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.
Trisha Botherington looked magnificent. She stood outside the VastTel building, a gaping hole on the 32nd floor behind her, microphone in hand, reporting live on Channel Eight. She looked straight into the camera, through to the hearts of almost every man with a pulse. The women liked her, too. She was strong, sexy and self-assured, whilst still being very feminine; the very model of modern-day womanhood. She once said that any woman could be like her, but, of course, she knew that wasn't the case. Nature had given her many natural advantages, across the full length of her body. And a brain, too; imagine!
Botherington was the saving grace for Channel Eight. It was a rolling news channel, which, in Australia, where nothing ever happens, is very difficult to sustain. Yet, people would turn on to watch Trisha, even if there was very little going on. A quarter of the news budget was spent on hair and make-up; more than half went on her salary. A considerable proportion of the remainder was allocated for costumes, as Botherington reported from disasters, matinees, church fetes, whatever the event, wearing a designer outfit related to the occasion. For a major explosion, like the one at the VastTel premises, she would wear her yellow emergency services outfit, designed by Carmen Dilligen, which incorporated the same fabric as the conventional jumpsuits, but cut off as hot-pants to show off Botherington's toned thighs, and, like all her costumes, a plunging neckline to demonstrate her most-discussed assets.
She knew the effect she had on men, but wanted to be known, first and foremost, as a credible journalist. If she could use her body to draw the attention to her work, that was fine, she reasoned. She just hoped that people would also recognise the integrity and determination in her reporting. Naively, she assumed that was why she had taken home half the gongs at the annual journalism awards, but, in truth, it was because the organisers, a group of lecherous old hacks, had wanted to see her on stage as often as possible.
If she could use her body to draw the attention to her work, that was fine, she reasoned.
The Channel Eight producers that morning knew they were onto a winner. There was Trisha, doing what she does best, looking as sexy as hell, tormenting the male population, whilst behind her, emergency service crews were running into the building as distraught VastTel employees were hurrying out onto the street. It had all the ingredients for a ratings bonanza. There was a disaster, the odd hero or two — if there wasn't one, they'd make one up — great visuals and, of course, Trisha. They knew everyone would be watching, unaware that at the same time, across town, another drama was unfolding.
Jimi Jones was one of just a handful of people able to watch both events. He was in the control room at Radio 2IQ, looking through the glass into studio two, where Musson was holding a gun to Woodburner's head. It was a tense moment, but not enough to totally distract him from the TV coverage. There's nothing like a terrorist attack on your workplace to get your attention, especially when Trisha Botherington had rushed to the scene. Like most males in their early twenties, he had a serious crush on the woman, and spent an unhealthy amount of time trying to untangle in his mind whether it was simply lust, or whether he had actually fallen in love with her.
Enthralling as the scenes were from the VastTel headquarters, he couldn't ignore what was happening in front of him. He was finding the whole affair shocking, and, at the same time, rather amusing. Jones had never experienced talkback radio before. He was part of that section of the population who studiously avoided it — the no-go demographic for shock jocks known as the under-seventies. It all seemed so theatrical, he wondered whether what he was watching had all been carefully stage managed, although the rising concerns of the production team had led him to think otherwise.
He was part of that section of the population who studiously avoided talkback radio — the no-go demographic known as the under-seventies.
They all sat open-mouthed, peering into the studio through the large, triple-glazed, bulletproof window. Jones knew it was bullet-proof, because there had clearly been several occasions when someone had had a go at whoever had been in the studio at the time, and, curiously, several shots appeared to have been fired from inside the studio, which led him to believe the presenters were armed.
The possibility of another gunshot was looking very likely, as Sydney Musson, now visibly shaking from head to toe, waved a pistol at Woodburner, who sat speechless as they both waited for the commercial break to finish before returning to their altercation.
Jimi Jones decided he needed to act. He wasn't prepared to stand and watch a cold-blooded murder, even if everyone around him seemed to be relishing the prospect. Despite his protestations that somebody should be doing something, the production team were too busy making phone calls to the morning television news programs, offering free audio of the unfolding incident.
'We're journalists,' one of them replied when Jones had suggested that they needed to stop Musson. 'We can't intervene, it's unethical.' A surprising adjective to hear coming from a 2IQ employee.
Realising it all rested on him, Jones burst into the main studio.
'Put the gun down and we can talk this through,' he screamed. But he was too late; the break had finished, the green light switched on and Willis was back in control.
'Well, I've never seen anything like it in all my years in broadcasting,' said the shock-jock. 'We have a madman with a gun here in the studio, and he looks ready to use it. Mr Woodburner, tell me what's going through your mind right now. Do you think he is going to kill you?'
'Of course he's going to f****** kill me!' screamed Woodburner. 'Just look into his eyes,' he said, before adding, 'someone's got to help me here.'
'Well,' continued Willis, 'Mr Musson has past form, of course. He has killed a police officer, so we know he's capable of it. This really is a most intriguing situation. I hope the police are onto this before it really does turn nasty.'
The police were nowhere near being 'onto it', of course. They were number eight in a queue of callers waiting to get on to 'Jed and Josie in the Morning'.
'I wouldn't want it to be a hyena,' said one caller on the best-animal-to-have-sex-with discussion, 'all that laughing, you might take it personally.'
Not only were the police slow to pick up on the unfolding situation, but the television news programs hadn't taken the bait yet, either. Willis was scanning the television pictures as he spoke, but there was nothing. Musson was finding his apparent disinterest in the situation a little unnerving. What had become of society, he reasoned, when the prospect of a murder attracted so little interest? Even Adam Willis seemed to have moved on from it.
'Of course he's going to f****** kill me!' screamed Woodburner.
'I'm going to kill this man and you're sitting there flicking through what's on television?' Musson protested, his gun hand shaking dangerously as he spoke.
'Hang on,' said Woodburner. 'Flick back to that last channel.' In his haste to see if any channels were covering the unfolding situation at 2IQ, Willis had skipped past Channel Eight. He'd seen Botherington, muttered something about 'that woman' and clicked on.
'Yes, you should see this,' said Jones from the back of the studio. 'There's been an attack on the VastTel building.'
'Hang on,' said Willis, looking round at Jones. He wanted to know what this stranger was doing in his studio. He was starting to feel the control of his program slipping from him.
'Who are you, and what are you doing here?'
He was about to call security, but realised that wasn't a good idea; they might take Musson, too, and that would ruin the program. Nonetheless, there needed to be some sense of order. If there was going to be a killing on his show, it needed to be handled within the strict confines of the format and running order. It must fit seamlessly between commercial breaks and traffic reports, and finish right on the top of the hour before the news.
Nonetheless, he did as Woodburner suggested, and flicked back to the channel where Trisha Botherington was reporting from outside the main VastTel headquarters. By this time, she was surrounded by onlookers who had turned up to see her in the flesh. In fact, all you could see behind her now was this huge sea of men, not a woman anywhere — it looked like India. Few had any real interest in the explosion.
Willis, who had little interest in Botherington's sexual aura, decided he needed to cut across to the audio coming live from the scene.
What had become of society when the prospect of a murder attracted so little interest?
'Look we'll come back to you in a moment, Mr Musson,' he said 'but there is another event unfolding outside the VastTel office block. Let's cross over live to Trisha Botherington, speaking live on Channel Eight.'
Musson was p***** off. What did you have to do to get attention in this town? Wasn't the prospect of a live on-air assassination enough? Still, there was no point in doing any shooting now; the red light wasn't on, and any coverage would be so after the fact.
He sat back down, swivelled his chair towards the TV and put the gun down on the desk in front of him. Willis looked on, motioned for him to pick it up again, but Jimi Jones was too quick. He reached over and grabbed it. Musson was so engrossed in Trisha Botherington that he didn't even notice as Jones tried to disarm the weapon. It took a while. The youngster wasn't used to handling anything that wasn't electronic. He spent some time looking for the off switch, then decided to remove the batteries, before eventually resorting to taking out the ammunition, which he came across by accident whilst looking for the SIM card.
'An explosion was heard inside the building around eight this morning,' said Botherington, her bosoms heaving in her low-cut jump suit. The camera pulled away to provide a wider shot of the scene, but primarily to provide another full-length body shot. It was an enthralling, well-engineered piece of television for which the news content was largely of secondary interest.
'There have been reports of a Black Hawk helicopter on the scene minutes before the explosion,' she continued, 'indicating some sort of government operation by the secret service, or perhaps by the tax office, both departments known to use the aircraft for surveillance and recovery operations, although the government has denied any involvement at this stage.'
The camera moved away from Botherington for a short while to show the office block with one wall partially ripped away. Quickly, the camera flitted back to the reporter and her legs. Four seconds with her out of shot was more than enough.
'Two men are believed to have been injured,' she continued. 'One of them is understood to be VastTel CEO Twistie Buffet.' The picture cut to a publicity shot of Buffet, doctored to show what he would look like after an explosion. 'His condition is said to be serious.'
'I don't think it's anything to do with the government,' said Willis, flicking his microphone open again. 'Does anyone seriously believe the government is capable of such an operation? I mean, let's be honest; they can't even run our hospitals and schools properly.'
'Does anyone seriously believe the government is capable of such an operation? They can't even run our hospitals and schools properly.'
Musson, Woodburner and Jones wondered whether it would be impolite to leave now. They didn't really want to sit and listen to Willis prattle on.
'Take my word for it,' he continued. 'This is a terrorist attack. No other word for it.
'And you know who is responsible for this,' he added, returning to the staple of his talkback radio diet. 'Migrants. Probably Muslims. Muslims who have failed to assimilate. When did you hear of Australians blowing the sides off buildings?'
That was enough for Musson. He couldn't take this s*** any longer. He had to say something. In part, he wanted to contradict Willis, something people rarely got a chance to do, but he also wanted to redeem himself. After all, his gun had been taken off him, and Woodburner was still alive. The last thing he wanted to be seen as was a failure. Psychopathic murderer, yes, but a failed psychopathic murderer would play on his self-esteem. That's why he said it.
'I did this,' he confessed, talking over Willis' rant against Muslims. 'That bomb was my work.'
There was a moment's silence. Nobody had ever been allowed to prove the shock jock wrong about anything.
'Well, I don't see why there would be any surprise,' said Musson, staggered at the looks he was getting. 'I've been saying VastTel has to be stopped. It's next to impossible to get through to customer service, so I had to do something to get noticed. And it's not difficult to pull something like this off.'
Uncharacteristically, Willis did not interrupt.
'I'm not the only one dissatisfied with VastTel,' continued Musson. 'There are hundreds of us, organised into cells, all over the country, planning attacks just like this one.'
It was a disturbing prospect. Willis' listeners shuddered at the idea of sleeper cells across the country, ready to strike at any time, although many were also relieved that someone was willing to stand up to VastTel's appalling level of service. Maybe it warranted this sort of action.
'Well, that's incredible,' said Willis eventually, almost whispering. 'You're a terrorist.' He spoke more confidently now. 'And I wouldn't have picked you as a Muslim. Absolutely astounding. You people look more like us every day.' His voice perked up instantly as he added, 'Now, here's Pam with the traffic.'
'Well, that's incredible. You're a terrorist. And I wouldn't have picked you as a Muslim. Absolutely astounding. You people look more like us every day.'
The morning's events had been followed keenly by operatives working in the secret service. Several of them carried the burden of shame for a mission left incomplete. Buffet was still alive, and there was a witness. The man upstairs was said to be far from happy. He was still smiling, but that was just how his face was.
'We'll have to go again,' he said to a young operative experiencing his first audience with the chief. He sat on the front of his desk for a moment, saying nothing further. 'You'll be part of the team. Go back to your desk and await further instructions.' Then he turned back to watch more of the Trisha Botherington broadcast. After a short while, he noticed the young man was still standing there.
'Is there anything else?' he asked.
The young operative handed over a bag of clothes.
'A woman dropped off this trouser suit,' he said. 'She wants to know whether we can have it back to her by this time tomorrow.'
The chief was angry.
'I'm sick of this dry-cleaning façade. Do the usual. Check the pockets, take a swab of any DNA traces, add her to the database then take it round to that Russian dry cleaners round the corner.'
They'd never thought to question why another large dry cleaners — this one four storeys high, with darkened windows and a sizeable underground car park — was so close to them, and why, like them, their turnaround time on relatively simple dry-cleaning work was so slow. But the man running it, a Mr Vladimir Bakatin, was always very pleasant and pleased to see them.
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.