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.
Twistie Buffet had been taunted through school for his poor hand-eye coordination. It was most evident when he was about 13 or 14. Being mocked at such a young age is bad enough, but he went to Elswiston Grammar, a private school in the northern suburbs where all the kids were particularly dorky. Being ridiculed at a state school by an overweight bully from a broken home is fair game, but when the bullies are the nerdish sons of accountants, with ill-fitting glasses and braced teeth — that was the ultimate humiliation.
'Buffet's got poor hand-eye coordination,' they'd sing rather literally, 'doo dah, doo dah.'
'His neural mechanisms aren't working properly,' the taunt went on, as they demonstrated their grasp on the scientific cause of the issue, 'doo dah, doo dah.'
The schoolchildren were, of course, making a perfectly valid observation. All through school, Buffet had never caught a ball; except once, in golf, purely by accident. And, yes, they played golf at his school, where they were taught how to come in under par whilst using the game to negotiate a business contract to supply uranium to a visiting Middle Eastern royal. Buffet was never successful at either pursuit — scoring a deal or winning the game. And in cricket and rugby, the two other big games at the school, he always missed the ball.
That's what made the events on the 14th floor of the VastTel building so peculiar. The rocket fired from the Black Hawk helicopter was propelled through the huge panoramic window, and Buffet, for the second time in his life, caught something.
The rocket fired from the Black Hawk helicopter was propelled through the huge panoramic window...
It was purely unintentional, of course. Buffet was incapable of quick thinking, and even more unable to turn a thought into a swift action. It's just that the torpedo had hit him in the centre of his ample belly, forcing him to bend forward, and his hands, wanting to grasp his stomach in agony, grabbed the torpedo as he fell to the floor, securing a soft landing for the weapon.
Parsons, who had dived for cover behind Buffet's desk, was waiting for the explosion. After a few seconds, when all remained quiet, he looked out towards the helicopter, where the three men were standing, their eyes closed and their fingers in their ears. Slowly, one by one, they also realised there wasn't an explosion. The men, all Elswiston boys, were astounded. Buffet's reputation was still the subject of schoolyard banter.
Somewhat embarrassed, they quickly sped off into the distance, one of them feverishly scanning the user manuals to see if there was some setting they hadn't configured properly. They'd never used a rocket launcher before. Life generally wasn't that exciting in the Australian secret service, but they knew there would be hell to pay if there was something obvious they'd missed out on because they hadn't read the manual properly.
Still, they assumed that their job was done. Few men could survive a missile in the stomach, whether it went off or not. Even allowing for the size of Buffet's stomach, which wasn't exceptionally large — just the average obesity level for a middle-aged male — he would surely be dead within minutes. Their concern, though, was the onlooker. Someone else had been in the room, and looked to have survived. That was a big worry. This was supposed to have been a secret mission. They took his photo before fleeing the scene, and later used their photo-identity database, which suggested the unnamed man was actor George Hamilton. It's fair to say the software was still in the early stages of development.
With the helicopter gone, the consultant crawled out from beneath the desk, slightly annoyed by the stain on both knees of his pristine, cream designer suit. He had a broader concern, though. Buffet didn't look well. He was lying in the foetal position and shaking uncontrollably. He'd never seen anyone in such a condition since he last went to a Bikram Yoga class.
This was a big worry. Now wasn't a time for Buffet to die. Parsons still had work to invoice for, and with no purchase order, he probably wasn't going to get it through accounts if Buffet wasn't around to authorise it.
'My god, are you alright?' he asked, showing untypical concern.
The shaking had stopped. Buffet's body was now motionless. His face looked cold and devoid of life. No different from normal, really, but suddenly he coughed up a little blood. Parsons was sure that wasn't normal; he'd never seen Buffet do it before. And splatters of it hit the side of his jacket sleeve. What with the marks on his trousers and now this, his thoughts turned to the dry cleaners. Would they be able to get these stains out? Only if he dropped them off quickly. He wondered at what stage it was polite to leave a dying man.
Buffet's body was now motionless. His face looked cold and devoid of life.
Parsons got up from Buffet's side, and walked to the window frame. The breeze was refreshing. He could hear the sounds of the city below, and, if he edged closer to the precipice, he could see people gathered in the street beneath him. He looked up and could see the helicopter manoeuvring its way through the tall buildings, scurrying back to base.
The room itself was silent. Buffet wasn't making a sound. His heavy breathing had subsided, although there was still a shallow trace. Parsons assumed the emergency services were on their way, but perhaps he should call them just in case. But there, again, he didn't really want to get involved. He felt obliged to stay with Buffet until someone arrived, but he was doubtful as to whether the subsequent police questioning could be billed back to anyone. Perhaps he should go. Why hang around if he wasn't getting paid for it?
With that thought in mind, he quickly opened his laptop and whipped up an invoice for his work to date. Buffet's breathing was a little irregular now. He could go at any moment, so time was of the essence. Those last gasps of energy would be needed for his signature.
Those last gasps of energy would be needed for his signature.
And that's how Parsons was when the paramedics barged in 20 minutes later. He was holding on to Buffet's hand, trying to get him to grip a pen, a comprehensive invoice beneath it, as the consultant begged him not to die.
'Not yet,' he cried, as a young lady from the paramedic team gently pulled him away. 'Please, please, don't die.'
'It'll be alright sir,' she said, but looking at Buffet she wasn't at all convinced. 'Let us get to your friend so we can help him.'
'But you don't understand,' whimpered Parsons, as they pulled him away. He was clearly overcome with grief. One of the medics tried to console him, a large lady who embraced him to the point of near asphyxiation. He wrestled himself free and tried to talk. He wanted to excuse himself, and get to the dry cleaners quickly; the woman's underarm sweat had now been added to the concoction of stubborn stains. But he found he couldn't speak. His eyes were streaming, his nose was running and his head was pounding. Above all, as he looked at the medics feverishly trying to resuscitate Buffet, he was overwhelmed with this unbridled sense of sorrow. It was an entirely new sensation to him. He looked at his paperwork lying unsigned beside Buffet's body. What a tragedy. He had never before experienced the loss of so many billable hours.
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.