slake my huge thirst, I stumbled into the kitchen and drank several glasses of water. I was wondering how I got home from the Grease Monkey Bar the night before when my mobile phone rang. Because I still wore my suit, I only had to reach inside my jacket to get it.

The caller was Adrian, who sounded ridiculously chirpy. "Hello, mate. Just calling to make sure you're alright. Jeez, I haven't seen you like that for a while. How do you feel?"

"Like shit on a stick. I'll survive, just. What happened last night? How did I get home?"

"We took you home in a taxi."

"Thanks. I hope I wasn't too much trouble."

"Not at all. Very friendly, as usual. You offered to marry Rowena. She says she's going to hold you to that promise."

"Tell her that, as soon as she dumps you, I will."

A laugh. "OK. So, tell me: we going bike riding this afternoon?"

On Saturdays, we often rode together around the bicycle track inside Centennial Park. "You must be fuckin' kidding. My brain feels like it's been deep-fried."

"Thought you might say that. But don't forget my birthday party tonight, at my folks' house. Try to make it."

"I'll do my best."

"Be there," he said and hung up.

After forcing down a sandwich, I had a short nap that almost restored my membership of the human race. However, Goran Milic kept ducking into my head to complain. Towards evening, I decided that going to Adrian's birthday party might bring some relief from Milic. Hopefully, he wouldn't follow me there.



CHAPTER FIVE


Adrian's father was a successful paediatrician and his mother gloried in being the wife of a successful paediatrician. They owned a big Moorish-style mansion in Bellevue Hill, but spent most weekends at their hobby farm near Bega. They were there that weekend, leaving their mansion in the hands of Adrian and a couple of hundred of his closest friends.

When I walked through the front door, the heavy metal music hit me like a one-two punch. The place bulged with thirty-somethings. Due to my lingering hangover, I was in no mood to drink or socialise. However, fortunately, I went to school with many of the party-goers. I chatted with them amiably about our school days and what our classmates were doing now. Emotionally, many of them had never left school.

I had just extracted myself from a conversation about a science teacher who liked exposing himself to students, but was never caught, when someone behind me said: "Hello."

I turned and saw Adrian's girlfriend, Rowena. My performance the night before made me blush.

"How do you feel?"

"Like roadkill. Thanks for taking me home."

Rowena was an architect who specialised in designing air-conditioning systems, or something like that. She wasn't the most beautiful woman Adrian had gone out with - the standard was very high - but definitely the nicest.

She shrugged. "No problem. You were no trouble. A bit wobbly, that's all. You're not usually like that."

"A bad week at the office - but even worse for my client."

"Went to gaol?"

"Yes."

"I guess that's a big hazard for a barrister."

"Yes, it's all fun and games, until someone loses an eye. I understand I offered to marry you last night?"

She smiled. "That's right, and I'm holding you to it."

"What about Adrian? Isn't he going to marry you?"

She frowned. "I doubt it - I doubt it very much."

We chatted for a while about a new movie we had both seen, until she said she had better circulate and wandered off.

My head had started to rebel and I decided to go home. I was strolling down a hallway, looking for Adrian to farewell, when a tall, good-looking woman in her early thirties headed towards me. Christ. Patricia Ransome. There was nobody I wanted to see more, or less.

Patricia, you see, was a solicitor at a boutique firm in the city who I met during my first year at the Bar. She briefed me to defend a business executive charged with high-range drink driving. The executive lost his licence, unfortunately. I was luckier. I discovered Patricia was that rare combination: a good lawyer and a good person. We started going out together and had a relationship that lasted almost two years. If I was smart, it would have continued. But I started to feel trapped. Maybe Patricia wasn't the right woman for me; maybe another woman would make me happier; surely, I was too young to settle down. I started retreating and she got frustrated. Tensions grew. I announced I needed space and we split up.

Of course, a better woman did not turn up. The women I went out with after Patricia did not make me happy. So I sometimes considered phoning her up and asking for forgiveness. However, I didn't because, even if she was still single, she probably wouldn't take me back. Further, before I phoned her, I had to be sure I had slain all my demons and would not mess her about again. I was not.

Sometimes, I wondered if time and distance gave my memories of her a golden glow. Now, as she walked towards me, I decided they hadn't. My heart lurched and I realised that only an immature fool would have abandoned her. Surely, another guy snapped her up long ago. True, she was alone. But he was probably somewhere else in the mansion.

She slowed and smiled warmly, with no hint of malice. "Hello Brad, how are you?"

I halted and tried to stay calm. "Fine, thanks. What're you doing here?"

"Oh, I'm still good friends with Rowena. I've dropped in to see her. Have you seen her around?"

"I chatted with her a few minutes ago. I don't know where she went." My nerve broke. I tossed my dignity out the window and dove after it. "Are you here on your own?"

A frown. "Of course. What about you?"

I hid my pleasure. "Oh, still single. So, umm, how's life? You still working at Deacon & Co?"

"Yes, I'm a partner. There are four of us now."

"Congratulations. Still doing criminal work?"

She shifted on her feet to signal that I shouldn't probe too far. "Not much. Quite a bit of personal injuries, actually. How's the Bar treating you?"

"I'm surviving. But I'm still waiting for a mega-rich drug baron, whose assets haven't been frozen, to shower me with money."

She smiled. "Don't worry, that will happen one day - I'm sure of that."

"Thanks."

She glanced around, impatient to leave. "Anyway, I'd better find Rowena."

It was on the tip of my tongue to apologise for my past behaviour and ask her to have lunch one day, or just coffee. But I would look ridiculous. I'd play it cool and ring her up on Monday, if I had the courage.

I said: "OK. Well, nice to see you."

A hesitation. "Yes, nice to see you."

I stepped past her with leaden feet and strolled around the house, looking for Adrian while trying to recover my equilibrium. I went out onto the pool deck, where a couple of speakers were pumping out sludge metal for the delectation of guests but not neighbours. It was easy to spot Adrian, because everybody was fully dressed, except him and Colin, who were dancing naked beside the pool.




CHAPTER SIX


Appearing in a long trial is like walking through a long dark tunnel. You eventually step out into the blinking sunlight and wonder what happened in the world while you were away. Any new wars? A major natural disaster? A new election? On Monday morning, while sitting on a train to the city centre, I scrolled through some internet news sites and confirmed the world was still in one piece, pretty much.

When I reached Chambers, I got out of the lift and saw the reception desk was unattended. I strolled around to my room, sat at my desk and realised I was not mentally ready to start working. I had stopped thinking about the Milic trial - well, most of the time, anyway - and was focused on Patricia Ransome instead. What a fool I was to let her slip through my fingers! It's not easy to phone up a woman you have spurned and try to weasel your way back into her life. But my courage was leaking away. It was now or never.

I nervously picked up the phone and called her firm. A receptionist asked who I wanted to talk to.

"Patricia Ransome."

"And your name is?"

"Brad Kennedy."

"Please hold."

After an eternity of silence, she said: "I will put you through."

At least Patricia was prepared to talk to me. After another long silence, she came on the line, sounding terse. "Patricia here."

I talked like a salesman through a screen-door. "Hi Pat, it's Brad. It was, umm, good to see you on Saturday night. I've been meaning to call you but, quite frankly, didn't have the courage. I was wondering if we could have coffee sometime, or even lunch, if you're not too busy."

"Why do you want to see me?"

"Why?"

"Yes, why?"

I hadn't expected that question. "I've been thinking a lot about what happened - how I behaved - and I realise I was very, very stupid. I'm not asking for anything, of course. But I'd like to see you."

"It's too late for that. I'm not interested."

"But …"

"I'm not interested, OK. You made a mess of my life and then pissed off. I won't go through that again."

"I'm sorry about that. I was stupid and confused; I've learnt my lesson."

"So have I. So leave me alone."

The phone went dead and I listened to my heart thump. Shit. I really was having a run of bad luck. However, my disappointment was mixed with a strange sort of satisfaction. At least, where Patricia was concerned, I would not die wondering.

To distract myself, I spent the next hour reading through a new brief from the Legal Aid Office. My client was a teacher accused of sexually assaulting a pupil 20 years ago. The facts made me despondent and I was relieved to hear someone enter my room. "Got time for coffee, comrade?"

I looked up at Wayne Newhouse, standing in the middle of the room, leering. Wayne had thick curly hair, a chubby but not angelic face and manic eyes. He had few of the inhibitions that shackle ordinary men. As a result, his life had been littered with crises: suspended from practice for punching a prosecutor; bankrupted for not paying his tax and twice divorced. But, every time the bell rang, he rose from his stool and danced back into the middle of the ring.

In Court, he was often fearless to the point of foolishness. He asked police officers why they were persecuting his client rather than chasing real criminals, accused opposing counsel of duplicity and berated judges for not understanding his submissions. He recently accused a judge of presiding over a "star chamber" and said the only reason he knew he was in a courtroom was the furniture. The judge's complaint to the Bar Association was still pending. Wayne saw nothing wrong with his behaviour and boasted about his quip to all and sundry.

A good barrister obviously needs courage and aggression. But it sometimes seemed as if Wayne, instead of being born, was parachuted into life on a combat mission. A colleague once told me: "They don't make barristers like Wayne anymore, and that's probably a good thing."

Still, as always, his vibrant presence lifted my mood and I nodded. "Always got time for coffee."

"Good. Let's scoot around the corner."

We left our building and strolled through Queens Square. On one side was the forbidding Supreme Court tower; on the other, a huge statue of a dumpy Queen Victoria about to bowl her royal orb across the pavement.

In Macquarie Street, we grabbed a café table on the pavement, across the road from the unimposing State Parliament building. A waiter dashed forward and took our orders. Then Wayne turned to me. "How'd your trial go?"

"Straight down the plug hole."

A shrug. "What went wrong?"

I explained how I had to shake Hanrahan during cross-examination and failed. "I feel bad about losing that one. I really think the punter was fitted up."

"Don't beat yourself up. You can only play the cards you're dealt. Anyway, I'm sure Milic will feel right at home in the jug, back with his old mates. You're probably taking this harder than him."

I was being self-indulgent and changed the topic. Wayne had been appearing in a District Court trial for a defendant charged with importing heroin. "How'd your trial go? I thought it was supposed to last a few more days."

Wayne produced a rare blush. "It was, but it got aborted."

"Why?"

Wayne fingered a satchel of sugar. "Umm, a juror complained about me to the judge."

"You're kidding?"

"No, she sent him a note."

"What did it say?"

The blush turned a devilish red. "She, umm, accused me of staring at her tits all the time."

"You're joking?"

"No. The judge said her concern - whether justified or not - might prejudice her against my client and discharged the jury."

"You're definitely joking?"

"I'm not."

Had this happened to anyone else, I would have maintained my disbelief. However, this was the sort of land-mine Wayne jumped up and down on until it exploded. "Well, did you stare at them?"

A rueful smile. "Let me put it this way: I may be a barrister, but I'm also a man."

"You did?"

A shrug. "I snuck a few peeks. I mean, they were huge and only about a metre away. I could almost reach out and touch them. "

"Thank God you didn't."

"Of course I didn't. But she had no right to complain: she had a plunging neckline that almost thrust them in my face."

"You mean, it was the victim's fault?"

"She was no victim. She knew exactly what she was doing, or showing. And then she got upset when I took a peek. I was the victim!"

I would have got upset if I saw a chubby barrister with roguish eyes staring at my breasts all day. "You could have been more discreet."

"I thought I was; I've obviously lost my touch."

"Obviously."

A shrug. "It wouldn't have happened, of course, if the trial was more interesting. But the prosecution was tendering a lot of documents and I was bored out of my brain."

If a trial was aborted because I was perving at a juror, I would have crawled under the bar table, rolled into a ball and died of shame. However, Wayne was made of sterner stuff.

I said: "Have you, umm, mentioned this to Mary?"

Mary was his unaccountably lovely third wife. "Of course not. She knows I'm a pervert, but doesn't know I've been publically exposed. I thought I'd spare her that."

"Wise move. Thank God there were no journos in court."

He smiled. "That crossed my mind. One of the great things about the decline of the news media is that stuff like this doesn't get reported anymore."

As a waiter put our coffees in front of us, I wished I could sail through life with Wayne's aplomb.





CHAPTER SEVEN


A floor of barristers usually elects its most senior member to be Head of Chambers. That title once conferred considerable power and prestige. However, these days, his main function was to chair meetings of the Floor committee and monitor the Floor clerk. If he wanted more power, he had to seize it himself, as Derek Hoogland did in Thomas Erskine Chambers.

Hoogland was a barrister in South Africa before migrating to Australia twenty years ago, for reasons never disclosed. After joining the Sydney Bar, he swiftly rose to become one of the top five commercial barristers in the country. When he became our Head of Chambers, six years ago, he could have easily accepted the honour without shouldering much responsibility. But that was not his way. He had to control every organisation he belonged to, even a pissy little Floor like ours. Soon, he had the Floor committee under his thumb and the staff answering directly to him. He obviously wanted to lead the Floor to a bigger, brighter future that was locked away in his mind.

Nobody opposed his power grab because nobody cared. As long as the lights came on, phone calls were answered and mail was delivered, everybody else on the Floor was happy. If Hoogland wanted to knock himself out running the show, without pay, he was welcome to do so.

Of course, there was a real danger that he would misinterpret the acquiescence of his colleagues as a carte blanche and overstep the mark. If he did, they would push back hard. An old barrister once told me that a barristers' floor should never give the title of Head of Chambers to someone who wanted it. That always ended in tears. I sensed that Hoogland would prove him right.

Every Friday evening, Hoogland hosted a drinks party for Floor members in his room. One measure of a barrister's status is square-meterage. His room was about twice the size of most. Glass-fronted bookcases stuffed with law reports lined three sides. The fourth side had a long window overlooking Philip Street. At one end, delicate French chairs faced a partner's desk; at the other, a chaise longue sat between two standing clocks. It was all antique reproduction furniture that arrived on the same truck. None was chipped or scratched. There was no sense of evolving taste or personal whim.

As I entered, the grey woven carpet caressed the soles of my shoes. I'd heard a rumour that Hoogland made the cleaners vacuum it all in one direction. I had no reason to doubt that.

About half the barristers on the Floor were present, chatting in small groups, according to their specialities. Hoogland stood in a corner with several barristers. He was tall and spindly, with a gaunt face that would frighten flies. Ill-hidden menace seemed to leak from his pores. His pinstripe Bar trousers belonged to a by-gone era.

He spent his life shuttling in a late-model Mercedes between his mansion in the Eastern Suburbs and Thomas Erskine Chambers, except when he jetted off overseas on a five-star holiday. Most of his clients were big corporations that wanted to get out of a bad contract or sidestep inconvenient legislation. Well-coiffed men with clean fingernails and sharp suits regularly trooped into his room for advice. When he went to court, he explained to judges why the natural and ordinary meaning of a contract or statute was not, in fact, its natural and ordinary meaning. The real one was hidden from view. Indeed, it could only be found after consulting a pile of ancient judgments and applying a host of Latin maxims. He rarely had to cross-examine witnesses and, when he did, sounded like he was conducting a market survey. Wayne Newhouse called the commercial barristers on the Floor "Nancy boys who fight over money." He was right.

My only serious chat with Hoogland was at the Floor's most recent Christmas party when chance threw us together. When I mentioned that I did criminal defence work, he looked like he wanted to send me around to the tradesman's entrance. He explained that, during his early years at the Bar in "Sith Afrika", he represented a few "bleeks" accused of serious crimes. "They were all convicted, I'm afraid, and got long sentences. I decided that criminal work was not my forte." I bet many of his clients, rotting in prison, came to a similar conclusion.

While we talked, he kept looking over my shoulder for someone worthier of his attention. I tried to chat about rugby and discovered he was the only white South African I had ever met not interested in the sport. He probed to see if I was a wine buff and drew a blank. Then his bull-necked wife charged up and dragged him away to meet someone else.

The booze and snacks now lay on his desk. I poured a glass of white, grabbed a handful of chips and shuffled over to the fringe of the group around him. Most were barristers to whom he farmed out work. His patronage allowed them to pay off huge mortgages and cover expensive school fees. I sometimes dreamed of enjoying his favour and earning $5,000 a day, plus GST. However, I would need to know something about commercial law, beyond what I remembered from law school, and laugh at his jokes, if I detected them.

Hoogland held up his glass. "You know, this wine reminds me of a lovely drop I had last year, driving through Alsace. I stopped at a tiny winery and knocked on the door of a tiny farmhouse …"

I listened with a quarter-ear as he described an obscure winery that produced liquid gold. Everyone else listened spellbound and caressed him with laughter that was almost erotic. Then a close confederate told a pointless tale about skiing in Zermatt the previous winter and almost being buried under an avalanche.

The conversation drifted for a while until Hoogland asked if everyone was happy with the performance of the receptionist. When met with blank stares, he complained that she frequently lost his calls and was rude to clients.

Hoogland had already chased a couple of staff off the Floor. Was he starting a new campaign? Tania seemed quite competent. Solicitors usually complain if a receptionist doesn't treat them like royalty. None of mine had complained about her.

I tried to bite my tongue, without success. "Actually, several of my solicitors have commented on how pleasant she is." That was stretching the truth, but someone had to speak up for the defendant.

Hoogland's glare slipped between several bodies and punched me on the nose. "I don't think that's the common experience. Your solicitors are probably easy to impress."

I considered defending my instructing solicitors - many of whom were had to distinguish from their criminal clients - and couldn't be bothered. "Well, I think she's fine."

"That's just your opinion."

Not being among friends and not wanting a fight, I shrugged and drifted back to the desk where I scooped up more chips. I joined a couple of criminal defence barristers chatting in the middle of the room. Geoff Hoskins was extremely tall and Felix Slater extremely fat. They looked like a comedy duo. Geoff was describing how he recently represented a client so stupid that, after robbing a liquor store, he forgot to take off his ski-mask. He drove through three suburbs before a cop in a parked patrol car spotted the mask and arrested him.

Geoff said: "When he claimed he was innocent, I asked him why he was driving in a mask. He said he was going to a fancy-dress party. I said people don't usually wear ski-masks to fancy-dress parties. He said he was pretending to be a robber. I said: 'I'll pay you that one. But why was there a bag of cash on the seat next to you?' He couldn't answer that question."

Felix said: "He pleaded guilty?"

"Yes, thank God. Got four on the top and three on the bottom."

"Well, if crooks were smart, we'd be out of business."

"Very true."

Felix described how, the day before, a prosecutor annoyed one of his alibi witnesses so much that she rose to her feet and refused to answer any more questions. "Then she walked straight out of the courtroom. The Court Officer chased her outside and demanded that she return, but she refused."

I said: "You're kidding? What did the judge do?"

"Fortunately, he aborted the trial. Now we'll have to find the stupid woman and subpoena her to appear."

The Bar Association had just announced the names of that year's crop of new silk. We discussed the 20 names and, following an age-old tradition, poo-pooed the quality of most. Indeed, we were forced to conclude it was a non-vintage year.

Felix said: "The only decent one is Ben Kennedy."

Geoff said: "Son of Alex Kennedy?"

"Yes, but definitely got appointed on merit. I've appeared against him in a couple of personal injuries matters. Always well ahead of the game."

"Wasn't he junior counsel to Terry Riley a few years ago, when Riley was murdered?"

"Yes, and he fingered the culprit. If he hadn't caused so much trouble, he would have got silk earlier."

We started gossiping about other barristers. Stories I'd heard several months or years ago came back around wearing new clothes.

My wine glass was empty and I wandered back to the desk. I was filling it up when someone said: "Hi."

I turned and saw a woman in her early thirties with hair pulled back to expose a broad, expressive face lightly dusted with makeup. She wore a plain white blouse and grey skirt. Was she visiting from another floor?

"Hi," I said warily.

"You're Brad Norton, right?"

I smiled. "You're not a process server, are you?"

She laughed. "Don't worry, I'm the new reader on the Floor."

All barristers had to spend their first year "reading" with an experienced junior barrister. Most floors gave free, if pokey, accommodation to one or two of them. Our clerk must have sent around an e-mail announcing this woman was the new reader, and I didn't open it. "Oh, then you're umm … sorry, I've forgotten your name."

"Helen Lawson."

Dick Lawson was our Head of Chambers when I arrived on the floor. Soon afterward, he was appointed President of the Court of Appeal. I mentally photo-shopped his face, to remove his sour expression, and saw a strong family resemblance. "Oh, any relation?"

"Yes, daughter."

The Bar often resembles a medieval guild into which parents introduce their children. They use their contacts to get them onto the right floors and obtain them work. Then, in the fullness of time, if they have enough muscle, they secure them silk and an appointment to the bench.

Dick Lawson obviously pulled strings to get his daughter onto our Floor and would pull plenty more to promote her career. Unless she had some deep mental abnormality - of which there was no sign - she'd go far.

I said: "Who's your tutor?"

"Frank Jeter."

Frank was a gangly guy with a big commercial practice whom I barely knew. "Let me take a shot in the dark: a friend of your father?"

A slight blush. "He was often Dad's junior."

And so it goes. "Is he feeding you work?"

"Some. I've also got some from other barristers on the Floor. I'm surprised at how busy I am."

I wasn't. Many of the barristers on the Floor were heavily indebted to her father. "What sort of work do you do?"

"Mostly commercial stuff, and some probate."

"No crime?"

"Zero. In fact, that's what I want to talk to you about. I've got to spend 10 days reading with a criminal law barrister. I asked Wayne Newhouse if I could read with him, but he refused and gave me your name."

The Bar Association would not give her a full practising certificate unless she spent ten days toddling around after a criminal law barrister. I said: "Why did Wayne refuse?"

"He said he's not a good role model."

I laughed. "That's very true."

"Really?"

"Yes, he's one of the bad boys of the Bar. He'd teach you stunts you should not try in court. So, he gave you my name?"

"Yes. Said you're a very promising young barrister."

"Hah. He was pulling your leg."

"Maybe. But can I spend some time with you?"

It would be churlish to refuse. "Sure, no problem. However, I'm not in court for a few weeks - just got lots of conferences with clients, and you won't enjoy them."

"OK. But when you do have a trial, you'll let me know?"

"Of course."

"Thanks."

She glanced at her watch and said she had a dinner to attend. As she wandered off, I looked around and decided to start my weekend as well.




CHAPTER EIGHT


On Monday morning, I stepped out of a lift into the reception area of Thomas Erskine Chambers. Derek Hoogland, elbows on the counter, was talking to our receptionist, Tania Carmichael. That was not unusual. He was responsible for Floor administration and often had to talk to her. However, he disparaged her on Friday evening and now spoke to her in a low Afrikaans growl. "…You do that and you will regret it…"

She looked upset and Hoogland sensed my presence. He spun around and gave me a hawkish stare, tinged with guilt. "Ah, umm, good morning Ben." He glanced back at Tania. "I'll speak to you later."

He dashed off and I saw Tania was close to tears. "You alright?"

She stiffened her features. "Yes, yes, I'm fine."

"You sure?"

"Yes, of course."

"What was that about?"

"Oh, nothing - nothing."

It was obvious from Hoogland's comments on Friday evening and his behaviour just then that he was gunning for Tania. Maybe he had good reason and maybe, if I interfered, I would make the situation worse. Anyway, I couldn't roast Tania over a fire until she told me why Hoogland had upset her. That was how I rationalized my decision to do nothing.

I said: "OK, well, if you want to talk, come and see me."

"I'm fine."

I slunk off to my room and slung my backpack on a chair. Then I stood at the window, staring down at Phillip Street, watching lawyers and their clients hurry back and forth through the legal canyon. The local madman was wandering up and down in front of the Supreme Court tower, wearing a sandwich board that accused judges of corruption and various abominable crimes often levelled at Catholic priests. Every so often, he screamed something incoherent. Only the expletives stood out and hung in the air.

I wondered why Hoogland was upset with Tania. Was she incompetent as he claimed? Or did the nasty bastard have another agenda? Well, the whole affair wasn't my problem. I wasn't responsible for the administration of the Floor and I had plenty of other problems to deal with.

I'd just sat at my desk when the Floor clerk, Jeff Holland, stuck his head through the doorway, with several red folders under his arm. "Ben, have you got a moment?"

"Sure."

Jeff was a tall, thin man who inhabited a glass-walled cubby-hole near the lifts. He kept 30 massive egos happy with smooth diplomacy. Everyone thought he was Jeff's favourite. "It's about the Floor renovations."

Hoogland and the Floor committee he ruled with an iron fist wanted to renovate the Floor during the Christmas break. However, a majority of the Floor had to vote in favour before the renovations could go ahead. No vote had been held.

I said: "What about them?"

"I'm giving everyone a folder with the plans and some quotes from builders. Mr Hoogland wants to hold a Floor meeting this Friday evening to vote on them."

He handed me a red folder and my heart sank. I had hoped the idea would fizzle out. I should have known better. "OK, thanks."

"Alright. Any questions let me know."

As he turned to leave, I said: "Before you go, is our receptionist in trouble over something?"

He looked surprised and maybe suspicious. "Tania? No, why?"


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