Thump, thump, and bang…thump, thump, and bang— repeating endlessly. Macquereau winces and I hold on tightly to the vibrating steering wheel as we bounce over a stretch of bad highway between Vidor and the Louisiana border. The concrete slabs were poured over a poorly prepared foundation. Heavy trucks slamming across the loose slabs caused them to tilt. The roadway is now a series of wedges joined by a regular pattern of tire-eating, bone-jarring crevasses. Neil reaches for the lighter and lights a cigarette. I roll down my window and a blast of damp air howls into the car.
“Hey! What’s that for?” I hazard a quick glance. He’s brushing frantically at ashes scattered across this shirt. I don’t tell him about the bit on his trousers.
“I’m allergic to tobacco smoke,” I yell through the roar. Our speedometer is quivering above seventy five. The Mack flat bed at my elbow continues to edge ahead of us as we start climbing the approach to the river bridge at the state border.
“What? Roll the damned window up,” he yells back.
Having killed the offending cigarette, I don’t mind closing the glass. I keep the wind whistling through a small crack just in case. Neil doesn’t reach across for the lighter, again.
“I smoke when I get nervous,” he lets me know.
A paper bag and other trash blows out of the back of a blood red Chevy pickup as it whizzes by me. A sleek Labrador in the back of the truck thrusts its muzzle forward into the slip stream and strains in excitement against its short leash. The wind pulls the lips back exposing long yellow teeth. A sign alongside the road reads “Welcome to Louisiana.”
If he’s nervous, then I’m nervous. “I’ve got to pee,” I pull into the hospitality station on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River. A few ducks paddle around on a mossy lake behind the faked antebellum structure. A skimmer glides close to the surface and comes away with a small fish wriggling in its curved beak. An alligator settles into the mud and dreams of skimmer breakfast. The truck with its oversized load of drill pipe clanks on in the direction of Lake Charles.
“Be back in a jiff; please don’t smoke in the car,” I grab my purse and slam the door.
“Morning.” The lady behind the counter smiles and shoves the guest book in my direction. “Sign in and you get a box of chocolates,” she offers in a cracked voice. She is a tiny woman with pure white hair puffed about her head like a cotton ball. A pink silk scarf is knotted neatly around her neck; a tag on her lapel identifies her as a volunteer. Behind her, a small mountain of white cartons, each advertised to contain ten dozen individually wrapped Evangeline Chocolate Bars, threatens to overwhelm her. I scratch away with the ball point pen tied to the counter with a heavy brass chain and she hands me my sweet. I asked her if I could have one for each of my eight children that I’d left in the car.
She studies me. “Honey, a figure like that, I don’t think you’ve got one child, much less eight, in that car of yours.”
So much for my character. I check to make sure the stall has paper before I lock myself in. There’s no hook to hang my purse, so I balance the bag across my knees. I wonder if I should use my pen to add my own message to the cryptic bits of graffiti in front of me. “Help, someone’s trying to kill me,” occurs to me—appropriately following the line “fuck you, Gale.” Man or woman?
Back at the car, Neil is lounging back against the door. He taps his Swiss watch and tries to look important. The effect is lost if you notice the hole burned in his polyester pants.
“Can we hurry?” he complains.
I do my own consultation with my trusted Timex. “Relax, Neil, the Sulfur exit is only twenty miles. You’ve said another ten miles south, so we’ve got twenty minutes to spare.”
“About this meeting, Neil. You’ve said that Laz will be there?” I watch his expression closely. He’s nervous, but maybe that’s excitement.
“Sure, Morgan. That’s what they told me. They’re keeping Laz safe. She’s scared, that’s all.”
I’m in the car with the key in the ignition before he’s ready. I don’t like the implications of Neil’s statement. “Doesn’t sound like the Laz I know.”
Neil squirms in his seat, fastening his safety belt. “Maybe you’re not such a good judge of people.”
Maybe I’m not. I think back to last night with Neil. Well, last night was pure lust, though I wonder who was using whom. I keep this thought to myself while I concentrate on merging back into the traffic going east on I-10. I really need to know what is going on between Laz and Macquereau. “You and Laz good friends? You know Laz; the only thing she’s talks about is work.”
“Well, we do see quite a lot of each other on the job. I’m supposed to select your monitoring sites for the power company in accordance with EPA guidelines, arrange for access, keep the construction crews from bulldozing your equipment, that kind of thing.”
“You ever go with Laz to an Astro’s game? I’ve always wanted to see a baseball game in the Astrodome. We’ve got the Superdome in New Orleans, but we don’t have baseball. The Saints aren’t exactly the most exciting football team, are they?”
“Not like the Houston Oilers, no,” Neil has regained his humor. “Never saw much in baseball, myself,” he adds.
“What! Baseball is a beautiful game,” I protest.
“Men hitting a little ball with a stick? Bone jarring contact with padded bases? Okay, occasionally running blind into fences in the outfield, I’ll grant you that.”
“How about pigskin? Reminds me of the kind of guys that play football.”
“How about Roger Staubach?”
“What about basketball?”
“Dribbling seems to fit.”
“The little ball and stick thing without the intellectual depth of baseball. Although, I like the grass and fresh air.” I think about all the times Noel has asked me to play a round with him. He’s even threatened to buy me a set of clubs.
“Wrestling?” Neil plows on.
“I meant Olympic.”
“Not a game, is it?”
“I guess women don’t like contact sports,” Neil comments.
“I rather like Rugby,” I admit. “All those men grunting and struggling in heaps—something almost like sex.”
Neil retreats into the silence of the baffled. I flick the windshield washers on briefly in a futile attempt to clean the bugs off of the glass.
“So, Neil, where did you go to school?”
“Lamar Tech in Beaumont. Technology degree,” he answers. “You?”
“Tennessee. Nashville. Vanderbilt, not the University of Tennessee.”
“Ivy League,” Neil manages to sound sarcastic.
Change the subject. “How did you come to be working for the power company?”
“The usual way” he laughs. “Graduated with decent grades, couldn’t find the kind of job I wanted, parents made some phone calls—we’re an old line family in the Beaumont area. Finally, I went and talked to an uncle who shoved his foot in the door for me.”
“You seem to be doing all right for yourself,” I say. “Nice house, good job with a future. You don’t like what you’re doing?”
“Okay, I guess. My father’s getting on, wants me to take over the family construction firm. I don’t know if I want that. There’s an older brother who should come on board, but he teaches high school history. He says he likes his job and isn’t keen to wrap himself up in the dull life of a businessman. Besides, how would a history teacher make out dealing with the trades?”
Privately I’m sure a history major could do very well running a construction company. I value my liberal arts training more and more every day. “You think owning a business is dull?”
“I don’t know, never thought much about it. Is Nightwing Laboratories your business or your families?”
“All mine, plus the ninety nine percent owned by the bank.”
“See, I couldn’t take the pressure.”
“Speaking of pressure, what did you think when you found out that Laz was missing?”
“I was real worried when you called from New Orleans. I got to thinking that Laz has been hinting about some kind of trouble with Puddy Madling the last few days. I can see how that might have something to do with her running into hiding.”
The man sounds sincere, but I have my doubts. “I was wondering how you located Laz so quickly?”
While he’s thinking about what to say, I’m pressing the accelerator of my rental car as far as it will go and watching the needle climbs slowly through fifty five. A steady staccato of mosquitoes peppers my windshield.
“If I were a betting man, which I am,” Neil says, “I’d bet that Puddy Madling has been trying to push Laz into falsifying reports. You met him; you know what he’s like. When I heard from you, I started calling anyone that might know something. Laz ever talk to you about him?”
I ignore his question. “Makes sense. Madling’s another pimple on the world’s ass as far as I’m concerned.”
“You’ve got to be careful with Madling, Morgan,” Neil cautions me. “People say that he’s connected.”
“And what do you mean by connected, Neil?” thinking he was making up a story that sounded like a plot for a crime flick.
“You know, to the big boys, the players, the people in charge.” Do I detect impatience in Neil’s voice?
“Does their dirty work, huh?”
“I wouldn’t know about that. I’m just saying Madling is an ugly guy.”
“And Madling told you where to find Laz?”
“Of course not!” Neil barks. Would his teeth show if he stuck his head out of the window?
Along with Madling, I have other serious worries and memories of a few things Malcolm Adams mentioned. “Anything been settled about the foundation tests at the site?”
I could sense the shrug from my passenger. “I can’t comment on that, officially. There’s a lot of influence peddling going on, which is where Madling comes in. Like I said, you’ve got to be careful around him,” he repeats.
“Well, consider this, Neil. Those foundations are going to be required to support huge masses of concrete, and the containment vessel is slated to shield fissionable materials. We’ve carefully sampled and evaluated the soil, the water tables are being measured for stability, and we have a battery of tests to run that may reassure everyone that the final design is adequate—and of course there are budgetary considerations. Anyone who controls the way the testing program is handled basically controls the project. That’s why we’re the incorruptible third party.”
I guess Neil doesn’t notice my sarcasm. “Is that what Lazarra is worried about?”
“I don’t know, Neil. You tell me.”
I was also thinking about how the complexities in the chain of interpretations of the data could lead to bad decisions. Under the visible parts to the final structure, a matrix of columns of steel, or reinforced concrete cylinders called piles would be in place. The piles are driven, screwed, or bored and poured deep into the earth, and because they seemed so elemental, they therefore seem reliable, a secure and comforting beginning for erecting a mighty and, at least potentially, dangerous edifice.
The simplest concepts, friction and displacement. Nothing builders haven’t known about and used for countless centuries. And yet, mother earth can be treacherous. Changing water tables can turn solid soil into pudding, sand can trickle away, or clay can swell, and buildings and bridges can crack, sink, tilt, or crumble. All kinds of things could go wrong—some things in fact would go wrong. I just hoped that the inevitable mistakes would add up to minor problems.
In my opinion, the oldest methods of driving individual piles into the ground, putting heavy weights on them and waiting to see if they’ll sink hasn’t seen much improvement. The Feds hint at funding new tests at the University of Houston. That could be years off. Meanwhile, the usual method of using data on single piles and adjustment factors to figure loads on multiple pile clusters will have to do. No one was ever completely certain about predicting load capacities of group piles. There is a lot of room for error when you consider the interaction effects transmitted through soil. And the soil, itself. Can you be sure it is either cohesive or granular? There are gray areas. That’s why the work that my laboratory is doing is crucial. The data and the monitoring work will yield a mass of basic information, another kind of foundation support, so that critical engineering decisions can be made with the highest levels of confidence, if not absolute certainty. Shrink the margins of error until they were acceptable.
Only I knew that things don’t work quite that way. Compromises leaks into to every pore of the construction phase. There is always the danger that a series of small compromises will be linked in unsuspected ways, creating dangerous flaws in design and execution.
I only half listen to Neil as he fills the time with a running account of the latest problems at the Sabine site. He seems to have an enthusiasm for the negative. I follow Neil’s directions and take exit twenty at Sulfur. So far, so good. It occurs to me belatedly that if Neil goes off on another track, Adams won’t be able to find me.
The fumes from the chemical plants a few miles away on Lake Charles are making my nose burn. Overhead, the sky has clouded over, again, and my brain and eyes follow a small plane that descends to stay under the gray ceiling while I am driving this god forsaken road.
My stomach rumbles. “I’m thinking about the place with the big concrete pig standing in front— Hollier’s Barbecue behind us in Sulfur—when we get through with this,” I say. “You said about ten miles?” I check my gas gauge.
“Maybe twelve,” he says. “Watch out for the school bus!”
I brake hard and waive at the lady who is waiting with a gaggle of children at the side of the road. A large yellow school bus is signaling in front of me and positioning its doors alongside the queue. A lot of shouting and jostling is going on.
We’re coming up on the bayou bridge when Macquereau directs me off the pavement and down a gravel trail to the right. I breathe a sigh of relief; we are headed to the place I described on the phone to Malcolm last night. Our car bumps across some deep ruts ground into an unpaved lane. We idle through a grove of cypress trees and tall grass before coming out into an open area. An abandoned warehouse squats along a crumbling dockside that looks as if it might slide into the bayou at any moment. I mention the fact that the place looks deserted. I scan the area hoping to see some sign that Adams is nearby, but of course I didn’t see anything. What if he didn’t get my message? Suddenly there seemed to be far too many if’s in my situation.
“They’re probably inside,” he snaps. “Stop over there,” indicating a paved area behind a loading dock which features a small green fishing trawler in dire need of fresh paint. The rusting skeleton of an abandoned fuel pump suggests that the trawler has not moved in a long time. As I pull up to the indicated spot I get a view behind the building and make out a shiny black BMW parked next to an open door in the warehouse wall that faces the water. My queasy stomach is telling me how stupid I am. Is Neil on the level? Can Laz really be here? After that phone call last night, I can’t be sure. What did he imply when he said to someone over the phone, “I’ve got a problem.”
Neil looks nervous as he slides out of the car. He motions at me impatiently and tries to act nonchalant as he saunters towards the door. Inside, the warehouse looks black. I think about doing the prudent thing like getting back into the car and driving off.
“I’ve got an umbrella. Looks like rain?”
Neil waves his hand behind him and keeps on walking. “Either you’re incredibly cool, Morgan, or you’re incredibly stupid.”
I’m pretty sure I know which. I let Neil get further ahead of me and stop next to the water. I find that I can’t focus. My mind is wandering. What’s the sense of hurrying? If I had my rod I’d try a few casts across the grassy bed trailing in the current behind the trawler’s stern. A weedless spoon ought to do nicely. From where I stand, I can see the boat is resting on the shallow bottom. I know there’ll be some nice sand trout hanging out along the channel side of the derelict.
“Hey, Morgan!” Neil is waving at me from the door. My stomach tightens up into a knot with the certainty that Malcolm never got my message.
“Be right over.” I bend down to retie my shoelaces and try to see through the shadows at Neil’s back. Still can’t penetrate into the darkness—which I suppose is the point of the setup.
I get close to Neil and he reaches out to grab my arm, smiling as if he’s about to escort me into the Prom. Or, more likely, he’s making sure I won’t back out.
“Don’t keep us waiting, Morgan.” I don’t like the slimy tone in his voice.
My eyes take a few moments to adjust to the difference in lighting. Instead of a ceiling, the shadowy spider web of overhead beams lurks high up near the warehouse roof. Something else is there, but I can’t make it out. A few pinpricks of light mark the locations of missing screws. Neil decides to drop my arm.
“So, where’s Laz?”
A man wearing a tan pinstripe suit and brown checkered tie lounges about ten feet in front of me against one of several stacks of wooden crates scattered across the concrete floor. He’s an ugly bastard with a flattened nose and acne scars cratering his face. His grey flecked hair is sleeked back and braded into a shoulder length pony tail. Pale yellowish eyes track me as I move away from Neil’s side, flicker back in Neil’s direction, then fasten on me. I decide to call him Gus after a bully I knew in high school. I haven’t yet seen him blink.
“She’s close by, Miss Nightwing.” The voice is high pitched and nasal. “We’re waiting to see if you’ve come by yourself. His grin reveals teeth that need dental work.
“You said we. I don’t see anyone else,” I admit.
“Well, then, I’m waiting to see if you came alone,” Gus man smoothes down his tie. He has the relaxed appearance of a man who knows he’s in total control of the situation.
I think he’s expecting me to ask. “How long will we have to wait?”
“Yes, how long” Neil decides to chime in. “My uncle said Laz would be here.”
“Well, now, we had separate instructions about that,” the man speaks without taking his eyes off of me.
Gus takes his time looking me over, and I feel my cheeks heating up. I’m getting a real bad feeling about this. “You didn’t bring her, did you?”
“Now look here,” Neil is like a fly buzzing into the silence. “My uncle promised me that Laz Rayburn would be at this meeting!” The sound of a petulant boy.
The move was too quick for my eyes to follow. The barrel of the automatic in Gus’s hand divides the space between Neil and me, ready to move in either direction.
“Hey, you can put that away,” Neil squeaks. “Aren’t we all friends, here?”
“Sure,” Gus shrugs, and then squeezes the trigger.
Out of the corner of my eye I see the red spray of Neil’s blood sent mixed spatter patterns over the wall. The puzzled expression on his face will surely accompany him into eternity. My knees feel weak, but don’t buckle just yet. Neil’s body hits the floor with a wet thud as I become aware of the gunman once more.
I watch in slow motion as the weapon swings back in my direction. I know I’ll never hear the sound.
“Not yet, Miss Nightwing.” I imagine I can see the shiny end of the round in the chamber at the other end of the barrel. Everything has happened so fast that the ejected brass cartridge is still ringing as it bounces on the floor. Gus bends to scoop up the evidence.
I feel myself start to shake uncontrollably.
“Don’t faint,” the man barks an order at me, causing me to lift my eyes up from the spinning floor. The shaking tapers off, temporarily, as he comes back into focus.
“You could run.” He punches the gun in the direction of the door behind me.
I imagine the bullet tearing through my body from behind; I’d be dragged out as dead meat.
“I’d rather not,” I manage to whisper. Instinctively I know I’ll live longer if I fight the fear building in me.
“Tell you what I’m going to do,” he pulls a big, mean looking knife with a serrated edge out of a sheath looped through his belt. He waves it slowly back and forth in front of him like he’s trying to hypnotize me.
“You want to kill me?” he grins. “Here!” he tosses the automatic in my direction. The gun slides across the floor and comes to rest by my feet. “Pick it up and shoot me. If you don’t I’ll gut you like a fish, slide this knife right up into your belly and all that pretty stuff inside of you is going to fall out.”
Tears are blurring my vision. I try to clear my eyes with the heels of my hands.
“I’m coming now.” He takes a short step forward.
This is too much. I scream, going down painfully on one knee. He advances another step. My heart’s pounding, I can’t let myself faint; I pick up the weapon, scramble to my feet and turn in the direction of the door. I can outrun this asshole.
And slide on Neil’s blood, catch myself then lurch towards the door where I can’t avoid stepping in the pool of blood spreading across the floor. I don’t see the open gutter outside the door. My foot goes off the slick ledge and I fall forward, scraping my palms against the rough concrete. The gun goes spinning out of my hands and I chase it down on hands and knees, waiting for that big, ugly knife to slice into me.