I don't suppose many of the staff on my nightmare assignment at Milton Maynard Council would know what a Pyrrhic victory is. The schools here long ago replaced the classics with politically correct tracts, so they'd probably think it was something medical. Even so, a Pyrrhic victory is exactly what I have managed over Lucy Livesey, chief information officer of the council.
It's hard to imagine now just how elated I felt at the launch of the electronic car-charging scheme. I knew from Ms Livesey's smug expression that she expected me to fail. In fact, a mole in her office had already told me of her intention to get Slaughter McTone Regis to deliver a satisfactory prototype, then to have us screw up so we didn't have to be paid (Rule three of being a consultant - always toady up to the client's admin staff.
They are invariably underpaid and will happily sell their bosses down the river for a sympathetic ear and a cappuccino).
"Is it bad news?" Ms Livesey asked as I entered her palatial office.
"Not exactly," I said. I logged onto the intranet. There was the car-charging page. As we looked, the numbers changed, clocking up the ever-increasing funds rolling into the Milton Maynard coffers. It was a bit like watching a telethon without having to suffer Terry Wogan. Ms Livesey started to do fish impressions. "But how?"
Time for my grand finale. I clicked an on-screen button and brought up the live video channel. We saw the cars entering the city being pulled over and fitted with a small black plastic module. I carefully positioned the video window alongside that rolling count. "Impressive, isn't it?"
Ms Livesey seemed to be undergoing an epiphany. A strange expression distorted her face. When I debriefed my principle helpers, Maggie from Parks and Cemeteries and Dennis from Highways, I couldn't find words to describe that expression. "There's only one thing," said Dennis. "How did we do all that in a week?" "It's simple, Dennis. Remember those units your people are fitting in the cars?"
Dennis nodded. "Electronic identification modules."
"Not exactly. They're air-fresheners."
"Then Maggie got in touch with her friends at the job centre. If you take a closer look at the roadside detector boxes, they're bigger than you'd expect. And covered in one-way mirrors. We've got cheap labour watching cars and entering registrations into the computer. That's our electronic system."
"Ms Livesey will go spare."
"Why? It works. Anyway, after paying she couldn't afford to lose face."
And so it happened. I was no longer in the doghouse. Time for a juicy posting, perhaps even the City. When my mobile rang, I could hear the smile on Mr McTone's face. "You did superbly," he said. "In fact, so superbly that Milton Maynard Council has asked for you to be kept on at double fees." Sic transit gloria mundi, as they don't say in Milton Maynard.
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