The Incumbent: Chapter 26

It's an intricate web of murder plots, government conspiracies and rampant tanning. Oh, and the future of the entire nation.

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.

Buffet was starting to doubt Parsons' ability more than ever. Until now, not being able to deliver on a promise hadn't been a problem. He was, after all, a consultant and the purpose of hiring a consultant was to spend a lot of money producing a thick report to table at board meetings and to mutter those words 'due diligence' that company directors loved to hear.

The plan to kill Damien Woodburner was the first time the consultant had been asked to actually finish something, yet all he seemed to be getting were presentations on how it would be done. As far as he was concerned the least he knew the better. Rather he needed the task carried out quickly, with nothing that could incriminate him down the track. In that regard, a project name, frequent emails and scheduled appointments, plus numerous hard copies of slide presentations, were far from making this a covert operation.

And there was a sense of urgency that Parsons had failed to grasp. Buffet knew that Woodburner was building up evidence to have him forced out of the organisation. The pressure was on, but Parsons wasn't feeling it. Hence, Buffet was quickly coming to the realisation that he had chosen the wrong man, but not knowing who else to turn to, he decided to give Parsons one last go. Perhaps the involvement of Spicer the Slicer, colourful underworld identity and corporate motivational speaker, would help him get the job over the line.

Unfortunately, for Buffet, Parsons was having the same doubts about his own ability to carry it off. Could he be as cold and calculating as the project demanded? Could he really kill someone? His only hope lay in his new identity. He reassured himself that The Tan would do anything for money. So long as he held on to this persona, he could cut himself off from the terrible atrocity he was about to commit.

'Hello Parsons,' said Grugelberg from accounts, as The Tan stepped into the lift for another meeting with Buffet. Such instant recognition wasn't helping. The short, grey accountant had seen Parsons dropped off outside and walked just a few paces behind him across the foyer. He was curious about the skin problem, but decided to keep quiet about it.

The Tan, annoyed about being recognised, said nothing. Today he was the strong silent type. Assassins always were. They were loners, misfits — people seeking revenge on a society that had treated them cruelly. They lived their lives in an impenetrable vault of despair. The Tan didn't know that for sure, of course, but it seemed likely.

'Come in, Parsons,' said Buffet when The Tan appeared, unannounced, at his office door. 'Bugger it,' thought Parsons, The Tan's identity quickly slipping away.

The chief executive looked into his outer office to see if Spicer was with him. No, he was on his own. Parsons had decided that he needed to act independently, to see if he could stay in character the entire day. Then, perhaps tonight, he could carry out the deed.

'Take a seat,' said Buffet, pushing a plate of biscuits to the edge of his desk.

The Tan said nothing. Instead he stood in the doorway for a good minute or so. He didn't like being told what to do unless, of course, he was being told to kill someone. Parsons, though, was eyeing the biscuits. They were cream caramels, his favourite.

Buffet looked at him strangely. Why was he standing in the doorway for so long? 'Pins and needles?' he asked.

'I prefer to stand,' said The Tan, but only after leaving a suitable pause for effect. Spicer had passed on to him the importance of timing.

'Suit yourself,' said Buffet, finding the whole encounter a little strange. He took a biscuit for himself.

'So how are the wife and the kids?' he asked, trying to lighten the mood.

The Tan waited a few seconds before he answered.

'Dead,' he said dryly.

Buffet was shocked. No wonder the poor chap seemed out of sorts. This news was devastating but, he quickly suspected, not entirely accurate.

'Dead?' he questioned. 'How can that be?'

There was a pause. 'Murdered,' said The Tan.

This time it was Buffet's turn to say nothing, but only for a second or two as he finished off his cream caramel.

'I'd heard nothing,' he said, swallowing the last mouthful.

He choked a little on the last word because he was finding his vocabulary a little offensive.

The Tan tried a slightly longer pause before saying anything, but it didn't work. When he started to speak, Buffet was talking again and they ended up speaking over each other. He made a note to himself not to leave such a long pause next time.

'When did this happen?'

'Yesterday,' said The Tan, when the question had scarcely finished. 'Shit!' Parsons thought to himself. 'That time I didn't leave any pause at all!'

'But Grugelberg from accounts called me to tell me you were on your way up. He said your wife dropped you off.'

The Tan moved a few steps forward. He'd been sprung. Bloody Grugelberg. He wasn't quite sure how he was going to get out of this one, but it was important he stayed in character.

'That wasn't my wife,' said The Tan boldly. 'That was my bitch.' He choked a little on the last word because he was finding his vocabulary a little offensive. It was no way to refer to a lady, but he thought it was necessary for the character.

Buffet said nothing, but was getting more and more confused.

The Tan walked to the window and looked across the city skyline as he lit up a cigarette and blew a ring of smoke into the air. He had been up all night practising it. This was the first time he hadn't broken into a coughing fit. That pleased him.

'What are you doing Parsons?' said Buffet, a little angry. 'This is a no smoking building!'

The Tan said nothing. He didn't play by the rules. Instead he stared silently into the distance, giving Parsons time to evaluate his own performance. It was going well, he decided. He was turning into a killer. Somewhat prematurely he wondered whether, as a long-term career move, the money could be better than management consultancy. He suspected it was unlikely, but it was certainly worth looking into.

This silence had gone on long enough. Buffet wanted Woodburner killed, but he had no time for all these charades. And if Parsons wasn't the man for the job he wanted to get him onto something else, like looking at customer service queues — how to make them longer — whilst he found someone who would kill Woodburner.

'Look,' he said, somewhat agitated, 'I don't know what you are on about, but I don't believe your wife is dead.'

'I killed her,' The Tan repeated sternly.

'What, after she dropped you off?' said Buffet.

'Maybe,' said The Tan, his voice starting to lose its commanding air. It was now more Parsons than The Tan.

'But you said she died yesterday.'

'So, I lied. I kill and I lie. And look,' he picked his nose and ate it.

'That's revolting!'

Parsons almost apologised, but remembered that The Tan would never say sorry.

'So you killed her and left her in the car?' said Buffet, wanting to get over the whole ridiculous conversation.

'Yes,' said The Tan, now really just Parsons, but with a skin condition. He took another drag from his cigarette and choked a little, before blowing another tiny cloud of smoke against the window pane. The smoke bounced back in his face making him choke a little harder.

'You've left her there, dead, in the car?'

'Yes, why not?' asked Parsons, wondering why the CEO was having difficulty grasping that a hired assassin would kill his own wife. They'd probably had some domestic and he'd lost control and finished her off there and then. Then he'd got out the car and left the body where it was, in the driver's seat.

'You just left the car,' questioned Buffet again. 'On a clearway.'

And if Parsons wasn't the man for the job he wanted to get him onto something else, like looking at customer service queues — how to make them longer

Parsons had forgotten it was a clearway at that time in the morning. He had to admit, his story was sounding less and less convincing. In fact, it was a transit lane. It would be difficult to kill anyone there — you barely had time to pick your brief case off the back seat before there was a tirade of horns from impatient motorists.

'Parsons,' said Buffet, 'I have no idea what you are talking about — and please stop smoking in the office.'

'Oh, sorry, I forgot it was no smoking,' said Parsons, the last vestiges of The Tan having fled completely. 'Fuck it,' he said, thinking it was just to himself.

'And mind your language!' said Buffet.

'Oh sorry,' Parsons said again, now grovelling a bit.

Buffet was confused by the consultant's behaviour, but he had little time to ponder on it because, at that moment, their attention was taken by the sudden appearance of a Black Hawk helicopter that had emerged from beneath the huge office window.

'What the...' Parsons wanted to say 'fuck' but he couldn't bring himself to it. The Tan would have said it.

'Training exercise?' suggested Buffet, a little concerned. He'd never seen military aircraft in the area before.

'Well, it seems to be taking a peculiar interest in us,' said Parsons. The helicopter had moved closer to the building. They could see at least three men on board, all dressed in dark jackets, with the same chiselled facial features and their standard regulation crash helmets hiding the similarity of their crew cut hairstyles. They were each so much alike it was as though they had been genetically engineered for the job. And they were all staring at Parsons and Buffet.

'What the hell is going on?' said Buffet, his voice now drowned out by the sound of the chopper blades. One of the clones disappeared momentarily from view, then re-emerged from the back of the craft clutching a large black zip-up canvas bag. He quickly removed the contents and pointed it towards the office window.

'Shit,' screamed Buffet, 'it's a rocket launcher!'

'A ZX240-G,' said Parsons, who had no knowledge of military equipment whatsoever, but the helicopter was now so close he could read the model number printed on the side of the tube.

Buffet was going to respond with words to the effect of 'he didn't give a flying fuck what it was' when, in what seemed like extreme slow motion, the two men watched a rocket glide briefly through the air, shatter the large plate glass window and continue the last few feet towards them. In this time, showing extraordinary agility that had never been evident in his life to that point, Parsons had managed to dive for cover under the desk. Buffet, who never did anything quickly, just in case it was the wrong thing to do, was left to feel the full force of the missile.

Neither man wanted to die. Buffet had an excellent pension plan that would go to waste. Parsons didn't want to go either. It was the end of the month and he hadn't invoiced anyone yet. God knows how many hours of work would remain unbilled if he was to go now. But death seemed imminent, with a ZX240-G now fractions of a second away from relinquishing its full might on them.

Perhaps Parsons could bring himself to say 'fuck' after all.

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.

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