The Incumbent: Chapter 38

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.

Trisha Botherington was enjoying following the VastTel story. All of a sudden, this boring telecommunications company had become a hotbed of action. Missile attacks, the apparent desperation of giving the top job to a 21-year-old — even though she did find him to be quite a dish — and the broader story, the consequence of huge-scale redundancies, the like of which had never been seen before. Then there was that threat to kill the company chairman by that crazed lunatic on the Adam Willis Breakfast Show.

What was his name again? Botherington typed 'crazed lunatic' into a search engine, and, after scrolling through the names of most of the current government and the entire on-air line-up at Radio 2IQ, she hit upon the name Sydney Musson.

She typed 'crazed lunatic' into a search engine, scrolled through the names of the current government, then hit upon the name Sydney Musson...

'That's the guy,' she said to herself, and clicked through to his TouchedUp profile. It was no surprise he was there. Practically everyone on the planet had a profile on the professional networking site, showing their career history, which most people had doctored to make them sound more impressive than they really were, accompanied by a photograph that for premium members, had been airbrushed to provide a more youthful appearance — hence the site name. For a small fee, premium users could also pay for TouchedUp's automatic language agent to sprinkle their profile with words that would score well with the software used by recruitment agencies to select candidates. People could bid to have more key words included, which would increase the chances of ultimately being offered the job. Basically, between them, the computers had engineered a way that the job would always be offered to the highest bidder.

Journalists found TouchedUp particularly useful for finding people. They built networks of contacts that could help them get to the source of a story. Trisha Botherington, for example, had 250,000 people linked to her, including an entire Burmese hill tribe who used to spend their days smoking cocaine, but had now adopted a more damaging addiction to social networking.

Musson had only ever had one job, which the TouchedUp software had automatically deleted because it didn't sound impressive enough. Nonetheless, the site did contain a convenient history of his mental diseases, together with his Eton Towers address in Double Bay. She decided it was time to pay him a visit to find out why he was so compelled to kill Woodburner. Perhaps he could also explain where Jimi Jones had come from, and who was behind the rocket attack that nearly killed Twistie Buffet.

She liked being an investigative journalist, but only wanted to keep her investigations to pleasant surroundings.

The guest house, she soon discovered, was a rather drab building from the outside, but the exterior was an improvement on the damp, musty, dated interior. The small entrance lobby was largely filled by a clinically obese security guard, fast asleep on his watch. He had one foot attached firmly to the sticky linoleum flooring, whilst the other conveniently wedged open the security door, making it possible for people to come and go without waking him. Botherington squeezed past him into a corridor, which was covered with a damp, distasteful 1950s carpet that harboured a myriad of unpleasant nasal experiences. She liked being an investigative journalist, but she really didn't like it to confront her senses in such a repulsive way — particularly the design of the carpet. She really only wanted to keep her investigations to pleasant surroundings.

Halfway along the corridor, she came across a woman sitting on the floor in badly soiled trousers, her head between her knees. She looked to be in her mid- to late 20s. Botherington recognised her as a former prime-time television newsreader fallen on hard times. She wasn't the first she had seen in a place like this — cast aside after 18 months or so, as the carefully lip-sticked mouthpiece for that tabloid fiction that often masquerades as a commercial television news program. Most of the young things were convinced it was their skills as a journalist that had landed them the role — it didn't even occur to them that they were all blonde, with a light olive complexion, blue eyes and high cheekbones, the look that researchers had found most popular in focus groups. Then their world came crashing down when they hit the untenable age of 22. Cast out into the real world, they were hit with the realisation that they had been absorbed in such a shallow pursuit; enough to crush their sense of self-respect and drive them to mental institutions like Eton Towers.

The newsreader looked up as Botherington approached, her face tarnished with the cracks of the solidified make-up left on from her last broadcast. Next to her was the host of an '80s dating show who hadn't been seen for 30 years. There had been a missing persons report filed for him a long time ago — police searched high and low for him, until he was eventually found doing advertorials on a shopping channel. No wonder he had been hard to find. Now, clearly, he was too old even for that, and there was nowhere lower to fall.

They both looked up as Botherington approached.

'I'm looking for Sydney Musson,' she said. The woman said nothing. Instead, she held her finger to her ear. She was still wearing an earpiece, waiting for instructions from the control room that never came.

The newsreader looked up, her face tarnished with the cracks of the solidified make-up left on from her last broadcast...

'Sydney Musson,' repeated Botherington, a little louder this time.

'This from Sydney Musson,' repeated the bewildered woman, and then her head returned to its former position, wedged between her knees. It was sad to see.

Botherington walked to the end of the corridor, glancing back briefly at the couple. The young woman's head bobbed up briefly, she sat forward and said, with perfect diction, 'and now, Wayne Wilkey with the weather', then she slumped back down against the wall.

'It's 28 minutes past 6,' said a voice behind Botherington. She turned quickly, expecting to see a destitute disc jockey still giving time checks, but no, it was Musson, standing in an open doorway. She recognised him from his TouchedUp profile, although in real life his face was decidedly craggier. He was clearly a premium member.

'She always throws to the weather at exactly 28 minutes past six,' Musson explained. 'She never says anything for the rest of the day. She just sort of hibernates.'

Botherington thought she'd be worried meeting Musson in such surroundings. He was a murderer; what if he was to kill again? And at Eton towers, screams were always ignored. But he seemed to put her at ease, although he still had that demeanour that made you fairly certain that at some point, he was going to try to sell you life insurance. Perhaps she was so preoccupied with not being talked into signing something that it escaped her mind that at any point, he could suddenly turn and kill her.

'You're Musson, aren't you?' she asked.

Musson was surprised. He very rarely received a guest, especially a stunningly attractive young woman like Trisha Botherington.

'I'm a reporter,' she explained.

'I know. I've seen you on the news.'

'Yes,' said Botherington.

Musson seemed to be fumbling for his fly with a rather too eager look on his face.

'You smell different in real life.' It was a strange thing to say, but Musson wasn't very good around women. He hadn't spent much time with them. But he assumed, from his research on the internet, that if he invited her back to his bedroom, she would instantly disrobe and perform fellatio on him. In all the videos he'd watched, that always seemed to happen.

'Come this way,' he said, motioning Botherington further down the corridor, deeper into Eton Towers.

'Take a seat,' he offered, once they were inside his bedsit, lifting a paper plate encased with week-old Chinese, only to discover that there were several other dishes of various ages resting beneath it.

'Thanks, I'll stand,' she said. She didn't want sweet and sour pork on her expensive chiffon dress.

'Please yourself.' He sat down and started picking at some chow mein.

'I'd like to understand why you have a vendetta against VastTel,' she said, taking a small voice recorder from her handbag. Normally, at this stage, she would be using her womanly charms to solicit information, but this time she couldn't. Musson's odour was overbearing. The thought of being alluring to him seemed repulsive to her, and yet she had flirted with all sorts of people before, including conservative politicians. Even more off-putting, Musson seemed to be fumbling for his fly with a rather too eager look on his face.

Botherington briefly considered other ways of getting him to talk — money, fame, chocolate — but was distracted by the sound of approaching sirens and the screech of car tyres. It seemed to be coming from the front of the building. Next came the noise of a battering ram being taken to the front door, which was curious, considering the door was unlocked. There were no protestations from the security guard, who was, presumably, sleeping through the whole thing.

Seconds later, four burly men burst into Musson's room. Their uniforms were pitch black, from the balaclavas on their heads down to the substantial, shiny black boots, capped with metal studs. The words 'Secret Service' were emblazoned proudly on the back of their thick cotton skivvies, along with their marketing slogan, which went simply, '... ssssh'. Botherington had to admit that she was rather excited by their presence.

She considered ways of getting him to talk, but was distracted by the sound of approaching sirens and screeching car tyres.

The four men had been exceedingly vocal as they had moved down the corridor into Musson's room without actually saying anything. Instead, they uttered a broad range of guttural sounds in a way that each seemed to understand. They were surprised to find that Musson had company, and grunted a few more indistinguishable syllables to each other. One of them looked the young journalist up and down and grunted in a fashion that appeared to be some primeval form of lust. The other three gathered around her, grunting similarly, their arms swinging around their knees at a speed that indicated great excitement. It was as though they were some sort of genetic throwback to Stone Age man. Either that, or they were security guards who had managed to land a better job.

Moments later, their grunting was drowned out by the sound of a helicopter, which appeared directly over Eton Towers. One of the men pulled a black rucksack off his back and took out a black harness. Another removed a black bag, while the other two tried to constrain Musson, which was not an easy undertaking, as they all found themselves skating on the paper-plated remains of a fortnight's Chinese takeaways. After considerably more grunting, the bag was placed over Musson's head, the harness secured over his shoulders and the four men bustled him up the stairs and on to the roof.

Botherington followed behind, trying to keep up, but by the time she got to the roof, Musson had already been winched into the helicopter, and, although the pilot seemed to be struggling a little with the weight, it soon disappeared swiftly through the cold night air. And then Eton Towers went strangely quiet.

By the time she got to the roof, Musson had been winched into the helicopter, and it soon disappeared swiftly through the cold night air.

She wondered who they were. The whole operation had happened so quickly, and, even though they wore secret service uniforms, she doubted it could be anyone from the government. It had been too efficient. Perhaps they were from 60 Minutes.

She glanced at her watch. There was still time to make the next morning's newspapers. The front page of the Sydney Mail didn't go to print until 9 o'clock, and it was still early enough in the evening for the chief of staff to be relatively sober.

She flipped open her mobile phone and quickly dialled the news desk. The line was silent.

'Dammit,' she said, shaking her PocketFriend 2050 as though a few sudden movements might magically fix the problem. It didn't. She looked in the top right-hand corner of the screen, and saw there was no signal. She held the phone higher; still no signal. Yet she was in the centre of town; how could this be?

Botherington wasn't the only one suffering mobile coverage problems. The entire network was out, and had been for several hours. It probably would have been fixed if Jimi Jones hadn't sacked the head of engineering. Out of many hundreds of thousands of people who contributed nothing at all at VastTel, his first choice had been to get rid of the only person capable of fixing the problem.

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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