Excerpt from Chapter 1
A man called Priest pulled his cowboy hat down at the front and peered across the flat, dusty desert of South Texas.
The low dull green bushes of thorny mesquite and sagebrush stretched in every direction as far as he could see. In front of him, a ridged and rutted track ten feet wide had been driven through the vegetation. These tracks were called senderos by the Hispanic bulldozer drivers who cut them in brutally straight lines. On one side, at precise fifty-yard intervals, bright pink plastic marker flags fluttered on short wire poles. A truck moved slowly along the sendero.
Priest had to steal the truck.
He had stolen his first vehicle at the age of eleven, a brand-new snow white 1961 Lincoln Continental parked, with the keys in the dash, outside the Roxy Theatre on South Broadway in Los Angeles. Priest, who was called Ricky in those days, could hardly see over the steering wheel. He had been so scared he almost wet himself, but he drove it ten blocks and handed the keys proudly to Jimmy "Pigface" Riley, who gave him five bucks, then took his girl for a drive and crashed the car on the Pacific Coast Highway. That was how Ricky became a member of the Pigface Gang.
But this truck was not just a vehicle.
As he watched, the powerful machinery behind the driver's cabin slowly lowered a massive steel plate, six feet square, to the ground. There was a pause, then he heard a low-pitched rumble. A cloud of dust rose around the truck as the plate began to pound the earth rhythmically. He felt the ground shake beneath his feet.
This was a seismic vibrator, a machine for sending shock waves through the earth's crust. Priest had never had much education, except in stealing cars, but he was the smartest person he had ever met, and he understood how the vibrator worked. It was similar to radar and sonar. The shock waves were reflected off features in the earth--such as rock or liquid--and they bounced back to the surface, where they were picked up by listening devices called geophones, or jugs.
Priest worked on the jug team. They had planted more than a thousand geophones at precisely measured intervals in a grid a mile square. Every time the vibrator shook, the reflections were picked up by the jugs and recorded by a supervisor working in a trailer known as the doghouse. All this data would later be fed into a supercomputer in Houston to produce a three-dimensional map of what was under the earth's surface. The map would be sold to an oil company.
The vibrations rose in pitch, making a noise like the mighty engines of an ocean liner gathering speed; then the sound stopped abruptly. Priest ran along the sendero to the truck, screwing up his eyes against the billowing dust. He opened the door and clambered up into the cabin. A stocky black-haired man of about thirty was at the wheel. "Hey, Mario," Priest said as he slid into the seat alongside the driver.
Richard Granger was the name on Priest's commercial driving license (class B). The license was forged, but the name was real.
He was carrying a carton of Marlboro cigarettes, the brand Mario smoked. He tossed the carton onto the dash. "Here, I brought you something."
"Hey, man, you don't need to buy me no cigarettes."
"I'm always bummin' your smokes." He picked up the open pack on the dash, shook one out, and put it in his mouth.
Mario smiled. "Why don't you just buy your own cigarettes?"
"Hell, no, I can't afford to smoke."
"You're crazy, man." Mario laughed.
Priest lit his cigarette. He had always had an easy ability to get on with people, make them like him. On the streets where he grew up, people beat you up if they didn't like you, and he had been a runty kid. So he had developed an intuitive feel for what people wanted from him--deference, affection, humor, whatever--and the habit of giving it to them quickly. In the oilfield, what held the men together was humor: usually mocking, sometimes clever, often obscene.
Although he had been here only two weeks, Priest had won the trust of his co-workers. But he had not figured out how to steal the seismic vibrator. And he had to do it in the next few hours, for tomorrow the truck was scheduled to be driven to a new site, seven hundred miles away, near Clovis, New Mexico.
His vague plan was to hitch a ride with Mario. The trip would take two or three days--the truck, which weighed forty thousand pounds, had a highway speed of around forty miles per hour. At some point he would get Mario drunk or something, then make off with the truck. He had been hoping a better plan would come to him, but inspiration had failed so far.
"My car's dying," he said. "You want to give me a ride as far as San Antonio tomorrow?"
Mario was surprised. "You ain't coming all the way to Clovis?"
"Nope." He waved a hand at the bleak desert landscape. "Just look around," he said. "Texas is so beautiful, man, I never want to leave."
Mario shrugged. There was nothing unusual about a restless transient in this line of work. "Sure, I'll give you a ride." It was against company rules to take passengers, but the drivers did it all the time. "Meet me at the dump."
Priest nodded. The garbage dump was a desolate hollow, full of rusting pickups and smashed TV sets and verminous mattresses, on the outskirts of Shiloh, the nearest town. No one would be there to see Mario pick him up, unless it was a couple of kids shooting snakes with a .22 rifle. "What time?"
"Let's say six."
"I'll bring coffee."
Priest needed this truck. He felt his life depended on it. His palms itched to grab Mario right now and throw him out and just drive away. But that was no good. For one thing, Mario was almost twenty years younger than Priest and might not let himself be thrown out so easily. For another, the theft had to go undiscovered for a few days. Priest needed to drive the truck to California and hide it before the nation's cops were alerted to watch out for a stolen seismic vibrator.
There was a beep from the radio, indicating that the supervisor in the doghouse had checked the data from the last vibration and found no problems. Mario raised the plate, put the truck in gear, and moved forward fifty yards, pulling up exactly alongside the next pink marker flag. Then he lowered the plate again and sent a ready signal. Priest watched closely, as he had done several times before, making sure he remembered the order in which Mario moved the levers and threw the switches. If he forgot something later, there would be no one he could ask.
They waited for the radio signal from the doghouse that would start the next vibration. This could be done by the driver in the truck, but generally supervisors preferred to retain command themselves and start the process by remote control. Priest finished his cigarette and threw the butt out the window. Mario nodded toward Priest's car, parked a quarter of a mile away on the two-lane blacktop. "That your woman?"
Priest looked. Star had got out of the dirty light blue Honda Civic and was leaning on the hood, fanning her face with her straw hat. "Yeah," he said.
"Lemme show you a picture." Mario pulled an old leather billfold out of the pocket of his jeans. He extracted a photograph and handed it to Priest. "This is Isabella," he said proudly.
Priest saw a pretty Mexican girl in her twenties wearing a yellow dress and a yellow Alice band in her hair. She held a baby on her hip, and a dark-haired boy was standing shyly by her side. "Your children?"
He nodded. "Ross and Betty."
Priest resisted the impulse to smile at the Anglo names. "Good-looking kids." He thought of his own children and almost told Mario about them; but he stopped himself just in time. "Where do they live?"
The germ of an idea sprouted in Priest's mind. "You get to see them much?"
Mario shook his head. "I'm workin' and workin', man. Savin' my money to buy them a place. A nice house, with a big kitchen and a pool in the yard. They deserve that."
The idea blossomed. Priest suppressed his excitement and kept his voice casual, making idle conversation. "Yeah, a beautiful house for a beautiful family, right?"
"That's what I'm thinking."
The radio beeped again, and the truck began to shake. The noise was like rolling thunder, but more regular. It began on a profound bass note and slowly rose in pitch. After exactly fourteen seconds it stopped.
In the quiet that followed, Priest snapped his fingers. "Say, I got an idea...No, maybe not."
"I don't know if it would work."
"What, man, what?"
"I just thought, you know, your wife is so pretty and your kids are so cute, it's wrong you don't see them more often."
"That's your idea?"
"No. My idea is, I could drive the truck to New Mexico while you go visit them, that's all." It was important not to seem too keen, Priest told himself. "But I guess it wouldn't work out," he added in a who-gives-a-damn voice.