The Incumbent: Chapter 23

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.

The Prime Minister was thinking for a moment about priorities. Although he'd like to be in Kyrgyzstan hobnobbing with political dignitaries, there was the economy to consider. He was only too aware that an efficiency drive at VastTel could well bring on the total economic collapse of his country. He didn't want to be remembered as the leader who fell asleep at the wheel. More to the point, he didn't want to lose his job. His mortgage was too high and he knew, if he wasn't Prime Minister of Australia, he would be out of work. He was almost certainly unemployable.

Duff's other big concern was his Finance Minister, Ted Holton-Lacey. There was this deep sense that he was planning something. Was he going to have a tilt at leadership of the party?

He tried to put those thoughts to the back of his mind as the two men grappled with the vexing question of how they would stop the country tumbling into total economic disintegration.

'Twistie Buffet is the VastTel CEO,' said Holton-Lacey. 'I have reason to believe that he is the one planning efficiency measures.'

'Well, we can't let it happen,' said Duff, somewhat agitated. He hated it when things went wrong. He particularly hated it if it meant he had to do something about it.

'What do we know about this Buffet character?' asked Duff.

'Not much,' confessed Holton-Lacey. 'We never hear from him and he never seems to do anything. Until now he's been the perfect man for the job.'

His mortgage was too high and he knew, if he wasn't Prime Minister of Australia, he would be out of work. He was almost certainly unemployable.

Duff wondered what might have changed. Had Buffet been reading some management books? He doubted it. They rarely did any good. There was a wealth of ineffectual advice out there written by motivational speakers with heavily gelled hair who couldn't manage their way out of bed before lunchtime. They wrote books with titles like How to be a Superstar Manager Without Lifting a Finger or Why it Pays to be Decisive, Mostly. Sometimes someone would read these books, generally a relative of the author, but mostly they were just given away at seminars en route to becoming landfill.

'Well, we're going to have to get rid of him,' said Duff, envisaging a convincing retirement package.

'Yes, we have to keep him quiet,' agreed Holton-Lacey, hatching a far more sinister plot in his mind. 'There's always my Redundancy Plan.'

That seemed a bit harsh to Duff. They'd never made anyone redundant. It was counter to everything they stood for. He'd imagined a sternly worded letter — not too stern, mind — and a chat over a coffee, in which the subject of retirement was broached.

'I'll get the secret service onto it,' said Holton-Lacey.

'Really?' said Duff. 'That sounds a bit extreme.'

'They're good at getting rid of people.'

'Yes, but don't they kill people?' He didn't like it, but he appreciated that sometimes assassinations were necessary for the protection and betterment of Australia — foreign agents, political agitators, nauseating quiz show hosts, and so on.

'They don't just kill people.' Holton-Lacey had been working closely with the secret service in the formulation of his mysterious Redundancy Program. 'They can be quite diplomatic sometimes,' he said, although he hadn't seen any evidence himself.

'Well, in that case, no harm in talking to them,' said Duff, flicking through his phone list and realising he didn't have them in his contacts.

'Do you have their number?' he asked Holton-Lacey.

'Sorry, no,' he lied. He really wanted the Prime Minister to leave it all in his hands.

Duff decided to resort to directory enquiries. VastTel's voice recognition system kicked in and asked him to clearly speak the name of the person or company he was trying to contact.

'Secret service,' he said, astounded to hear an immediate response.

'The number for ... the Australian Secret Service is ... FreePhone Assassinate ... that's 277 27746 283.'

'Incredible,' said Duff, who had never seen the directory service work so well.

'Putting you through now,' said the voice, before connecting the Prime Minister to a family owned joinery firm just outside Gosford. Duff knew it had been too good to be true.

It turned out that the father and son operation got a lot of misdirected calls and they were using them to secure custom in the manufacture of hand-made coffins. It didn't take long to figure out that most of the calls intended for the secret service would result in a death somewhere along the line. So they'd gather as many details as possible before confessing that they weren't really the secret service, but they could help with the clean-up and disposal of bodies. They would normally try to expedite things with a special half-price offer if the assassination was finished by the end of the month.

Duff was smart enough to give little away. He apologised for wasting their time, thanked them for being so understanding, and hung up the phone. But not before the father had taken down Duff's own height and waist measurements, just to be on the safe side. The joiner somehow sensed that if anyone was going to die, it was the Prime Minister.

Duff turned to his Finance Minister.

'I don't know how we get in touch with the secret service. They're just so bloody, you know...'

'Secretive,' suggested Holton-Lacey.

'Exactly!' said the Prime Minister. 'Mind you, that can be a good thing. Perhaps they will be able to manage the same level of secrecy around Buffet's disappearance. I don't want to face lots of difficult questions from the press.'

Again, Duff saw Buffet's disappearance as nothing more than a retirement in Tasmania. A move there, or to New Zealand, guarantees you will never be heard of again.

Everyone knew it was home to the secret service, but that didn't stop a few locals from dropping off their shirts and trousers once a week.

But his words were misconstrued by a secret service operative listening in via a tiny microphone clipped to Duff's desk lamp. They were transmitted across the city to a dark basement underneath a sinister-looking 17-storey building. The entire structure was painted a dark grey colour, the same as a stealth bomber, as if the whole building was trying to avoid detection by radar. The only indication of what purpose the building served was a rather unconvincing sticker on the front door, with the words 'dry cleaners' written in crayon. Everyone knew it was home to the secret service, but that didn't stop a few locals from dropping off their shirts and trousers once a week.

It was at the bottom of this building that a young operative had recorded the conversation from Duff's office. Looking a little pleased with himself, he removed a large reel from a tape deck and wound the last few inches of the tape into the spool. They had digital technology, of course, but big old tape recorders somehow felt more authentic. He took the reel up to the top floor, where a warm, smiling character sat behind a large desk in his expansive office overlooking the city.

'What have you for me?' he said, welcoming the young man from downstairs. 'Is it an assassination?' He seemed delighted at the prospect.

The young man, slightly nervous in the company of his ultimate superior, indicated that there was, indeed, an assassination required, and offered the reel of tape. The smiley character looked slightly perturbed.

'Not again!' he screamed. He had nothing to play it on. All he had was an eight-track cartridge machine.

'Why don't you just tell me what you heard?'

The youngster could remember exactly what had been said. How could he forget? He explained how the Prime Minister wanted the CEO of VastTel killed because he was engaged in some unapproved efficiency measures that were likely to bring down the country.

'Really?' said the commander, relishing the opportunity.

'Orders from the Prime Minister himself.'

'The Prime Minister himself,' repeated the commander. 'Well, well, well...,' he continued, before asking what the Prime Minister's name was again.

The young operative wished he knew. The commander had a reputation for treating staff harshly and he felt certain he was being tested. He wondered what would become of him. He shifted nervously on his feet before admitting he wasn't sure who the PM was, but he'd look it up.

'No need,' said the commander. He typed 'Prime Minister of Australia' into a search engine, only to be returned with the statement, 'no records found for Prime Minister of Australia. Did you mean Prime Minister of New Zealand?' Underneath were listed many thousands of links to articles about the leader across the Tasman.

'And who heads up VastTel?' said the Commander, hoping for an image of the intended target. The picture came up quickly and he was pleased to see the man he was about to kill. A small amount of drool started to escape the side of his mouth.

'Say goodbye Mr Buffet,' he said, slamming the lid down on his laptop. He knocked the F6 key slightly as he closed it, and the office blinds slid down in less than a second. Taken by surprise the Commander reached for his top drawer, grabbed a gun and aimed for the window, but inadvertently shot the young operative by mistake.

'Bugger,' he said as the youngster fell to the floor, gripping the blood gushing from his opened heart.

'That's the third one this week,' he said, as he pulled out the phone book, looked up the secret service number, as advertised, and ordered a 5-foot-10 coffin from the Gosford joiners.

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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