The Incumbent: Chapter 5

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.

Twistie Buffet was backed into a corner. Five years ago he had embarked on an ambitious multimillion-dollar project to implement a new billing system at VastTel. Billing systems are complicated beasts, particularly for an old, unwieldy telecommunications company. They monitor how many calls you make, generally miscalculate the cost of those calls, then put it all into one incomprehensible bill that is sent out late to customers who are then given two days to pay before they incur a late fee, which is probably charged anyway, even if they do pay on time.

'This man was so mad about being incorrectly billed, he went and strangled someone; a policeman no less.'

The systems are unwieldy because, as new products are offered, changes tend to be bolted on by geeks who add thousands of lines of computer code that invariably breaks other parts of the software, resulting in phone bills that are even more complex and ensuring even more people are charged the wrong amount.

The billing system at VastTel was now so broken, so full of errors, that Buffet had decided the only way to fix it was to start all over again. The problem was that he had promised the board it would take 18 months and cost $12 million. Now, two years later, it had cost $260 million and there was no sign of it being completed, possibly ever.

'Have you seen this?' Woodburner asked, having welcomed himself in to Buffet's office. The young media heir slammed a copy of the morning's paper onto the Chief Executive's desk. Buffet read the headline aloud, 'Transport Minister exposed as transvestite.'

'No, not that one,' said Woodburner, 'this one.'

'Phone Fury Kills Policeman,' read Buffet.

'Precisely,' said Woodburner. 'This man was so mad about being incorrectly billed, he went and strangled someone; a policeman no less.'

He sounded unusually compassionate. Since when did Woodburner, from a media family, care about human lives? Murders had some sort of passing interest to people, but generally they used up valuable real-estate that could otherwise be devoted to the sort of unsubstantiated salacious gossip that sold newspapers.

'If you had delivered your f***ing billing system on time this copper would still be alive today.'

Buffet was at a loss for words.

'Look how big this story is,' said Woodburner, prodding the article fiercely.

'It's only about two column centimetres,' said Buffet, wondering why there was this elevated level of concern. Customers often turned insane after too long in the call queue. Why was this one so different?

'Look, you have to get this billing system fixed before it kills more people.'

Buffet tried to stay calm. 'We spoke about this, remember?' he said. 'Delays are inevitable and that can create some inconvenience, even murder, but we are doing our best to keep it to a minimum.' He had grown accustomed to delivering this considered response, devoid of emotion and providing no new information and carefully avoiding any form of commitment to remedying the problem. It's pretty much how all business executives speak. They've got used to saying as little as possible with the highest number of words; it helps to fill in the time in lengthy meetings.

'I don't know how you can be so calm about this,' said the young Woodburner. His anger was starting to create a slight tint of red in his unusually pale complexion, although it could have been the onset of a cold. Whatever it was it was causing a number of his pimples to slowly erupt.

Buffet tried to ignore the puss and said reassuringly, 'Look, it's all under control', although secretly he wasn't so sure this time. His phone hadn't stopped ringing all day. Adam Willis, the breakfast shock jock on Radio 2IQ had already given him a grilling.

'It's a disgrace,' Willis had said in his morning editorial. 'A policeman was killed yesterday because a man went psychotic over an incorrect phone bill from VastTel.' He spoke quickly and deliberately, pausing often for effect. 'Absolutely incredible,' he said, his voice raising several octaves.

He had Buffet on the line, which was enough to satisfy his public that he was providing a balanced piece of debate. Beyond that he didn't really want him talking any more than he had to, just in case he argued logic; that would confuse his listeners.

He waited a second before repeating 'absolutely incredible', then raised his voice higher still to deliver, 'and all because of a phone bill'. There was another pause. 'Twistie Buffet is the CEO of VastTel and we have him on the line. Mr Buffet, there's something wrong with the bills you cretins are sending out and it's killing people.'

'Look, I think that's a bit harsh, Adam…,' Buffet started to say.

'Well, I think that is fair enough,' Willis interjected. 'There's a policeman dead for Christ's sake.' He was always highly supportive of the police. Secretly, he loved a man in a uniform.

Buffet spoke calmly. 'First of all, our thoughts are with the family of the police officer killed yesterday. This was an unfortunate isolated incident...'

'Unfortunate!' screeched Willis. 'Unfortunate!'

He paused, and faded down Buffet's mic so he couldn't be heard. He didn't want him speaking and ruining the impact. He had Buffet on the line, which was enough to satisfy his public that he was providing a balanced piece of debate. Beyond that he didn't really want him talking any more than he had to, just in case he argued logic; that would confuse his listeners.

'It is, and I said it before, it is absolutely incredible,' continued Willis. He gave an audible sigh and paused briefly before asking, 'so when will the problem be fixed?'

'We have a program underway to implement a new billing system…'

'That's not much good for the family of this police officer is it?' interjected Willis, now reaching fever pitch. On the other side of a glass panel his producer was looking on excitedly. A confrontation like this was great for ratings.

'These boys, who walk a fine line; these boys who put themselves out there, in the path of danger, to protect us.'

He paused, hoping no one in the control room could see the growing bulge in his pants as he spoke.

'Young, fine athletic men at the pinnacle of their manhood.' He clearly hadn't seen a photograph of the victim, who was neither young nor athletic, but the facts were scarcely relevant. It was emotion that counted.

'Their terrific young bodies,' Willis continued, 'well toned and ready to fight for our rights. Fit young men…,' he was starting to drool a little, '…in their crisp uniforms, out there making this a lawful, peaceful place to live.'

This was a perfect time for another pause — a long one this time, about two seconds, before he said, almost under his breath, 'God bless them'.

Sanctimonious praising of authority figures always helped to unite his audience of ageing, narrow-minded, right-wing, xenophobes, for whom the world was changing too quickly.

Sanctimonious praising of authority figures always helped to unite his audience of ageing, narrow-minded, right-wing, xenophobes, for whom the world was changing too quickly.

'It seems you have blood on your hands, Mr Buffet. What have you got to say about that?'

Buffet tried to answer.

'That's what I thought, nothing at all,' said the shock jock, who had kept the fader down, so Buffet could not be heard. Willis spoke calmly now. It was part of his technique, to go quickly from hysteria to an almost passive acceptance of the way things are.

'Well, it's happened. Not a lot we can do about it now I suppose,' he said. He could almost hear the dismay amongst his many thousands of loyal listeners.

'He's right,' they'd be saying to themselves, 'that's the sad fact of the matter.'

Willis decided it was time to turn it up a notch again, as he skilfully took his audience on a rollercoaster of emotion.

'Except, we can stop it happening again. We can't sit here idly by, and allow history to repeat itself. So tell me, Mr Buffet,' said Willis, now getting up to full steam, 'how will we stop another lunatic madman being sent over the edge by your inept company?'

'Look, I'd hardly say we were inept…'

Buffet was only able to say these few words before Willis butted in again. People rarely got a chance to finish a sentence.

'Well I would!' he shrieked. 'It's inept. There, I said it again.' He sounded very pleased with himself. 'There's no other word for it. Unless you can think of one? Call me on 131-2IQ if you've got a better word.'

This was bad news for the phone company. Willis had opened the floodgates. Now he'd be welcoming call after call from dissatisfied VastTel customers.

'Monolithic, bureaucratic, bumbling…' He paused, less for effect and more because he was running out of adjectives. Fortunately, he had a page of them stuck to his desk. They were words he used in strict rotation, normally to direct at callers who dared to disagree with him; '…tedious, pathetic, pompous…'

2IQ management prided themselves on using more negative adjectives than their struggling competitor, who hadn't realised that the key to entertaining old people was helping them to whinge relentlessly.

Then, without even a hint of a pause Willis quickly cut to the wailing voice of Brenda Lumptous, a young Brisbane teenager launching into a mediocre rendition of 'A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square'. It was a new CD release that Willis had been paid a moderate sum of money to pimp to his gullible listeners.

He would touch all their emotional buttons, provided his listeners surrendered completely to him and avoided any inclination towards free thought.

'Listen to this, beautiful voice, isn't this? Beautiful.'

The words of the song were almost true to the original, but a thumping beat had been added to it, with a rapper repeating the last few words of every line.

'I might be right, I could be wrong — I could be wrong

But I'm pretty willing to swear — swear baby swear

That when youse turned and smiled at me — my baby smiles,

A nightin'gale sung in Berkeley Square — Berkeley Square, Berkeley Square, sing it!'

Of course, it was her good looks more than her voice that would sell records. Forgetting to wear a bra on the day of the photo shoot would almost certainly shift tens of thousands of copies. Adam Willis' endorsement would take it even further.

The teenager had given an adequate performance, recording one word at a time and modified using software that had made many a soap star into a recording sensation. It was the same software that, in real time, lowered Willis' voice several octaves and removed a slightly effeminate lisp that would lose him thousands of homophobic listeners; the same listeners who refused to believe the rumours regarding their hero's true sexuality.

'Astonishing. And beautiful words, too. I tell you, they don't write songs like that anymore,' he said, hoping his listeners would forget the completely new material he had spoken about so positively the morning before, helped by a $100,000 deal with Sully Music.

'And I don't mind the rapper either. A black man, very nice,' he said, looking at the CD featuring the man in fond embrace with the young singer. 'He looks quite sweaty in the picture,' said Willis, a little excited and completely ignoring the woman, 'he's obviously been for a workout.'

Willis took a gulp of water as he spent rather too long looking at the picture. It created a pause that was longer than normal, before his producer faded up the last minute of the song.

And so Willis carried his audience on a journey that would see them angry, entertained and moved. He would touch all their emotional buttons, provided his listeners surrendered completely to him and avoided any inclination towards free thought.

That's why, with the power and loyalty that Willis demanded from his audience, the interview with Buffet had been particularly bad news for VastTel. His show on 2IQ always topped the ratings making him, without doubt, one of the most influential men in the country. His opinion counted, even though he generally spoke a load of uninformed old bollocks. Now, with the possibility of an hour or so of talkback calls, the situation could get out of control for the phone company.

His opinion counted, even though he generally spoke a load of uninformed old bollocks.

Fortunately, as the Brisbane teenager wailed away, mutilating the Vera Lynn classic, VastTel's marketing department made a call to the 2IQ sales team and secured a $2 million advertising schedule, with a further $1 million offered for celebrity endorsements by Willis himself. That was just enough to do the trick. Six digits was normally the absolute minimum to secure a back flip — something Willis did routinely — but the bigger the company the bigger the sum required.

'She'll go a long way that girl,' said Willis, finally fading out the mediocre teenage talent. 'And a beautiful girl, too. Tremendous girl. Great to see such astonishing Aussie talent. Unbelievable.'

Willis again held out the CD cover in front of him. Lumptous was wearing a low cut top with a bare midriff and tight pants as some sort of homage to the eighties. It was a look that Willis would have enjoyed, if she'd had a penis.

He paused again, taking one last look at the black rapper, before giving the website address and phone number where his listeners could order copies. Then, the sales job done, he was ready to switch topics, back to his main story of the day.

'Let's look at this Musson character, who strangled an innocent policeman in Sydney yesterday morning.' There was yet another pause. He needed to use all the tricks he had before launching into another of his familiar u-turns.

'It's easy to blame VastTel for this,' he said. Another pause.

'I've spoken out against them in the past.' By that, he meant five minutes earlier, but his audience tended to live for the moment and probably hadn't even noticed their onset of Alzheimer's.

'But,' he continued, 'people are responsible for their own actions, wouldn't you say, Mr Buffet?'

Twistie Buffet was back on the phone, promised a more welcoming approach, in light of the multimillion-dollar agreement that had been signed somewhere in the third verse of the song, just as the Brisbane try-hard had sung, 'the whole darn world seemed upside down'.

'Yo, turn it upside down baby,' the rapper had added.

'Well, as I was saying,' said the relieved Twistie Buffet, 'this was an isolated incident. There were items on his bill that were incorrectly charged, but clearly this man had deeper problems totally unrelated to VastTel.'

It was a fair point, but truth and logic were rarely given any time on the Adam Willis program without a significant payment made beforehand.

'I agree,' said Willis, whilst checking online banking to ensure that his share of the deal had already found its way into his account. 'I've been with VastTel for years and I've never had any problems.'

'Look, we do make mistakes from time to time...'

'We all do,' volunteered Willis. 'Even I do,' he said grudgingly. 'That's life!'

'Yes. And this was a very sad situation, but it could have happened to any company.'

His Mafioso ways meant he'd be back for more, or he'd return to a relentless on-air verbal bashing of the good ship VastTel and all who worked for her.

'To any company,' Willis repeated. 'It could have happened to any company.' He repeated it again, slowly, just in case any of his listeners had failed to cotton on to his sudden change of direction. The bank transfer had clearly gone through.

'They're trying hard and doing a great job over there at VastTel,' Willis continued. 'Who else can we say that of, these days? Not many people, not many companies.'

There was a pause.

'But I'd like to hear your thoughts. Which companies really stand out?'

And with that Willis took half an hour of talkback calls, with most agreeing that VastTel was, underneath it all, a good company, an icon even.

'Until you pointed it out Adam, I'd never thought about what a great job they're doing,' one caller said.

'I love you Adam,' said a 94-year-old incontinent from Dulwich Hill. 'And if you like VastTel, I like them too.'

'I'm calling you on VastTel now and it sounds grape,' said another caller.

'Did you say grape?' asked Willis.

'Sorry….idn't…at you sai….but I love my ass-tel.'

'It's a bad line. Sounds like you're using another network,' Willis joked.

He smarmed his way through 47 calls, all positive about the presenter and the incumbent phone company. It was an astonishing result because, before his endorsement, research had shown that only 30 people in the entire country had anything good to say about them and most of those had misunderstood the question.

And so the calls continued.

'You're kidding, VastTel is crap,' one honest caller managed to say on air, before being cut off, black-listed from ever being put to air (at least until the VastTel sponsorship deal had expired) and having a burly Pacific Islander meet him that afternoon as he picked up the kids from school with some advice to never disagree with Willis again.

God was a man, possibly a woman, who, if He or She existed, got a significant project finished in seven days, mainly because He (or She) did it Himself (or Herself).

VastTel, in the meantime, had escaped the whole ordeal relatively unscathed. The country's most influential critic had been silenced for now, but three million dollars was only enough to keep Willis quiet for a month at best. His Mafioso ways meant he'd be back for more, or he'd return to a relentless on-air verbal bashing of the good ship VastTel and all who worked for her.

When the month was up there would be a visit from someone in the Radio 2IQ sales department ready to collect the protection money. You didn't need sales experience for a role like that, you just needed to look and sound intimidating. They were there to collect, not sell and the team of collectors included former bodyguards, bouncers, boxers and a hermaphrodite Javelin champion from Eastern Europe. People rarely said no. They knew Adam Willis had an opinion on everything, but you had to buy it.

'Smoking can cause cancer? What rubbish,' he'd once been paid to say. 'I love a good cigarette'; and

'It's the trendy thing to speak out against drug traffickers, but they're just trying to make a living like the rest of us'; and

'How can asbestos be bad for you? It's just a bit of dust. If you get ill from a bit of dust, you've got to think there was something more seriously wrong with you. Stop blaming the asbestos manufacturers'; and

'Accountants. They're fun people to be with aren't they!' he once asked rhetorically.

This last one was harder to convince people of, but Willis did it nonetheless. He loved a challenge.

And every time Willis spoke, his loyal band of followers would listen and agree. Accountants suddenly found themselves invited to parties and, although the hosts were always disappointed by the conversation, they blamed themselves, not the accountants. Clearly, they were too boring for the numbers men whose minds were working on a higher plain.

All of this explains why, a short while after the show, Damien Woodburner was sitting on the couch in Twistie Buffet's office. He wanted blood. The situation had been rescued, but not without a fairly sizeable payout.

Young Woodburner looked angry, although secretly the whole episode was good news for him. It might have momentarily damaged the company, which would probably cause him some financial discomfort, but it was worth it. It provided ammunition that could be used to convince the rest of the board that Buffet was incapable in his post. He wanted to see Buffet go and he wanted the exit to be as humiliating as possible.

'You were very lucky this morning Buffet,' said Woodburner, 'but let me tell you this, one more mistake and I'll personally see to it that you're out of this job and you'll never work in this town again.'

He finished Africa, got the fjords done and, although He might have made a few short cuts on the interior of Australia, not to mention the aesthetic appearance of people from the north of England and the personality of Canadians, by and large He did a good job

It was understandable that Woodburner was getting impatient. The billing project was taking years to complete, helped by teams of contracted, anally retentive project managers, who were aware that they were largely unemployable and knew there was no future for them after this job was finished. So vested interests kept the project alive, moving slowly, but supported by copious amounts of gang-charts, timelines and other lengthy and extraneous documentation that went mostly unread.

Buffet wasn't a religious man but he sometimes wished he was. God was a man, possibly a woman, who, if He or She existed, got a significant project finished in seven days, mainly because He (or She) did it Himself (or Herself). There were no consultants, no overpaid management graduates talking about world's best practice — perhaps because when He set out there wasn't a world — and He didn't waste half the week sitting in project meetings. There were no excuses; He just got on with the job. Or She did.

God also wasn't getting fed the bullshit of a consultancy firm, who spent too much time producing explanations about what couldn't be done. There were no interim reports claiming, for example, that Africa could only be completed on time if they spent less time on Norway's fjords and, even then, the project would still be 100,000 years behind schedule. God just did it Himself. He finished Africa, got the fjords done and, although He might have made a few short cuts on the interior of Australia, not to mention the aesthetic appearance of people from the north of England and the personality of Canadians, by and large He did a good job. And that was because He wasn't hamstrung by bureaucracy.

If only Buffet had been able to apply the same sense of efficiency when implementing his new billing system. But, of course, he wasn't God. That title had already been claimed by Adam Willis, at least in his own mind.

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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