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The Incumbent: Chapter 39

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.

Jimi Jones was finding it very hard to get rid of people. It was clear nothing would happen if it was left to Felicity Bunkle and Jeremy Parsons. Until now, he'd have thought it odd to have an HR department that did nothing, and a consultant that charged lots but did equally little. Now, he realised, that was par for the course. As the two spouted more and more excuses to delay what seemed a relatively simple task, his anger boiled. He calmed himself by switching off from their inane rambling, and started to fire off email messages to random employees, telling them the company no longer needed them.

He probably should have spent a bit more time crafting the wording: 'You are no longer needed. Don't bother showing up any more.' Of those who actually read their email, it came as no surprise that they weren't needed, because they did nothing. They completely failed to understand that Jones was telling them they would no longer be paid for doing nothing. Had they realised, they might have taken a bit more notice.

An HR department that did nothing, and a consultant that charged lots but did equally little, was par for the course.

Not that they needed to be too worried. When Jones forwarded a list of retrenched workers to the payroll office, the manager freaked out. This was a whole new process. Their systems were built around recruitment, and nobody had envisaged the possibility of someone leaving. That meant a new system was needed, and it looked complicated: finding the employee's record on the computer; figuring out how to stop paying them; and making sure they were never paid again. There had been no new processes in payroll since 1966, when the dollar was introduced, and even then, the government had to wait 14 years for VastTel to get its systems in place before making the switch. Now there was the altogether more complex process of making someone redundant. That would require a similar time frame to implement.

Back in his office, Jones was pleased to tell Bunkle and Parsons what he'd been up to. 'Do you realise, while you two have been telling me how hard it is to get rid of people, I have retrenched 147 of them?' he said. He felt a little guilty about how much he was enjoying the power.

Bunkle turned white. The thought had crossed her mind that she might be on the list. Parsons wondered the same. Even though he was a consultant, he managed, through some sort of administrative error, to appear several times on the VastTel payroll register.

Their thoughts were interrupted when Jones' office door flung open and in marched Woodburner.

'What's going on here?' the young heir asked.

Was she so unattractive he wanted to avoid genital contact?

Bunkle recognised him immediately. She wondered if he remembered her. They had slept together a few months ago, when she went after a part in a daytime soap on his dad's TV channel. It had been an unsatisfying experience for both of them. Woodburner had made all the right sort of grunting noises, but, true to form, kept his trousers on. She took it personally. Was she so unattractive he wanted to avoid genital contact? Whatever the reason, it proved to be a turning point. If she couldn't even pass the early part of the audition process, then life as a soap actress seemed unlikely, and, unsure what else to do, she picked a career in human resources instead.

'Hello, Damien,' she said, with a familiarity that disturbed Jones. He was enjoying his newfound power, and didn't want it undermined by personal relationships beyond his control.

'Oh, yes, you,' said Woodburner, forcing a slight smile and remembering, in his mind, some of the best sex he'd ever had, even though he was still struggling to come to terms with what sex actually was and why everyone raved about it so much.

'Shall I leave now?' asked Parsons, not wanting to spend any more time in the room if he wasn't going to be able to charge for it.

'No need,' said Woodburner. 'You might as well all hear this. You're going to find out soon enough.'

This sounds very ominous, thought Jones.

'We're going to find another CEO.'

Jones was a little shocked. He'd assumed that unless Buffet recovered, this was a job for life. After all, who else could do it? He had become very confident in his own abilities in the 24 hours since he first took the job on.

'Has Buffet recovered?' he asked.

'Oh, no, he's dead,' came the reply. 'At least, I assume he is. I really must check.'

It seemed a curious thing to say; almost as if Woodburner had wanted Buffet dead. The thought made Jones a little uncomfortable — a very rare feeling, when you are seated on a Grade 1 executive chair.

He had become very confident in his own abilities in the 24 hours since he took the job.

'Frankly, it's amazing he survived as long as he did. He is the talk of the medical journals,' said Woodburner, who boasted how he was a regular subscriber to them himself, not realising that Fatburner Monthly and Abs Weekly were not learned publications savoured by the medical elite.

'So, why do I have to go, then?' asked Jones.

'It's not really working out with you, is it?' said Woodburner, not that he expected Jones to agree with him. 'So we're putting someone else in this role.'

'Really? That's a bit sudden.'

'I only ever said it was a temporary role,' said Woodburner, hoping this wasn't going to be a confrontation. He hated confrontations, because he invariably said something that made him look stupid.

'You bloody well did not,' protested Jones, with a youthful passion that Woodburner was unfamiliar with (even though he was young himself). There is less need to have passion when you have money. You simply buy-in people to be passionate whenever it is needed.

'You said I'd have the job until Buffet gets better,' said Jones. 'Well, if Buffet is dead, that means he will never get better. That means I have this job forever.'

He was using logic in his argument. Woodburner hated that. He always lost when logic was brought in. He had to find a way of cutting the conversation short.

'You can argue all you like, but it's already been decided,' he said.

He was using logic in his argument. Woodburner hated that — he always lost when logic was brought in.

'By whom?' said Jones, curiously. He doubted the board would have reached a decision on anything.

'Well, that's not for me to say,' said Woodburner, not able to admit that the whole decision rested with the government.

'Was it a board decision?'

'Not exactly.'

As the two spoke, they were a little distracted by Parsons, working feverishly on his computer.

'But I am sure they will endorse the decision.'

'How can you be so sure?'

'Believe me. They will agree.'

The two men remained silent for a moment, before Woodburner spoke again. 'Obviously, you'll have some time to sort out your things and vacate the office.'

Jones said nothing. He was too angry to talk. Instead, they eyed each other intently for a minute or two. Jones was trying to look intimidating, to give the impression that this matter was not resolved and he would fight to keep his job. Woodburner stayed silent simply because he couldn't think of anything to say. He wasn't quite sure how to finish the meeting, short of suddenly storming out of the room.

'Goodbye,' he eventually said very quickly, heading swiftly to the door, trying to push it open instead of pulling it, and banging his face against the solid oak. He coughed, rubbed his nose, then made a second attempt at a dignified exit.

It had taken him weeks to climb to the top, and he wasn't going to see it all thrown away.

Jimi Jones, meanwhile, had decided he would do anything but make a dignified exit. He was going to fight this decision and make as much noise as possible. It had taken him years — well, weeks, actually — to climb to the top of this organisation, and he wasn't going to see it all thrown away. He was determined to find out who was really behind the decision.

'Sorry to interrupt,' said Parsons, realising the young executive was deep in thought. He handed a copy of what he'd been working on.

'As it seems you'll be moving on, would you mind signing this?' he said.

'What is it?' said Jones.

'It's an agreement and timesheet for the redundancy program that I would have carried out if you'd stayed in your job.'

'You are a f****** opportunist, aren't you?!' screamed Jones.

It seemed a strange and obvious observation to make of a management consultant, but the truth hit Parsons hard.

'Can't you consider how I might be feeling right now, rather than worrying about yourself? All you want to do is rip this company off. You are nothing more than a parasite.'

Parsons had never been spoken to like this before. To everyone else in the organisation, his approach had been perfectly acceptable behaviour.

Jones glanced at the paperwork.

'What's this?' he asked, pointing to the words 'notional hours' printed on the time sheet.

'That's the hours I would have worked if I'd done the job.'

'It looks like Woodburner could be causing you some trouble. Maybe I could help you get rid of him...'

'But you haven't done the job. We only started talking about it half an hour ago.'

'Well, that's hardly my fault,' he explained. 'I would have done it.'

Parsons normally won these arguments quickly. Few people could follow his line of reasoning, and most gave up trying.

'No,' said Jones. 'I won't sign it. Not until you've done the work.'

Jones looked at Parsons and Bunkle, who were eyeing him as though he was quite mad.

'And for the record, I am not going anywhere,' he said, sounding a little like a spoiled brat who wasn't getting his way. 'I am still CEO of this company until the board decides otherwise.'

Parsons had to admit, he was impressed by the young man's resolve.

'Perhaps I can help you,' he said.

'Help? With what?' asked Jones doubtfully.

'Well, it looks like Woodburner could be causing you some trouble,' he said. He moved closer, so Bunkle was out of earshot. 'Maybe I could help you get rid of him.'

His plan was to revisit the assassination job initiated by Buffet. After all, he had done all the preparatory work, and he still hadn't been paid for it. He was still fairly uncomfortable with the idea of killing anyone, but not as much as going un-remunerated for the work that had already been done on the project. Besides, it wouldn't be him conducting the murder; it would be his alter ego, The Tan. And he reckoned if Jones kept his job, he would be so grateful he could be guaranteed consultancy gigs for the rest of his natural life. Obviously, with Jones gone, who knows who would be next? Someone even more business-like, perhaps. That could be the death knell for his relationship with the company. And without VastTel, he was finished. He knew he wouldn't survive a billable hour in the real world.

'Buffet had trouble with Woodburner, too, you know,' he explained.

'Really?' said Jones, wondering again whether any disagreement between the two men could have been behind the rocket attack. He quickly dismissed it. What a ridiculous notion! Unless, he considered, Woodburner had tried to murder Buffet to get rid of him from the company, but make it appear like a terrorist attack. No, that was too farfetched. But then again, everything that went on in the company seemed a little unbelievable.

Jones decided he needed to be careful how he dealt with Woodburner; the man might be deadlier than he appeared.

'Woodburner can be a tricky character. But maybe I can get him out of your life,' said Parsons.

He gave a little wink, which he hoped would look sinister, but really just seemed like a nervous twitch.

'Are you offering to kill him?'

Jones considered what the consultant was saying.

'Are you offering to kill him?' he asked bluntly. Bunkle looked round. She hadn't been paying much attention, but now the conversation was getting interesting.

'Let's just say you won't be hearing much from him in future,' Parsons whispered. He was being deliberately ambiguous, not because he didn't want Bunkle to pick up on what was being said, but mainly because, as a consultant, he never gave a definitive answer to anything, just in case he made a promise that he failed to deliver on.

'You are offering to kill him!'

'Well, I wouldn't be expecting any birthday party invitations from him,' came the hushed response.

'Because he will be dead?' said Jones loudly, trying to push for a more concrete answer.

'I think you'll be surprised at the range of services my consultancy provides,' he said, pushing the paperwork for the redundancy work across Jones' desk.

For reasons he couldn't personally fathom, Jones signed off the hours and agreed to meet Parsons the next day to discuss the 'other project' more fully. Then the consultant went home to prepare his plan. By 8pm, his alter ego had returned. After a few hours on the sun bed, The Tan was back, ready to finish Woodburner off. Same target, different client. And a different shade of orange.

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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