The Incumbent: Chapter 13

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.

Twistie Buffet spent most of his life with consultants. Millions were spent each year with major advisory firms that would come in, scout around the organisation and then produce lengthy slide presentations. Ten million dollars paid to Pricey, Waterdown & Cobblers, one of the world's largest consulting firms, had resolved that VastTel could reduce the length of queues to the call centre by having more staff on the phones, cutting down the length of each call, or forgetting to publish the phone number. Of course, the consultants only came to this conclusion after extensively interviewing staff and graphically representing their views in neat little diagrams, which were given more credibility through the inclusion of a few largely meaningless statistics and mathematical models that no one understood.

Consultants were easy to spot. They walked around the building in expensive suits, cuff-linked shirts and impossibly shiny black shoes. They usually had brilliant white teeth, a spotless olive complexion and heavily gelled hair. They all tended to look the same, as though they had been cloned for the purpose of consultancy. Perhaps they had been.

Differences between consultants and hired assassins ... for a start, most hired assassins only got paid if they delivered results. Consultants got paid regardless.

There were very clear differences between consultants and hired assassins, a fact that Buffet was quickly coming to terms with. For a start, most hired assassins only got paid if they delivered results. Consultants got paid regardless. Their payment was related to the length of the slide presentation and tended to be index-linked to the price of expensive imported Italian designer suits. Secondly, consultants were much more polite. Few hired assassins would walk into a room, meet the target, then offer his hand with a broad smile and say in an educated Oxbridge accent, 'Hello, my name is Jeremy Parsons BSc (hons), PhD. How the devil are you?'

Hired assassins were also harder to find. It wasn't as though there was a website where you could go and type the target's name and address, then click a 'kill now' button. You had to know someone with underworld connections.

That was a problem because Buffet didn't keep that sort of company. Actually, he rarely kept any sort of company. But he had made up his mind that he had to kill Woodburner, or more accurately, have him killed. He hated the site of blood himself and would faint if he cut his finger, or sliced into a slightly rare sirloin. But it's not easy to have someone bumped off when you don't know any hired guns.

The only people who would do what he asked, provided they were paid, were consultants. He'd spent a lot on them over the years and Jeremy Parsons was the one he knew best. Parsons was enjoying a comfortable lifestyle as a result, rewarded with a magnificent waterfront property in Sydney's eastern suburbs. He'd often spend an hour or two in the morning on his veranda, looking over the harbour feeling good about life, then would scurry inside to log the time as billable hours to whichever client he reckoned wouldn't notice. 'Fair enough,' he would reason with himself, 'if clients hadn't paid me so much I wouldn't have this view and, therefore, wouldn't be wasting billable hours enjoying it.'

Although the view was enviable, the neighbourhood was a little rough. The locals were unruly types, who had made their fortunes through advertising, car wash franchises, mortgage broking and retail warehouse chains. Basically, the sort of people you knew not to trust. He rarely spoke to any of them. He had once asked a neighbour, a lawyer, to move his dustbin, which was partially blocking his driveway, only to receive a 10-thousand-dollar bill for 'negotiating boundary dispute'.

Buffet knew Parsons would assassinate Woodburner, provided he could charge by the hour, with expenses. He would basically do anything for money so long as it wasn't too intellectually challenging. Admittedly, it wasn't ideal. If you didn't know a contract killer few people would make a management consultant a second choice, but Buffet's options were limited. Hired killers didn't tend to advertise much, although one or two were duped into advertising in phone directories by salespeople who told them the deadline was approaching and their business would collapse if they didn't get their advertising copy in on time. In a panic they agreed and a special Assassins category was created. It was several years before a police investigation found them, although this should not be taken in any way as an indication of the effectiveness of advertising with millions of others in a stonking big directory that is rarely taken out of its plastic wrapping.

He'd often spend an hour or two in the morning on his veranda ... then would scurry inside to log the time as billable hours to whichever client he reckoned wouldn't notice.

On the morning that Buffet called Parsons in to his office, Parson's yacht was in for repairs, which meant he was at a bit of a loose end, unsure what to do with his day.

'I have an interesting job for you,' Buffet said, as the consultant walked in, dressed as smartly as ever. His posture was helped by a steel pole implanted down his back to stop him inadvertently slouching. It had the added benefit of enabling him to sleep in client meetings thanks, also, to the Botox injections that kept his eyes open. He sat down quickly; quite a bit quicker than he'd have liked to because Buffet had new steel-framed chairs, one of which had formed a magnetic attachment to his artificial backbone. Undeterred he sat upright, his knees together and his polished shoes pointing directly forward.

'It's a very interesting job indeed,' continued Buffet.

'Excellent,' said Parsons with an enthusiasm that could become nauseating after more than, say, 15 seconds. There were few people on the planet more annoyingly positive than consultants, except, of course, most Americans and radio deejays on Golden Oldies stations.

Nobody found it more annoying than Parsons himself. Although outwardly he maintained this positive demeanour, inwardly he had started to question his own usefulness. It's the sort of thinking that can be fatal for a management consultant. The moment you started asking yourself questions like 'Aren't I stating the obvious?' or 'Am I really adding any value here?' or 'Do they really need me?' then you were pursuing a dangerous line based entirely on reality. Heading down this road, consultants would ultimately arrive at the conclusion that they'd been hired because senior management wanted to deflect the blame for poor decisions on someone else. So they could say, 'This is an approach recommended by Whippleton, Boozey & Farah', and the board would nod its support and could attribute the blame in the same direction should everything go pear-shaped.

There were few people on the planet more annoyingly positive than consultants, except, of course, most Americans and radio deejays on Golden Oldies stations.

Everyone in business knew this was what consultants were used for, except consultants. Then, at some point in their career, hopefully after they had acquired several properties, a nice car or two and put the kids through a good school, reality would dawn on them and they would realise their whole career had been some sort of charade. Parsons had been going through this self-assessment over recent weeks, but his conclusion had been delayed somewhat because he decided to work through it logically, putting together a 124-slide presentation, which, like all consultants' presentations, would be viewed by no one.

'I don't know how to tell you this,' said Buffet. It wasn't going to be easy. It's difficult to ask someone to commit a murder — anyone except hired assassins, of course, they get asked to do it all the time. For them it's like a plumbing job. They'll respond by telling you what a big job it is, say they can't start till a week on Tuesday, then turn up unexpectedly an hour later saying another job had just cancelled on them. Then they'd get started and tell you halfway through that it's going to cost more than originally thought due to something unforeseen like, for example, they hadn't initially realised how gullible you were. That's a plumber. Hired assassins are exactly the same — they are notoriously unreliable, and there's no ombudsman to complain to.

Parsons, on the other hand, was very reliable; if a little slow to cotton on sometimes. This was one such occasion — he had no idea what was going to be asked of him. As Buffet tried to explain, the consultant yawned quietly, still managing to hold his smile and his enthusiastic demeanour.

'What is it this time?' he thought to himself. 'The impact of the colour scheme on staff morale? How baked beans in the canteen are reducing productivity?' He had been called on to administer some pointless investigations by Buffet, normally resulting from some throw-away comment made by a board member, often in jest, which the CEO had chosen to take seriously just to be on the safe side, but also because he didn't get humour unless it was very obvious.

'What I am about to ask you must stay between us,' said a nervous Buffet.

Parsons was lost in his own thoughts, aware that Buffet was talking but not really listening.

'Do staff who consume legumes spend more time on the toilet during office hours?' wondered Parsons. 'A time and motions study … of staff motions.' He smiled quietly, slightly amused by himself, whilst trying to look attentive.

'Well,' said Buffet, waiting for Parsons to respond. 'Do I have your word?'

'Of course,' said Parsons, rummaging through his subconscious to see what he had just agreed to. 'No problem.'

Even though he hadn't been listening his brain did have an amazing ability to subconsciously record conversations and then play them back a few seconds later, if need be. It was a bit like a TV set-top box, but for real life — he could pause and rewind what was going on, whilst watching something else.

'I wouldn't normally ask you to do this,' said Buffet. 'But I know I can trust you and I really don't know who else to ask.'

These are words no one should ever say to a consultant without expecting the fee to instantaneously triple.

Parsons had noticed how nervous Buffet was becoming, which had him a little intrigued. He started to pay a bit more attention.

'Well,' said Buffet, pausing for a moment as he plucked up enough courage. Then, he said it. He spoke quickly and looked directly into Parsons eyes. 'I want you to kill someone for me.'

Parsons frowned. He was confused. Did he just say what he thought he'd said?

'You want me to kill someone?' He assumed it was some sort of euphemism. 'You mean you want me to shaft someone? Set them up so they have to leave the business?'

Most of the time he didn't understand half of what was being said, but part of the art of management consultancy was to ensure no one else fathomed how shallow your depth of conception really was.

'No.'

'You want me to discredit someone in such a way that they can't work again?'

'No.'

'You want me to blackmail someone through some intriguing sex scandal?'

'No.'

'In that case, I'm sorry, I don't understand.' That was a big confession for a consultant. They were paid to understand and Parsons was sure he had never used the words 'not' and 'understand' together in the same sentence before. Most of the time he didn't understand half of what was being said, but part of the art of management consultancy was to ensure no one else fathomed how shallow your depth of conception really was.

'What is it you want me to do?' he asked, hoping he might elicit a different answer this time.

'Kill!' screamed Buffet. He had stood up, his eyes were on fire and there was a slight, but disconcerting, foaming of the mouth. He wasn't sure, but he thought he might also have heard a short burst of maniacal laughter as Buffet moved from behind his desk.

'That's what I want you to do. Kill. I want him off the board and I want him dead. Do you understand?'

Parsons was scared. He was clearly in the company of a lunatic and he wasn't sure how to handle it. He maintained his trademarked enigmatic smile and ensured his polished shoes pointed directly forward at all times, but he was at a loss on what to say or do next.

'Woodburner,' he said eventually, making a natural assumption on the target. 'You want me to kill Woodburner?'

Buffet smiled, an eerie, crazed murderous kind of smile — a strange cross between Hitler and Liberace, with a bit of Lord Monckton thrown-in. There was such a presence of evil that Parsons was certain that Buffet was more than capable of committing the act himself.

'Precisely,' Buffet said, at the mention of Woodburner's name.

'It doesn't have to be a painful death, although I am prepared to pay extra for that. I just want you to kill the bastard.'

'That's exactly who I am talking about. And I want him dead,' he explained as he returned behind his desk, but still pointing at Parsons in a demented fashion. 'It doesn't have to be a painful death, although I am prepared to pay extra for that. I just want you to kill the bastard.'

'Fuck me!' said Parsons, who had lost his smile and started to slouch a little, but only as far as his metal pole would allow. 'I've never killed anyone in my life. Not even an animal.' Then, for some reason, he added 'I'm a vegetarian', even though he wasn't. Although he did refrain from eating carnivorous animals, like lions and tigers.

'I'm not asking you to eat him!' said Buffet. He swivelled round on his chair so only the top of his head was visible over the back, like a sinister character from a Bond movie. He laughed out loud in a most disturbing, maniacal fashion.

'Well,' said Parsons, eventually, tut-tutting a few times and pulling out a notepad and a calculator, 'it's a big job.' He flipped open his diary before continuing, 'and I'm not going to be able to fit it in until a fortnight on Tuesday...'

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.