The Incumbent: Chapter 35

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.

Alvin Duff wasn't having a good day. He was at home having breakfast at the Lodge, his prime ministerial home, reading the front-page news, which included the latest opinion poll; 37 percent of voters hadn't heard of him, 22 percent said they didn't know what he stood for and everyone else didn't like him much. But that wasn't the bad news. In fact, it was an improvement on the last survey, when 45 percent didn't care who he was, and 31 percent thought he was that bastard who deflowered their daughter in the park immediately after the year 12 formal.

No, a bad opinion poll wasn't a concern. What was really upsetting Duff was the article leading the paper that day. 'Youth Slices Telco in Half', ran the headline, 'by Trisha Botherington'. The piece went into excruciating detail about how Jimi Jones planned to make substantial cutbacks at VastTel.

'Jones, an impressive young man, circumcised, with a cute little birth mark on his left buttock...'

'How dare he,' screamed the prime minister. 'This is in direct contravention of the government's policy.' He read how the upstart was going to make vast swathes of the population unemployed — people not smart enough to get a job elsewhere. Bad unemployment figures would upset the country's credit rating. It would send a bad message to overseas investors, whose money Australia needed to build big, ugly mining projects and even uglier apartment blocks.

'Young Jimi Jones, just 21, is at the helm of the country's biggest telecommunications company,' Botherington had written. 'New to the role, he is keen to pursue the recommendations of a consultancy report that suggested staff numbers be halved, then perhaps halved again repeatedly on a weekly basis, until more manageable numbers are reached.'

Duff was well aware of the report Botherington referred to. He remembered asking Holton-Lacey to make sure it didn't leak out. He was unaware that the finance minister's response had been to shut down the consultancy responsible, and see to it that the partners' names, Shorrock, Ball & Winston, were displayed on adjacent gravestones in Rockwood Cemetery. He would have been horrified to realise the extent of the man's bully-boy tactics. Even now, he had failed to draw the connection between his request for Holton-Lacey to put an end to the VastTel efficiency drive, and the missile attack on the chief executive's office.

The thought of a night of passion with Botherington was enough to propel his chair without any help from his hands or feet.

Clearly, his tactics weren't working. Somehow, Botherington still got access to the report, but from who? One line in the second paragraph seemed to answer the question: 'Jones, an impressive young man, circumcised, with a cute little birth mark on his left buttock, has a passion for turning the company around.' Duff was no detective, but her intimate knowledge of his anatomy suggested more than a mild acquaintance. Jones had obviously got access to the report and leaked it to her in exchange for some sort of sexual favour. He could understand the temptation, of course. The thought of a night of passion with Botherington was enough to propel his chair away from the breakfast table without any help from his hands or his feet.

Jones, uncircumcised, was equally as curious to read the report in the day's newspaper. The night before had seen no exchange of documents, nor any exchange of bodily fluids, yet there was clearly chemistry between them. He was upset to see the article and its insinuation that he had leaked the document, but he welcomed the opportunity to be back in touch with Botherington. And now the word was out, he appreciated it might expedite his redundancy program. Anything that furthered his second most urgent ambition, to streamline VastTel, was a positive thing. The number one ambition was, of course, to have sex with Trisha Botherington. It was a significant development on an earlier ambition of having sex with anyone at all — now he wanted carnal knowledge of the most sought-after woman in the country. Power can do that to you. It can give you unrealistic expectations in all sorts of ways.

Duff, though, had much bigger concerns. The newspaper article could spread panic through the population, and thousands could soon be out on the streets fending for themselves. He couldn't allow that to happen. The streets weren't big enough for all of them.

'Take a look at this,' said Duff, some moments later, having summoned Ted Holton-Lacey to the breakfast table. Duff was so lost in the ramifications that he didn't even notice that his finance minister had arrived in his breakfast room, still in his pyjamas. He didn't think to ask why he had stayed over the night before, or, for that matter, most nights. Naively, he hadn't read anything into his wife's recommendation, years ago, that Holton-Lacey be promoted to finance minister. She liked a powerful man, and it hadn't taken her long to figure out who was really in charge. Holton-Lacey was the man pulling the strings, and now he was pushing her buttons, too.

'Do you think she slept with him? Reading between the lines, that's how it looks to me.'

He picked up the paper, and his eyes flicked directly to the Botherington piece. He was bound to; the article featured a photograph of the journalist alongside the headline.

'This is a disaster,' he said, when he stopped staring at the picture and read the article. 'It could wreck the economy.'

He read a few lines out loud. 'Jimi Jones believes cutbacks can happen with no impact on company revenue. Any savings will go straight to the bottom line, this young stallion told me last night, as he was thrusting himself deep inside me.'

Holton-Lacey put the paper down. It wasn't what you'd normally expect in the financial pages, although, as no one generally read them, who's to say? He made a mental note to read them more often.

'Do you think she slept with him?' he asked. 'Reading between the lines, that's how it looks to me.'

Duff looked at him. He wondered whether it was fashionable these days to wear a suit made of flannelette, with a white chord around the waist. Then he gazed out the window, where his wife was hanging their bedding on the washing line. He wondered, fleetingly, why she seemed to wash the sheets every day, sometimes twice a day. Then he thought a little more about Botherington's article, but the consequences were too enormous to contemplate. He decided, instead, to focus on breakfast.

'Wheety-bits or Honey-chuffs?' he asked, pushing a bowl over to Holton-Lacey.

The two men each poured a bowl of cereal, before starting work on how to limit the damage from the morning's news.

He had already hatched his sinister plan to finish off Jones, Botherington, the newspaper editor and anyone who read the section.

'We definitely need a strategy,' said Holton-Lacey, whose mind had already hatched his sinister redundancy plan that could be used to finish off Jones, Botherington, the newspaper editor and, if necessary, anyone who read the business section. 'There can't be too many of them,' he thought to himself.

'Yes, a strategy,' agreed Duff, 'but it needs to be practical.'

He unfolded a large sheet of paper on which he wrote 'DAMAGE CONTROL PLAN' in large letters. While they thought about what to write next, Duff drew several lines underneath the heading, made an outline around all the letters in a different colour, then tried to give the heading a sort-of three-dimensional extrusion.

'That's the heading done,' he said eventually. 'Now, where do we start?'

Holton-Lacey sat quietly for a moment.

'Well, we've made a start with a heading,' he said a few moments later.

'Yes,' said Duff, 'but what now?'

There was another pause, while the prime minister added a little cross-hatching effect inside each letter.

Then Holton-Lacey perked up. 'Assuming he makes these changes,' he said, excited about the prospect that he might have a workable idea that wasn't entirely focused around killing people, 'and VastTel is a shadow of its former self...'

'Yes,' said Duff, only half listening because he was yet to see Holton-Lacey come up with a workable answer to anything.

'Why don't we start up another telco? A much bigger one that employs all the people who are retrenched from the old one...'

'Well, why don't we abandon VastTel and start up another phone company?'

Actually, it wasn't a bad idea.

'A much bigger telco that employs all the people who are retrenched from the old one.'

Duff liked it. He particularly liked the idea of having a phone company back in the hands of the government. VastTel, which had been an inefficient state-owned entity for many years, had been inadvertently sold on the stock exchange. It was an administrative error, dating back to when the government moved from one parliament house to another many years ago. The new building had an excellent new phone system that rendered the old system useless. Calls on it had been virtually inaudible, anyway, beneath the crackle of the various phone taps. So Duff asked his department to sell the old phone system, but, unfortunately, the command, made over the old phone system, was misheard as, 'Sell the old phone company.'

Soon after that, VastTel was listed on the stock exchange. As soon as the mistake had been realised, Duff had asked what could be done to stop people buying shares. Word was spreading around the investment community that VastTel could be a good buy, but the excitement soon subsided when the analysts promoting the stock started to disappear. No one could say for sure where they went, but, equally, no one seemed to care. The mass murder of the nation's financial advisors wasn't considered newsworthy.

As trading slowed, the government managed to quickly buy back more than half the company, but some private investors remained, including Damien Woodburner's father and several other wealthy luminaries, who, if they ever sobered up, could easily insist on driving the company down the road of efficiency. But sobriety continued to evade them, and the solid efforts of the old management team had prevented any sort of productivity drive, until now.

'Brilliant,' said Duff, after giving Holton-Lacey's plan a little further thought. 'A brand new, government-owned phone company. Are there any downsides?'

The mass murder of the nation's financial advisors wasn't considered newsworthy.

'Well, I suppose people might ask what's different about this new company. They might wonder why we need it when we already own so much of VastTel?' suggested the finance minister.

'Good point,' said Duff, wanting to put some of this down on his big sheet of paper, but still a little unsure of what to write. Instead, he drew a picture of a tree, for no reason whatsoever, except that he knew how to draw a tree.

'We could make this a mobile phone company,' said Holton-Lacey.

'What, run it out of a van?' said Duff, who had a poor grasp on the industry. 'That won't work.'

Holton-Lacey sighed. He knew the prime minister was an idiot, but he sometimes forgot the full extent of it.

Both men thought long and hard. Their gaze was set on no place in particular, but seemed to land on the box of Wheety-bits in the centre of the table. There was a picture of a happy family, deriving great enjoyment from their breakfast cereal. Underneath, the words 'bringing fibre to your home' were prominently displayed.

'I have no idea what would be different about this new phone company,' said the prime minister. 'I don't think this idea is going to work.'

'Well, we could argue that this new company will introduce competition.'

The prime minister choked on his Wheety-bit. He hated the word, and found it hard to believe Holton-Lacey had brought it up.

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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