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The Incumbent: Chapter 16

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.

Sydney Musson had moved into his low security guesthouse, overlooking the harbour in the city's exclusive Double Bay. Even though it would be seen as luxurious by those used to seeing out their custodial sentences in more confined surroundings, Musson was having difficulty adjusting to his new home. Whilst the sticky carpet and seventies décor, including the obligatory brown bathroom, were not all that different from his own apartment, there was no cable television and only a sprinkling of free-to-air channels, whose programs seemed to match the dated design of the apartment building.

This was certainly a factor contributing to Musson's withdrawal from the rest of the guesthouse. He would spend entire days in his bedroom listening to talkback radio, despite health warnings that it can lower your intelligence and, eventually, remove your will to live.

He would spend entire days in his bedroom listening to talkback radio, despite health warnings that it can lower your intelligence and, eventually, remove your will to live.

Coincidentally, Whimplestein, Musson's psychiatrist, had studied the impact of talkback radio for his doctoral thesis. In the study, five relatively sane human beings and five young captive monkeys were exposed to varying lengths of AM talk stations on a daily basis. The humans with the highest exposure became gradually more insular, complaining about everything they could think of, and eventually roaming the streets naked, drooling and yelling incomprehensibly. The monkeys all went on to find jobs as producers at Radio 2IQ, the top-rating talk station and home to Adam Willis.

Despite his psychiatrist's repeated warning that this prolonged exposure to shock-jock rants would do him no good whatsoever, Musson continued to listen, moving onto the lethal advanced phase of becoming a regular caller. As his condition deteriorated he had his phone on redial and was finding himself on-air almost twice an hour.

'Good morning Mr Musson,' said Willis on his radio show one morning, not sure why his producer had put him through again.

'I just want you to know I'm going to kill them.'

'I'm sorry. Kill who?'

'All of them. I want to kill them,' he repeated.

Willis tapped his pen casually on the desk. Nothing his listeners said surprised him anymore, although very few of them made such direct death threats. Shame really, it was great for ratings.

'I don't care which one,' Musson continued. 'But someone from VastTel will die.'

Willis sighed. It was a stage-managed sigh. Secretly he was hoping he'd carry it through, then more people would be tempted to listen in to Willis' show, perhaps to see who would be killed next.

'You know you're not making any sense,' said Willis. 'Are you taking the tablets?'

There was a pause, but he knew Musson was still there, he could hear him breathing, quite heavily.

'I tell you what, just in case you're out of them, I'll send you some.'

Adam Willis had a slew of sponsors, who paid high rates to advertise on his morning radio show. Many also gave complimentary products, which Willis would sometimes send out to his listeners. There wasn't much he couldn't get for free — restaurant meals, prosthetic limbs, colostomy bags, whatever suited advertisers targeted his ageing, largely incontinent audience.

'I'm going to send you a variety pack of prescription-only medicines, thanks to our good friends at Viantim. Depression, gastric disorders, thrush. They've got it all covered.'

Willis finished Musson's call quickly, launched a long series of commercials, then slung his head phones down hard onto the desk.

'Who the f**k is this Sydney Musson?' he screamed. 'I'm sick of hearing from him. He's clearly demented.'

The executive producer pressed a button in the control room. His voice came through the speakers in James' on-air studio. 'Exactly!' he said. 'That's our demographic.'

'Demented?' screamed Willis. 'We're going after demented listeners now are we?'

'Always have,' said the producer, surprised that Willis wasn't aware of this. 'And, remember, a lot of people feel the same way he does.'

'But we're hearing from this idiot twice an hour,' said Willis, calming down a little.

There was a reason for this, but Willis was being kept out of the loop. VastTel's advertising campaign was nearing the end, and the sales crew were having difficulty getting an extension. Sales negotiations were always more tedious and time consuming than the blackmail technique used on Woodburner.

The station manager hoped Musson's repeated grievances would force VastTel into signing up for more favourable coverage.

The VastTel marketing team were insisting on 40 advertising spots a day, celebrity endorsements each week by Adam Willis, and a boozy lunch each Friday for at least 10 of the VastTel marketing team in an upmarket waterfront restaurant. Negotiations had continued for several weeks. They were close to reaching a compromise deal — it would feature just one advertising spot, with no celebrity endorsements, but would keep the lunch for the VastTel team (a key determinant in how much they were prepared to pay).

The station manager hoped Musson's repeated grievances would force VastTel into signing up for more favourable coverage.

'We run just one ad, once a week, for $200,000. That should be enough to make sure none of these callers ever get to air,' 2IQ's station manager had offered.

'Well ... will we still get the lunch?'

And so the negotiations continued, with more attention paid to precisely which restaurant, which wines could be selected and whether it included a seafood entrée. The day the deal was signed was the day Musson would be taken off the air, but Willis wasn't party to any of this. The station manager knew he would want his cut and Willis never took less than half of anything. But the manager did want to close the deal and he thought perhaps Willis could help.

'I've got a great idea,' he said after Willis had finished his show. 'Why don't we invite this Musson guy in?'

'A lunatic in the studio?' exclaimed Willis, wondering for a moment why everyone was looking at him with the same ironic smile.

'What, are you saying I'm a lunatic?'

There was a pause, which, even though it was relatively short, was still immensely embarrassing for everyone in the room.

'A very rich lunatic if you are,' said the station manager, diplomatically avoiding the question. 'Look, we get Musson in and we put him head-to-head with the CEO of VastTel.'

'The way this man is, he probably would kill him!' said Willis, not at all keen on the idea.

'Now that would be great for ratings,' said the station manager.

Willis could see that. He had to admit, he liked that element of the plan, but was also concerned that this Musson character could upstage him.

He walked across the room to where an assistant producer, a young Brazilian, new to the team, was scanning the VastTel website. Willis rested his hand on the young man's shoulder and bent forward to look at the screen.

'This is Twistie Buffet, their CEO,' said the Brazilian. 'Looking at his photo, he doesn't seem that impressive.'

'So what are you saying?' asked Willis, who had been paying a disproportionate amount of time over the last few days to helping the youngster get to grips with his new job. He'd often spoken about how keen he was to break-in new talent.

'I'm saying Damien Woodburner is our guy.' He flicked to an image of the young media heir, but Willis had stepped back and was far more fascinated with the young Brazilian's buff physique than anything being displayed on the internet, with the exception of a couple of sites that he kept to himself.

'This man is on their board. Young guy, son of a media tycoon,' said the Brazilian, swinging on his chair to face Willis, his legs splayed suggestively apart in a manner Willis wouldn't forget for some time.

Their Mafioso stand-over tactics meant that people never refused an offer to appear and sometimes they simply forgot to ask.

It was a good idea, media heir versus a struggling little Aussie battler, but for Willis it was all a bit too close to home. He knew the Woodburner family well. He mixed with practically all of Australia's wealthiest, most influential people and media tycoons were at the top of the list. He'd have to play this carefully. He needed to show that they were out to give VastTel a hard time, perhaps securing a personal fee for more favourable editorial coverage, without upsetting the Woodburner family in the process. How could he do that and retain his integrity? It was a stupid question. What did he care about integrity. He just had to figure out how to get the money whilst keeping Damien Woodburner happy.

And so the plan was hatched. Later the same day the station started advertising the event, several times every hour. The voice-over man spoke in a deep baritone, as though he was delivering the trail for a Hollywood blockbuster: 'Sydney Musson is a lunatic. Locked away for the safety of mankind. He is a man hell-bent on killing anyone who works for VastTel.' Underneath it ran a suitably rousing orchestral piece. 'Next week,' the voice continued, 'he comes face-to-face with VastTel Director Damien Woodburner. See who will survive in this Adam Willis special, next Monday on Radio 2IQ.'

It was gripping stuff, although, in their haste, they'd forgotten to ask Woodburner or Musson if they were willing to take part. Their Mafioso stand-over tactics meant that people never refused an offer to appear and sometimes they simply forgot to ask. They knew word would get to them and they would be publicly castigated if they didn't show. The first Damien Woodburner knew about it was when he was driving home that night. He was so shocked he drove his car off the road. Three soap starlets in the back sustained minor injuries and the booster seat for one of them was completely written off.

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.