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.
Ian Zorblestein was an obese, white South African with a particularly loud voice, even for a South African. And let's be honest, they do talk louder than anyone else — even Americans. And, of course, those who talk loudly rarely pay as much attention to listening. This was certainly the case with Zorblestein, who made a habit of never listening to anyone. The reason was partially, but not entirely, because he was deaf. This fact had gone unnoticed by everyone, himself included, for many years. The truth is, Zorblestein was so concerned with what he had to say that it never occurred to him to listen to anyone else and, hence, he never realised he couldn't hear. He wasn't even aware of deafness as a concept.
Fortunately for Zorblestein he was employed in an occupation where he wasn't required to listen to anyone. He was the Chief Financial Officer (CFO) for VastTel. It was a big company, with a vast customer base and Zorblestein was paid, like all CFOs, a vulgar amount of money to keep the books up to date and report periodically to the board.
Occasionally in meetings a board member might raise a question, which would be met with a stony silence, but generally the board was so keen for Zorblestein to leave the room they rarely asked anything, and so his deafness went unnoticed.
Zorblestein's enormous salary, listed in the government's top 20 contributors to gross domestic product, was possible because he kept the spreadsheet of what everyone in the company was paid. He wasn't deliberately and surreptitiously adding incremental amounts to his salary line; there was an accidental error in a formula that inflated his take-home pay by multiplying his hourly rate by the date, rather than the number of hours in a day. For example, his $160 per hour salary was multiplied by 241,010 on the 24th October 2010, instead of by seven and a half. The difference was enormous, particularly towards the end of the month.
Zorblestein was aware that something was not quite right. And he did sometimes question the ethics of an income that enabled him to buy a South Pacific hotel when he went on holiday, rather than just book a room for a week or two, but this moral dilemma never lasted more than a few minutes. It could normally be resolved with a substantial lunch, during which he would abuse the wait staff and ignore disapproving glances from fellow diners, who wondered how he seemed to be so blissfully unaware that he was regularly, and loudly, passing wind. Often the absence of one sense, like hearing, increases the efficiency of another, like the sense of smell. In Zorblestein's case, that hadn't happened; whatever resources in his brain that would have been allocated to listening, had clearly been redeployed to making his voice louder, and nothing else.
Zorblestein's rapidly inflating salary had gone unnoticed by others at VastTel because no one had sought to check his figures, primarily because that would involve sitting down and spending time with him. That was something everyone tried to avoid at all cost, particularly over lunch.
On that warm April morning, an hour and a half after Sydney Musson had received his extraordinarily large phone bill, the VastTel board was well into its monthly meeting and Zorblestein had presented his financial summary.
'The one significant trend,' he bellowed, uncomfortably loud, 'is the decline in fixed line revenues.'
In English, that meant people were spending less money calling on their home phone and more money on their mobile. Although they could be using all phones less, simply because they were running out of things to talk about.
Mobile phones did, of course, add a touch of glamour to the telecommunications industry. They came in funky designs, with all sorts of nifty features and plug-in devices. It was a long way from the old plug-in-the-wall-style phones of the past. Mobility changed the playing field, and this new technology was something VastTel was uncomfortable with. It didn't do new technology very well. It hated progress and it had dominated the market for decades precisely to stop this sort of thing happening.
Yet, increasingly, everyone under the age of 90 had become enticed by trendy multifunction handsets, each version diminishing in size to something proportionate to the nail of your big toe. People now talked about them ad nauseam, as though they were somehow better for owning one. Friends would talk or text each other for hours on their mobile phones. When they occasionally met face-to-face they there was little left to talk about. An embarrassing silence would generally follow until one of them would inevitably bring up the latest feature on their mobile phone and what it could do if only they could get it to work. 'Let's meet again next week,' one friend would say to the other, 'I'm getting a ZR8-50, it's got 5.5G, sat-nav, internet radio and a really neat food blender attachment so I can prepare meals on the way home.'
A whole new language had emerged around mobile technology. The names of applications, programming languages and operating systems tripped off the tongues of young people in the same way that old people could name the 47 different varieties of bird-life at the bottom of their garden. Both topics of conversation were equally fascinating (not at all), but in the case of technology it had started to emerge that people, increasingly, didn't have a clue what they were saying to each other, but were too embarrassed to admit to it.
And so the telecommunications industry evolved, from being something that facilitated conversation between people, to being the main topic of conversation, even though no one was really clear what it was that they were saying.
The public's passion for mobile phones was creating real problems for VastTel. It was forcing telephone companies to become fashionable, requiring enticing shopfronts staffed by people under 40 who didn't have body odour problems — the complete antithesis of the traditional telecommunications worker. This new breed wore fashionable clothes and had friends. VastTel just wasn't used to recruiting people like that. With the demand for mobile phones came new competitors, like NewTel, which were particularly good at employing youthful, smart, attractive people who, when they said something was 'totally sick' weren't complaining about their lumbago. It was a cunning strategic move against a company filled with overweight middle-aged engineers whose idea of fashion was a company-issued T-shirt worn unwashed for more days than is environmentally palatable.
And so Zorblestein warbled on to the board about the demise in revenues, using a range of numbers, some with dollar amounts, others in percentages, with the odd correlation index thrown in for good measure. All the figures were neatly presented in a lengthy series of slides. Some of the board would probably have understood what he was talking about had they chosen to listen, but by and large they found it all uncomfortably loud and just wanted it to be over with.
It was mutual. Zorblestein wanted to get out of there quickly, too. He had mastered the art of compiling dull presentations, where the absence of any perky colours ensured the audience would soon be lulled into a daze. If he could paralyse the board he could be out before lunchtime and spend the rest of the day doing something more satisfying, like abusing junior staff members.
Damien Woodburner, the youngest member of the board, found his attention drifting in the very early stages of Zorblestein's half-hour presentation. 'Two percent drop in sales ... consolidated seasonally adjusted forecast ... lower average revenue per user ...'
Who cared? He hoped his boredom wasn't showing, but there again, what did it matter if it did? All he cared about was getting this clown off the floor so he could get on with giving the chief executive a damn good sledging, always the highlight of a board meeting as far as Woodburner was concerned.
Even though he was the son of Kevin Woodburner, media tycoon and second richest man in the country (after Zorblestein ironically), it wasn't often the young Woodburner got a chance to give someone a full character assassination in front of an audience of peers. It made him feel good about himself in a way that money couldn't.
Throughout the board meeting the young Woodburner sat bolt upright, his heavily starched shirt making any movement in the arms and neck rather strenuous and awkward. He wore a bow tie to nicely round off the appearance of someone who was, to all intents and purposes, well, a bit of a twat.
His white face was only a shade darker than the shirt. The only splashes of colour were the various eruptions of acne across his forehead. Yet, despite the inadequacies nature had dealt him, he still managed to date attractive young starlets from his father's TV network. Strange that. Perhaps he was good in bed. Or just rich. Make your own judgement call.
Woodburner thought the finance presentation had been going on too long. He wasn't the only one. The entire board was now completely over it. The chairman should have stepped in, but he was close to falling asleep. The CEO, Twistie Buffet, knew he had to make a move.
Buffet had been VastTel's chief executive for 20 years, having worked his way up the ranks, after being successively promoted well beyond his capabilities on numerous occasions — in fact, ever since his first move out of the mail room. It showed, even though he tried to hide his lack of confidence behind an unconvincing moustache, loud ties and ill-fitting suits, all with an unfashionable sheen created partially by design but mostly from over-ironing. He looked a bit like a pimp out of a '70s cop show, although no one had ever commented or criticised because the rest of the company was equally style-deprived.
Fortunately for Buffet most of the board liked him. He was harmless, malleable and he wasn't going to try and change the world. As far as they were concerned he was steering a steady ship, even if, admittedly, it was still in dry dock. Putting it to sea would be too big a risk. Everyone knew VastTel could maintain its position, provided it didn't go anywhere. And with remarkably healthy government subsidies for this and that, the company could survive whoever was in charge. For an incumbent telecommunications company with very little competition, Buffet, a man devoid of aspiration and original thought, was the perfect leader.
Only one man had a different opinion of Twistie Buffet. Strangely it was young Woodburner, who was normally wrong about everything, yet in this instance he had the good judgement to realise that by holding the company back Buffet might be jeopardising the future; a future where newer telecommunications companies might flourish. He had to get Buffet out of the company if it was to stand any chance of taking out these new competitors, although, right now, he was pleased that he was stepping up to cut Zorblestein off.
'Okay, I think we get the picture,' said Buffet, talking over the South African who, of course, didn't hear him. In fact, it would take several sentences before Zorblestein realised what was happening.
'Sit down Zorblestein ... sit down,' Buffet had to say, somewhat forcibly.
'...will be depreciated over four years, resulting in a tax year result of...'
'Sit down ... please ... for Christ's sake!'
And so on.
Eventually, the finance man sat down for a brief moment, before leaving the room announcing he had a set of P&L accounts in urgent need of his attention. There was an audible sigh as he departed. Of course, Zorblestein heard nothing, but he did feel the breeze on the back of his neck. It was a familiar feeling when he left a room and he'd never quite figured out the cause of it.
Now it was time for the CEO's report. It was Buffet's turn to do the talking. An evil smile came across young Woodburner's face. He turned sharply towards Buffet and a smear of blood suddenly appeared on his neck. This often happened. The abrupt turn had sliced his fiercely starched shirt collar into his soft, pale skin creating a fine cut that would take weeks to heal.
'So Buffet,' said Woodburner as the blood slowly spread across his collar. 'Enlighten us on how your strategy for our brand will see us meet shareholder expectations in the next quarter.' He rested back on his chair and tapped a pen onto the edge of the desk. He was immensely self-satisfied, even if he wasn't quite sure what he'd just asked or would have any idea what would be a good answer. Buffet grimaced ever so slightly. The question had come from nowhere. He also hated the site of blood, although it was a little satisfying if it was coming from Woodburner.
For the next half hour Woodburner would contradict everything the CEO said. It was a form of masturbation for the young heir; satisfying, self-centred, but a little hollow. Still, it made the young heir feel better about himself. He was using this grandstanding technique, practised widely in business, on the recommendation of his psychiatrist, who was paid a large sum of money treating Woodburner's various neuroses. If the young heir could appear superficially superior to somebody, even if it was just in his own mind, that would stop him from spiralling into a deep inferiority complex. The psychiatrist, Zimple Whimplestein, reasoned that so long as he was out of touch with reality he probably wouldn't notice how chronically inept he was or recognise the fact that nobody liked him, not one little bit, except perhaps his father, who tolerated him, at least some of the time.
So, deluded as he was, Woodburner would carry on as if he was quite clever, helped by a regular (and expensive) program of hypnosis. He did sometimes wonder why, when he said something, everyone seemed to understand, even if he wasn't quite sure himself what he'd just said. Whimplestein had taught him that this was because he was inherently intelligent and these grand thoughts came out of his subconscious, by-passing the other parts of his brain — the parts that couldn't really understand what he was going on about. Woodburner accepted this, not even considering the possibility that he was talking crap, and that people were pretending he made sense because of the toadying up factor associated with his vast inherited wealth.
His parents had been fairly slow to recognise how backward their son was. It wasn't until he started at primary school that they realised that other children his age were walking, and had been for several years. From that point on his father pulled in favours to ensure his son got all the breaks, right up to getting acceptable grades at college, even though, at that stage he could barely spell his name. Nepotism was to follow him through his professional life. When the young Woodburner struggled to find work his father spent big to buy a stake in the telecommunications company and secure the boy a seat on the board. Although the young Woodburner didn't have a wealth of knowledge, he did possess an extraordinary knowledge of wealth and that counted in big business.
Whimplestein had been quick to recognise Woodburner's problems. It had resulted in a very pleasant lifestyle for the psychiatrist, including a mansion with harbour frontage in Sydney's exclusive eastern suburbs. It wasn't all paid for by the exorbitant fees he extracted from the Woodburner family — some money came from treating Buffet.
The CEO didn't suffer neuroses as such, he just had an unhealthy desire to kill Woodburner. In part this was because Buffet realised, if Woodburner didn't go, he would probably get rid of him. Murder seemed an extreme reaction, but there were many people who would like to see the young heir dead, including Whimplestein; although he wasn't in a big rush, he liked the money.
Sessions that had started out with Whimplestein attempting to quell Buffet's murderous intent quickly turned into planning meetings, where methods were discussed with an increasing enthusiasm and excitement shared by the two men.
'I want him dead!' Buffet would scream from the comfort of the psychiatrist's couch.
'What method would you use?' Whimplestein would ask, taking copious notes for future reference. And so, week after week, they would hatch new and exciting ways of ridding society of Damien Woodburner. It was a therapy that the psychiatrist himself found immensely satisfying, although that wasn't going to stop him charging his usual exorbitant fees, of course. There was private school tuition for his children to consider.
And so, little was being done to cure Buffet of his demonic aspirations. He was intent as ever on killing Woodburner. It would happen in a very painful manner, the two had agreed. If Whimplestein had professional ethics, something he'd heard mentioned at a conference once, he could easily have counselled the man into a more balanced state of mind years ago. But he thought there was a chance Buffet might actually pull it off. That didn't seem a bad outcome, although with the consequential loss of two sets of counselling fees, he'd rather the fate wasn't sealed until his kids were clear of university.
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.