Chuck Restic, HR manager and part-time private investigator, has a problem: the consultant guru Julie St. Jean is the bane of his existence. Over his twenty-year HR career, he's been forced to partner with her on inane employee engagement programs whose only value has been to Julie's sizable bank account. When Julie is suddenly wanted for the murder of an associate, Chuck sees his chance to rid himself of her forever, until the corporate tables are turned on him and he must find the elusive figure or risk losing his job. The search uncovers a dark past of murder and stolen identity. And what begins as a search to save his corporate neck soon turns into one a lot more literal.
About the Author
Adam Walker Phillips is the author of the Chuck Restic Mystery Series, which follows a burnt-out HR man who moonlights as a private detective. Phillips is a 20-year corporate vet who has endured countless PowerPoint decks, offsite retreats and visioning sessions, and synergies and synergistically-minded cross-functional teams in order to bring this mystery series to life. His sardonic take on corporate life brings a fresh voice to the classic detective novel. Phillips lives with his wife and children in the Eagle Rock neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Read an Excerpt
A FIASCO OF MY OWN DOING
My firm paid them upward of a million dollars each year to spout nonsense, but everyone agreed it was money well spent.
Power of One® was both a misleading and accurate name, for the company consisted of two full-time employees — but only one who really mattered. Like most leadership consulting firms, they were centered around a single personality. Any additional employees were really only there to serve as vessels for the founder's wisdom. After years of spewing someone else's thoughts, the people working in such a place tended to shed their employee status and take up the mantle of the acolyte, and the founder attained near mythical status.
Julie St. Jean relished that.
Like many people who command a room, Julie actually spoke very little. Her business partner, Rebecca, did all the talking, but Julie was the only one you heard. She would quietly survey the training sessions from somewhere off to the side of the room, most often with a cup of tree-bark tea that she studied with the determination of one of the world's great thinkers unraveling one of the world's great issues. At some point in the session she would politely ask Rebecca if she could add to the discussion. She wouldn't come to the front of the room. Instead, she'd remain in some hard-to-see place and wait while those in attendance turned and craned their necks in her direction. She would begin in a faint whisper, the intended result being that everyone in the room was forced to lean in to catch what she had to say. What came out was often a masterful display of subterfuge.
"Sometimes," she'd begin haltingly, "the hardest decisions in life are the ones you don't actually make."
Everyone in the room would collectively nod their heads as one might after hearing something truly profound. And if you somehow missed it, lead instructor Rebecca would let a few moments of silence hang out there to allow Julie's words to fully sink in before returning to the session. It was too often the longest five seconds of my life.
"Food for your brains," Julie would finish with a shrug, appearing almost embarrassed to have spoken in the first place. "Do with it what you will, if anything."
The false humility was lost on everyone. They gobbled it up. No one ever took the next step and actually reflect on the words long enough to realize that everything she said was gibberish.
Her personal branding helped sell it. She had a mesmerizing mane of silver hair that transformed her plain, gray eyes into something bright and lively. She sported a uniform of sorts that consisted of oversized, white button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up and flowing black pants. In combination, the ensemble took on an Eastern flair like that of a progressive karate sensei, one who could unleash a silent, roundhouse kick to the face at any moment. That potential threat was further enhanced by the fact that she had an unnaturally deep voice — deeper even than many men. I remember her first exchange with my old friend Easy Mike.
"I'm Julie," she said in her usual baritone.
"Bullshit you are!" said Easy Mike, but sensing yet another HR sit-down in my office, he quickly recovered. "No one this young," he said like a dutiful supplicant, "could speak with such wisdom."
Easy Mike was right about that aspect. Julie St. Jean still had a striking youthfulness, despite her advanced middle age. It was hard to tell how old she actually was, but I had personally known her for twenty-plus years. And in that time I had grown to respect her — albeit begrudgingly — if for no other reason than for her absolute mastery of our company.
Julie St. Jean's multi-decade-long campaign to land (and hold) the contract with my firm was executed with a strategy straight out of a missing chapter of Sun Tzu's The Art of War. She realized early on that while executive coaching could be a lucrative venture, it required a constant pipeline of fresh, insecure executives to keep the coffers full. You could make a living off of it but the opportunity was limited. To make the leap into the big money you had two choices: package your stuff into a series of seminars and books (a very tough proposition that typically led to more failures than successes) or bring your program not just to the executives of the firm but to the entire firm itself.
To take on a herd the size of our corporation, common sense would say you should start with the weak and sick trailing in the back of the group, the easy prey. Make your foothold there, use them to spread the word, and then steadily make your way up the ranks. But common sense would steer you wrong, because there are no grassroots movements in a corporation. Everything is top-down. What Julie St. Jean realized was that she needed to take down the biggest bull in the herd in order to own the herd.
That bull was my boss, Pat Faber.
I've always felt that salesmen were the easiest pigeons, and as such, con men made the easiest marks. The ones who can spin a tale are the ones most susceptible to someone else's. Pat Faber was an obvious choice. His career path somewhat paralleled that of Julie St. Jean. In many ways, they grew up together. Undeserved confidence and homespun aphorisms garnered Pat a reputation as a no-nonsense problem-solver. He rode that image to a level at the firm that got him an office with a mountain view through a three-paneled window.
The pyramid scheme worked its way down to my level about seven years ago. Everyone agreed that the entire company — not just the executives — could benefit from the wisdom of Julie St. Jean and Power of One, but it just wasn't feasible for those two individuals to teach all four thousand employees. What if, came the retort, we could "empower" a few associates at the firm to do the teaching for us (and pay a per-student fee back to Power of One)? My name inexplicably came up as the person to coordinate all of it. This afforded me a front-row seat to a brilliant display of corporate survival.
Julie St. Jean was many things, but mostly she was someone who ferociously fought for — and maintained — relevance. Her secrets were having her finger on the pulse of what people wanted and the ability to continuously reinvent herself.
She made her mark in the 1980s, during the testosterone-filled, greed-is-good period in Corporate America. She offered a no-bullshit tract that made it easier for executives to act like pigs when their coach, a woman no less, told them to. She threw out the "straight talk" schtick once the recession hit in the 1990s and CEOs were publicly a little more contrite and shamed by their excesses. That's when she began one of her Zen programs. The internet age launched a series of Innovate | Ideate | Invigorate seminars, and the most recent period was dominated by Socially Responsible Leadership, some vague, positive-sounding message to help justify ever-escalating executive-compensation levels.
Two weeks ago, the nonsense came to a crashing halt.
After twenty-five years of inanity, Power of One finally took that bold step into fiasco. The cruel truth that haunts every consultant business is that the dog-and-pony show works until it doesn't work anymore. I didn't relish what was to be their eventual replacement for another consulting firm with a different, shiny bauble but I didn't have much sympathy, either. They had made millions from us for many years and, as far as anyone could tell, had accomplished nothing.
The dismantling of Power of One was, in typical corporate fashion, a multi-year effort. They were never outright fired but rather were slowly starved to death. We gradually weaned ourselves off their programs until they reached a point where the caloric intake was no longer sustainable.
As if sensing the end was near, Julie St. Jean rallied for one last reinvention, or, as I imagined it, a death throe. The new program was a bit of a mélange of all their programs with a few new ideas thrown in. It reeked of desperation.
They added a third member to the act, a caricaturist, or, as she was introduced to me, a "Visioning Artist." For a time I thought she was a mute because she said nothing. She wore her hair long, a blond, frizzy mess that descended the entire length of her back. During brainstorming sessions she skipped around the room like a maiden at the Renaissance Faire, only her instrument wasn't a lute but a giant sketchpad. With a wedge of charcoal she captured the "essence" of the discussions in manically rendered mood drawings. She cranked these things out, tearing them from the pad and letting them fall to the floor as she moved on to the next rendering. By the end of the session, the room looked like a bomb had gone off.
One jokester with a track record of inappropriate behavior enthusiastically participated in a brainstorm on what makes a healthy ecosystem. He rattled off responses like a leadership coach with the hiccups:
"Ramrod-straight ethics ...
"A hard-line on discipline ...
"A consistent thrust ..."
Only when he used the word "girth" did I realize what he was doing. We spent the better part of the day walking on thinly veiled sketches of erect penises.
That's when Pat Faber dropped in. The semi-pornographic drawings crunched under his loafers as he made his way to the center of the room, where he slowly surveyed the scene with his hands on his hips. He picked up a white theater mask we had been using to help develop full-body expressions. He looked disgusted.
"Supposed to, um, 'uninhibit' us so we can communicate more clearly together," I sheepishly explained. Even their biggest disciple couldn't defend this one, and it showed on his face. "Listen, Pat, we need to talk about this," I began, trying to ease into the difficult discussion about breaking protocol and just killing his darling in one swoop.
"Yes, we do," he replied in a defeated voice.
I was overcome with an odd feeling of sadness for the old man. He was universally regarded as a buffoon and this spectacle was further proof of that, but I still felt a little remorse in having to deliver the message.
"Well, we gave it a good effort," I consoled.
"Maybe," he answered cryptically. Pat held up the white mask like it was a weapon. "I hope you can show some tangible results from this program of yours," he warned, and let the mask slip from his fingers.
I processed his words as the white face settled on the floor and stared blankly back up at me.
"Management committee meets on Monday next week," he said. "Come prepared to give an update."
I watched him leave, feeling the mixture of frustration and admiration normally reserved for the end of a magic trick. As your card is miraculously pulled from the performer's pocket, you admire his cleverness and equally despise him for tricking you.
Somewhere along the way, and I wasn't really sure when, I had landed on the hook for this debacle. And what had been a fiasco that I could once watch as a spectator from the shore now threatened to bring me down with the ship.CHAPTER 2
All my years on the job had taught me there was no way to maneuver out of this. Once my name was on it, I owned it. I could remind everyone that I never believed in Power of One, that I was very vocal in expressing those views, and that I could even summon a catalogue of emails — tangible proof — that early on I recommended eradicating this scourge Pat Faber had unleashed on the firm. But all of that would go unheeded. Not only would nothing change but expressing those views publicly would be perceived as a further blemish on my record.
I could anticipate the response: "Chuck, let's not play the blame game." No one wanted to hear a recrimination, even if it had merit. "We need to focus on the now, and what you are doing to right this ship."
Never was I more engaged in my work than when it was threatened to be taken away. Fear proved, once again, man's greatest motivator. This coaching guru might be in the twilight of her career, but she wasn't going to take me down with her.
I had my assistant cancel all meetings for the rest of the week and schedule several all-day sessions with Julie St. Jean. I also dropped in on a couple of management committee members to give them a quick preview of Monday's presentation so they'd feel like they were in the know. And for the first time since I took this job some twenty years ago, I actually had to work on a weekend so we could rehearse exactly how to position Power of One's disastrous program as a ringing success.
The drive over to Julie's house was interminable not because there was traffic but because early on a Sunday morning there weren't any cars at all, just empty stretches of five-lane freeways that seemed to go on forever. I traveled at an unusually high speed through gray fog that filled the Los Angeles basin and obscured any view beyond a few hundred feet, making me feel like I was moving backward.
Palos Verdes Peninsula was a tony outcropping specifically designed to be very difficult to enter and even harder to leave. All major roads leading to it either funneled you to the massive port to the south or to the beach cities to the north. To actually penetrate the peninsula, you were routed through a series of roads laid out in concentric circles, whose intended effect was to make you feel like you were being herded by an overriding force.
At the core of PV was the incorporated town of Palos Verdes Estates, one of the most heavily patrolled areas in the country, with a law enforcement–to–resident ratio that the International Union of Police Associations held as their high-water mark, plus some.
Julie's house was low and deceptively large. A layer of fog hugging the hilltop somewhat veiled the true extent of the wings protruding from each side of the main entrance. The outline of the house ran in a long, jagged line that traced the contour of the cliff, which I assumed was to maximize the ocean vistas from every room, even the coat closet.
I stared up at the moving clouds and the fine mist they deposited on everything below. We were officially in El Niño season but the serious rains had yet to begin. Ever-hopeful, I wondered just how close to the unstable cliff's edge this house might be as I made my way up to the entrance.
Two heavy doors were framed by panels of glass that gave a glimpse into the foyer. I tried the bell a few times and then an elaborate door knocker but got no response to either. Cupping my hands over the glass, I saw dark, empty rooms and then nothing as my breath's condensation obscured everything. I heard tires on the gravel behind me.
A black Town Car appeared from the pine grove shadows and came up the driveway. Rebecca emerged from one of the rear doors. I waited for Julie St. Jean to step out, always the last one to arrive on the scene for maximum dramatic effect. I learned early on that she applied her showmanship to all facets of life, including the order of who came through the door last. But no one trailed Rebecca out of the sedan.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "Have you been waiting long?"
"No, I just got here," I answered, and watched the sedan back out of the driveway. "Where's the boss?"
Rebecca sensed my impending frustration.
"She'll be here," she replied firmly. "Let's go inside."
Rebecca pulled a key from her purse and with some effort swung the big door open. She hurried over to the alarm panel but stopped a few feet short. There was no chirping that signified a code was needed. She stared quizzically at the little box and then made an obvious statement.
"She must be here already."
"I rang the bell but didn't get an answer," I said, following Rebecca past a formal sitting room and into an expansive kitchen that looked like something out of a magazine photo shoot. Even the appliances seemed like decorations.
I was drawn to the westward-facing wall, which was really more of a window than a wall. It ran floor to ceiling, and on closer inspection, I could see hinges in the frame that meant the windows could fold open like an accordion door. Each of these probably cost twenty-five grand, and the entire west wall was covered in them. That, more than any other ridiculously expensive feature in the house, filled me with envy.
"Too bad it's cloudy," Rebecca said from the entrance to a hallway. "It's an amazing view from Long Beach Harbor all the way up to Malibu."
But all I saw was a dense mist that shifted slightly in the onshore winds and made me slightly queasy as my eyes searched for something to fix on. I suddenly felt very cold and glanced around the room. They either didn't believe in heat or the system was out of order, because the house held the kind of cold that seemed to permeate every object inside it. The expensive terrazzo floors were probably pleasant in the heat of summer but on a wintry day like today you wanted something soft — a heavy pile rug, a threadbare throw, a scattering of hay, anything to keep the cold from coming up through the soles of your shoes.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Big Con"
Copyright © 2018 Adam Walker Phillips.
Excerpted by permission of Prospect Park Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.