The Incumbent: Chapter 34

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.

It was a surprisingly good turnout at the Hodbrook Hotel for Jones' direct reports meeting. More than 150 people showed up. Perhaps because it was such a cold, wet day. Some of the attendees could have been homeless people masquerading as VastTel executives; it was difficult to tell. Many of them smelled like they hadn't showered for a week or two.

There was a ripple of applause as Jones walked confidently through the crowd to the stage. It had the air of a political campaign launch. The theme from Rocky played through the loudspeakers. It hadn't been asked for, but a sound and light person came with the room booking, and he felt he had to do something. Spotlights flittered through the somewhat bemused crowd. Despite these distractions, Jones walked confidently up to the lectern, as if he had been a chief executive all his life. He was certainly more self-assured than his predecessor, who would stand, shoulders hunched, his diminutive stature hidden behind the lectern, from where he mumbled to the crowd, too far from the microphone for anyone to decipher anything.

Now, though, at VastTel, Jimi Jones was in charge, and a silence fell over the ballroom at the Hodbrook as the crowd waited for him to speak.

Some of the attendees could have been homeless people masquerading as VastTel executives; it was difficult to tell.

'Ladies and gentlemen,' said Jones, noting that there were actually no women present, apart from Natalie, who was struggling to open her 13th packet of Custard Creams.

'I am here to talk about change.'

There were murmurs around the room. Jones could hear some of the whispers: 'I knew it', and 'I told you so', and, several times, 'that's it, we're f***** now'.

'I want to make this company reach its full potential,' he continued, undaunted.

'Why?' cried someone from the back of the room.

Jones chose to ignore the question. He believed, naively, that he could turn these people around. He had motivated the workforce through his speech to the board, and he could do it again.

'Success doesn't come without sacrifice,' he continued.

'Why not?'

'There will be cutbacks. There will be a new way of working.'

'Why?'

'A more rewarding way of working that will mean we achieve greatness.'

'What for?'

'That's it, we're f***** now...'

The intrusions, all from one man at the back of the room, were starting to get annoying, and Jones could feel himself losing his cool.

'Admittedly, some people will have to go...'

'Who?' came the voice again for the fifth, possibly sixth, time.

'These are difficult times. But by creating a leaner, tighter structure for the organisation, we will...'

'Why?'

Jones stopped. Enough was enough.

'Who is that? Who keeps yelling out?' he asked.

The crowd towards the back of the room cleared, leaving a short man standing alone, dressed in a dusty, grey coat and a navy blue cap embroidered with the VastTel logo.

'You, sir, are not part of the new VastTel,' said Jones, pointing determinedly at the man. 'You are part of the problem. Consider yourself sacked.' He waved him away dismissively.

A couple of people from the legal department looked aghast. No one had ever been sacked before, and they weren't quite sure how that actually worked. Sure, Woodburner had sacked a couple of people, but nobody really paid attention to anything he said, and those people all continued to show up for work as usual.

'Perhaps someone from the human resources team could sort out the termination paperwork,' said Jones, sensing the shock that had reverberated around the room, but feeling it was probably a useful show of strength.

Woodburner had sacked a couple of people, but nobody really paid attention, and those people all continued to show up for work.

Of course, there was nobody from HR present. They were on a particularly cushy training course on 'Relaxation Techniques for Senior Managers', which basically entailed spending five days lounging around a pool at a luxury resort in the Seychelles.

Had they been at the meeting, they would perhaps have advised Jones against such a bold move, particularly as the man he had chosen to start his sacking spree with — who was bundled out of the room with a final muffled cry of 'why' — was VastTel's head of network infrastructure. He was basically the only one who really understood how many of VastTel's services operated.

Still, as far as Jimi Jones was concerned, this was just the beginning. He agreed with the report that had said three quarters of the workforce could go without any impact on productivity. Many more would have to go. He wanted to say as much, in a gentle, caring way, of course, but it was hard to regain the attention of the shaken crowd. He spoke briefly about how consultancy reports were showing the potential for efficiencies, without being specific about the magnitude of the cuts he planned. He explained how he was yet to formulate the strategy for a leaner organisation, but promised there would be consultation along the way. Of course, companies always say that. And, of course, they do consult you when they ask which bank account you'd like your final pay cheque to go in to.

Anyone whose surname started with the letters A to R would go ... it seemed fair and difficult to challenge.

Jones had given some thought to how redundancies could be enforced. Basing it on capability — keeping the best people and getting rid of the worst — seemed arduous and, besides, he was quickly figuring out that there were no best people. Everyone fell into the same basket of incompetence, so a more random means would be just as effective: for example, issuing redundancies based on the first letter of people's surnames. Basically, anyone whose surname started with the letters A to R would go, leaving the company filled with the back end of the alphabet. It seemed fair and difficult to challenge. People could marry their way out of redundancy, but that was the only loophole he could foresee.

He decided, though, that precisely how the cutbacks would be applied could wait for another day — possibly tomorrow. In the meantime, he opened the session up to questions.

'It's 5 o'clock,' came one from the increasingly cantankerous crowd. 'Are we getting paid overtime for this meeting?'

Jones scoffed at the idea.

'Of course not,' he said, and was about to explain that they were senior people, well compensated for their work, when he noticed that the room had entirely cleared. No one at VastTel worked after 5pm unless they were getting paid for it.

'Astonishing,' Jones said to himself, gathering his papers and stepping away from the lectern.

It was then that he noticed her, standing a few metres from the stage and looking up towards him. He couldn't believe it. The room was empty, except for Trisha Botherington, Jones' fantasy woman, and she looked more delectable than ever.

The young journalist smiled, flicked her long, blonde hair back, and walked slowly towards him, her leather-clad hips swaying in a most provocative fashion, seemingly independent to the rest of her body. It was as though she had been engineered to torment, and perhaps sometimes to satisfy, although he could only dream of such an eventuality. Jones could say nothing; he watched and dribbled a little, mostly from his mouth.

He watched and dribbled a little, mostly from his mouth.

'Well, well, well,' she said. 'If it isn't Christopher Robin.'

'I'm sorry?' said Jones, squinting a little as he looked through the floodlights beaming onto the stage. He stepped down to be beside her.

'Christopher Robin,' repeated Botherington, moving closer to him, closer than he had ever hoped for.

'You know,' she said. 'Christopher Robin, Tigger, Piglet, Pooh. They're all in there.'

'In where?' asked Jones, a little confused, but happy to keep the conversation going as long as possible.

'Those last two chapters. Straight from The House at Pooh Corner. Nice bit of padding out, I thought.'

'You've read the report?' said Jones, finally joining the dots. 'The Whitlam, Beevis & Hogsbreath report?'

'Yes, I read it. A long time ago. When it first came out. I thought I was the only one,' she said, her lips now just a few centimetres from his. 'But now it looks like I have company. It seems you are pushing ahead with their recommendations.'

All he wanted to do was tell her how insatiable his appetite was for a night of rampant copulation.

Jones looked at her moist lips and wide eyes and had the same reaction as every man who had ever stood so close to her. It was nice to know his libido was still functional. He had become so preoccupied with work over the last few days, he had forgotten all about the concept of sex. Now all he wanted to do was tell her how insatiable his appetite was for a night of rampant copulation.

In his mind, he wanted to say 'Can I f*** you?' Instead, he thought it safer to respond with, 'Well, I hope you're going to keep quiet about what you read.'

Well, that was what he thought he'd said; he couldn't be sure. Perhaps he had asked if he could f*** her.

Botherington smiled a little, licked her lips slightly and said, 'Of course.'

What? he thought to himself. What did I just say? Which one, dammit?

'However you want to play it,' she said, not really answering his question, but throwing his testosterone production into overdrive.

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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