Not back two months from her worldwide fact-finding tour, Pixie Stalin, newly elected leader of the Australian Greens, now found herself jetting to China in the company of Barry Balfour. Barry was the Project Manager, employed by Ventergen, to implement the Victorian government’s ambitious plan to provide 50% of Victoria’s energy from wind – a project known as VicWind, itself a part of a grander strategy developed under the aegis of the Chinese Belt and Roads initiative, titled ‘Building Back Better’. Pixie was travelling as a guest of Ventergen, a fact that she had duly noted on her Parliamentary register of gifts.
Barry, who was now safely entombed in his first-class sleeping capsule, had proved an agreeable travelling companion and Pixie had enjoyed their discourse over dinner. She now finished the last of her port and decided to turn in herself.
She awoke, refreshed, at 6am local time and reflected that business class was fine but first class was definitely the way to go. And, she reflected, it was well worth the $17.09 she insisted that Ventergen pay Qantas to offset her carbon footprint. She and Barry finished the last of their breakfast coffee just as the aircraft commenced its final approach to Shanghai’s Pudong international airport.
Two hours later they were ensconsed in their hotel. No 2pm check-in for guests of Kwangsei. The rest of the day was left free for sightseeing and a guided tour had been arranged for them. Pixie was pleasantly surprised by the air quality. By no means as pristine as she was used to at home, Shanghai’s skies were much clearer than Beijing’s, if the well-known images from the 2008 Olympics were anything to go by, Pixie thought. She thoroughly enjoyed the tour, particularly the famous Bund. Barry had been to China many times and even had a smattering of Mandarin. He was a very accomplished guide.
Tomorrow they would fly to Beijing and then on to Baotou in Inner Mongolia where Kwangsei had established its state-of-the-art wind turbine manufacturing plant. There they would have two days of briefings and inspections. Tomorrow night there would also be a company banquet in honour of Kwangsei’s esteemed guest. They would fly back to Australia on the morning of the third day. It looked like being an exhausting few days, so Pixie, rather than join Barry in discovering Shanghai’s nightlife, decided an early night might be prudent.
The next day she got a real sense of the power and influence of Kwangsei. Their trip to Baotou was accomplished with a minimum of fuss and all the officials they encountered were reserved and polite to Pixie and Barry but positively deferential to their Kwangsei escort, Cam Kee Ho.
Eventually they arrived in Baotou, the capital of the Province of Inner Mongolia. This is an industrial city with an urban population of just under two million people. Barry and Pixie were taken first to the Rare Earth International, a gleaming thirty storey hotel, where their bags were offloaded. By this time, it was getting on for 10.30 so they were taken straight to the manufacturing plant to commence their briefings. As they approached the factory on the outskirts of the city, Ho pointed out that the plant was powered almost solely by renewable energy. Kwangsei had its own wind farm and its own solar PV plant so that it need only draw power from the grid on rare occasions. They drove past the solar array just before they entered the main complex.
Eventually they found themselves comfortably seated in a modern and sleek conference room apparently equipped with every multi-media device imaginable.
They were then subjected to a standard company presentation that Pixie sat through politely. Following this they were given a light lunch of vegetarian dishes accompanied by green tea and then taken on a tour of the plant.
Their first stop was the division that manufactured the permanent magnets that are essential for wind turbines and, in fact, for most other renewable technologies. Then they toured the main fabrication plant where the components of the giant turbines were made. This facility reminded Pixie of photographs she had seen of the Boeing aircraft construction plant in Seattle. This impression was heightened by the nacelles, the main housing of the turbines, which are so like aircraft engines but this close up their size was almost intimidating. Pixie had been told they are so big a helicopter could land on top of one. Now she could believe it.
The time went so quickly that Pixie was surprised when Ho said it was now time to leave for the hotel and prepare for the banquet that evening. Suddenly the day caught up with her and she was glad that they would have an hour or so to rest before the banquet.
“Well, that was a thoroughly interesting day,” she remarked to Barry, “but I must admit I’m feeling a bit bushed. I’ll be glad of an hour’s rest.”
“Are you feeling OK?” Barry asked, peering at her. Ho also picked up on the remark and enquired solicitously if she was unwell.
“No, I’m fine,” Pixie reassured them, “just a bit tired.”
By the time they got back to the hotel, she was semi-dozing in the back seat of the limousine. Ho again asked her if he was unwell and again Pixie reassured him that he was fine, just a bit tired.
Two hours later, Pixie felt refreshed and was looking forward to the evening.
It turned out that the company had taken over the hotel’s banquet hall and there were at least a hundred attendees. Pixie was flattered that such a turnout had been arranged in her honour.
The banquet room was a startling departure from the standard ‘modern international’ décor that characterised the rest of the hotel. It was an ornate symphony in gold and red. Pixie could imagine Barack Obama and Xi Jinping dining here for the benefit of the world’s media. She was introduced to the Chairman of the company and several other highly placed company dignitaries. As she sat down next to the Chairman, it finally occurred to her that her importance in Australian politics may have been somewhat oversold by Ventergen. Still, she might as well enjoy himself.
Barry had warned her not to expect beef and black bean sauce and the warning was well taken. Course after course arrived, most of which she could not even recognise. Still, she did her best as a distinguished guest. She nodded and smiled in the right places and managed to get most of the food down without a grimace.
The chairman spoke English of a sort and Pixie found that, with concentration, she could keep up her end of the conversation but eventually she started to feel that she had now gone beyond the call of duty and was wondering how much longer the banquet would last. She had not thought to ask Ho earlier and she could hardly ask the chairman now.
Her host turned to her, smiling, and asked a question that Pixie did not understand but interpreted as a query on how she had enjoyed the previous dish, something that had appeared to be ‘jellyfish au naturel’.
A wave of dizziness swept over her and her heart suddenly seemed to pound in her chest. She stared vacantly at the chairman and rose unsteadily to her feet. A trickle of sweat from her forehead very quickly turned into a torrent that drenched her blouse. She collapsed to the floor.
The chairman looked on, horror-struck, as Ho leapt from his seat and rushed to Pixie’s side. Pixie was dimly aware of the confusion surrounding her. She was not comforted by the counterpoint of authoritative commands in the background and frantic babble on the part of someone applying wet towel to her forehead. While all this was going on, Ho mentioned to the chairman that their guest had appeared unwell at the conclusion of her visit to the plant that afternoon.
Despite the attentions, her symptoms seemed to be getting worse rather than better. She was barely conscious when, finally, a paramedic arrived. The paramedic took one look at her and hooked her up to a portable ECG machine. She was then lifted onto a gurney and taken to a waiting ambulance.
Pixie was only vaguely aware of the ride to the hospital and being admitted. Barry and Ho had accompanied her but now that she had been taken to a ward, they seemed to have disappeared.
She was given another ECG and a saline drip to replace the fluid she’d lost. Then she was left alone and within a very short time she began to recover. As her symptoms receded she noticed that she was in what appeared to be a very well equipped private room. Not something she expected in a Chinese hospital but she didn’t think too much about it, simply assumed that Kwangsei had worked its magic again.
Now that it appeared she wasn’t in imminent danger of death, she began to relax a little. She assumed she’d suffered a heart attack, which surprised her because her latest medical, less than two months ago, had given her a clean bill of health.
She was no longer feeling unwell but she was still weak and tired. Now she started to think about the consequences of heart disease and what this would mean for her lifestyle and, more importantly, her mission.
After about fifteen minutes a man, obviously a doctor, entered the room smiling reassuringly.
“Ah, Ms Stalin, I see you are recovering fast.” A small slightly chubby man, he spoke strongly accented, but easily understood, English. “You are probably wondering if you had a heart attack? Well, I can assure your heart is fine.”
The doctor took Pixie’s wrist and checked her pulse, gazing benignly at her all the while. He nodded in satisfaction then pulled up a chair to sit next to the bed.
“Ms Stalin, it appears you suffered from a severe allergic reaction to MSG.”
“But I’ve eaten Chinese food many times and never had a problem before.”
“Ms Stalin, I’m going to tell you something that may upset you, but I ask that you remain silent until I have finished, by which time I hope you will understand. Friends of mine arranged for your food to be, shall we say, overdosed with MSG.” He held up a hand to forestall Pixie’s angry reaction. “We did this because we needed to get you into this hospital where we can talk to you in safety. I must assure you that you were never in any danger. We had an emergency team on standby and received a call from a friend at the banquet the moment your reaction commenced. They were already on the way before the hotel staff called us.”
Pixie was angry but stunned. She waited for the doctor to continue.
“Before I go on, perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Dr Han and, of course, I mean you no harm. Let me start at the beginning. You are a guest of the Kwangsei company and no doubt have been impressed by their wealth and success in building an international company specialising in sustainable energy. Their environmental credentials are impeccable, are they not? But not all is as it seems with Kwangsei and I would like to show you something that, I think, will shock you. Are you feeling up to walking?”
Pixie was indeed feeling better.
“I feel up to walking right out of here. I demand that you take me back to my hotel.”
Dr Han sighed regretfully. “I’m afraid that is not possible until I have finished what I started. Please bear with me.”
“What do you think my colleagues will do when I don’t reappear?”
“They have already been told that we suspect a case of avian flu and you have been quarantined until we can rule out that diagnosis. They have expressed their good wishes for you but, I fear they will not be pressing for your release just for the moment. When we have concluded our business, we will announce happily that our suspicions were incorrect and that you merely succumbed to a severe allergic reaction. We will then release you to your friends. At that time you may tell them whatever you wish about your sojourn here and I will be happy to accept the consequences. Please, come with me now.”
Pixie couldn’t see the point in remaining where she was and was sure that, despite his apparent goodwill, Dr Han would not allow her to leave the hospital on her own so she decided to play along and see what transpired.
They then embarked on a confusing journey through what seemed to be an immense complex finally entering a service lift that delivered them to the rear of a large public ward. From what Pixie could see, the ward was full of patients. Dr Han said nothing but led Pixie slowly along the ward.
It soon became apparent that many of the patients were suffering from appalling lesions on the face and arms. There must have been at least fifty patients in that ward but not one of them was making a sound.
They walked from one end of the ward to other and then back. A couple of nurses were on duty but they took no notice of the visitors. Finally, Dr Han spoke. “This is a terminal case ward. All these patients are dying from radiation sickness or cancer. We have two more wards like this. I will spare you looking at them. I did not bring you here to shock you but to put a human face on what I am about to tell you. Let us go to my office, please, and I will explain.”
The journey to Dr Han’s office was just as confusing and Pixie was suddenly struck by the fact that they had seen very few staff.
Dr Han’s office was small but functional. They sat and Dr Han began.
“As you probably know, Kwangsei is the third largest manufacturer of wind turbines in China. Soon it will be the largest in the world. That is a good thing, yes? Promoting clean, renewable energy. A worthy pursuit. But that energy does come at a cost to the environment. And, in China, a human cost as well.”
Pixie had now forgotten her anger – had almost forgotten how she came to be here. Dr Han continued.
“No doubt you also know that the main component of these wind turbines, their permanent magnets, are made from rare earth minerals most of which are mined here in China.”
“To put it bluntly, mining and refining of rare earth minerals is far from an environmentally friendly process. Here are some figures that might surprise you. I hope they will horrify you. Each ton of refined rare earth products produces eight and a half kilograms of fluorine, and thirteen kilograms of flue dust, about ten thousand cubic metres of gas contaminated with flue dust, hydrochloric and sulphuric acid and sulphur dioxide. There is also seventy-five cubic metres of acidic waste-water and one ton of radioactive waste residue and, finally, two thousand tons of tailings which contain radioactive elements.”
“Each modern wind turbine requires two tons of refined rare earth elements, so for each turbine we double the amount of these contaminants. To put that in perspective, there are currently two hundred thousand wind turbines worldwide. That is four hundred thousand tons of rare earths. Not all of them originated in China, of course, but a simple mathematical calculation shows us that, worldwide, the production of these machines has resulted in four hundred thousand tons of radioactive waste residue, four million cubic metres of contaminated gas and forty million tons of radioactive tailings. And that is just for wind turbines. These minerals are also used in the production of batteries for electric motor vehicles, and also for modern lighting and TV and computer screens.”
“Ninety-five per cent of these rare earth minerals are produced in China and a large percentage of these waste products find their way into our environment. Our own government has estimated that production of rare earths in Baotou region alone results in ten million tons of contaminated waste-water every year. Every year! And most of that is discharged, untreated, into our waterways.”
By now he had Pixie’s full attention.
“But these figures, by themselves, do not tell the real story. The story that you saw in Ward Twenty-Seven. Those people are just the tip of the iceberg. The most common disease in Baotou is pneumoconiosis, known as ‘black lung’. It is caused by inhaling dust and was once common in coal miners. It is debilitating but not normally fatal. In Inner Mongolia there are over ten thousand people living with ‘black lung’ but many of these will eventually contract cancer because of the peculiarly toxic nature of the chemicals used in rare earth refining.”
“Our central government has recently moved to introduce new standards specifically for the rare earth industry but as you say in the West, these are ‘honoured more in the breach than the observance’. There is too much money involved. To be fair, some companies are trying to improve but the costs involved in implementing the new standards are very high. But Kwangsei is a law unto itself. It owns a couple of small mines that adhere to the standards. These are the ones that are shown to visitors and officials. These are the ones upon which the official audit of standards is based. But it sources and refines most of its rare earth elements from a large mine in a remote area near the border with Mongolia. It is a highly secure area that very few people visit. Here there are no standards. No money is wasted on health and safety. No money is wasted on environmental issues. What would be the point? It is so remote.”
Dr Han paused for a moment, then continued.
“There used to be a village there. Over a thousand people. Most of them were offered employment in the mine and refinery and most of them accepted. About two years after the mine opened, people started to get sick. Very soon almost the entire population of the village was affected. It turned out that the waste products from this mine were both highly toxic and highly radioactive – more so than usual. The management of this waste was minimal. It found its way into the water table and eventually into the local wells. The village became uninhabitable. Most of the people were resettled, in small groups, all over the country. Hidden out of sight, out of mind. The rest were sent here to die. Now the company has even less need to worry about environmental concerns. And Baotou is not the only region where this is happening.”
Pixie broke in. “But surely the government knows about this? Why haven’t they done anything?”
“Let me tell you about our government. Inner Mongolia is called an autonomous region. That means we have some discretion in developing our economy. We have a regional Chairman, who is a Mongol, but he is kept in check by the Party Regional Committee Secretary. The Secretary is a man named Wu Feng Lai. He is the cousin of the chairman of Kwangsei and is one of the most powerful officials in China. Need I say more?”
Pixie got the picture.
“One of the things we do not lack in China is people,” Dr Han announced sadly. “They are a resource, just like the minerals they extract. Kwangsei would regard the deaths of these people as regrettable but just ‘part of the cost of doing business’. China is intent on growth. Determined to catch up to the West and very little is allowed to stand in the way of progress. The official view, unstated of course, is that niceties like human rights and the environment will have to wait until everybody has a full belly, electric lighting and a plasma TV. And one way that will happen is the foreign exchange that can derived from the West’s apparently insatiable demand for wind turbines.”
Before she could respond, Dr Han continued, “and, of course, there is also the question of the vast tonnages of steel and concrete needed to house these turbines and the immense amount of waste that needs to be disposed of and managed when they reach their end of life in about twenty-five years. No doubt you already know about this aspect but it’s not really what I’m concerned about.”
In fact, Pixie did know about this aspect of wind turbines but had elected not to dwell upon it lest it blur the bigger picture. She began a passionate discourse on human rights and Dr Han indulged her, content now at having apparently deflected Pixie’s anger at her treatment.
“Why have you brought me here? What do you want from me?” Pixie finally got to the real question.
“You are an honourable lady. You care about human rights and the environment and you are a leader in your country. We want you to take this story to the West.”
As the implications of what she was being asked sank in, Pixie hesitated. Before she could speak, Dr Han anticipated her objection. He took from his pocket a USB stick and handed it to her.
“Here is a detailed presentation. It includes exhaustive statistics such as I have already told you about. It contains case studies and testimony from victims and observers. And it contains graphic pictures and videos. All we ask is that you make your own public aware of this situation.”
Pixie took the proffered drive, which Dr Han took as tacit acceptance of his request.
“Thank you, Ms Stalin. I have said that you had nothing to fear from me and now you can see that is true. But I have to admit that you could be in danger if, by some means, news of our discussion leaks out before you leave China. I believe our stratagem with the MSG is foolproof and your hosts will have no reason to be suspicious of your time here. What I am saying is, please, do not discuss this with anyone, including your friend. We believe he does not know about the extent of Kwangsei’s crimes but he is well aware of the general problems regarding extraction of rare earths. And he has a vested interest in this not becoming an issue. It would be very easy for you to disappear.”
Pixie didn’t need to be told twice and, in any case, she wanted to do some independent checking of her own when she got home.
“Salvador, I wonder if you could stay for a moment?” Pixie Stalin took her deputy aside as Jodie Ogden and Brett Wilder left her Senate office after a strategy meeting. The Senate had risen an hour earlier and, during their meeting, Salvador had noticed that Pixie had seemed distracted.
“I know we haven’t seen eye to eye lately,” Pixie began, “but, nonetheless I do respect your judgement and, more particularly, your discretion. I have some shocking information that I want to share with you. A difficult situation has arisen and I would like your advice on how to handle it.”
Salvador Ballenas sat down again. “Of course. Fire away.”
“As you know, I recently visited the Kwangsei factory in China. While I was there I came across some very disturbing information. It concerns the environmental effects of mining rare earth minerals. Rather than explain, I’d like you to look at this presentation. It was given to me by a doctor in Baotou.”
Salvador sat through the presentation without speaking. When it finished he sighed heavily.
“You’re right. That is very disturbing,” he said. It was particularly disturbing because Salvador held two hundred thousand Ventergen shares, currently worth nearly $2.5 million. Naturally, they did not appear on his parliamentary register of assets. From Salvador’s point of view, the logic was simple. If this came out the Victorian government would be bound to insist that Kwangsei withdraw from the consortium or, at the very least, that they clean up their act toute de suite. Either way, Ventergen would be finished because, even with massive subsidies from the Victorian government, the deal was highly leveraged. It was only the extremely low cost of the Kwangsei turbines that made the whole bid competitive in the first place and the major factor in that low cost was a willingness on the part of Kwangsei to ignore almost all environmental protections.
Salvador had been well aware of the environmental cost of mining and refining rare earths, but considered that because the effects were only felt in China, there was little reason to worry. Now he became very worried indeed, as Pixie shared her thoughts.
“It’s a catastrophe. The VicWind project’s our flagship. The most important climate change initiative in the country. It can’t fail. But I had no idea of the environmental devastation these rare earths can cause. We have to do something. We can’t let the project proceed, knowing that this … this abomination is happening behind the scenes. But on the other hand we can’t allow it to fail. It’s going to require some delicate management, which is why I came to you, Salvador.”
Delicate management, indeed, thought her Deputy.
“You’re quite right. My first thought is exactly the same as yours. The project cannot be allowed to fail. That should be our over-riding concern.” He paused, as giving weighty thought to the matter. “Look, Pixie, it seems to me that the environmental damage has already been done so we can afford to hasten slowly in rectifying that aspect. Let’s not go off half-cocked. Let me think about it for a few days. I have a number of contacts at Ventergen. Maybe I could sound them out.”
“Be careful with Ventergen,” Pixie warned. “The doctor intimated that they may be aware of the issue but have chosen to overlook it.”
“Well, if they are, a few well-chosen words from me may induce them to take action, rather than risk the scandal of this coming out.”
Salvador then spent the next ten minutes agreeing with Pixie that, yes, it was inconceivable that any government, even the Chinese, could allow their citizens to be abused in this manner and, yes, what was the point of working to protect the environment in our part of the world if rapacious companies in other parts could just do as they pleased. Eventually he was able to extricate himself.
“I’m glad you came to me, Pixie.” Very glad, in fact. “I think it would be best not to tell anyone else about this at the moment. The fewer who know the better. I’ll get back to you in a day or so with my plan of action. Oh, and could I borrow that flash drive? I’d like to review it again. Thanks.”
Salvador and Pixie had been jostling for the leadership for a couple of years before their chance finally came with the retirement of Philip Rothman. In the run-up to the ballot, Pixie had discovered that, courtesy of a distant ancestor, she was a proud Wiradjuri woman and Salvador then knew it was over for him. His own status as the son of a single mother who escaped Pinochet’s repressive regime in Chile, could not compete with that. Having lost the leadership ballot Salvador had accepted for some time now that Pixie was not going to quietly fade away. He had mulled over a number of options, including a manufactured scandal – possibly a financial sting – but now realized the ‘final solution’, as he thought of it, must be sooner and more drastic than he had planned. Pixie would have to go but it had to be done in a way that did not reflect in any way on the Greens themselves. An arranged ‘suicide’ would certainly arouse suspicion. The same would apply to an ‘accident’.
The problem exercised Salvador’s mind for several hours before he hit on the perfect solution. And it would be a package deal, disposing, at the same time, of another irritant that had been bothering him for some time. His latest paramour, Marlene Mitchell, had become increasingly demanding and she knew rather more about his modus operandi than was comfortable. The question of how to extricate himself from her had been exercising his mind for a couple of months now. He picked up the phone.
“I have a job for you.”
“Pixie, Salvador. That business we spoke about. I think I may have a solution, but I’ve got to speak to my contact at Ventergen in person. I can’t risk doing it over the phone. He’s heading off overseas next week and I’ve got to go to Melbourne to see him on Wednesday. The problem is I’m due to speak at the Hyde Park rally on Wednesday. Would you be able to take my place? I know it’s late notice but I could send you my notes if you like.”
“That’s great about Ventergen. Let me see … yes, I can stand in for you. No need to send your notes. I’ve always got plenty of material available.”
“Great, I’ll let Marlene Mitchell know. She’s organising it and she’ll contact you with the details.”
“Thanks, Salvador, good luck”
The marksman always enjoyed a challenge but he had to admit that, this time, Salvador had really pushed the boundaries. He had already killed twice for Salvador but this would be his biggest and most difficult hit. A public place, in the middle of the day and four targets to hit. It was to appear as an indiscriminate shooting spree, but what complicated it was that the first two shots must be fatal. The second two casualties could be anyone and need not be fatal. They were just camouflage. That might sound simple but most indiscriminate shooters were just that. They didn’t care who lived or died and often were just as heedless about their own fate. The marksman certainly intended to survive.
A further complication was that he could not use his usual weapon and ammunition, lest it be tied back by ballistics to his earlier jobs. He would have to use an unfamiliar rifle and penetrating rounds, rather than dum-dums. These were less lethal which made accurate shooting even more critical. A head shot was the most lethal but also the most difficult. To get two accurate head shots off would really test his marksmanship. And he only had two days to prepare.
The only saving grace was that there would be no security to speak of.
The rally was to take place in the centre of Hyde Park in Sydney’s CBD, at the Archibald Fountain. The park is long and relatively narrow and is bounded on three and a half sides by high rise office buildings. It is overlooked by St Mary’s Cathedral at its north eastern corner.
It didn’t take long to work out that the Cathedral was a perfect site from which to make the hit, which was fortunate because it was also the only viable one, at least when he only had two days to prepare. Presumably it would be relatively deserted and access should not be a problem. He would reconnoitre the building itself that afternoon but in the meantime, Google told him that the Cathedral was opened to the public during the day and he guessed it would be largely deserted between about 8am when morning Mass finished and about midday when confessions were heard. This worked out well because Stalin was due to be introduced at 10.30am. He could have the job finished and be out well before 11am.
Even more satisfying was that the bell tower, in the centre of the Cathedral, directly overlooked the Archibald fountain. He didn’t anticipate any major difficulty in getting access to the bell tower, but he assumed that any window to the outside would be quite high, possibly much taller than himself. He would need some way of getting up there. Or possibly there might be internal access to the roof of the tower.
He would, of course, need a cover of some kind but he’d think more about that after he’d visited the Cathedral in person. He decided he would need two visits, one that afternoon to check out the bell tower and another, the following morning, to gauge the level of activity.
In the event, his two recces went without incident and confirmed his initial thoughts.
“Good luck, Marlene,” Salvador said sincerely. “I’m sorry about today but I’m sure Pixie will do a great job.”
The morning of the Hyde Park rally had dawned bright and fine. Marlene, watching Salvador putting some documents in his briefcase and checking his airline ticket, was disappointed but accepted that his appointment in Melbourne took precedence.
“Well, Pixie is the leader,” she conceded. “At least the weather is good and we should get a great turnout.”
Salvador paused at the front door and allowed Marlene to kiss him affectionately. Then he disappeared into the lift.
The last of the worshippers finally took their leave of Father O’Reilly at about 8.15am and the priest himself then departed. The marksman already knew that there would be the odd worshipper coming in and out from time to time but this was not an issue. As long as there were no staff around, he could move about with ease. He was dressed in black shirt and slacks with a gold chain and medallion around his neck and gold bracelet on his left wrist. He carried a trombone case. He had discovered that the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was scheduled to perform Saint-Saens 3rd Symphony – the organ symphony – in a public recording session at the Cathedral on Friday next. The concert was to celebrate the completion of a major refurbishment of the Cathedral’s organ. Perfect cover. In the unlikely event that anyone questioned him, he was the first trombonist of the orchestra, on his way to work but stopped in to check out the venue for the forthcoming performance.
The door to the stairs leading to the bell tower was, of course, locked but this presented no problem. Ten minutes after entering the Cathedral he was comfortably ensconsed in the bell tower and confident that no-one would now disturb him. He would have two hours to wait but that did not bother him. He now had a decision to make. As he had expected, when he had checked out the tower the day before, he found that the open windows of the bell tower were indeed higher than he could reach but, luckily, there was a ladder, presumably for maintenance of the bells. Using the ladder he could get high enough to fire out the window but it was not an ideal platform from which to make two difficult shots. There was also a stairway leading to a trapdoor that opened onto the roof of the tower. Up there he would have a much better firing platform and a clearer view of the target. But, of course, he would be exposed to any low flying aircraft, such as the Channel 7 news chopper that he assumed might well be in attendance for a major rally. As much as he was tempted to go to the roof, he reluctantly decided it was too great a risk. He would have to remain inside and do the best he could.
Now it was time to prepare his weapon. He hauled it out of the trombone case and fitted the telescopic sight. As he did so he again wondered if he had made the right choice of weapon. It really came down to calibre. There were two options. The 5.56mm round, commonly used by modern military forces, or the heavier 7.62mm. The smaller round was more accurate over longer ranges but that was not really an issue here, where he would be engaging targets at no more than three hundred metres. Its problem was that it was less lethal than the 7.62. But on the other hand, the 7.62 has a stronger recoil, that would definitely delay him in acquiring his second and subsequent targets. In the end he had decided that lethality was the most important consideration. Phillip had made it quite clear that both targets must be killed. He would just have to back his reflexes. In the end it was only the first two targets that were critical. The subsequent victims were important to Salvador’s plan that so that there be no suspicion that Stalin and Mitchell were specifically targetted.
He thrust these thoughts aside. He’d made his decision and it was too late to change it now. Today he would be using a Remington 750 Woodsmaster semi-automatic rifle with a four-round magazine. It was a good weapon but not one that he had warmed to. If he had to abandon it, its loss would not worry him greatly.
At 10.15am he took up his position and watched the usual confusion as people arrived, were greeted, milled about and chatted in small groups. He quickly spotted Marlene Mitchell, wearing a bright green jacket, working the crowd. He focussed on her. He knew she would be greeting and introducing Pixie Stalin, of whom there was, as yet, no sign.
When she had still not arrived at 10.25, the marksman was struck by a worrying thought. What if she didn’t show? She could be sick. Anything could prevent him from turning up. What would Salvador want him to do? He’d made it clear that both Stalin and Mitchell were to be killed. He’d also emphasised that time was an issue. This job could not wait. If Stalin failed to appear, should he hit Mitchell anyway? That would get half the job done and he could always do Stalin later. But that would pretty well destroy Salvador’s plan that the death of both should be attributed to some right wing ‘nut job’.
He quickly pulled out his mobile phone and dialled Salvador’s number. Mobile out of service. Damn! He was pretty sure Salvador would be ten thousand metres above the Snowy Mountains on his way to Melbourne. He would have to make the decision himself. He forced himself to concentrate. He made his decision. If Stalin didn’t show, he would abort.
As he raised the rifle again, he tried hard to regain his equanimity. The task was difficult enough to start with. To his relief, the first person who came into focus through the sight was Pixie Stalin.
He watched Mitchell escort her guest onto the podium and commence her introduction. Stalin stepped forward to the microphone and Mitchell stepped back a couple of paces but remained standing to her left. Perfect.
Stalin would be a head shot. Because it was a small target that could move unexpectedly when the victim was speaking, an accurate shot was essential but it would be instantly lethal. Over this range, the marksman was supremely confident of making that shot. Mitchell would have to be a chest shot, as she would almost certainly be moving by the time he could get to her. Lethality would be less certain in her case, but it was the best he could do.
He breathed in deeply and then slowly exhaled. As his lungs finally emptied, he gently squeezed the trigger.
Marlene gazed over the crowd as Pixie commenced her address. She was gratified to see that the turnout appeared to have exceeded their expectations. It was a bright sunny day which no doubt had helped. It was pity that Salvador couldn’t be here but Pixie was the next best thing.
She didn’t see Pixie’s head explode but she heard the thud and felt the wetness of her blood and brains on her face. She had no time to fully process this before she felt a giant fist pound into her chest. She collapsed, unaware of the pandemonium breaking out all around her.
In the tower, the percussion of the first two shots resounded off the bells, amplifying the effect and momentarily distracting the marksman. He quickly recovered and snapped off his remaining two shots. Both found targets. He allowed himself a fleeting moment of congratulation as he disassembled the rifle and stowed it in the case. Then he quietly walked down the stairs to the nave. A quick glance showed him the Cathedral was empty and he simply walked out. The sirens had already started. He walked briskly along Hospital Road past the Domain. An ambulance screamed past him. He skirted the State Library, turned into Macquarie St and walked down towards the Harbour. His route took him past the Conservatorium of Music, so he was confident that a man carrying a trombone case in this area would attract no attention. Twenty minutes after leaving the Cathedral he boarded a train at Circular Quay.
“Good afternoon and welcome to ABC News. Heading up this bulletin we cross live to Sydney airport where Rachel Harminny is with Greens’ Deputy Leader Senator Salvador Bellenas who has just flown in from Melbourne. Over to you Rachel.”
“Thanks Robbo. Senator Ballenas, as you were originally scheduled to speak at the rally, do you think you were the target of this attack?”
“Well, Rachel, that may well be the case. But that is a matter for another day. Right now, let me say how saddened I am at the senseless murder of our leader Pixie Stalin and Marlene Mitchell and the shocking injuries to two other innocent people. My thoughts go out to the families of all these victims. I’m also very angry. There can be no doubt that this atrocity was carried out by the right-wing extremists that ASIO has been warning us about for some time now. Angry that more was not done to prevent this tragedy. I urge the government to pull out all stops to bring these terrorists to justice.”