The Incumbent: Chapter 11

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.

As Buffet had expected, Botherington filed a story about the disastrous press event. 'Buffet Has Nothing To Go On', was the headline.

'VastTel's CEO Twistie Buffet is as short on ideas as he is in stature,' she wrote. 'At a presentation of their half-year results yesterday the nervous executive tried to deflect attention from the customary set of unimpressive financial results to trot out the well-worn vision of a future where all devices connect to the internet. Perhaps his hope was that, as customers flee the mediocrity of the country's largest telecommunications provider, their fridges and cookers will be less fussy. Yet he was dumbstruck when asked what possible use I could derive from an internet-capable lavatory, one of the many appliances Buffet says will benefit from a high-speed internet connection. This reporter, for one, sees little future in the Buffet vision, even though the little man himself was visibly excited by the prospect.'

Buffet had repeatedly urged Buchanan to step up the ante, emphasising that they should 'consider this whole broadband thing, just in case it takes off'.

The accompanying photograph showed Buffet with what appeared to be a prominent bulge in his trousers.

'Shit,' said Buffet, landing his fist onto his mahogany desk before noticing that just reading Botherington's name was enough to see his erection return. He switched his mind to accounting principles for a few moments hoping that would lessen the effect, but to no avail. So he checked a few share prices and, with still no change, he resorted to googling for more pictures of Madeleine Albright, but even that wasn't having the same impact lately. Where else could he go? Jocelyn Wildenstein?

Knowing he was going to have to respond to the article, Buffet had already called a meeting with Zac Buchanan, the head of product development. Buchanan suggested Buffet come down to his department, hoping some of his team would deflect any difficult questions he might get asked. He knew very little about product development and spent most of his day deliberating over when next to go and get a cup of coffee. But his team of 50 or more weren't much better. They had, on average over the last 10 years, developed a new product every, well, 10 years, although even that product failed to make it to market.

Buffet had repeatedly urged Buchanan to step up the ante, emphasising that they should 'consider this whole broadband thing, just in case it takes off'. Buchanan wasn't a big fan of the internet. He understood phones that you plugged into the wall and, because he couldn't manage to post a comment on the popular social networking site Headlook, he assumed the whole internet thing was a fad that hadn't been thought through.

'I won't be made a fool of,' Buffet demanded as he stood before Buchanan's product group. It was good to be out of his office. He had read a management handbook a year or two before, perhaps 10 years, that said he should occasionally get out and walk the floor and meet staff. He made a mental note of the date and vowed to do the same thing again, same time next year. Perhaps the year after. Unless he was busy.

The product team all turned from their desks to face him. One or two turned from their workstations.

'We're going to show Trisha Botherington what we're capable of,' he said, feeling a slight twinge in his trousers.

'Who?' asked Buchanan, mischievously aware of the impact the woman had on him.

'Trisha Botherington,' said Buffet, opting to sit behind a desk, just to be on the safe side. 'She doesn't see the point of an internet-enabled lavatory.'

'I'm with her on that,' said Buchanan, who saw little reason for connecting anything to the internet, including computers. He had expressed as much regularly at management meetings.

He wasn't quite sure why he held such a view, he just thought it was good to have an opinion, although he hated the work involved in it. Having an opinion, particularly an informed opinion, involved a lot of time researching; talking to knowledgeable people and gathering facts. Buchanan found it much easier just to randomly take sides on an argument and hold on to it. No one had ever asked him to account for his position on something before because, frankly, no one cared what he thought.

Fortunately, one of the product team was able to support Buchanan's attitude towards internet-enabled lavatories: 'There are some places where people just want to be alone.'

Buffet seemed shocked that any of Buchanan's people actually spoke. He had been to the product department several times and there had been little sign of life.

'Well I disagree,' he said back to the young man, who looked intimidated, turned bright red and wet his underpants.

'Everything can be internet enabled,' he continued, quoting the words in the first paragraph of a book he was reading, 'A Fully Wired World'. He wasn't totally sure why, but was certain arguments would emerge once he got beyond the first paragraph, but that would take some time because so far the book had been fairly heavy going.

'You are some of the greatest minds in this business,' he declared, aware that it wasn't a particularly grand statement, or an accurate one. 'Your focus now is demonstrating your expertise. In two weeks we're going to show Botherington and the world precisely what we can do here at VastTel. I want my internet toilet and you are going to give it to me.'

As guests arrived, out-of-work actors paraded round on roller skates dressed as toilet brushes.

The team was silent. They weren't stunned. They weren't deep in thought. They were just, as usual, very quiet. Who knows what was going on in their collective minds. Buffet often wondered if they were communicating with each other through telekinesis, and the moment he thought about it he was sure he heard in his head a barrage of people yelling, 'no we're not'.

After an uncomfortable pause, Buchanan was the first to speak.

'And what precisely will this toilet do?' he asked.

'You're the experts. You tell me!' came Buffet's reply. The CEO thought he'd leave the question with them and make an exit but, when he stood up, he realised the Botherington effect was still very active. He sat down again and, instead, asked them to leave. 'Off you go then,' he said.

The group looked slowly at each other, before Buchanan spoke.

'But this is our office,' he said.

'Quite right,' said Buffet, shuffling some papers on the desk in front of him.

'We need to get to work before Trisha Botherington writes something else unfortunate,' said Buchanan, mischievously.

Buffet was now finding the Botherington effect somewhat tedious, but could do little to stop it.

'Well, I'm going to stay here for a while,' he said, breaking into a slight sweat and struggling to find a way out of his situation.

'You, er ... you can all take an early mark. Have the rest of the day off. I'm sure your families will be pleased to see you home early for once.' It was a very generous gesture, particularly at 9.15 in the morning.

When they all eventually returned to work, a few days later, they embarked on a fortnight of feverish product development and soon had a new internet-enabled toilet ready to demonstrate. It had been an educational experience for all involved. For a start, they discovered that they could cut 119 months off the usual product development cycle if they didn't talk to anyone in the finance department, who always asked difficult questions and would often insist on a thing called profitability. They knew that none of VastTel's products was profitable, but finance insisted that the product team develop bogus forecasts just for the files. These usually involved dubious sets of assumptions about how many people would purchase a product — for example, everyone — and how much they would pay for it — for example, everything they earned.

'If this forecast is right,' Zorblestein had once said to Buchanan, 'this product's revenue will double the GDP of this country.'

'Yes, excellent news, isn't it?' came the reply.

'What?' said Zorblestein, before approving the forecast, fully aware that the product would never be developed in any case.

Now, though, the product team was on fire. With a mandate from the CEO, Buchanan could push ahead with the internet toilet regardless. They just had to decide what it was going to do and get the bloody thing built.

Impressed by what he saw, Buffet called for a launch event to showcase the next generation of lavatories to the world, or at least to a collection of largely disinterested technology journalists who went anywhere that offered a warm room, free booze and some hot food.

VastTel's PR department was charged with pulling it all together and soon was sending out invitations printed on perforated toilet paper. Recipients could rip off a reply and send it in the reply-paid envelope provided. Sadly, several soiled responses arrived back from journalists noted for their extreme dislike of the company.

As guests arrived, out-of-work actors paraded round on roller skates dressed as toilet brushes. One of them looked like Geoffrey Rush and another could have been Russell Crowe. It had been a slow year in the Australian film industry, it's fair to say.

Inside, a stage had been decked out entirely in pebble-effect ceramic tiles. Slap bang in the middle, looking rather lonely, was a conventional white lavatory and a cheap silver toilet roll holder. A temporary curtain rail surrounded the object, the curtain pulled open. Over the stage was a disproportionally large VastTel logo with the slogan 'the IP-Dunny', and the tagline 'connect and go' written underneath.

A larger-than-usual gathering of journalists had turned up to watch the spectacle, a reflection of a cold snap in the weather, recent increases in food prices and stringent dress codes that now precluded journalists from many inner-city bars. The journalists were supplemented by a throng of hangers-on, including a few from the finance department who were wondering why they hadn't been consulted on any of this.

'This toilet, the IP-Dunny.' announced Buffet, 'is the dawn of a new age in your bathroom.' He went on to explain how the toilet could analyse your stools and check an online database of possible medical disorders, whilst recommending dietary improvements and, having checked the contents of your fridge, would order the necessary ingredients to be delivered to your door from the online supermarket of your choice. The grocery bill, doctors fee and sewage charges would all be neatly combined into one easy payment to VastTel, with an appropriate undisclosed commission payment made to cover the convenience of it all.

'This toilet, the IP-Dunny.' announced Buffet, 'is the dawn of a new age in your bathroom.'

'Ha! Got it,' said one journalist as Buffet used the word 'convenience'. Any humour, as always with Buffet, however slight, had been entirely coincidental.

There was a polite round of applause as Buffet finished his talk, which he had given from the toilet seat. He quickly pulled his trousers back up, pulled back the curtain and returned to the podium.

He wasn't sure that performing his ablutions whilst giving his address had been a good idea, but the PR department had insisted on it.

'Now gentlemen, ladies, any questions?' Buffet asked the press.

The gathering seemed a little surprised. The chief executive clearly had rushed back to the podium.

An elderly gentleman from 'International Lavatory Week' asked the first question.

'Do you really think this invention will fly?' he said.

There was a mild ripple of laughter from the crowd.

'Of course,' said Buffet, pleased to see the audience were enjoying the event. He glanced knowingly at Buchanan beside him, who gave back a look of extreme surprise.

'Have we seen everything there is to see?' asked a youngish lady from 'Plumbing Month'.

There were a few more sniggers.

'I think we've seen more than we want to!' yelled someone from the back.

'I like what I see,' said an elderly gentleman in leather from 'Closet Handyman', who had muscled his way to the front of the crowd.

Buffet looked around the room as more and more journalists yelled out comments that made little sense to him.

'It looks like you're excited by it anyway,' said someone from 'What Cisterns'.

The CEO turned to Buchanan for an indication of what was amusing everyone so much. Normally journalists at a telecommunications press launch would look, at best, comatose.

'Your fly,' whispered Buchanan from the corner of his mouth. Buffet looked down and found that, in his rush back to the microphone he had forgotten to zip up. The slip was made all the more embarrassing by his tendency to travel 'commando style'. The full extent of his wardrobe malfunction might have gone unnoticed had he not seen Trisha Botherington part way through the session. He had fixed his gaze on her, she had licked her lips in a provocative fashion, and it had prompted the usual response from Buffet, this time for all to see.

Consequently, 15 journalists found themselves locked in, the doors refusing to open and no toilet paper issued from the IP-enabled loo-roll dispenser.

He turned red with embarrassment, even in his face, before zipping up his trousers, rather too quickly. There was a sympathetic gasp from the crowd as he lent forward in pain. Still, he didn't mind the agony at that moment; it at least deflected him from the deep sense of embarrassment. His penis shrank back inside his pants, down to a size it hadn't been since his preschool days.

Journalists, who had assumed it was going to be nothing more than a free lunch, were now frantically writing copy for the next morning's papers. Photographers had been busy, too, clicking away with images that were, in reality, far too racy for the mainstream press. The online news sites on the other hand, where smut was their bread and butter, would dine for months on the image of a CEO displaying his erection.

'Now,' said Buffet eventually, his voice slowly returning to its normal pitch, 'enjoy the evening and, when you feel the urge, visit the new IP-Dunny, fitted in the restrooms throughout this floor.'

The night had been a disaster, but it didn't end there. Opening up the new invention to the public or, worse still, to a gathering of sceptical journalists, when only two weeks had been spent developing the thing, was not a smart move. Buffet had insisted on testing the product himself, but as he regularly suffered from constipation it hadn't had a rigorous workout. In fact it had only been used once, just now.

He'd been lucky. Less fortunate were the scores of journalists who became trapped in cubicles with a software malfunction. Computer programs never work first time, particularly when they are written by a telecommunications company. Consequently, 15 journalists found themselves locked in, the doors refusing to open and no toilet paper issued from the IP-enabled loo-roll dispenser. A screen inset to the door stated 'Download error. Re-enter TCP/IP setting then reboot'. It was a familiar phrase for anyone used to computers and was usually remedied by calling out an expert at some exorbitant hourly charge, who would spend hours poring over manuals before randomly pressing a few buttons, then suggesting you get a new machine. Now the haphazard complexity of computing had spread to what had previously been a simple, organic function; having a shit in the peace and quiet of your own bathroom.

The problem was the toilets weren't designed for excessive use. 'Download limits apply,' Buchanan had urged Buffet to tell people, but the message clearly hadn't got through. The moment the speech had finished everyone raced to the toilets, having reacted badly to the undercooked and over-spiced Samosas handed out by waitresses dressed as toilet brushes. Desperate, they were confronted with a lid that wouldn't open and a door that had automatically locked behind them. For several hours they were trapped inside sound-proof cubicles where nobody could hear them scream. Only when the system rebooted itself did the doors eventually open and the journalists fled the venue, in their pungent soiled clothing.

The night's events, naturally, became front page headlines around the world. 'Buffet's Trunk Call' was the headline in the 'Sydney Mail', with a photograph of the man and his penis (the offending organ was pixelated, but a web address was provided where people could view the original photo, to see just how offended they were by it). 'Look at this dick!' ran the 'Illawarra Mercenary', with the subheading 'And look, there's his penis'. Another ran 'Is this the head of VastTel?' with an arrow pointing to the very end of the pixelation.

'This is so embarrassing,' said Woodburner, who had invited himself in to Buffet's office the next morning. 'You are making this company a laughing stock.'

Buffet kept quiet. He hoped time would eventually eradicate memories of the whole sordid affair but, of course, the internet itself would ensure that would never happen. Years later search engines would helpfully auto-add the word penis whenever you typed in Twistie Buffet's name. In fact, all you would need to do was type in the letter T and it would self-complete 'Twistie Buffet's penis'. Type in P and you'd get 'Penis, Twistie Buffet's'. There was no avoiding it.

For the next 45 minutes, through the paper thin walls, Buffet endured the strains and grunts of a man trying to defecate on an empty stomach.

There was also no avoiding the deluge of emails that filled Buffet's inbox, from angry shareholders, shocked parents, impressed homosexuals and a few Jewish societies suggesting it was never too late for a circumcision.

'It was so, so, so embarrassing,' said Woodburner, who was particularly upset that when he had done his customary vanity search that morning, his search engine added to his name 'Woodburner: Director, VastTel (of Twistie Buffet's penis fame)'.

'Well, your television network, magazines and newspapers got very good mileage out of it,' said a somewhat dismayed Buffet.

Woodburner's family did control a significant part of the media and their standards had dropped markedly over the last decade. The truth was, Woodburner's father, realising his son was far from clever, had vowed to use his empire to bring the country's collective intelligence down to the same level. He knew he could do it quite easily through a combination of tabloid newspapers and commercial television.

'Well, I must say, it is great for ratings,' said Woodburner, responding enthusiastically to that aspect of Buffet's misfortune. Then the young heir paused for a moment as he experienced the rare occasion of an original idea.

'I've just had a thought,' he said, fairly certain he'd never used those words before. 'The ratings will be even better with the follow-up story.'

Buffet could smell a rat. 'And what might that story be?” he inquired, assuming Woodburner would want him to resign. The media always loved to see one of their victims fall on their sword and the whole penis incident was the ammunition the young media heir had been waiting for. He could see the headline: 'knob gets the chop'.

But Woodburner decided a resignation could wait. Rather than going straight for the chop, perhaps he could orchestrate a more slow painful end to Buffet's career.

'Maybe we can get some more mileage out of this story,' he suggested.

'What, for you, your media outlets, or for VastTel?' asked Buffet glumly. At this stage he had little to lose. He assumed his career was over, so there was no harm in letting his true disdain for Woodburner shine through.

'Well, obviously for the media,' said Woodburner slyly. He sat upright and faced Buffet directly.

'And do I have any choice in this matter?'

'Certainly there's a choice,' said Woodburner. 'You can do as I say, or you can be sacked in disgrace, with immediate effect.'

He was enjoying Buffet's discomfort.

'Obviously the official line is that you chose to resign, but no one will believe it, not my newspapers anyway.'

'And the other option?' asked Buffet.

'You become the name behind a product that is selling like crazy at the moment. It's a client of the TV network and you'd be the perfect figurehead for them.'

'And what, precisely, will I be putting my name to?'

Woodburner smiled. Buffet had never seen him smile. It was a wide, evil kind of smile.

'Penis enlargement!' he said, eventually. 'You've read the emails, now see the results.'

Advertisements promising to make you last longer in the bedroom had been running all the time across television and radio, adding handsomely to the financial standing of the Woodburner family. The commercials had been before the advertising tribunal on numerous occasions because of the conflicting promises of giving you the sexual appetite of a teenager and making you last longer in the bedroom. Teenagers rarely lasted more than a few seconds, how can it do both? They also had sex with other teenagers, whereas with this product, sadly, you'd still be having sex with someone your own age. Or older if your eyesight was also failing.

Woodburner went on to explain how Buffet would appear that night on A Sordid Affair, an alleged current affairs program shown nightly on his father's national TV network. Nobody voluntarily went on A Sordid Affair. It was unscrupulous tabloid TV, generally airing grievances against companies that hadn't advertised on the network. Yet, sadly, people watched it; mainly people who had missed out on a few essential stages in the evolutionary process — the sort of people Woodburner made money from.

'You will remove what little credibility I have left!' said Buffet.

'Well that is unfortunate isn't it?' Woodburner mocked. He rested his hands on the front of Buffet's desk and lent forward, his face just inches from the CEO's angry stare. Woodburner was trying to look intimidating but it wasn't working.

'So, will you do it?' he asked.

'No way,' Buffet replied. He turned away slightly. He wasn't used to seeing Woodburner so confrontational.

'I think you will,' said Woodburner, confidently.

This time it was Buffet's turn to lean across the desk, his face just an inch from Woodburner's.

'Why don't you just fuck off you little twat?' he said.

Woodburner was shocked. Nobody ever spoke to him like that, except his father, and his mother, and all his siblings. But not anyone outside the family. After all, they had a television network and newspapers. The Woodburners could destroy anyone they wanted.

'I beg your pardon!' he said.

'You heard me, fuck off.'

Woodburner stood up, ready to storm out. As far as he was concerned this was it. He would make sure Buffet was out of the building before the sun set. He stood up, adjusted his shirt and jacket and headed to the door, stopping to turn back to Buffet.

'I'll get you!' he screamed. 'You are dead Buffet!' then he walked through the door and slammed it shut. Unfortunately, he'd taken the wrong exit and found himself in the confines of Buffet's executive lavatory. He tried to open the door but it refused to unlock itself until the IP-enabled device behind him sensed that it had been used. For the next 45 minutes, through the paper thin walls, Buffet endured the strains and grunts of a man trying to defecate on an empty stomach.

Buffet couldn't listen any more. He headed out of the office thinking more about what Woodburner had been saying. The words 'you are dead Buffet!' didn't concern him. He knew not to take it literally. Woodburner would never commit murder. It just wasn't his style. No, far worse was the humiliation on a national TV show. Or losing his job.

'Where are you going?' said Woodburner, rather feebly, as Buffet turned off the office light. 'Can you buy me some laxatives?'

Buffet knew now more than ever, he had only one choice. He was the one who needed to have blood on his hands. He really did have to kill Woodburner, to save the integrity that he mistakenly believed he possessed. Now all he needed to do was figure out how to do it. Whatever technique he was to use, it was clear that Woodburner must die, should he ever escape from the toilet.

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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