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.
Security at the doors of Radio 2IQ was always intense. They had to ensure extremist nutters couldn't enter the building, unless they presented a show there. And Sydney Musson looked like the sort of person they'd like to keep out. He appeared agitated and disturbed. There was nothing unusual about that. All their listeners were agitated and disturbed, but that didn't mean they had to let them in the building. Sometimes they'd be allowed as far as the reception desk to receive a signed souvenir photograph of Adam Willis, then sent on their way. Others, who were particularly agitated and disturbed, combined with a small degree of coherence, might be given a try-out on-air shift in the middle of the night, when the broadcasting regulators weren't listening.
They wanted to hear the demented ramblings of an uncontrolled lunatic — it was part of the 'sound' of the station.
Musson, though, looked even more insane than the regular 2IQ listener. He seemed to be a man on a mission and the security guard was trained to look out for this kind of character. There had been previous attempts on the lives of various presenters, which was always a concern, particularly if the presenter was rating well.
Less effort was made to protect those whose audience numbers were on the slide and it wasn't unusual to find a presenter mortally wounded after four or more bad survey results. Two minutes left in a room with a demented listener was usually enough for the presenter to forego any future talk of contractual obligations and pay-out terms. With the exception of Willis, who had such a strong following from the most deranged elements of society, all announcers were dispensable. For every madman they put to air mouthing a tirade of extreme right-wing hysteria there were thousands more maladjusted fringe dwellers able to fill his or (very rarely) her shoes.
Of course, Musson hadn't turned up as some sort of sycophantic listener embarked on a little hero worship. He was there, as requested, to appear alongside Damien Woodburner on the Adam Willis breakfast show. VastTel had insisted that a psychiatrist attended with Musson, in case anything untoward should happen. Zimple Whimplestein was only too happy to help. He was quite keen to meet the broadcaster, having considered signing him up as a client, then deciding that he was probably beyond help before concluding that more money could be made helping his listeners.
Whimplestein's presence that morning had been a point of extreme negotiation with the management of the radio station. First, they didn't want someone there to calm the level of debate. If Musson went off his rocker, so much the better. They wanted to hear the demented ramblings of an uncontrolled lunatic — it was part of the 'sound' of the station. Secondly, they were always concerned about having psychiatrists on the premises, aware that many of their prime-time announcers could easily be sectioned with the stroke of a pen.
The bouncer, standing at the door of the 2IQ studios, also noticed a tension between Musson and Whimplestein. It was a fleeting observation that only occupied his mind for a fraction of a second, but for that tiny moment it was remarkably astute.
The resentment between the two men went back to early on in their relationship, soon after the court ruling. From that day Musson had been making great strides forward in terms of controlling his anger. He moved swiftly away from his position of wanting to kill someone, anyone, at VastTel and became quite philosophical about the whole episode.
In just a few weeks he had found some perspective. He realised murder was an extreme reaction and human life should be treasured. There were feelings of deep remorse for the throttling of the police officer who had taunted him at the time of his arrest. All in all, he was showing the first signs of being able to become an upstanding member of society at some point in the future, more tolerant than most perhaps.
Many put this positive step down to the great work of his psychiatrist, although on this they were very much mistaken. Whimplestein's own mental state was itself open to question. He was, after all, intent on helping Twistie Buffet kill Damien Woodburner, which, apparently, goes well beyond the ethics of psychiatry.
So, given Whimplestein's counsel, it's staggering that Musson had shown any signs of progress. In his early consultations Musson had been filled with a thirst to see one, or possibly a number of VastTel executives, meet some gruesome fate in the dead of night. The psychiatrist had muttered beneath his breath that he shouldn't be thinking such thoughts, but Musson had doubted the sincerity of his protestations. At the time he assumed it was some sort of technique he used.
'I hate the way you mess with my mind,' he had yelled at his psychiatrist.
Then, when a more reasoned Musson started attending sessions, Whimplestein seemed to become more desperate.
'I am starting to feel happy within myself,' Musson had said, displaying the look of a man who had finally found inner peace. Psychiatrists hated that look and the subsequent impact it had on their cash flow.
'This is Damien Woodburner,' Whimplestein had said, placing a photograph in front of Musson, when he realised he was losing him to reason.
'Look at this photograph. This is the face of VastTel. I want you to concentrate on this picture to such an extent that when you close your eyes you see only this man.'
Musson did as asked, staring incessantly at the photo and then closing his eyes. Woodburner's image stayed with him as the sound of lapping water gently sent him to a state of semi-consciousness. Then the waves were suddenly interrupted by a recording of a man calling VastTel customer service. It started with the extensive automated responses, followed by a tiresome period on hold, and eventually a slow and tedious interaction with a customer service representative. As the audio played out Whimplestein would periodically refer back to the photograph saying 'remember in your mind, the face of VastTel'.
Musson's inner calm had started to crumble. He felt the angst and torment being suffered by the caller and it invoked the same feelings that had previously driven him to the point of uncontrolled anger. It was all quelling up inside him again and, thanks to Whimplestein, it was being directed at just one man.
'The face of VastTel,' Musson had screamed. 'I must kill him!'
His psychiatrist stopped the tape.
'I think it's in everyone's interest that you stay away from this man.'
Musson had to agree. He had just enough self-awareness to realise that his inner peace had gone and a raging anger was, once again, bubbling just beneath the surface.
'Of course, it's difficult to stay away from him if you don't know where he is,' the psychiatrist continued. 'Otherwise, you might accidentally come across him, which could have extreme repercussions.'
Musson could half follow the logic.
'So here's his home address. I give it to you only so you know to stay away from it.'
At this point Musson started to question what was really going on. Why had he entered the session feeling calm and in control, but now, hours later, he had the home address of a man he wanted to kill, preferably slowly. As slowly as the complaints procedure at VastTel.
But Musson scarcely had time to consider Whimplestein's motives. For good measure he was returned to the recording of the customer service call and was subjected to a further four hours of torment. He heard the VastTel call agents progressively destroy the caller to the point where he had not only forgotten the reason for his complaint, but couldn't even recall his own name and had resorted to making chicken noises, before remarking that he had to go because he had inadvertently soiled his own underpants.
Now, hours later, he had the home address of a man he wanted to kill, preferably slowly.
More angry than ever before, Musson had been sent out into the night air with a photograph of 'the face of VastTel' and his home address.
'I've just checked and he's home right now,' Whimplestein had said, 'so please stay away from there, for everyone's sake. Whatever you do, don't head south down this road and take the second on the left.'
Desperate to seek his revenge, Musson left the building. Just a few steps down the road he realised there was a steely object in his trouser pocket. He wasn't sure how long it had been there, but there was no mistaking what it was, the cold metal shaft rubbing against his thigh. It was either a sexual aid of some kind or, more likely, a gun. His own mind was too confused to contemplate how it had got there, although he was at least entertaining the notion that Whimplestein had placed it there.
He wondered whether this was all perhaps a test. If he could show will and determination, perhaps he would be declared mentally fit and he could start to live a freer life. Perhaps he should walk the other way, but his mind was still replaying the gruesome horror of the VastTel customer service call.
'This is the face of VastTel,' came Whimplestein's voice, over and over again in his mind, sometimes with a little echo, other times with a slight flange effect.
Musson felt his muscles tense, and he strode with purpose down the road. As he walked he grabbed his hair and pulled his face up towards the moonlit sky.
'Aaaargh!' he screamed, unable to control his rage any longer. He remembered Whimplestein's last words to him: 'Head south down this road and take the second on the left.'
Faster than ever he marched, in a determined fashion, into the cold night air. But he was heading north. He'd always had a lousy sense of direction.
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.