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.
Adam Willis often found his mind playing tricks on him. It was probably something to do with getting just a couple of hours' sleep each night, even though he argued that was all he needed. Certainly, an extra five hours might give him the capability of reasoned thought, which would hinder his performance at Radio 2IQ, so he was careful to ration his time in the bedroom.
There was the unfortunate side effect that sleep deprivation could make you see things. Willis knew that's why he kept imagining monkeys and aliens, not to mention the angry mobs protesting outside his studio — he told himself none of these things existed, but he still kept seeing them. So when, each night, a car pulled out from a side street as he headed home, he was never really sure whether it was there or not. Night after night, the same car would follow him, yet, by the time he reached his house, it had disappeared. He explained the visions to a producer at work, who said perhaps it was real (and told him the same went for the angry mob he kept seeing).
'Do you suppose whoever it is means me harm?' he asked. 'Why would someone want to do that?'
The producer didn't answer straight away, but the next day he had compiled an exhaustive list of 749 individuals and 348 interest groups who would like to see Willis dead. And they were the one's he'd been able to get through to on the phone. Another colleague had, unhelpfully, pointed out that kill-willis.com was now the third-highest-rating website in the country. Willis paid it a visit, and wondered whether it was appropriate for the Labor Party to be advertising on it.
The producer compiled an exhaustive list of 749 individuals and 348 interest groups who would like to see Willis dead...
So, he was relieved that on the night after the great VastTel debate, there was no sign of the mysterious car, and the roads had been virtually empty all the way home. But he failed to notice the fresh tyre tracks on the gravel driveway as his Bentley pulled up outside his harbour-side mansion. He also missed the faint smell of burning wood, and the wisps of smoke from the chimney. The idea that someone was in his home was far from his mind; a mind that was too busy contemplating what he would rant about the next morning.
There were a few favourite topics he liked to cover: how there are too many migrants; how migrants are taking our jobs; how to stop migrants; how migrants should be sent home; how migrants aren't to be trusted; how migrants are dole bludgers; how migrants are terrorists; how migrants spread disease; and so on. He tossed some more ideas over in his mind, before deciding that the next morning, his editorial would almost certainly be about migrants. Perhaps something on how ugly they are. He thought that he could argue that so many of them wear a burqa because they're ashamed of their physical appearance. It might upset a few people, but he knew how his audience hated Muslims, so he could use that age-old excuse that he was reflecting community opinion.
Willis had been so lost in his thoughts that he only realised he had company when he opened the front door, walked a few steps up the hallway and turned into his living room. The fire was raging, and a group of men in suits were gathered around the hearth, each having helped themselves to a glass of his finest 40-year-old malt whisky.
'Who the hell are you?' he yelled out, wondering where his 19-year-old Thai housekeeper was. 'And where's Anurak? What have you done with him?'
'He's tied up in your bedroom ... the ropes were already there, and he seemed rather familiar with the process.'
'He's tied up in your bedroom,' said a voice from the armchair. 'Rather convenient, the ropes were already there, and he seemed rather familiar with the process.'
Willis couldn't see who was speaking; the chair was facing away from him, but the voice was vaguely familiar. It was some B-grade celebrity, he thought, but he couldn't quite put a name to him. Or was it that moron who followed on from him at 9 o'clock each morning? He walked up to the fireplace to turn and face him.
'I should imagine you are surprised to see me here?' the man said, looking up at Willis.
'Yes,' said the shock jock, desperately trying to put a name to the face. 'I've seen you on television haven't I?'
'Not often,' said the man. 'But more than my boss. I think you might have met him.'
Suddenly Willis remembered.
'Holton-Lacey, isn't it?'
'Well done,' said the intruder. He clapped his hands lightly a few times.
'And you work for ...' Willis couldn't remember the name, '... er … the prime minister ...'
'Duff is his name,' said the finance minister. 'Alvin Duff; easily forgotten.'
'So, what can I do for you?' asked Willis.
'I have been listening to you, Adam Willis,' said Holton-Lacey. He gave a nod to the men gathered around the fireplace, who read the signal to retire to another room, which they did, taking a fresh bottle of whisky with them.
'I like a lot of what you say. It makes my job a lot easier, telling people what to think. The last thing we want is free thought.'
Willis agreed, although it somehow didn't sound right coming from a Cabinet minister. Even though he mistrusted politicians enormously, he had wrongly assumed that their interests were limited to nothing more than staying in power and earning a salary they couldn't hope to achieve in the real world. He hadn't entertained the notion that their ambitions would spread any further than that. He was getting worried that here appeared to be a man who wanted to extend his influence much further.
He had assumed that politicians' interests were limited to staying in power and earning a salary they couldn't hope to achieve in the real world.
'VastTel,' Holton-Lacey said, looking Willis firmly in the eye. 'I want you to go easy on them.'
'Really?' said Willis. 'But they are incompetent, overpaid, bureaucratic time wasters.'
'That's true. And that's the point. Everyone there would be completely unemployable anywhere else.'
'So why would you want to protect them?' Willis was curious.
'Think about it, Mr Willis. What would you do with all those people?'
Willis hated being asked questions. He particularly disliked being asked to come up with answers to society's problems. He was much better at creating them. But he could see Holton-Lacey's point. What do you do with all of those inept people?
'How do you think we keep the unemployment levels so low?' asked Holton-Lacey, surprised that Willis had not figured this out before now. He went on to explain the government scheme, and how it all needed to be kept from the public. If they started to question the recruitment policies at the telecommunications company, the resulting exposé could destroy hundreds of thousands of jobs; sufficient to cripple the economy, and bring down the government.
'So why are you telling me this? What if I just go and let my audience know exactly what's going on?'
'You don't want to mess with me,' said Holton-Lacey. 'Or I'll chop your balls off.' He clicked his fingers and one of the men in suits returned to the room, holding a silver plate, which he presented to Willis. 'Here's one we did earlier,' he said.
Willis looked at the article on the plate. It looked familiar. He felt through his trousers in case one had been taken from him in his sleep. No; they were both still there.
He ran to his bedroom, where the mono-testicled Thai lay, trying desperately to cross his legs.
'You don't scare me,' said Willis, lying.
'Well, I should,' said Holton-Lacey, rising from his chair, flanked by the men in suits, one of whom placed the empty whisky bottle into Willis' hands.
The finance minister turned to him before making his final exit. 'Have a nibble. I'm sure you'll recognise the taste.'
'What?' said Willis, who gave it a lick, without hesitation.
'Anurak!' he screamed. There was a groan from upstairs, where his housekeeper was starting to wake up, clearly in agony. 'You bastards!' He ran to his bedroom, where the mono-testicled Thai lay, trying desperately to cross his legs.
Willis realised he had met his match. Perhaps he was no longer the most powerful man in the country. This Holton-Lacey character seemed to be the new player in town. All of a sudden, there was the stark realisation that from now on, he was answerable to the government, which seemed capable of all sorts of wrongdoing. In a way, he admired their work. It was preferable to the inept bungling bureaucracy he had assumed them to be, but it made him nervous. He wondered how involved the prime minister was in all of this, whatever his name was.
His young Thai housekeeper was even more certain that Holton-Lacey was a force to be reckoned with, destined as he now was to a lifetime of ill-fitting underpants.
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.