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A helicopter is no place for a hangover. Hooper closed his eyes and breathed carefully as the engine spooled up. His gorge rose at the toxic mix of jet fuel, stale sweat, and bile at the back of his throat. The thudding of the rotors punched deep into his chest: sickening deep-body blows that traveled up his spinal column, directly into his neck and head. He bit down hard on a gag reflex, refusing to heave up what little remained of his stomach contents, most of which he’d left in a steaming pile on the grass at the edge of the helipad.
“Oh, fuck me,” he grunted as the red and white Era Helicopter took off, driving him down into his seat. Years of ass compression had squashed the foam cushioning into a thin hard sandwich between his butt and the steel struts of the seat fitting. The chopper, a venerable old AW139, was streaked with rust and oil, the Plexiglas scratched and the nonslip floor sticky with chaw tobacco and chewing gum. Like Dave, its glory days were behind it, and the AC did nothing to mask the baked-in stench of sweat, cigarette smoke, and budget cologne. Dave was just glad he had the cabin to himself on this trip. The only stewed farts and bad breath he had to contend with were his own. As they ascended, the great rusty iron lever behind his eyeballs cranked up the pressure on his headache. He squeezed his eyes shut behind wraparound Oakleys, but the bright Gulf sun burned through anyway, driving a sharp spike through his eyeballs, an unpleasant contrast to the duller concussive hammering on the sides of his skull. He removed his Dallas Cowboys cap and rubbed gently at the thinning hair on top of his skull in an effort to alleviate the pain—all to no avail. He kept his hair short these days. You had to when it started to fall out, and no matter how tenderly he ministered to himself, his fingertips seemed to rake deep and surely bloody furrows through the unprotected scalp.
“Oh, fuck me,” he grunted again, replacing the cap and making the stubbled skin disappear.
“Oh, Lord, no!” Juliette Jamieson called out from the pilot’s seat. “Bump uglies with you, Dave? I think not. I mean, y’all are purdy. In a grizzly, wore-down kinda way. But the way you tomcat around, I wouldn’t let that penile biohazard of yours anywhere near my unmentionables. Probably just about ready to fall off by now, I’d reckon. I shoulda made you leave it back on the grass with your breakfast, or dinner, or whatever that nasty-lookin’ mess y’all upchucked was. You know the company rules about flying with hazmats.”
Juliette added the wheezing cackle of her laughter to the rotor’s roar in his headphones.
“Doritos and tequila, J2,” he said in a croaky rasp. “Not breakfast. More of a midnight snack. To keep my strength up.”
He tried to grin, but it came out more as a grimace, and Juliette harrumphed at him, pretending to be offended. She wasn’t, of course. Over the years J2 had hauled his sorry ass out to the rigs and away from whatever retarded mess he’d left back on shore so many times that he doubted there was anything he could do to lower her estimation of him as a potential husband. Men, in J2’s estimation, came in two standard flavors: potential husbands and other women’s husbands, and neither of them ever measured up to her exacting standards. Dave, as she never tired of pointing out, was an exemplar—she used the actual word, too, having read it in one of the unreadable werewolf romances she immersed herself in between flights—Dave was an exemplar extra-fucking-ordinaire of why a woman like her, a woman of independent means and good breeding hips, had to be careful. Men who weren’t to be found in the blessed state of being other women’s husbands were generally deserving of their wretched and benighted state by way of being . . .
“. . . unmarriageable assholes.”
“What?” croaked Dave, who’d drifted off into a hangover haze for just a moment.
“Completely unmarriageable assholes, Dave. Such as yourself. World is full of them, I said. All trying to get at my good breeding hips and my 401(k).”
He did his best to zone out the lecture he knew was coming on the poor choice facing the modern marriageable lady between potential husbands who were all, without significant exception, gravely disappointing or downright dangerous.
“Or a volatile combination of both, such as you represent, Dave Hooper.”
Once they had altitude, she pushed forward on the stick and brought them around to the southeast, breaking off her lecture to check in with air traffic control. Hundreds of feet below, the trailers and demountable huts of the BP depot slipped from view as the nose dipped a little and they commenced the long haul out to Tiber Field, about three hundred miles due south of New Orleans. Hooper had made this flight out to the rig so many times that he could picture the landscape without needing to look. In the sprawling dirt and gravel parking lot below were dozens of SUVs and pickups—way too many for the size of the depot—mostly owned by guys working a twelve-day shift out on the Longreach. They came in from all over the Gulf Coast, some even driving all the way down from Austin and Dallas, leaving their Fords, Dodges, and Chevys in the company lot to grow a second skin of red dust and oily particulates. No imports for these men, and lift kits aplenty.
In his mind’s eye he could see, without looking, the taco stand where everyone stopped in for a last “home-cooked” meal before flying out—home-cooked because Pedro, who ran the stand, lived there as well, bunking down in a sleeping bag on a pile of crushed cardboard boxes in the storeroom. With his eyes closed, Dave could see the small pound across the two lanes of unsealed road running past Pedro’s taqueria. A fine example of American entrepreneurialism, the Dog House had sprung up two years ago to serve the needs of those rig workers who didn’t trust their partners on shore to look after their best friends while they were out on the water. The proximity of Pedro’s to the Dog House provided cheap and unlimited lulz to those who never grew tired of pondering aloud just how Pedro was able to stay in business providing, as he did, the cheapest loose meat snack anywhere on the Gulf Coast.
Hooper felt the chopper alter course and commence its run out to the Longreach. He was going out a day early but knew better than to stay on shore until the last day of his leave. He would be able to dry out and detox in his bunk on the rig, protected from his own excesses by the tyrannies of distance.
So, he calculated, six days out on the water and then back to BP’s Death Star up in Houston, then back out to the Longreach, then . . .
He wouldn’t have minded the usual routine for himself—twelve days on, ten days off—but since word had come from the company overlords that Longreach was going to test all the way down to 45,000 feet—5,000 beyond the rig’s listed specs—Hooper had found himself up for months of rolling back and forth between the platform and the shop front in Houston. He seemed to spend most of his time in transit because as the Longreach’s boss hog of safety, his objections to the company’s plan had to be “noted” insofar as that word meant “Fuck you, Dave, just make it happen. And while you’re at it, cover our asses.”
And their asses were exposed. Highly. Fucking. Exposed. In Dave Hooper’s expert opinion, at least. And on this, if not much else besides hookers and Hooters, he was an expert. Tiber Field was spread across a Rorschach blot of Lower Tertiary reservoirs, with multiple sweet spots of light crude hidden in among some of the oldest, gnarliest rock formations on the planet, themselves buried under thousands of feet of compressed salt.
There was a reason oil companies didn’t do much drilling at those levels. There was a reason things had gone wrong on the Deepwater Horizon five years ago. Working a field like this was difficult and dangerous, and . . .
What the fuck, Dave; are you on board for the big win or what? There’s six billion fucking barrels down there. Let’s just go git ’em!
And they had because his guys were the best and he was pretty damn good, too, and even if it meant hauling ass thousands of miles a week and banging heads with a bunch of greedy fucking suits who didn’t give an actual fuck about the safety of his guys or his rig . . .
“Y’all doing all right back there, Dave?”
“Huh? Oh, sorry, J2. Talking to myself.”
He wondered how much of his rant he’d muttered angrily over the headset.
Well, tough shit, anyway. J2 knew the score. She made most of those shuttle runs with him. She flew the guys back and forth to the rig, heard them bitching about the company nickel-and-diming them to death whenever it could. The company screw only turns one way. She knew they’d done a hell of a job out there.
Forty-five thousand feet down.
That was like drilling on the fucking moon.
Well, okay, maybe not, but it was a hell of a thing.