My phone battery was dead. I was on my own.
I heard them sneaking around in the overgrown garden of my rented bungalow and then there was that clicking sound, a lock being picked carefully. I froze, pinpointing the direction of each new knock and stumble. Surprisingly quickly, they were within the walls of my temporary home.
I was working late on the story for The Western Herald, hoping to submit it before the last press deadline at 4am. In some ways it was sheer luck I was awake. I normally avoided this kind of desperate last-minute writing. I had become almost snow-blind to my own words on my well-worn laptop. Being tired often led to mistakes, I had learned that the hard way after being sworn at down the phone line by a grizzled section editor.
My computer connection was down too, the wi-fi just cut and would not reboot. Shoes were edging forward on the wooden floorboards which creaked in the hallway.
Three journalists had disappeared trying to cover this story, it was dynamite, I knew it, my editor knew it. In truth I had been expecting something but when it begins, you really don’t believe it’s happening. I felt that sting of cold reality, that realisation I was their new target. It was a creeping feeling that started several days ago, after I stood up, proudly and with an inflammatory tone in a press conference. I had curtly challenged the energy minster on his green credentials, siting the lithium mine and linking it to the recent vanished reporters. The mine had been eating into the landscape around this backwater province and I had been flown in to cover a series of stories that were being buried, like townsfolk being relocated and woodlands being destroyed. The mine was due to double its capacity, from 30,000 tonnes per annum to 60,000 of battery-grade lithium. The latest development, where snoopy reporters were disappearing, that was my area. I covered gangsters and shady governments, basically one in the same. I was one of the last remaining writers willing to step up and see this story through.
The very next day after the press conference I noticed burly men watching me closely from street doorways and park benches. Certain strangers had become suspicious in demeaner. They were large men, scruffy looking with plaid shirts, well-worn baseball caps and dirty jeans. It was unnerving. There was a palpable menace in the air that seemed to follow me around from dawn till dusk, stalking me. I could feel eyes scrutinising my every turn.
That is why I was prepared. Prior to my leap into freelance journalism, I had served on two tours in a desert hellhole few talked about if they made it out. My past was one of the reasons editors liked me. I was tenacious, I was a fighter, uncompromising in attack. I knew danger, I knew its metallic taste. Working on this cursed story, I was instinctively aware there was too much danger to be complacent. When you chase a tiger, don’t be surprised when it turns to bite you.
I pulled the dangling cord of the desk lamp sharply, so the yellow glow was replaced with night but I left my laptop on and humming, a little square of localised light, some bait for a distraction that would be required. I quietly opened the drawer to my desk and gently lifted out the silver pistol. It was already loaded. I took a couple of steps back into the deepest shadow in the room’s corner. It was like a cloak of darkness in that corner, an impenetrable dimension of black. I could wave my arms and even if someone had been staring directly at me, they would not notice movements. My heartbeat drummed in my chest. I could sense they were in my bedroom nearby. Nothing for a while, before more little, delicate noises, tiny little steps and nudges. As I listened, I realised they were back in the living room and heading slowly toward the study where I was backed against the wall. Step, by step, by step, encroaching, nearing, the stealth of jackals in the grass. There were three of them now, I could tell, all converging on the door an arm’s length to my left.
I watched, trying to dispel my horror, as the brass doorknob turned like a screw, and the study door eased open, its dry hinges betraying the invasion. The outline of a single gloved hand clutching a handgun drifted into view beside the open door, the weapon pointed with unshakeable poise toward the desk I had just been hunched over.
I shot the hand. The fingers exploded into stringy shreds, the intruder’s gun tossed across the room. An agonising scream shattered the quiet. As the tall figure stumbled backward, I skipped around to the doorframe and blasted him in the face. His head popped in a red circle of mist and his body crumpled on the wooden floor in a mess of limbs. The peripherals of the hole where his face had been, burned with the heat of the shot, wriggling fire embers glowed on the singed borders of the flesh wound. No more eyes, nose or mouth – just a dark pit where an identity had resided.
The two other men were ducking for cover, one crouched behind the brown leather sofa, the other jumping through the bedroom door opposite. They were clad in black overalls, standard work clothes for sinister tasks. As far as I could tell, the one who was cowering behind the sofa had a large knife and the other was not armed at all. They had not expected this level of resistance, the shooter was supposed to have executed me tidily with one shot. The other two seemed there for assistance, if brute force were needed, and to clear up the job after. Their plan had backfired. I had been resolute; I was not willing to die for anyone’s agenda.
The man who had jumped for the bedroom was already out of the window by the time I had bounded his way. He’d yanked the window frame up so hard it split the glass pane, and was scrambling from the bungalow, sprinting full pelt into the night. The other, the knifeman, he had gathered himself and was back on his feet, still clutching the handle to the huge blade, as if weighing options. I glanced down at it with indifference. I wanted him to see my eyes, to let him know I wasn’t afraid. His knife meant nothing against my gun. He saw my aim was true, trained on his forehead.
“Don’t shoot!” he pleaded. “Don’t do it…”
“Why not?” I uttered.
He began to shake, to tremble, his last moments difficult, desperate. He was about to say something else, so I pulled the trigger and then one more time again but closer, after he hit the floor. I had to be certain. I ran out of the house to scan the street but the third man was long gone. Strangely, there were no sirens. I would have expected a least one neighbour to phone an emergency line after the gunshots.
When I returned to the living room scene, the two bodies were glistening and expanding pools of blood were coating the floorboards. To my surprise, a smartphone began to chirp from the body of the man without a face. I ignored it but it began again in a cycle, a determined caller, so I rummaged in his chest pocket, retrieved the device and pressed the button on the screen to answer.
“Well, none of us expected that, Jim!” shouted a loud male voice, one I recognised. “Let’s meet at the mine. You want to know what’s going on? I’ll lay it out for you, all of it…”
“No thanks…” I would have laughed but the blood was discolouring my feet. I wondered how he knew so quickly I had defeated his crew. A bug in the bungalow, I guessed. It had to be.
“Don’t think you are going to the police, I own the police and those bodies on your floor, well, that’s all the leverage I need to have you thrown in jail… But don’t worry, let’s play nice this time. To be honest, I never knew you had it in you. Journalists usually piss themselves when faced with real threats, I can tell you that for nothing.”
“You admit it? You killed them… To keep the mine open, to keep them silent…”
“Meet me at the mine tomorrow in daylight, 2pm. I’ll give you a tour. No one is going to kill you in the daylight, Jim – I give you my word. I’ll tell you all you need to know… And if you like, I’ll get some men to clean up your place when you’re with me, least I can do! Those meat bags will start stinking up your living room by tomorrow. Talk about fucking up! To be fair to them, it wasn’t their day job!”
“I’m glad to mess up your plans. What if I go to the police anyway, what if I run my story? I’ll take some pictures on this phone and send them to the paper, I could do that right now and you’d have to answer for it… How about that?”
“Then you’re a bigger fool than even I took you for. I’ll have you in custody and hanging by your own prison bedsheet before the dawn breaks. If that’s what you want, then go for it… Like I said, I’ll play nice, you made a point but don’t push it or I’ll change my mind. Now, come see me in person, tomorrow. I want to tell you something, then show you something… You want the whole truth? Tomorrow at the mine, you’ll have it… See you there.”
He hung up.
Something told me he was not bluffing. That smug, self-assured voice. It was the energy minister. This was big, maybe the biggest story of all. I needed to charge my phone, I needed to record whatever I was going to hear.
The mine was vast and bleak. Mining is one of the most aggressive actions you can carry out on a landscape, with deep scars and holes and ugly, unrelenting machines. It was depressing to take in, a scene of desolation. Approaching it by foot was like walking to the end of the world at the end of time. There, in a black trench coat and a yellow hard hat with a bodyguard by his side, sure enough, stood the minister, supping a steaming coffee from a plastic cup. He offered me a well-practiced false smile when he noticed me.
“Hey, there he is, and who said the pen was mightier than the sword? They certainly hadn’t met you! You’ve got balls, Jim. This story, though. It’s not one you can benefit from, or one that you can affect change with. You’d be running it for your ego, and a misplaced sense of revenge, nothing more.”
Around me were enormous hills of lithium, which had a consistency of churned butter. It was a silvery metal that usually turned black when exposed to air, like a triggered warning. The bodyguard stared at me, so I stared back, making sure I was close enough to speak without raising my voice but not too close to be grabbed. He was a broad chested, smartly suited man with a ponytail and a neatly trimmed beard. He had taken some punches, there were the tell-tale scars and divots in his skin. You read people well enough when they mean you harm and his eyes spoke volumes. He stepped toward me, so I held my palm up firmly in defiance.
“You think you’re going to frisk me, fuckface? Let me save you the time, I am armed and guess what? I’ll shoot you if you even try to touch me.”
The bodyguard stopped in his tracks and glanced back at the minister for a sign.
The minister laughed.
“Okay, fine. Keep your firearm. I’ll gamble you’re here because you’re curious, you’re not here to kill. I’ll bet my life on it!”
The bodyguard resumed his place by his paymaster’s side, eyes fixed on me.
“The truth?” I asked.
“More of a lecture to be honest. But it is the truth… How can I get the scale of this into your little writer’s brain? Hmm… Let’s start with mobile phones. We all have them, right? I guess you know that half of the entire world’s population has them and we renew them, what, once a year? Rich countries and poor countries alike. This is one of those rare products, that is genuinely for everyone. That’s a lot of lithium-ion for the batteries, right? But then there’s the new electric cars batteries, the new home heating batteries, batteries in every building – that’s the plan moving forward… Lithium is the new oil. I mean that literally.”
The minister was talking to me like he had pitched this before, probably to investors and heads of state around the world.
“All fascinating I am sure, but why kill journalists?”
The minister frowned and the first drips of rain began to fall from the sky, the prelude to a storm.
“Only about five percent of lithium-ion batteries are recycled, and that’s being generous. It’s pretty toxic stuff if it gets in the water, you know, and it does.”
He removed his hardhat for a second and scratched his head as if he was fishing for the right way to explain, like it was harder than he had anticipated.
“People…” he continued. “People need what they need. You can’t take something away once it’s loved, once it is part of the rhythm of life. They’ll hate you for that. As for climate change, hell, I’m in Government and I can tell you, it’s too late anyway. That’s not me being pessimistic. It’s the hard truth. We messed up, there is no way we will meet any of the targets the UN set, any of them. It’s like that King Canute story they tell you when you’re a kid, the guy who thinks he can command the tide to stop coming in. Clearly, it’s a ridiculous thing to try, nature is nature. So, here we are with new mines like this. Lithium does two things. It gives people hope, and that is important. The other is, it gives the world an energy industry. We need that more than ever. We really need that. You expect us to all go back to candlelight and bonfires?! We have no choice, we innovate and we keep the wheels turning and the money flowing and we just get on with it. Business as usual!”
“So, you’re saying, we’re all doomed but let’s stay comfortable and just carry on? Whilst a few fat cats keep their cash flowing?”
“Fat cats?! No, no… This is everyone’s jobs. Everyone’s lives. Energy… Energy is needed everywhere. I thought you were smart enough to get that. You won’t ever be able to stop this. This is growth, this is industry, this is life. And of course, this is just what we do. You give people solutions, you don’t just take things away from them. Imagine banning cars and planes. Imagine a world without communications? It’s impossible to imagine that now.”
I stood firmly in my spot, digesting his little speech. It was all very bleak but the one thing that stood out, was what he said about knowing there was no way to stop climate change. That hurt. That made my mind fuzz out from the moment. If anyone knew, it would be him.
“You said you would tell me something, then show me something? Show me what?”, I demanded.
He snapped his fingers, the bodyguard synchronising his pace like an obedient dog as he walked toward the gaping quarry. I followed from a safe distance, careful to check behind me every now and again. I didn’t trust this guy at all, how could I?
He led me briskly to the edge of the quarry and pointed down at a narrow ledge, eager for me to spot something in the scene.
“There, see?” he said.
I shuffled forward and looking over the precipice, sure enough, on a thin ledge halfway down the huge pit, there were three black, lumpy body bags. When he was positive I had taken in the spectacle, he gestured to a waiting tipper truck backed up above the ledge on the rim and with that, the trailer deposited a tonne of grit onto the bodies. The dirt fell like a waterfall and dust erupted where the corpses had been.
It happened too fast to take out my phone and switch from audio to film recording. My dead colleagues were lost under the dirt forever.
The truck driver gave a thumbs up out of his cab window and drove away. That unnerved me. The men on this site must know. I guessed they were the ones tailing me, and the would-be assassins in my bungalow.
“You see, those guys, in fact everyone, let’s be honest, everyone knows they were murdered and most people know I had something to do with it. Does anyone apart from you, their families and maybe a few hardcore hippies really care? I mean, really care?”
“Yes…Yeah. I think so…”
“Wrong, no one really cares, as long as they can call their own loved ones on the phone, drive to the shops, heat their home, they’re safe, you see. That’s it…”
He shrugged in an exaggerated fashion, as if to say it was hopeless and nothing to do with him at all.
I took the smartphone out of my pocket, so he could see I was recording his voice. That’s when I realised workers were gathering, circling about me, coming closer to where I stood. At first a handful, then around thirty, like a shift was abandoned and they were heading my way for unfinished business. They were gruff, dirty men, career miners who lived in hellish conditions as standard.
“What is this?” I bleated, feeling stupid for letting my curiosity lead me to the place.
“You… You’re threatening their living with your stories, so maybe drop the phone and just walk away from this… Listen to me. You’ll never stop this progress, you’ll never kill this industry. Time to stop trying… Just walk away… Don’t you want to just live your life?”
I was completely surrounded. Life, that was the choice he was offering.
My gun only had two bullets left in it anyway. I thought about it. These miners would be happy to avenge the men I had slain. I dropped the phone in the dust. Truth is, I had somehow always known I was not going to win this one.
I looked back at the minister and nodded in submission. He was not surprised by my choice, in fact, he almost looked disappointed I was so predictable after all. With a few tentative steps, I retreated slowly through the mob, each of the men glowered at me like I was an unwelcome nomad who had wandered into their temple. It was time to walk away.
Some stories were just not meant to be heard.