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The Incumbent: Chapter 7

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.

Over at VastTel headquarters Buffet knew he had to do something about his gargantuan billing project. It had all started to go astray the moment he had signed a deal with Adam Darcy, from a company called Shorrock, Ball & Winston International. Darcy claimed they were experts in telecommunications billing systems and gave extensive slide presentations highlighting the advanced functionality of their software.

'Never mind the slides, can't you just show me the thing working?' Buffet had asked early in the piece.

'Can't do that, every implementation is different,' came the swift, well-rehearsed reply.

Accepting the lame excuse without a moment's thought, Buffet went on to be very impressed with the presentation. The content stretched well beyond his comprehension, but he was blown away by some of the animation effects, which saw words shoot onto the screen from all angles. He'd tried to do it himself on numerous occasions, but without success.

Thanks to lots of big words, a variety of interesting fonts and an even more impressive array of transition effects, the presentation was enough for VastTel to sign a deal worth $140 million for the software, a figure that included extensive consultancy work and software development. Darcy's people, it was agreed, would spend time learning all the detailed processes within VastTel, then adapt the software to suit. A further $140 million would be spent on legal fees to ensure that the contract was watertight, all paid for by VastTel. Admittedly, this was more than Buffet had intended when he perused the paperwork, but he always had difficulties with multiple zeroes at the end of a number.

The content stretched well beyond his comprehension, but he was blown away by some of the animation effects, which saw words shoot onto the screen from all angles.

An extensive contract was produced detailing exactly what would be delivered and for three years Darcy had attended meetings with Buffet and other staff in the business. Each time further slide presentations were used to show how the software would be personalised to suit the precise needs of the company. And, to keep Buffet's interest, each presentation would introduce a new transition — it was enough to reassure him that the project was in the hands of professionals. There were also extensive documents, totalling thousands of pages, with impressive-looking diagrams, interesting typography and even more big words.

The problem was that nothing was ever delivered, and Buffet couldn't figure out why. It had been discussed in detail for so long, surely he must be able to see something? But it was never going to happen. The truth was, there was no billing system, nor would there ever be. Darcy was a young conman who had realised quickly that telecommunications companies spent millions on software that is never implemented. Somewhere along the line a strategy would change, new complexities added, companies would be sold and, for whatever reason, what was described in the first instance would not be needed after all. When this happened, the company supplying the software, after years of development and millions in consultancy fees, would be paid many more millions to break the agreement. They made a fortune for providing nothing at all.

Darcy realised that the whole process was an immense waste of effort, so he set up a company that worked much more efficiently. Knowing that the software would never be used, he simply didn't write it, but knowing that companies were prepared to pay, he would bill them for the work that would have been done. Basically, the phone company paid for something they didn't get, which is pretty close to paying for something they would eventually discover they didn't need. Darcy didn't see this as a con, more a bit of common sense. Plus, fewer people were involved in the process at VastTel, freeing up more time for people there to do, well, whatever it is they do in that period between getting to work and going home.

Buffet had fallen for it hook, line and sinker. Darcy spent his days promising tailored software solutions that a fictitious group of dedicated software engineers would work on. Then he'd go home, and lie on his lounge room floor, writing documents and working on slide presentations for senior management teams. He earned a fortune for very little effort, freeing up lots of time for him to spend the money being pampered in the world's most luxurious resorts — resorts so incredibly expensive that he was the only guest there who didn't work in banking.

He earned a fortune for very little effort, freeing up lots of time for him to spend the money being pampered in the world's most luxurious resorts.

Of course, Darcy couldn't get away with it without connections. VastTel's legal team always contracted work out to Maliable Sons, a reputable legal firm who boasted the strongest ethics in the business. 'We have ethics,' their promotional brochure highlighted, as though this was a unique differentiator in their profession, without mentioning that for 50 per cent above their hourly rate they were prepared to forego this commitment and do whatever was necessary. Darcy had paid the legal firm their non-ethical rate to ensure they helped him negotiate a contract that couldn't be challenged.

Through this arrangement Darcy was raking in millions upon millions of dollars from VastTel and had done so from most other major telecommunications companies, many of whom had given him excellent references as part of the deal to get out of their expensive contractual commitments.

It was a genius scheme and all he had to do was to get companies to sign off on sets of requirements that were so specific that clients simply didn't have the time to check through the details line by line.

Buffet and Darcy would meet far too often to go through issues that needed to be resolved. Tedium was an important part of the process and it was working. Buffet was always keen to get Darcy's meetings over with so he could attend to other important decisions, like where he would go for lunch that day.

'I think we've hit a problem,' Darcy had said during their last meeting. They were on page 74 of the issues list, which highlighted the project's potential show-stoppers.

'I'm afraid that the product we outlined in the agreement cannot bill customers born before 1978. It was designed initially for telcos with a particularly young customer base.'

'Well that's ridiculous. Most of our customers are old. That's the only way we keep them. They're too old to change,' Buffet confessed.

'I'm afraid it wasn't specified in your requirements and there will be a lot of rework to fix the issue,' Darcy said.

'This next one,' exclaimed Buffet, 'are you seriously telling me that the software cannot accept a sales order from anyone with a surname longer than five letters?'

'Well, of course, we can do anything at a price, but you'll need to submit a change request. Why, is it a problem?'

'It's ridiculous!'

'Look,' said Darcy, 'you should have been more specific. All it would have taken is a single line in your list of requirements stating that the system must be capable of billing people with very long surnames. I didn't see any such requirement.'

Buffet gave an exasperated sigh.

'Now, you mentioned last week that you'd like to be able to bill people who have a mobile phone,' said Darcy.

'Of course,' said Buffet. 'They are the next big thing.'

'I'm afraid that can't be done.'

'What?'

'All these others things can be done at a cost, but this one is a fundamental change. We'd basically have to start again.'

'What?' said Buffet.

'You have to ask yourself, is it that important?'

'Of course it is. Everyone is getting themselves a mobile phone these days, even our customers.'

'But is it a fad?'

'No, I don't think so,' said Buffet, even though five years ago he had laboured the same argument to the VastTel board, delaying any effort in that direction for a good few years.

'Perhaps you just don't charge them,' suggested Darcy. He knew the mobile phone issue would be important and he hoped this would be the one thing to make Buffet cancel the whole project. Three quarters of VastTel's revenue now came from the mobile phone division. The growth had been phenomenal, partially through high customer take-up, but mainly because of billing errors. Buffet wasn't aware that fixing the software would have a significant impact on company earnings.

'You know there will be no killings unless sanctioned by the board.'

'So you can't bill for mobiles?' said Buffet, a little incredulous. 'But surely every phone company you have worked with in the past sold mobile plans?'

'No, I can't say it's come up until now,' said Darcy. 'We've been focused mainly on New Zealand. Mobile phones haven't reached there yet.'

This, of course, wasn't true. There were a lot of mobile phones in New Zealand and in some parts of the country they got coverage. But Buffet was easily bluffed and he cancelled the project that day, agreeing to a $60 million pay-out. It was a good result for Darcy. He was suddenly very, very rich — rich enough for a three bedroom apartment with glimpses of Sydney harbour, for example.

As word of the project's cancellation got out, the VastTel share-price plummeted 25 per cent to an eight-year low. Journalists wrote about how important the project had been, although no one was quite sure why. A detailed explanation would require talking to Duff or someone from the IT department and no one ever really wanted to do that.

Word of the cancellation hadn't reached Woodburner when he turned up in Buffet's office later that day. The CEO had been wondering how to break the news. If he just told him outright he would probably lose his job. The young heir would use it as a trigger to convince the rest of the board to see things his way. Of course, they might not agree, most hated Woodburner, but Buffet couldn't take that risk. He needed his job. Otherwise goodness knows what would happen to him. It was coming into winter, not a good time to be homeless.

He considered that the only way he could keep his job was to stop Woodburner making it to the next board meeting. But how could he do that? Once again, he was convinced that there was only one logical way.

'I'm going to have to kill him,' he said to himself.

'Kill who?' asked Woodburner who was sitting opposite, waiting for an update on the billing project.

'Shit, did I say that out loud,' thought Buffet.

'Yes, you did,' said Woodburner, getting up from his chair.

Buffet couldn't believe he'd said that, too.

It hadn't occurred to Woodburner that Buffet was serious and that he was the intended target, so he ignored the comment.

'You know there will be no killings unless sanctioned by the board,' he said as he walked towards the door. He was trying to be amusing. He'd always wanted to have a sense of humour and seemed quite pleased at his attempt.

'Unless you're talking suicide,' he said, 'in which case, be my guest.'

Woodburner liked his line. He was fairly certain it was sarcasm.

'Very funny,' said Buffet.

Woodburner mistakenly took that as affirmation that he had been genuinely amusing.

He was enjoying the experience of threatening the CEO and this enjoyment was beginning to show, mainly in his trousers.

'And remember Buffet,' he said 'I'm watching you. I want you out of this job. One slip up and you're gone.' With that the young heir to billions left the office, supporting his biggest-ever erection, which eventually died down an hour later, halfway through a lunch date with a young soap actress who was close to reaching puberty. It was at the point when she started to talk.

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.