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.
When Buffet saw Parsons walk into his office he hardly recognised him. For a start he was orange. Not just the orange of an English daytime TV chat show host, he was the colour of a citrus fruit and it stretched to every inch of his visible body. Even his nails were orange. They strangely blended into his fingers.
'The underworld is all about identity,' Spicer the Slicer had told him the night before. Ideally, he would have enlisted Parsons on a six-week intensive drama course, where he could be fully trained in character development, but he knew time was of the essence.
'You need to become someone you're not,' he'd said. He believed only then could someone adapt to life as a ruthless killer. You had to assume a persona that had no scruples and would do anything for money. It hadn't occurred to Spicer that, as a management consultant, Parsons was pretty much doing that already.
As a baby he had wriggled so much through his circumcision that the Mohel declared that he was allergic to the idea of being Jewish and decided to just cut his fingernails instead.
Spicer argued that you needed to ensure that the two personalities were very different, so you could easily detach yourself from the ruthless side of your life. Only then, he suggested, could you live with yourself. It's a technique he had seen used to great effect by people who worked in the tax office, for example. And the use of a prop of some kind helped in creating this new identity.
'Steel-legged Eddie, what do you remember about him?' Spicer had asked
'Steel leg,' offered Parsons immediately.
Spicer explained that outside his regular hours of crime, he'd take off his steel leg and replaced it with a less remarkable health-care model that didn't fit too well.
'The steel leg was his point of difference,' Spicer explained.
Nobody considered that the healthcare-limbed Eddie could be a killer, even though there had been a spate of recent murders that had all taken place in buildings with excellent disabled access.
Spicer had suggested a similar approach for Parsons, although both agreed it was a bit extreme to remove a leg.
'At least initially,' said Spicer.
'What do you mean initially? There's no way I'm having a leg taken off, ever.'
'Well maybe a hand,' suggested Spicer. 'You've got to distinguish yourself. You need a hook of some kind.'
'Well it's not going to be the kind you get at the end of your arm.'
Spicer didn't blame him. Personally, he hated the sight of blood. And the thought of someone sawing through bone repulsed him. In fact, the prospect of any form of surgery was too ghastly to contemplate. As a baby he had wriggled so much through his circumcision that the Mohel declared that he was allergic to the idea of being Jewish and decided to just cut his fingernails instead. Of course, Spicer's colleagues in the underworld were unaware of how squeamish he was. Most believed he was the meanest man who'd ever lived, although to put it in perspective, they'd never dealt with those people in the tax office.
'It's all about your personal brand,' Spicer had said, coming out with the sort of meaningless jargon that management consultants are all too familiar with. They'd been working through the night on the presentation they would be giving to Buffet and Parsons knew the VastTel chief loved trendy mumbo jumbo. If they could focus the meeting on reaching agreement on what sort of characteristics would form the personality of the new, underworld version of Parsons, they would buy enough time to consider how they were going to pursue the task at hand — the murder of Damien Woodburner.
In fact, the two men became so fixated with image, they forgot all about the killing. In part this was because they both doubted that they would really see it through. Parsons assumed, like with anything he did, circumstances would somehow change and the job would be cancelled.
'You're never going to be a rough diamond,' said Spicer, still working on Parson's underworld image. 'We can't make you look as though you're from the tough part of town. It just won't wash with anyone.'
It was true. Parsons wasn't even sure where the rough part of town was. He assumed it was anywhere with public transport.
'Instead,' suggested Spicer, 'we'll go for wealth. We will make you look fabulously rich.' His rationale was that people feared a successful underworld character. Most of them were after money, and would be in awe of anyone who was well-off, either through illegal means or from working in banking. Of course, not every underworld character was in it just for the money; some were in search of notoriety, hoping that their story would be turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in which they'd be played by Robert DeNiro or Jack Nicholson. Or William Shatner if it was a B-grade assassin.
Parsons liked the idea; a cosmopolitan murderer, a James Bond persona. It sounded sophisticated.
Many of these wannabes would blog about their exploits, hoping to be picked up by a screenwriter, but were usually picked up by the police. Their blogs always exaggerated reality — most hadn't gone as far as exceeding the speed limit by more than 15km per hour, yet on their websites they were mass murderers, responsible for an exhaustive list of unsolved crimes. They were charged accordingly, but refused to plead innocence for fear that it might wreck their (yet to be established) movie careers. Hence, prisons were filling up with innocent bloggers, often using solitary confinement to dream up even more horrendous crimes, described in excruciating detail on blogs that sadly, like most, were never read by anyone.
'I can do wealthy,' agreed Parsons, wondering how this new character would differ from his real self. He already was well moneyed, although considerably less experienced at showing it. The art of being a management consultant was to overcharge clients without extravagantly displaying the wealth that ensued. He drove a mid-range family car, avoided the absolute top end of Italian designer suits, and would always wear the cheapest Rolex in his collection. And he was always careful to ensure no one saw him when his private jet took off from Bankstown airport for the family holiday home in Bora Bora.
'Let's keep the wealthy look,' Spicer had suggested, 'but perhaps add a slight tan. So you look a little more international.'
Parsons liked the idea; a cosmopolitan murderer, a James Bond persona. It sounded sophisticated. That night he started applying the spray tan, but when it didn't have an immediate impact he sprayed on more, a different brand this time, and repeated the process until, eventually, he started to see a healthy glow. By then, of course, he was soaked deep in the various concoctions and his skin's melanin was in overdrive.
'I like it,' said Spicer, when Parsons stopped by to pick him up in a stretch limousine the next morning. 'I see you haven't taken the wealthy option I suggested. But I like it.'
Parsons looked upset. He had spent a lot of money on the sharply tailored pin stripe suit and hand-made deep-chestnut calf leather shoes, not to mention the thick, diamond-encrusted watch. He was a walking demonstration of how money doesn't necessarily equate with good taste.
'Yes. I love the skin disorder. No one will want to mess with you in case it's infectious,' Spicer said. 'Brilliant.'
'It's a tan,' explained Parsons.
'Well it looks infectious,' said Spicer, who thought for a few moments. 'But I like the name. That's what we'll call you,' he said. 'The Tan. You need a name.'
Parsons thought about it too. He could live with it. It did have the ring of an underworld heavyweight.
'Yes,' said Parsons, liking it the more he said the name over in his mind. 'No one is going to mess with The Tan!'
'No they won't! said Spicer, adding under his breath, 'or they might catch something.'
Despite their enthusiasm, the first try-out of his new identity had prompted a lacklustre response when he was introduced to Twistie Buffet's personal assistant.
'Hello. I'm The Tan,' he said, with a white moustache and sunglasses reinforcing his new look.
'Yes,' said the PA matter of factly, before calling through to the VastTel CEO. 'Jeremy Parsons is here to see you Mr Buffet.'
'Damn,' thought Parsons. 'Am I really that identifiable.'
'He's got Mr Spicer with him,' she continued.
'What?' said Parsons. How the hell did Buffet know Spicer the Slicer?
The PA looked up and gave him one of those dismissive glances that only women can. She sighed too, as if talking had all of a sudden become too hard to bother with.
'He spoke at our last quarterly management meeting on Hamilton Island,' she explained eventually.
'Yes,' Spicer interjected, before admitting, 'I do a bit of motivational speaking on the side.'
'Ten Golden Rules to Make You a Better Manager,' said the PA.
'The whole underworld thing doesn't always pay as well as you'd imagine,' explained Spicer, a little sheepishly.
'I risked my life walking into the most notoriously rough drinking hole in Sydney and I walk out with a motivational speaker,' thought Parsons, but he didn't say anything. The Tan, he had decided, was a man of few words.
They were motioned into Buffet's office. Buffet was genuinely pleased to see Spicer and greeted him with a firm handshake.
'Great presentation on Hamilton Island,' he said. 'We're still talking about it here.'
'Thank you,' said Spicer.
'"Five Easy Ways to Improve the Bottom Line," wasn't it?' asked Buffet.
'That's right,' said Spicer, who couldn't actually remember. He tended to steal his talks from the internet, or out of those management text books that everyone has but no one takes the time to read. Spicer would read them, though, and repeat them parrot fashion, in his talks, paying little attention to what he was actually saying.
'You certainly got our attention with that opening line,' smiled Buffet, looking enthusiastically at him. 'What was it again?' he said, prompting himself. 'I remember. You said "Hello I'm Jack Welch."' He laughed out loud. 'Brilliant.'
'Thank you,' said Spicer, who did a lot of talks at off-sites. It gave him a few nights away from the family and, though he wouldn't make a lot of money from the presentation itself, he made a motza selling hard drugs to the senior management team.
'And all those references to your part at General Electric. For a while there we thought we were listening to the Jack Welch.'
'Yes,' said Spicer, who didn't know who Jack Welch was, but made a mental note never to use any of his speeches again.
'Someone pointed out to me later that Welch now uses your speech himself sometimes. Amazing.'
There was no sarcasm in Buffet's voice. He really was that gullible. Some would say stupid. In fact, most people.
'So tell me,' asked Spicer, 'did it have any impact? Did it change anything?'
Buffet looked a bit uneasy at such a direct question. He hated the 'change' word and it was rarely used within the building. 'Well, it's still early days,' he muttered, keen to change the subject, motioning the two men to sit down in front of his large mahogany desk.
Buffet continued to talk up how mobile phones were actually good for you, and how electromagnetic energy created convulsions that actually stimulated your brain.
Buffet reclined slightly, then swivelled a little to the right. Then he leant over to the left, making the armrest give a little to accommodate his weight, whilst the chair rolled slightly away from the desk to enable the foot rest to rise up in front of him. He loved showing off the advanced manoeuvrability of a Grade 1 executive chair.
'And who is this man with you?' he asked eventually. He vaguely recognised Parsons, but didn't really equate this spivved up orange creature with the pale consultant he'd met with so many times before.
'This man I think you know,' suggested Spicer, looking over to Parsons. 'He's known in the underworld as The Tan.'
'Yes,' said Parsons, the one word giving him away.
'Oh my goodness,' said Buffet, trying hard not to laugh. 'It's Parsons. My man, you don't look at all well.'
'I'm fine,' said Parsons, immediately reverting to his compliant self.
Buffet reached for the intercom to speak to his PA.
'Er miss...,' he paused for a second. 'Whatever your name is out there.'
'Yes,' sighed Natalie, his PA, annoyed that he still hadn't made the effort to remember her name, after 20 years in the role. He sometimes called her Rosie, who filled in for her the one day she was ill 12 years ago, but Buffet wasn't very good with people's sensibilities.
'Could you turn the air conditioning up in here? I think Parsons might be infectious.' He was half joking, but he was always very concerned about disease. If anything contagious was going round he would get it.
Immediately fresh cool air blasted across the room and a blob of spray tan, that had been hiding behind Parson's right ear, started to travel across his face, trailing a deeper shade of orange in a straight line underneath his nose.
'We're calling Parsons The Tan from now on,' explained Spicer, 'to protect his identity.'
'Okay, you're the experts,' said Buffet. 'But he's glowing like someone living too close to one of our mobile phone towers.' He laughed out loud, then paused before adding a disclaimer, delivered rapidly in a soft whisper, 'although there is no evidence of any connection between exposure to VastTel mobile phones and a higher incidence of cancer and brain tumours.'
'Of course not,' said Parsons, wondering whether his headache of the last two years might have something to do with the tower at the end of his garden. He'd never made the connection before, and thought hard about it as Buffet continued to talk up how mobile phones were actually good for you, and how electromagnetic energy created convulsions that actually stimulated your brain.
'So there's every reason to believe you'll actually live longer, particularly those who are on our top-end plans,' said Buffet.
By now Parsons had opened his laptop computer and connected a lightweight video projector.
'This will just take a moment,' he explained, as he repeatedly pressed the F5 button hoping to project the computer screen contents onto the wall of Buffet's office. Nothing seemed to happen, so he tried the F6 key. Curiously the blinds in the office started to move down.
'That's impressive,' said Spicer. 'You control his blinds from your computer?'
Parsons tried to pretend it was deliberate as he continued to press the F5 key.
'Yes, but not as impressive as this,' said Buffet, who had been waiting for an opportunity to produce a PocketFriend 2080 from his trouser pocket. It was the successor to the PocketFriend 2050 and was expected to take the world by storm. To create excitement the manufacturers made only four, of which Buffet had one. The rarity value meant they could charge an extortionate amount of money for the product, until they released another 30 million into the market in four months time.
'Wow,' said Spicer, who loved gadgets. 'It's even thinner than the PocketFriend 2050.'
'And even more comfortable,' volunteered Buffet.
'It must give you a lot of freedom,' remarked Parsons.
'Yes,' agreed Buffet. 'I hardly even notice I'm wearing it.'
For some time they discussed how much easier life was with a PocketFriend 2080, even on Buffet's heaviest days, which were usually the days of the board lunch, midway through each month.
By the time discussion on the PocketFriend 2080 had reached its natural point of exhaustion, some hours later, Parsons was ready with the presentation. He hadn't seen the final version because Spicer had had one last go at it an hour before the meeting.
'Project Kajagoogoo,' said the title slide. They'd decided the band name was easier to remember than the banal lyrics they'd espoused. The letters were set against a blotchy orange background, colour matched to Parson's skin.
'See how I've carried the tan theme through,' said Spicer, excitedly. He seemed to have lost any last vestiges of his underworld pretence.
'I wasn't really expecting a presentation,' interrupted Buffet, hoping to stop what looked like it could be a lengthy slide show. 'I was hoping you'd just go out and kill him. You know, just get on with the job.' He hated detail, on anything.
Parsons wasn't quite sure how to respond. The concept of going about any job without first giving a presentation was alien to him. He always presented slides showing a variety of options and a recommended course of action. Or preferably a choice of four recommended courses of action, so the decision would rest with the client, who would delay choosing any of them for fear of being accountable for a wrong decision.
'Objectives,' said the first slide.
'Oh for Christ's sake,' said Buffet, now seriously losing his patience. Normally, when he wasn't too concerned about the outcome, he would sit through this sort of thing for hours. They helped to pass a little time. This time, however, he wanted to see results. Woodburner had to be killed.
'Obviously our prime objective is the discontinuance of Damien Woodburner as a life entity,' Parsons read from the screen.
'Meaning?' said an exasperated Twistie Buffet.
'We're going to kill the little shit,' said Spicer the Slicer, realising they needed to cut to the chase. He could sense the frustration.
'But we should also be cognizant of the impact of this discontinuance on the ecosystem of the VastTel family,' said Parsons, unable to help himself. Once he had switched into management consultant mode it was difficult to stop. 'And we need to examine how we can leverage this opportunity to embrace a shift in values that…'
Buffet had used up all his patience. He reached across his desk and pulled the power chord from the projector.
'Just tell me how the f**k you're going to kill him!' he screamed.
It was the angriest the men had ever seen him. Clearly Woodburner was really getting to him.
'Well, we don't know yet,' admitted Spicer. 'But there are options. We've looked into poisoning, shooting and being driven off the road.'
'No!' said Buffet. 'It needs to seem like an accident.' The CEO knew he'd be a suspect if it looked even remotely suspicious.
'I could beat the crap out of him,' volunteered Spicer, repeating something he'd heard in The Stank one night. 'Then cut him into pieces.'
'And how would that look like an accident?'
'Good point,' said Spicer, who didn't relish the prospect in any case. He'd prefer it to be a bloodless death. He paused for a moment and went through other options in his head.
'What about a hanging?' offered Parsons.
'Accidentally hanged?' said Buffet, wondering why he had ever left this project in the hands of a consultant.
'What about suffocated in the boot of a car?'
'Look,' said Buffet, 'are you sure you are right men for this job?'
'Of course,' replied Parsons, somewhat unconvincingly. When he was under pressure, which rarely happened, he would turn bright red. Today he just turned an even more fluorescent orange.
'You've got 24 hours,' Buffet yelled. 'Just go off and kill the prick.'
'I could bury him alive,' offered Spicer.
'Piss off,' said Buffet, opening the office door by pressing the Alt F4 keys on his PocketFriend 2080.
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.