Skip to main content
“No joke! Not China. Mali, Africa. BP plant. Need help! They kill everybody! Oh no, they here, Oh...” She trailed off into a groan and began whispering desperately in her own language. The whispers might have been prayers, they could have been curses. There was shouting in the background, then a series of loud bangs. The line went dead.
I shook my head violently, in disbelief. My heart was racing. I wasn’t certain of anything that had just occurred. A patina of sweat coated my forehead and I held the phone out at arm’s length as if it were something poisonous. I stared at the luminous rectangle in my palm, expecting it might vibrate again, hoping that some laughing voice in the night might prove that this was no more than a demented prank.
I lay there, wrestling with what to do next. Not wanting to, but feeling like I had no other choice, I called the number back. After an interminable wait, a robotic female voice answered, “The number you are trying to reach is temporarily out of service.” It sounded oddly sinister.
Climbing out of bed, I padded to the bathroom. I cupped my hands under the tap, buried my face in the cold water, drank deeply. I couldn’t shake those final whispers, they clung to me as if I’d stumbled through a veil of cobwebs in a darkened cellar.
I sat down on the couch and dialed the number again. “...Temporarily out of service.”
Something was digging into my thigh, the TV remote. I switched on the TV, the fingers on one hand tapping nervously while the other hand was clenched into a fist. The woman on the screen was laughing, her oversized, coiffed hair shaking alarmingly. She was interviewing some fashion-designer type: an ageless man wearing thick glasses and a reptilian smile. The ticker at the bottom of the screen scrolled on relentlessly: China denies claims it has militarized reclaimed islands off Philippines. Oil prices expected to climb as OPEC reaches agreement to ease production... and on and on.
Leaning back on the couch, I tried to relax. I hadn’t had a smoke in three and a half years, but I was suddenly dying for a cigarette. Mali, the voice on the phone had said. I didn’t know anyone in Mali. Hell, I barely knew where Mali was — somewhere near Nigeria, I thought. My friend Darryl was working rigs in Nigeria, at least according to his last Facebook post, a couple weeks back. I opened my laptop and logged on to Facebook now, as the TV cut to a Viagra commercial. Darryl Sifton, here he was: Just started a new contract in sunny Port Harcourt, Nigeria, working for BP — NOT an offshore rig, so don’t worry, anyone!
BP, the lady on the phone had definitely said BP. For a moment I weighed my options, then opened the contacts list on my phone. Staring down at the digits beside Darryl’s name, it was clearly a different number from the one that had lit up my phone, dragging me into, into...into whatever this was I’d been dragged into.
I did some quick time-zone math, then tapped the number, waiting for the phone to connect me. There was a delay, and I groped for something to say when he picked up, I searched for the words to leave on his voicemail that wouldn’t make me sound hysterical or paranoid. There was a click, followed by a series of annoying beeps. “The number you are trying to reach is not in service.” I took a deep breath. Could this really be happening? One way or another, I needed to know.
Darryl was from Penistone, a South Yorkshire town with an unforgettable name. His father died when he was a kid — one of those poor souls lost in the Piper Alpha explosion — but I thought his mother still lived there. I checked the laptop. There was only one Sifton listed in the Penistone directory: Sheila. With nothing to lose, I dialed the number.
She picked up after two rings.
“Hull-oh-oow,” her sing-songy voice sounded unnaturally chipper.
“Hi, is this Sheila Sifton, Darryl’s mum?”
“Aye, that’s right dearie, what’s this about?”
“My name’s Aaron Dowling, I’m a friend of Darryl’s. We used to work the rigs together out in Alberta. Um, listen, I was just wondering...”
“Let me guess, you’re looking for Darryl’s new phone number?”
“That’s right! I actually...”
“That old clunker of his finally gave up the ghost, a few days back. Don’t think he’s even had time to set up voicemail on the new one yet. Thank ’eavens for good old-fashioned email though, eh? Nowhere you can’t reach these days, even in Africa.”
“Right, right, I bet. Tell me, is Darryl still working down in Port Harcourt?”
“Not any more, pet. They flew him up to a refinery in Mali last week.”