The line of dirty, dusty workers continued on without end. Dante cranked the AC in the car up another notch and felt a twinge of guilt. It passed.
Across the car, Zuberi sat. He smiled wide, staring at the cliffs looming in the distance. “Tanzanite makes this all possible!” he said. “All of these men have work because the western world needs some special rocks from our humble hills.” A thick Swahili accent covered his voice, but his words are clearly enunciated.
The people outside looked exhausted, hauling their tattered selves down the road, their ages ranging from what looks like 12 to 80. The only part of them that wasn’t covered in dusty powder were the lines of sweat that run down their faces. The Land Rover’s temperature gauge read a blistering 44 Celcius.
In the back, Vinnie tried to discretely capture the line of workers instead of Zuberi. They had covered warlords and titans of industry before. So long as you keep their ego in frame you can film anything.
“The mineral is used in almost everything. That camera, your phone, your overpriced Macbook. My employees here are doing a service to the world.” Zuberi said.
“They are definitely serving.” Dante said as they pass a tent city. The stench of human waste filled the air. “What would you say to those in the western world who would criticize their wages?” Dante asked.
“I would tell them to stop their tweet tweeting and pay more for their device. I don’t set the prices, the industry does,” Zuberi replied, his grin never leaving his face.
“You seem to be doing alright,” Dante said.
Zuberi laughed. “Of course. I stole their business model. If it is your idea, your presence gets the work done, you reap the reward. It’s not like Steve Jobs was coding very much when Apple went out of the garage. I started in these very same mines and worked my way out. Hold on,” he said, taking a hard left down a dirt road.
“Where are we going? Dante said.
“To the pharmacy. This is Mchawi’s place. She has everything you need. Want a potion to make you more virile than a dozen young rabbits. You go to her. Have skin cancer? She has oils. You want to have a really good time out here? She has every potion and powder that helps you find the gods of your choice,” Zuberi said and jumped out of the car. The crew followed him, skipping past the line of waiting and pained patients. As Zuberi passed, they all turned their heads down.
Passing through the concrete, a thousand different smells greeted Dante. Jars hung from the ceiling, their lids screwed in so that they could be twisted into place. Plants on dried strings added to the musky interior. Dante touched his ear and the camera man behind him set the camera on the counter. Any indication that it was on or recording was hidden. It would be a static shot, but he would rather not advertise that they were filming an off the map “pharmacy” in central Tanzania.
A long and slender woman walked out. Her head was shaved, her arms covered in a mix of tribal tattoos and pop culture icons from America and Europe. She had bones hanging from earrings, but they felt more like a fashion statement than icons of witchcraft. A young emaciated woman stepped out from behind her, dragging along two children. They passed out of the clinic quickly and without a noise.
Zuberi clapped his hands at the sight of her. When he ran and hugged Mchawi, she patted his back lightly. Her lips made a thin line. Zuberi stepped away and brought out a roll of cash and dropped it on the counter.
She let a smile through with that. Without a word she handed it to a little boy sitting on an empty cot. She ran her hands through his thick hair. He pocketed it and ran to the back room.
“What brings you here Zuberi? And what about these friends of yours? Looks very official,” she said, looking Dante up and down. “He’s too thick for these chicken boned fools out here.”
She was right. Though Dante’s skin was a deep black, he was built broader, wider than any of the men he had seen other than Zuberi. “I’m an American, miss. Name is Dante,” he said with a hand outstretched.
She took his hand and yanked him closer, running a finger up his wrist to his elbow, then back to his hands. “Some interesting work you got here. A warrior. Probably shot some people.”
“I only do media work these days.”
“These days, eh? Your hands are turning softer than baby hair,” she said, then grabbed a set of clippers from the table. Dante tried to pull away but her grip was crushing. “Hold on, your nails are too long.”
For a moment Zuberi and Mchawi talked back in forth Swahili while she cut his nails down.
“Don’t take offense honey,” she said dumping the nails into a jar. “Can grind them up and sell them to China as rhino horn. It’s all keratin. Dealers don’t know the difference, or they don’t really care.”
“You can take my nails any time you wants” said Vinnie.
“Someone teach that oaf how to hit on a woman. I have a lot of potions here, even some for love, but pretty sure there isn’t a spell strong enough to work with that,” Mchawi said.
Zuberi clapped a hand on Vinnie. “She only works for the money. She is a business person, like myself. Come in with the right amount and anything in the store is yours.” Zuberi licked his lips and stared at Mchawi. “Besides, if you want easy women, you should seek one with access to fewer poisons.”
Vinnie nodded. “Maybe when we get back to the hotel.”
Mchawi walked over to a safe, opened the combination and withdrew a bag of white powder as well as two small vials of brown liquid. “I hate to interrupt, Zuberi, but I have a long line outside. Go somewhere else to have your fun.”
“Your bedside manner is shit, Mchawi. They can wait, I pay them so they can come here.”
She shot him a glance and Zuberi laughed uncomfortably. “Fine. Have it your way.”
At the gaping mouth of the mine, mountains of derelict equipment stood dormant. Piles of broken pick axes and wood littered the ground. Ancient dump trucks and pickups from car makers Dante barely recognized sat under a loader.
“This is one of five major mines that I own. It’s where this comes from,” he pulled out a necklace with a bright blue gem embedded in it. “One of the only places in the world that it can be found, especially in quantities like this. Tanzanite might be the most important compound no one knows about.”
Dante disembarked from the truck followed closely by Vinnie.
“I’m sorry but I can’t let you in today. Not safe for the untrained. The dust is also bad for your camera.”
Dante frowned. “So what are we here to get then? I promised my boss back home for some working shots in the mine.”
“We have some promo videos back at the office. Some good stuff on there. Shows our machines and what they do down there.”
“I didn’t fly 5,000 miles for your propaganda video. If you didn’t want us to show what is really going on down here then you should have never invited us.”
Zuberi still smiled at Dante. “You asked to come here, not the other way around. I was just being polite. But, if you insist. Didn’t think you would want to scuff your baby hands,” he said and grabbed some helmets from the back of a truck and handed them out.
The elevator looked like a relic from a western. The rust on all of the components and sliding fencelike doors gave it a deep brown look. Every hinge squeaked.
They began the long decent downward.
Stepping from the elevator, even Zuberi looked thankful to get off of the rickety machine. A long string of lights ran down the center line of the main shaft. The other splintering paths remained dark.
Walking beside the carts, a regular succession of ore and rock moved toward the lifts. Strong and lean men pressed the carts forward, sweating in spite of the cold underground.
“At least it is air conditioned down here,” Vinnie said, giving a mock shiver.
“The finer work is done by hand. The machines tend to chew everything up,” Zuberi said.
After a long walk Zuberi asked some men working with pickaxes to step aside. “Let’s get some shots then,” Zuberi said. “Grab pick, let’s break some rocks.” He rolled up his sleeves. When the metal crashed against stone it was obvious he had done this before.
The cameraman chuckled as he prepped his camera. Dante swung and joined in. Together they raced, neither one willing to slow from the other’s pace.
Behind them, a small group formed to watch. They seemed amused by the competition and enjoyed seeing their boss actually do some work. Vinnie was engulfed by miners. He felt a hand reach into his pack, and looked back. A young man ran into the dark with a GoPro. He started to say something but a hand touched his shoulder.
The man put a finger to his lips, shushing him. Vinnie considered this and nodded. Both Dante and Zuberi still slammed their picks into the wall.
Zuberi started laughing as Dante slowed down and eventually put the pick to the side. “Of course, these people can’t keep this pace, why should we?” He said through deep breaths. “Although if you ever get done with journalism, you’ve got a job down here. I think you could learn to love these tunnels like they do.”
“I’ll be sure to email you my resume,” Dante said.
Back at the hotel Dante paced back and forth trying to get an angle on the story. He wanted something more than sweaty men and a showoff CEO. The people were obviously overworked, but he wondered what they would be doing with no other options. Vinnie sat on the bed with his laptop, reviewing some footage. Dante wanted a good story, not another objectivity piece on the nature of the third world.
Vinnie jumped up. Dante looked over. He had gone pale. “What’s up?”
“Just some audio, man. Something is not right,” Vinnie said, taking his headphones off and turning up the volume. There was an odd wailing, barely audible. The camera shook violently, showing only flashes of the tunnels from a headlamp. It stopped for a moment at a sign. It was simple enough. A skull and crossbones and some words they couldn’t read. “One of them stole my camera. They handed it back to me on the way out.”
“Must be the site of a cave-in or something,” Dante said. The running started again until it opened up into a larger chamber. The wailing became much more prominent. And more than one voice sounded off. Sections of wall were bricked over, not the hard bored-out stone like the rest. Large rocks rested in front of some of these.
The hand held camera then shot in through a small slit, showing complete darkness. When a flashlight came in behind it, it illuminated a dark room with a leathery corpse against the wall. There were scratch marks everywhere. The corpse was holding its hands, which were mangled and the bones exposed.
“Oh god. It’s a tomb,” Dante said. Vinnie said a few less friendly words.
The miner then ran down the long hallway and in the low light it had no end. Every ten feet or so was another room carved from the rock and walled off. When he stuck the camera in again there was an elderly man who looked up at the camera. He held out his hand, and it looked like the effort was crushing him. The miner handed him a piece of fruit and continued down the hall.
The young man began to speak, his voice frantic and hateful. The meaning was lost on Dante and Vinnie. They listened intently for anything intelligible. The only word they could parse wsn’t a word at all. It was “Mchawi,” the witch doctor.
“We have to get to her. We have to find out just what the hell is happening down there,” Dante said, grabbing his gear.
Vinnie nodded. “I’m sending this homeward right now. The internet sucks, but they should get it eventually.”
There was a knock at the door. They heard Zuberi’s voice boom through the thin panel. They saw the lock turn, and he walked into the room.
“Dante, downstairs. We need to have a drink,” Zuberi said.
“How did you get the key?” Dante asked.
“I own the hotel too. I’m a man of many interests,” Zuberi said. His smile looked more forced than before. “He comes too.”
Vinnie quickly made a retching sound and ran to the bathroom, laptop in hand.
“He had some bad water or food. Kind of a workaholic though. He won’t be good company until the morning,” Dante said.
“You westerners and your weak stomachs,” Zuberi laughed.
At the bar downstairs Dante thought he could forget that they were in East Africa. The lobby was clean and opulent. The floor was stone and it reminded him of a great many hotels he had stayed at in the USA. It wasn’t the Four Seasons but it was much better than what he was used to in this part of the world.
Zuberi drank heartily from a mug. Two women sat at the table, doting on him in skimpy dresses that barely covered the top of their thighs. Occasionally Dante saw flashes of bare skin below.
“So are you going to sit there or are you going to drink?” Zuberi asked.
“I haven’t drank for a while now. It doesn’t agree with my temperament,” Dante said.
“That might work in America, but here if someone offers you drink, you take it. Same with women,” Zuberi said. “What, do you think I’d poison you?”
The thought had crossed his mind. “No. I’m more thinking about flights home and the travel ahead of us. We’re supposed to head to Pakistan for a story next.”
“Well you definitely must drink then. Out that way you’ll be lucky to find anything other than fermented milk.”
Dante eyed the glass, and took a drink. “Is this Bud Light?”
“Imported just for my guests,” Zuberi said.
“Man, you need to import something real,” Dante laughed.
“Alright then. Let’s try something a little more local.”
He snapped at the barkeep who brought over a bottle with an unrecognizable label. Zuberi poured it into four shot glasses. Dante smiled, but reached into his pocket. He hit send on his phone and hoped Vinnie would pick up.
They all took the shots. Dante felt the familiar burn of whiskey, only worse.
The warmth in his stomach was familiar and embracing. He loosened up a little bit. They swapped some stories and Zuberi told him about life in Tanzania. The whiskey made it easy to pretend everything was okay. He resented that he could even like the charismatic man across the table, but the drinks and stories made it easy.
“Oh man, I wish some of this could go in the report,” Dante said.
One of the women at the table slipped off the chair and made an audible snore. Dante felt his eyelids getting heavy.
“I want you to know the rooms are bugged,” Zuberi said. “There is a lot about my country you do not understand.”
Dante felt his stomach turn over.
“I’m not mad, just frustrated. A man cannot become something more out here without people under him. Without people giving everything to elevate him. You must understand?”
Dante reached for the large man and grabbed his tie. Zuberi shot out a quick right hand, and Dante felt like he was falling. Before he could hit the ground he was unconscious.
When Vinne heard the word “Bugged” he snapped from his chair and grabbed his bag. He was heading for the door when the knob started to turn. He ran to the window, and thanked God that he was only on the second floor. He stepped over the rail and jumped. He ran for the street and grabbed a cab.
He handed the cabbie $100 cash and told him he had to get to Mchawi.
When he got to the Pharmacy, he was surprised to see Mchawi waiting outside.
“I was wondering if you would make it,” she said.
“What in the hell is happening?”
“Call it a coup of sorts,” she said, leading Vinnie inside. “If Zuberi does what he always does, he’s going to have a hard night.”
“What does he do? Is this about his prison in the mines?”
“I suppose you could call it a prison. It’s much worse than that. This land is very superstitious. Very old gods wander these hills. They demand sacrifices. They reward those who steal more than life. They steal time. They give it back to men like Zuberi in wealth and take the rest for themselves. He gets rich off of their suffering because he is living the lives of many, all those poor souls who rot in the godforsaken tunnels.”
“Do you believe that?” Vinnie said.
“Sometimes. I do believe that he is riding high off the backs of these people. I believe him when he says he will throw my son, his bastard, in a hole for decades if I don’t take care of his every need, potion or otherwise. He has me call his spirits up for sacrifice. In the end it is burning plants, dancing, and no spirits I’ve ever seen. Only that devil smiling on the other side of the fire.”
“Why now?” Vinnie asked.
“Because your friend is in trouble. Because we know he’s coming. Because you can show the world what is happening here. They might actually care if they could just see it. Does it really matter? You and your friend aren’t leaving this country if he doesn’t want you to.”
She looked at her watch. “Come now, we don’t have time,” she said and pulled a cell phone from her pocket. “You drive, I’m calling some friends.”
Zuberi parked the SUV in front of the mine and pulled Dante from the back. Dante was in a hazy stupor and tripped over himself. Zuberi nudged him toward the entrance, and took the lift down.
Behind the piles of rubble and broken machinery, men holding picks crept toward the lift.
Zuberi wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and stood over the body of Dante. His breathing was low but stable.
When he opened the door, a mob of men wielding pick axes and tools glared at him. In the center was Mchawi. Vinnie had a camera pointed, rolling full clip.
Zuberi smiled and flipped the lever to go up. The cart started to rise, but the electricity faltered and the cart came to a standstill less than a foot from the ground. The tunnel lamps turned off, and one by one, the miners turned their lamps on.
Zuberi couldn’t see a single body through the swarm of lights, only the lamps which stared at him unblinking.
The mob screamed and charged the door, prying it open. Zuberi pulled a gun from his pocket and fired into the crowd. Pained shouts rang out, but the broad side of a pick slapped into Zuberi’s wrist. The gun fell from his hand and blood started to pour. Hands snatched at his clothes, pulling him into the mob, and then above it. A few men grabbed the stumbling Dante.
The headlamps glowed in wild angles like a living disco ball. Shouts and cries of victory echoed through the cave and returned back a howling throng.
At the wall, Mchawi had a few candles lit and a flashlight in her hand. There was an empty tomb behind her.
“Welcome home,” she said.
Zuberi was thrown into the room. He stood at the end of it staring up. “Don’t do this! I’ll take your boy! I’ll take your whole family!” In his native tongue, Zuberi swore and threatened. He charged forward, lunging at Mchawi. When he did this she grabbed a pick from the nearest man and launched it forward. It connected with Zuberi right in the teeth and he staggered backward holding his mouth, lips mangled.
She lifted the pick one more time, this time slamming it point first into the meaty part of the thigh. Zuberi screamed.
“Because I’m generous I’m giving you two options,” she said. “The first vial is an arsenic tablet. Like a spy movie. You eat it, you die. It’s more mercy than you gave anyone down here, but I think everyone else would rather see you dead.” She threw the bottle at him. “Otherwise, we wall this up and no one here remembers a thing. Just another work day in these ‘haunted’ mines.”
Vinnie cleared his throat, reminding her of the camera.
“Well, America might remember something but none of us will.
Zuberi smiled one last time and dispensed the bottle into his broken mouth. In a moment, he was coughing up a noxious liquid and foaming at the sides of his mouth.
The miners cheered. Vinnie felt his stomach turn but kept filming.
Down the halls, men broke down the walls, pulling emaciated men and women from holes that ran down the tunnel. They used the fresh stone to trap the still twitching body.
When Dante started to regain consciousness, Mchawi was standing over him. She patted him with a cold rag. His head ached worse than it ever had.
“He basically roofied you,” she said. “You are lucky to be alive, or at least not trapped ten stories under the mountain. Now, I got Vinnie’s word on this. Promise me faces will be blurred, or I’ll find a way to end you like I did Zuberi.”
“Good, now go tell your story. My guess is your boss will be pretty happy,” she said. The young boy came back to the room and wrapped his arm around the woman’s leg.
“Are you worried about who will come take over?”
“Not in the slightest. Sometimes the only way to heal is to cut something out. Same goes for a whole group of people. Sometimes you take the arm to stop an infection, but the heart continues beating. He was worse because he couldn’t see the wrong doing. There is no reason there. So I cut him out.”
When he awoke, Zuberi found himself in complete darkness. His jaw felt off, his body wracked with pain. His leg was numb. He noticed something in his hands. A match and a piece of paper.
He scraped it along the wall and read the note.
“You have much life left to live. Much longer than this match and paper. The magics that bind to you care little for food or water, only for that energy you took. Don’t take it too personally. Sometimes you have to kill the devil you know. Enjoy your stay.”
Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.