The Incumbent: Chapter 42

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 world had seemed a little surreal lately for Sydney Musson. One moment, he was minding his own business at the Eton Towers guest house; the next, he was relishing the prospect of getting Trisha Botherington into bed — then, before he knew what was going on, he was sitting inside a Black Hawk helicopter with a group of grunting men who could easily have been clones of each other.

They landed on the roof of a building downtown. Musson couldn't see exactly where, because the men had put a black bag over his head. It wasn't standard practice; they just didn't like looking at him.

He was unsure which language consisted mainly of grunts — all he could think of was female Scandinavian tennis players.

'Where are you taking me?' he asked, as he was pulled out of the helicopter and jostled down a few stairs and pushed into a lift.

The men said nothing. They just grunted a bit more.

'Bloody typical,' said Musson. 'Government departments. They're all run by foreigners,' although he was unsure of which language consisted mainly of grunts. All he could think of was female Scandinavian tennis players.

'Are you Swedish?' he asked, but the men said nothing.

Musson suspected that something very sinister was happening here. He had often assumed that the government was involved in the ritualistic torture of civilians — as a penance for those who failed to complete their income tax returns on time, for example — now, he feared he was about to experience it first-hand.

'What is going on?' he demanded. He had been shunted into a room and thrown forcibly into a swivel chair.

'Mr Musson,' said a woman's voice. 'Welcome.'

The bag was removed from his head and he saw his own reflection in a mirror in front of him. 'How disgraceful,' he thought. 'They want me to witness my own pain.'

Beside him stood a young Chinese woman, very attractive, but, as far as he was concerned, that didn't matter. She was foreign. He'd never minded foreigners, but two weeks of listening to Adam Willis had convinced him they were all up to something.

The young Chinese lady was in her early 20s. Was she to be the one who would apply the torture? She had a tray of implements beside her. His vision was too blurred to make out exactly what they were, but he knew what they were there for. He gritted his teeth and closed his eyes.

He'd never minded foreigners, but two weeks of listening to Adam Willis had convinced him they were all up to something.

'Be brave,' he said to himself. 'And say nothing.'

Then he thought about it a bit more. Actually, he didn't have anything to say. He didn't harbour any state secrets. There was nothing about him that hadn't already been unearthed; in the courts, in media reports and in his psychology analyses that he'd noticed Whimplestein had been posting onto social-networking sites. His life was an open book.

Again, the Chinese woman spoke.

'So,' she said politely, her accent as Australian as they come. 'How would you like your hair cut?'

'What?' said Musson. 'I have been dragged all this way for a haircut?'

'Not just a haircut, obviously,' said the woman. 'You've got a suit fitting, and a briefing from the finance minister. We have to make sure you're ready for your new job.'

She handed him a document — a Treasury document — titled 'VastTel: State of Play'. It had today's date on it, and Holton-Lacey's name as the report's author.

'So, a number two at the sides and thinning out on top?' said the woman.

Musson assumed that would be alright. He had never paid much attention when he got his hair cut, so his barber tended to use him for experimentation. This woman, he noted, seemed more skilled at her craft. For a start, when thinning out his hair she didn't resort to the painful process of removing large tufts with a big pair of tweezers.

As she worked on his hair, Musson flicked through the pages. There were lots of graphs, largely meaningless to him, but he could see that without exception, the lines were heading downwards. Any figures mentioned were negative.

'You are the new CEO of VastTel...'

'Would you like some product in your hair?' asked the lady, after 45 minutes of turning a bedraggled mess into something quite shapely and fashionable.

'He doesn't need any of that metro-sexual crap.'

They both turned round to see Holton-Lacey walk in. He was carrying a suit, again considerably more stylish than Musson's customary look.

'Try this on, and we'll get you off to VastTel,' he said.

'Could you tell me what this is all about?' said Musson.

'Hasn't anyone explained? I am sorry,' said Holton-Lacey. 'You are the new CEO of VastTel.'

Musson was, understandably, surprised.

'I hope you don't mind.'

He didn't know what to say.

'You didn't seem to like the way it was being run, so we thought we'd give you a go.'

'Did you write this?' asked Musson, pointing to the document resting on his knee, the pages now covered in tiny hairs.

She smiled and handed a card over to him. 'Annette Choo: hairdressing and embalming'.

'Yes. I thought you needed to be across what was going on.'

'Can this company really be rescued? It looks like it's in a state of total turmoil.'

'Well, see what you can do. I'd like you there as soon as possible. I have plans for the place.'

Holton-Lacey tried not to smile as he said those last few words. Only he — and now Jimi Jones — knew what those plans were. He'd been working on them for some time. If he was going to enact the Redundancy Plan, he wanted to make sure it took all evidence of the VastTel plot with it, so he could start afresh, with a new phone company, even more inefficient than anything that had ever gone before. It seemed expedient to have Musson go the way of everyone else in the company.

'Same time again in a few weeks?' asked the Chinese hairdresser.

'I wouldn't have thought so,' said Holton-Lacey, whispering in her ear, 'unless you do embalming.'

She smiled and handed a card over to him. 'Annette Choo,' it said. Underneath, in a fashionable serif typeface, were the words: 'hairdressing and embalming'.

'I work with a lot of old people,' she explained.

'Well,' said Holton-Lacey, 'this could be a very busy month for you.'

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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