The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2007 Results

An Uncommon Plea

Copyright © Ross Duffy

The arraignment of Mervyn Merkl in No. 1 Criminal Court was pivotal to the career of recent appointee Justice Herman Halbert. The young Judge was on a crusade: first, to fathom the machinations of the criminal mind; and second, to persuade sinners to don the jacket of redemption. But during his formative years doting parents had shielded him from life’s harsh realities, so he was ill prepared for his mission. And a career in the commercial sector of the Crown Law Department had cocooned him from the human maelstrom of criminal characters.

With his mop of fair curls, lightly freckled face and piercing blue eyes, Merkl was ruggedly handsome. And his hearty grins revealed teeth of special whiteness. On appearances, no one would suspect the thirty-three-year-old was a multi-felon though the Judge was slowly learning how difficult it was to distinguish hardened criminals from law-abiding citizens.

Merkl's prior convictions had led to many sojourns in Her Majesty's prisons. His latest batch of offences had deprived twenty elderly retirees of their life savings. His professed aim was to re-start an abandoned rock quarry in the country. There was, he had eloquently pledged, an insatiable demand for gravel and the investors were ‘bloody lucky to be getting in on the ground floor.’ Alas, as with Merkl's previous ventures, this one also failed to get airborne.

The Judge peered anxiously at the prisoner. "Mr Merkl," he asked, "haven't you a barrister to make submissions on penalty?"

"No, Your Honour," Merkl beamed. "Can't afford a legal mouthpiece. And I'm not eligible for legal aid - too many priors."

"But I need a lot of information about what led to these disgraceful offences. And surely there must be some mitigating factors?"

"Not really Judge. I reckon it's a simple case of 'I did the crime, I serve the time'."

"But that won't do," the Judge snapped, clearly startled by this perverse approach. "I can’t dispense justice unless I know everything about these offences and about your background. So let's deal with this quarry first. I assume you went up to inspect it before raising the funds?"

"Afraid not, Judge. Look, it was a long drive. And I'm not keen on planes - get a bit claustrophobic. But I saw a photo of the place, taken when it operated about twenty years ago."

"Never even went there! Mr Merkl, that makes it much worse. Well, with all the funds you extracted from these investors, surely you and your partner in crime bought machinery for the project?"

"Nope. Never got around to it. You see, Judge, the simple truth is we ran out of money. A pity, really, because I reckon that quarry could have been a real goer."

Mutterings from the white-haired group in the body of the court attracted the Judge's attention, leading him to ask, "Prisoner, what do you have to say about restitution for these elderly victims? It's a most important factor in sentencing."

"Sorry, Judge. I've no assets. Not a bean. Give me a big debit mark on that one."

The Judge's face reddened. After all, I'm trying to help the stupid man. The criminal bar - aware of his judicial crusade - would have understood his frustration. Though his inquisitorial approach to sentencing delayed other pleas, the waiting barristers were remarkably tolerant. The man's heart is in the right place. They were confident their sobriquet of "Reverend Herman" would have caused him no offence.

"Well, what happened to all the investors' funds? - and remember we're talking about a lot of money."

"Your Honour, the answer’s simple: me and my mate Harry needed a holiday after our last stretch in clink. So Harry trotted off to Las Vegas - hasn't had the decency to come back yet. I only managed a month at Hayman Island before the coppers nabbed me. Of course Trixy - that's my latest girl friend - wouldn't trust me among all the bikinis so she came too. Jeez, does she have expensive tastes! Champagne and caviar. And, of course, she demanded the honeymoon suite. Judge, I'm really disappointed, because I reckoned there'd be some money left. But - not a brass razoo."

Ominous shuffling and rumbling again emanated from the elderly brigade. The court orderly had to issue a stern warning.

"Prisoner, this talk about holidays is preposterous. You'd only been out of gaol four months. You're totally immoral."

"Hold on, Judge, that's unfair. To start with, you don't get holidays in clink. And as to the immorality bit, well, the prison authorities once had a psychiatrist check me over. He reported I wasn't immoral at all, just amoral - didn't have any standards. Said it was something inherited, like in the genes. That shrink felt really sorry for me."

One of the frail old ladies had been vigorously screwing up her felt hat. Now she clenched its green and yellow feather between her teeth before, finally, exploding: "Amoral ... Holidays. All immoral bullshit!" She pulled out her dentures and was about to hurl them at the prisoner until a burly policeman wrapped long arms around her and restrained her.

When calm was again restored, the Judge gritted his teeth in his struggle to master his anger. Then, turning once more to the prisoner, he rasped, slowly and deliberately, "I suppose you’re going to peddle the poor me story - deprived childhood; drunken father who bashed your mother and ran off with other women; inadequate emotional bonding. Is that what you want me to believe Merkl?"

"Oh no, Your Honour! Nothing like that. Magnificent parents. Generous and loving. Dad's the perfect company secretary, loyal and true. Mum's a devoted librarian. So, don’t you blame them for my evil ways. Besides, my brothers and sisters are outstanding citizens. No, Judge, just accept I'm the black sheep of a wonderful family."

"Well ... were you perhaps a victim of child sexual abuse - uncle, cousin, music teacher, priest, scout master?"

"Certainly not!"

"Bullied at school?"


"Deprived of breast feeding or normal parental nurturing?"


"Learning difficulties?"

"None. Went right through high school. A piece of cake."

"Any major health problems?"

"No, sir. Fit as a mallee bull."

By now the Judge could feel the heat from his scarlet face. His grip almost crushed his fountain pen. "Prisoner, I find this most disturbing. For the last time - what do you wish to say on the question of penalty? And, I warn you, my patience is wearing thin."

"Oh, don't distress yourself Judge. You're doing a terrific job. Frankly, you'd have to say the crime was pretty brazen. Those poor old codgers did their savings cold. 'Heartless conduct' is a fair description. And to make it worse, I've done the same sort of thing a couple of times before."

Herman Halbert snatched his glass, causing water to slop over his notes. He tried desperately to recall the chapter on yoga breathing. Finally, he scanned the public gallery, where his wife Myrtle occasionally sat to encourage him. This time the usual smile was absent, the eyes downcast.

"Well, I've never known a prisoner to be so ... so honest. In an odd way, that's quite refreshing. I suppose I could allow you some credit for that."

"Hell no, Judge! I'm not entitled to any credit. I just didn't want to waste the Court’s time by feeding you a load of bullshit."

The Judge reached under his wig to scratch the back of his head. It was surprisingly wet. "Well, perhaps we could consider a rehabilitation program. After all, you're still a young man … "

The suggestion seemed to rattle Merkl. He looked around the court, as though seeking inspiration. "Look, Your Honour," he pleaded finally, voice quavering, "that's very touching, very kind. But, frankly, it's all a waste of time. Other judges have tried that stuff - but none of it worked. You've gotta face the truth: I'm a rotten egg, quite beyond redemption, as they say. So, save your rehabilitation stuff for those who might benefit from it."

The Judge inhaled deeply. "Perhaps some counselling?" he sighed.

"No thanks."

"Religious instruction?"

"Nup. Besides, I've already told you, I'm amoral."

"Release on probation, with strict conditions as to employment, place of residence and supervision?"

"No thanks. Besides, showing me that generosity wouldn’t be fair to other prisoners."

"Well, any suggestions?"

"Look Judge, I've already admitted it was a nasty crime - not a single redeeming feature. I reckon you're obliged to hand me a hefty serve in the slammer."

"That's enough, Merkl! You won't get away this easily. I'm sending you off for intensive psychiatric examinations, followed by detailed reports. If you're found to be sane, I can guarantee you that lengthy sentence. You are remanded in custody until ... "

Two male members of the geriatric congregation had struggled to their feet, each grasping the other for support. Then, pointing shaking fingers at the prisoner, they began to shout, "Hang him!" "Flog him!" As the Judge raised an arm to restore order a third figure slowly rose. Hand trembling, he produced his Luger, a wartime relic, and aimed at the prisoner. The first shot shattered plaster on the wall beside his head, the second blasted a massive hole in the timber of the dock. Merkl ducked for cover, shouting, "Jeez, it wasn't a bloody capital offence!"

Court officers overpowered the snowy-headed, would-be assassin and dragged him from the courtroom. "Arrogant Nazi!" he screamed. "Thief!" "Little Hitler!" Meanwhile Merkl scuttled downstairs to the safety of the cells.

Long after Justice Herman Halbert had cleared his courtroom, the smell of gunpowder hung in the air.

Next day the local newspaper featured the following front-page story:


Yesterday highly decorated Spitfire pilot, Howard Crompton aged eighty-four, was arrested after firing shots from a Luger pistol in No. 1 Criminal Court. His target, Mervyn Merkel, had pleaded guilty to numerous fraud offences. Crompton was one of his victims.

Then last night the presiding Judge, esteemed reformist Herman Halbert, was involved in a series of bizarre incidents. During a rare evening visit to his Club he imbibed heavily, had several altercations with other members and was finally ejected.

What followed can only be described as 'a pub crawl.' At each establishment the Judge addressed patrons as 'Nazis,’ 'ingrates' or 'amoral thieves.' He was forcibly removed from each hotel.

Just before midnight, the Judge smashed his Volvo into the gates of the Remand Centre where Merkl is held before shouting, incessantly, "Death to Merkl."

Charges of wilful damage, refusing a breathalyser test and assaulting police have been laid.

The Judge is now undergoing treatment and assessment in a psychiatric hospital. We understand Mrs Halbert is also being heavily sedated.