Out of Control – Excerpt

The blond guy was making me jumpy.

As I wrapped up my visit with James, the offshore platform foreman, I realized Blondie had been hanging around, far enough away that he couldn’t hear us speak, but close enough to keep an eye on me all during my inspection. Not wanting to sound paranoid, I didn’t ask James about the man—not his name, his job on the Maresco platform, nor why he might be staring at me. I decided to pass it off as just another curious guy who wondered why a company like Lacrouix and Book would hire a woman.

I get that a lot, no doubt because people think of New Orleans based Lacrouix and Book Wild Well Control and Blowout Prevention as a company of ultra-macho men. Actually, they’d be right. With the exception of me. I’m not ultra-macho, or a man. But I am a petroleum engineer—a blowout specialist who kills well fires, pretty close to the same way the founders did it way back when they started the company in 1959.

Mr. Lacrouix and Mr. Book have long since retired, but I think the spirit of how they began the business is still behind how things get done. They were the original oilfield guys from the fifties, when men were men and everybody else better get the hell out of the way. They were rough and crude and could give a damn about money. They made John Wayne look like a pansy. Seriously tough hombres who carried pearl handled pistols, drove too fast, drank too much, bird dogged women, and fought oil well fires because nobody else had the balls. Is it any wonder that people are surprised when they call with a blowout emergency and a woman shows up?

But Blondie was different than the usual curious guy. There was something sinister about him, and by the time I was done with the inspection I had a bad case of the creeps.

“Glad to know everything’s right and tight,” James said with a wide smile as he shook my hand.

I returned the smile and the handshake before I pointed toward the center of the platform. “If you have any problems with the equipment let me know.” I glanced toward Blondie again, then blinked when I realized he was gone. My relief only clarified to me how nervous he’d made me. I had no idea why. Sixth sense maybe.

As soon as I climbed into the helicopter, Doug lifted off the pad and we were airborne, headed back to shore where I had a two hour return drive to New Orleans ahead of me. I hoped the blond guy wasn’t on the platform during my next visit.
In the distance, I saw a tiny dot on the horizon, the boat that would ferry the production platform crew back to shore for the night. Was it that late? I glanced at my watch. 3:10. No, it wasn’t that late. Why was the boat coming out so early?

“Everything look okay?”

I glanced at Doug and opened my mouth to answer, but never got the chance. The sound of an enormous, thunderous explosion surrounded us, and the helicopter shook violently, sending it down toward the water. My heart jumped into my throat while Doug worked the controls, trying to keep us from crashing. Already certain what I’d see, I jerked my head around to look behind us.

The Maresco platform was in flames. That’s why the helicopter took a dive. The explosion sucked all the oxygen out of the atmosphere. “Turn around. Go back and see if anyone’s in the water.”

Doug looked at me like I was crazy, but he did it anyway. We couldn’t get very close because of the intense heat, but from where we were I could see that there was no one. At least twenty yards in every direction from the platform the water was on fire with gas bubbling up from the well bore, infusing the sea with hydrocarbons that fed on the fire as they reached the surface. Dear God. Every man on the Maresco platform, what was left of it, had to be dead. And there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it except feel the crushing weight of guilt. I’d just inspected the blowout prevention equipment and everything looked good. How the hell had the well blown?

I radioed the Coast Guard and managed to tell them what happened, although my voice shook so much I’m sure it was hard to understand me. Faces and names floated through my brain; smiling faces and friendly voices that belonged to good guys. Hard workers. Family men whose faces and smiles and voices wouldn’t be going home.

On the trip back to shore, we passed the boat I’d thought was to ferry the men, but it turned out to be a shrimp trawler. There didn’t appear to be anyone aboard. Strange.

“Looks like a drifter,” Doug said. “Wonder what happened to the crew?”

I only shook my head, not really focused enough to give it much thought. We flew on, and by the time we set down on the Maresco helipad I had myself together. Sort of.

With tears clogging my throat and dread in my heart I called my boss in New Orleans. There would be a lot of questions and I had no answers. How and why had our equipment failed? Our company banked on the reliability of their equipment—and their employees. It was a rare engineer who got hired to work at Lacrouix and Book, and I always considered myself lucky to be one of them. I was also the one and only female engineer ever hired, and that said something, didn’t it?

Now, I was the one who missed something hugely important that had cost the lives of many men and would cost an enormous amount of money to fix. Putting the fire out would be astronomical because offshore blowouts take some kind of magic to control. Rebuilding the platform would cost a fortune, too, and there was no doubt there would be lawsuits from the men’s families.

But more than anything, I had to take responsibility for all those deaths. I wasn’t sure how I’d ever get past it.

Trick answered on the first ring. He knew it was me. “It’s not your fault. She was blown on purpose.”

I sucked in a deep breath, sitting in my car, staring out to sea at the billowing clouds of black smoke polluting the dusky sky. “How do you know?”

“Within the past six hours we’ve had calls on eleven blowouts, all across eastern New Mexico and west Texas. No way would that many blow at the same time if they weren’t set on purpose. Homeland Security is all over it. My bet is on terrorists.”

I couldn’t say anything, I was so stunned. And I admit, a part of me was relieved. It wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t been the cause of all those deaths.

But who was? I remembered Blondie and wondered if he’d had something to do with it.

Trick was impatient, which wasn’t anything new. He’s always impatient. But this time, he had an edge to his voice I’d never heard before. Fear. As much as anything, that freaked me out.“Me and Sweet have to handle the platform blowout because Thompkins is in Malaysia and the rest of you lightweight candy-asses don’t know how. That means we need every man we’ve got to send to these other fires. Get your butt home, sister. Pronto.”

I didn’t bother reminding him I’m not a man, nor telling him not to call me sister. He’d do it anyway. Had since the day he hired me over seven years ago, straight out of Tulane. It caught on and all the guys call me sister, or little sister, and sometimes, if they’re kinda pissed off at me or things are tense, they call me Blair, because that’s my name. Well, actually, Evangeline Blair Drake. I try hard to keep that under wraps because who’d want a name like Evangeline? But it’s a family name, so I got stuck with it. “I’m on my way,” I said to Trick as I closed the car door and started the engine. “I’ll be there in an hour.”

“You’ll be here in two hours. If you get another speeding ticket you could damn well be arrested, and I ain’t bailing you out, understand?”

“Got it.”

He was quiet for a while, then let out a deep breath. “Hell, sister, you coulda been killed out there.”

“But I wasn’t, so I’ll be there in an hour. Where’re you sending me?”

He didn’t answer for a minute and I was pretty sure he couldn’t talk because he was choked up, which was too weird for words. Trick Holmes is the least mushy man I know. The son of a ranch hand, raised in eastern New Mexico, Trick got his nickname because he used to do trick roping in the rodeo. He’s a tough, rough man who rarely cracks a smile and says exactly what’s on his mind.

When he interviewed me, it took less than a minute, and was maybe the most politically incorrect interview in history. He’d asked me, “You got a problem working with a bunch of foul-mouthed, smelly guys who sometimes take a leak offa drilling rigs?”

“No, sir,” I replied.

“You planning on having a baby?”

“No, sir.”

“See thatcha don’t. And watch those sonsabitches out there.”

I said I would and he said I was hired. That was seven years ago, and I’d been through a lot in those seven years. I’d grown up. And my relationship with Trick had grown into one that was all about respect. I’d never considered that with respect can come a certain amount of affection, but listening to the silence coming over the cell phone, I knew it was affection he was feeling. The potential loss of someone he cared about.

“How long’s it been since you saw west Texas?” Trick finally said, his voice suspiciously deeper.

“Not long enough.”

“That stopped being anywhere close to funny about five years ago.”

“Sorry. West Texas it is, then. Who’s on my team?”

“Deke, Harley, Cash, and Robichaud.”

Damn. Why’d he have to assign Nick Robichaud to this job? They’d invented the term “cocky bastard” the day Robichaud was born.

Reading my mind, Trick added, “If you got a problem, I don’t wanna hear about it. Just remember you’re the boss and grow some balls, sister.”

“Yeah, I’ll work on that.”

“I better not see the whites of your eyes for another two hours. Do not speed.”

“Yes, sir. I’m on it, sir.” I ended the call, tossed the phone into the passenger seat, and sped up to eighty-five.