Avery stepped down on the tarmac. From what she could see, Zapata was just another uninhabitable and godforsaken border town. Rattlesnake country, dusty and desolate. A gust of hot wind blew an affirming layer of grit over her freshly applied lipstick.
“Ms. McAndrews.” The copilot met her at the base of the stairs, holding her suitcase. He shot her a sympathetic smile. “We’ll return for you whenever you’re done.”
A small rush of panic pulsed through Avery. She glanced up at the corporate jet, tempted to hike right back up those stairs. “You mean you guys aren’t hanging around?”
He laughed. “Cancun, yes.” He glanced about at the forbidding terrain. “This place, afraid not. We’re based in San Antonio, though. When we get your call, it’s thirty to forty minutes, tops. The captain says you have his number. Just let us know when you’re ready to head back. We’ll be here for you.”
“Thanks.” Avery grabbed the handle of her wheeled suitcase. A black SUV, with heavily tinted windows and the Rockforth logo emblazoned on its rear bumper, was parked just beyond the chain link fence. Next to it, an older man with a sizable paunch waited, his gaze focused on some point beyond her.
“Hi. I’m Avery.”
“I’m looking for someone named Derrick. Was he on the plane with you?”
“No. I’m his replacement.”
“I’m sorry, you haven’t told me your name,” she said, trying to ignore his obvious skepticism.
A second man stepped down from the SUV, extending a hand. “I’m Manuel, and he’s Bruce. We’re the security team.”
“Security team? My boss didn’t say anything about that.”
“He didn’t mention security was an issue out here?” Bruce asked.
She gritted her teeth. She should have known. Eric had spent ten minutes dismissing her concerns about safety along the border, assuring her repeatedly that she had nothing to worry about. Typical. He only cared about one thing, and that was keeping Sam Rockforth happy. She didn’t blame Eric for that, though. Working on Sam’s projects came with a lot of perks. Today’s private jet had been one of many.
“No. He didn’t mention a security team. But I just found out last night that I’d have to take over for Derrick.” She hefted her bag into the back of the SUV and climbed into the back seat with her field gear in hand. She tried to stifle any misgivings about her so-called security team. At five-six, Avery had seen the top of Manuel’s head. And neither he nor Bruce appeared anything like the retired Navy SEALs or even night club bouncers she might imagine. But people weren’t always what they seemed to be. Being a female engineer meant she’d been the target of that enough to know.
“Facility’s about thirty miles out of town,” Bruce said, as they accelerated along the road.
And this is town? Avery choked back a laugh. The sameness of the highway was broken up only by the occasional run-down restaurant or abandoned gas station. Tumbleweeds seemed to be the sole evidence of plant life, and only plastic bottles, cans, and other assorted garbage punctuated the fallow expanse of dusty terrain.
She retrieved the site map from the file folder. Derrick’s projects were always such a mess. Nothing but a few random notes and receipts from bars with names that sounded suspiciously like strip clubs. With her index finger, she traced and retraced the production line. There was nothing unique about this particular tank battery. Based on the schematics, it looked just about like every other one she’d seen throughout the Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountains. The engineering was basic. Flow lines, separators, and pumps. It made no sense. Leaks and mechanical issues were hardly uncommon. Why go to the expense of sending an engineer at her pay grade when a local operations manager should be able to handle it? She chewed her lip. And why had Derrick let things spiral into a crisis mode?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the driver’s voice. “Mr. Rockforth probably would have sent more guys with us if he’d known we’d be guarding a woman.” Bruce’s eyes met hers in the rear view mirror. “What made ’em change their minds and send a pretty thing like you? Surely you don’t want to work in the oil field. Do you?”
It was a question Avery had had to answer many times before. Typically posed with a bit more tact. She remained focused on the plant diagrams.
Bruce persisted. “Where are you from?”
“Denver,” she said with a sigh.
“Welcome to Texas.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s good to be back.” Time to shut the man down. “I got my master’s at A&M. I’ve been working in the oil field for years.”
“Well, here on the border, they play by different rules than what you’re probably used to. You need to stay in the car unless we tell you otherwise.” Bruce paused to turn up the radio, which was playing an unfamiliar country song. “Manuel and I are both armed.” He drew out the syllables of the other man’s name with an exaggerated twang. “Guess it don’t matter that they sent a woman. When you’re dealing with low-life drug lords, it’s all the same. A bullet don’t show preference.”
Her head shot up. “Drug lords? Like cartel drug lords?”
“That’s enough, Bruce,” Manuel said. He shot a glance at Avery, shaking his head. “I grew up here. Zapata’s not that bad. Nothing like Juarez.”
She set the paperwork aside and leaned forward, her nails digging into the back of the driver’s seat. “Are we really likely to encounter someone like that at a tank battery?”
Bruce continued: “Don’t know what they was thinking when they sent you. Can’t think of no one that could attract much more attention around here. And attention ain’t what we need in this place.”
“Shut up, Bruce,” Manuel turned back to Avery. “No. We’re not likely to encounter anyone out there in the middle of the day.”
She let out a sigh of resignation. Manuel wasn’t exactly reassuring. But she couldn’t back out now. She’d assess the situation when they got there. For now, it was probably best to learn as much as she could about the site operations. She leaned toward Manuel with the map in hand. “Tell me about the facility. I’ve got production schematics, but not much more in the way of info.”
“That makes two of us.” Manuel gave her a weak smile. “I’m more of a translator than anything else. Sam thought I’d be useful since I grew up around here, but as you probably know, Bruce and I are out of the San Antonio office. I haven’t been back here in years.”
Great. What sort of mess had she walked into? An angry redneck and a translator. Neither were field technicians nor security experts. This was the last time she’d clean up one of Derrick’s messes.
“The site superintendent is meeting us out there. His name is Hector Rodriguez. I went to high school with him,” Manuel said.
“I was hoping to get maintenance schedules and actual production data.”
“Hector should have that stuff.”
Her phone rang. Her mother. She was quick to silence it. No way would she answer it now. To do so would only be a confirmation of everything Bruce believed about her. Plus, she’d deliberately avoided telling her mother where she was today. It would only bring on another lecture about her unfortunate career choice, and how it left her with no personal life. Avery tossed the phone into her purse.
“How much farther?” As the words left her mouth, she spotted the iconic blue and gold stripes of Rockforth Petroleum. An assembly of petroleum storage tanks, production lines, and processing equipment stood inside a double enclosure of twenty-foot-high razor wire. She’d seen prisons with less security.
A pickup truck bearing the Rockforth logo was parked along the street. Manuel made a low throaty sound. “That’s Hector. Fat as ever.”
Bruce put the SUV in park and turned to Manuel. He bent over to retrieve a handgun from beneath his seat and tucked it into a holster attached to his belt.
“Pull your shirt down. Concealed. Remember, man?” Manuel gave the older man a chastising glance, then opened the door.
“Lousy job,” Bruce said.
His negativity was increasingly irritating, but Avery elected to ignore it. She scrambled to gather her paperwork and slid to the opposite side of the car. For a moment, she fixed her attention on Manuel, who’d assumed a casual approach, smiling at Hector as if they were long-lost friends. From her angle, it looked like they were discussing nothing more important than the weather.
Avery fingered the door handle. Bruce shot up in his seat, releasing a string of obscenities as she opened the door. “You were s’posed to give me a heads up. Wait for me to tell you it’s safe.”
“My worst threat’s probably a rattlesnake.” If she waited on Bruce, this job would take all day. Hard hat in hand, she stepped down and slammed the door.
She approached Hector with her hand extended. “Hi. Avery McAndrews, mechanical engineer. You must be Hector.” The man seemed to be oblivious to her outstretched hand. “You were probably expecting Derrick.”
“Yes,” he said.
She attempted to put his doubts to rest. “Let’s take a look. You can give me a condensed version of the history here. I couldn’t find much in Derrick’s file.” Hector didn’t make eye contact, but instead stared at the ground, picking nervously at his thumbnails. Avery wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed by his failure to resolve the problem or something more. “Don’t worry. We’ll get to the bottom of it. Sometimes the leaks aren’t always so obvious. Especially if they’re in the subsurface. But it shouldn’t be that difficult.” She stepped up to the chain link enclosure and pointed to the padlocked gate. “Do you have the keys?”
“Um, yeah,” Hector said, as if her request to enter the facility was a surprise.
As Hector fumbled with the lock, she glanced up at a security camera positioned to capture activity at the gate. Cleanly cut wires dangled in mockery. With a sigh, she retrieved a notebook and made a note to have the security system repaired. It wasn’t that uncommon, she reminded herself. Tank batteries were never in the best part of town. Storage tanks made the perfect canvas for graffiti artists, and she’d been to more than one site littered with drug paraphernalia and condoms. By comparison, this place was pristine.
Avery clipped Derrick’s engineering schematics in her field notebook. Following the two men through the gate, she glanced over her shoulder to see Bruce still in the SUV. So much for her security detail.
Once inside the fenced area, she climbed over the berm designed to contain fluids in the event of spills or leaks. Hector and Manuel followed in silence. She studied the area. The soil showed no evidence of dark stains, which would be indicative of sizable crude oil spills or leaks.
She turned to Hector. “I understand production rates are down. Is that true with specific wells, or…?” She hoped he might help her out, but he only nodded. “You do have the production numbers for the individual wells, don’t you?”
Hector turned away. Maybe he did deserve to lose his job.
She sighed. “I’m going to walk the production line over to the tanks.” The facility was relatively small, no more than a few acres. Between aerial photos and the site schematics, she had no difficulty following the line between the array of small and large storage tanks. The soil was clean. She checked the valves, circled each tank, and then retraced her steps.
“Hector?” He kept his distance, standing at the edge of the berm. “Can you tell me what this is for?” She pointed at a valve in the production line. So inconspicuous, she’d missed it on her first pass. Underneath it, a small patch of soil was stained with crude. “It’s not on any of my drawings.”
He approached slowly. “It’s a security valve.”
“A security valve?” She tilted her head. “Not sure I understand.”
“A collection point for protection,” he mumbled.
It still made no sense, but before she could try to force an explanation out of him, he had turned away. There was a slam of car doors, and Hector hustled over the berm. A voice rang out beyond the gate, calling his name.
Manuel crouched down next to her, inspecting the valve. “Is that where the problem is?”
“It’s a problem for sure. You can see whoever installed it just basically cut into the line. They did a really sloppy job. But even if it’s leaking, it’s not enough to explain how they’re ending up so short every month,” she said.
“Well, well. What do we have here?” a voice said. Two men sauntered in their direction. Avery glanced at Manuel for an explanation, but he seemed as clueless as she.
Both men wore tailored dress shirts untucked and open at the collar, and mirrored aviators. GQ all the way. The taller of the two men paused at the top of the berm, peering down at them. Bruce lingered behind, barely inside the gate.
The smaller man continued over the berm in their direction. Even from this distance, he struck her as pampered. His lower lip jutted out defiantly as he approached. “Hector.” His tone was a scolding taunt. “You didn’t tell us you were entertaining.” His gaze rested on Avery. “We would have been here earlier.” He kicked at the ground with expensive Italian loafers. “Please join us down here, Hector.” A sneer crossed his face as he took obvious pleasure in watching Hector struggle to scramble over the berm. The man clapped his hands and said, “Now who’d like to explain what the nature of our little gathering is all about?”
Her shoulders tightened. This guy was deranged. Who was he? And how was it that he felt entitled to walk on Rockforth property in such a manner? She glanced at her so-called security detail and site superintendent. Never before had she seen three people more interested in their own shoes. She sighed. Dealing with this guy would obviously fall to her.
She stepped forward. “I’m Avery McAndrews with Fenster Engineering.” Her words came out a little faster than she’d intended, though her hand remained steady as she held out a business card. The man snorted dismissively and made no effort to take it. “I’m in the process of conducting a facility inspection. It was arranged by Mr. Rockforth’s office. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t know who you are.”
Despite her declaration otherwise, she was afraid she knew exactly who these two were. Their tailored clothes and expensive haircuts made her think of Bruce’s words: drug lords.
She shifted her attention to the tall man.
Broad-shouldered and nothing like his fidgety partner.
He stood with his arms crossed and a lizard boot resting on an overturned bucket. Even through his sunglasses, she felt his gaze, calm and controlled. Irrationally, she felt a tinge of disappointment in his career choice. He was easily the best-looking man she’d ever seen.
Meanwhile, the smaller man made a series of pronouncements in Spanish. Hector stared at the ground, blinking, as if he were about to cry. The man repeated himself a second time, louder and sounding angry.
Hector turned to Avery and pointed to the crazy man. “His name is Javier Ramos, and he says to tell you he doesn’t like redheads.”
Her blood surged, and she felt her face growing hot. She turned to face the cocky little man. “And I don’t like people who can’t speak for themselves. Is the name Javier Ramos supposed to mean something?”
For a second, no one moved. She held her breath, wishing she could take it back. But she never could shut her mouth when she was angry.
Her eyes shifted to Javier’s partner. Was it her imagination, or was he shaking his head? It was subtle, but now she was sure of it. And it wasn’t a threat. It was a warning.
He was telling her to back off.
Manuel squinted. His attention was focused on something outside the fence.
An engine revved, and Javier jumped, waving a threatening fist. There was no missing the sizable gun at his hip. “Contreras! What the hell are they doing here, Hector?” He didn’t wait for an answer but made a dash for the gate.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“Come on,” Manuel said, heading for the gate. “We need to get the hell out of here. Stay behind me.”
“Where’s Bruce?” she asked.
“Probably back in the car,” Manuel said, gazing through the chain link at a white Range Rover idling at the end of the gravel drive. The Rockforth SUV and a red Porsche were blocked in by the vehicle. Manuel swore under his breath. “We need to stay out of sight. I think it may be a rival gang.”
Her heart pounded, and she couldn’t catch her breath. Bruce was right about one thing. The rules were different here.
A shot rang out, and Avery froze. Javier stood in front of the Range Rover, his gun pointed toward the sky. It took her a moment to realize Manuel was no longer at her side. He called out for her to run, but she couldn’t see him.
Frantically she searched the area, finding nowhere to hide. Running to the SUV was out of the question. The gate was not much cover, but it was the best she had. Javier’s partner was crouched behind the SUV, a large gun in his left hand. His eyes met hers, and he gestured to her. She didn’t understand. He repeated the hand gesture. He was telling her to get down, lower herself.
Javier fired another shot into the sky.
The sound was jarring. She was halfway in a squat when the shock of it landed her on her butt. Javier’s partner sprinted across the barren expanse and through the gate to her side. His fingers locked on her wrist. She didn’t resist. He yanked her to her feet and hustled her behind a water tank. They were well out of sight, but hardly safe if this became a gun fight. For several seconds, the two of them leaned against the tank side by side, panting. He shot her a sideways glance. In spite of her terror, she tried to force a grateful smile.
Javier was making a lot of noise. To her, the Spanish chatter made no sense, but from the sound of it, Javier was threatening. His partner let out a deep sigh and shook his head. Without so much as a signal to her, he took off toward the SUV.
She closed her eyes. Cartel member or not, she didn’t want to see him hurt. She counted to three before daring a glimpse at the SUV. He was safe. She let out a sigh of relief.
There was a crunch of gravel nearby. Manuel crept up next to her. “Bruce is in the car. When I say the word, we need to run. While all eyes are on Javier. Okay?”
He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Go!”
She lunged forward. Ahead, the tall man’s voice rumbled. “Basta, Javier!”
Javier seemed to ignore the man’s words, continuing to sway with his gun in the air. Fortunately, it no longer mattered. The driver of the Range Rover floored it, spraying Javier in a fountain of gravel as he took off toward the main road.
Avery let out a small cry of relief as the car disappeared over a ridge. Of course, they still had crazy, gun-waving Javier to deal with. But a second ago, she was certain her life would end in the crossfire of a gang war.
There was a strange silence among them now. She and Manuel still hadn’t made it all the way to the SUV. Hector emerged from the far side of the Porsche, and a few feet away Javier’s partner rose to his feet.
The effect of the tall man’s gaze on her was palpable. It was as if she could feel a comforting hand on her back and his voice low and smooth in her ear, asking if she was okay. Avery waited for him to speak, hoping he might somehow bring logic to this unreal situation. Amongst the other men, he seemed to be the single adult in a room full of children. It was ridiculous to have that sense about him, but it was a feeling she couldn’t dismiss. He’d risked his life to protect her.
Something brought on a bout of hysterical laughter from Javier. He turned to the tall man and spoke in a stream of rapid Spanish. His gestures were dramatic. The man made a low hmph sound, then straightened, stroking the dark shadow of his few days’ worth of beard. It occurred to her that she hadn’t heard the man speak English. Nor had anyone addressed him in anything but Spanish. For some reason, she found it surprising.
A car door slammed, and heads turned as Bruce stepped down from the SUV. He was older than she had realized. He ambled painfully, one hip dipping lower than the other. “Ma’am, Man-u-el, Mr. Rockforth suggests we get checked in at the motel.”
She halfway expected to be detained by Javier, but he only stood and watched. “Hasta luego, Red,” he said. He spoke louder. “Maybe I wouldn’t mind a piece of that. It looks pretty good from here.” He whistled. “Alejandro knows, Red, I usually get what I want.”
He turned to the other man. “¿Qué piensas, Alejandro? Incluso alguien como tu tiene que apreciar eso.”
Manuel spoke softly over her shoulder. “Just keep walking.”
So, her hero’s name was Alejandro. She glanced back over her shoulder, hoping to see his face once more, as if this final glimpse would allow her to detect a crack in his façade. Something that would tell her who he really was, and exactly why he risked his life for her. But he was already in the driver’s seat of the Porsche. Only Javier remained, leering with satisfaction.