Chapter 16


McKendry and Keene walked confidently along the docks in Puerto La Cruz, fostering the impression that they knew where they were going. At the terminal, the giant tankerYucatan rested far enough offshore that the long walkway looked like a tiny bridge that extended hundreds of yards out into the muddy green water. Pipes paralleled the walkway, heading from the port and the tank farm, the fractionating towers, and the smelly refinery equipment that had turned what must have been a beautiful jungle coastline into an industrial nightmare.
Bleed-off gas flames burned and hissed from the tops of derricks, and gasoline trucks drove around, taking a small fraction of the production to Venezuelan markets. Other tankers came into the port to fill up and redistribute the petroleum products, but theYucatan used the facilities in reverse. It brought fresh crude from the offshore rig to the refineries, rather than hauling separated petroleum of different grades away from the port and to other customers.
Passing a poorly guarded chain-link gate, McKendry strode behind Keene down the walkway, listening to the water lap against the pilings - a peaceful sound compared to the chaos of inland refineries.
"Let's get this set up as soon as we can," Keene called out. "We've got better things to do."
McKendry marched forward with determined strides. He saw his partner look back and cover a smile, doubtless Keene's response to the way he always took everything so seriously.
On the way out to the deck of the tanker, a bored-looking security guard stopped them, probably more suspicious of the two because they were white-skinned Americans than for any other reason. Keene invoked the only name that would matter to the man. "We have an appointment with Miguel Calisto. El capitan? Comprende?"
The guard scowled, but waved them onward.
After they had walked across a deck as big as several football fields and climbed six flights of rickety metal stairs that led up alongside the crew housing and habitation areas, McKendry and Keene stood on the bridge deck.
Within moments, the first mate approached them. "You are not allowed up here."
Keene said again that they had a meeting scheduled with the captain. Eventually, the mate conceded and led them to the captain's quarters.
Miguel Calisto was a ruddy-skinned man whose long pointed chin was graced with a scouring pad of a beard. A rim of dark hair surrounded the gleaming bald spot on the back of his head like a crown. He listened to what the two men had to say, but exhibited no patience with them whatsoever.
"Your request is most audacious," the tanker captain said, choosing to speak English. He narrowed his eyes and sat down at his small desk in the cramped ready room off the bridge. "TheYucatan is not a passenger ship. We don't give rides to curiosity seekers. My crew is not here to pamper Americans."
"On the contrary," McKendry said, remembering the too-soft beds and too-garish nightclubs they had endured in Caracas. "We don't want to be pampered."
"Amen," Keene muttered.
"In fact, we don't even want the rest of your crew to know we're aboard. We'd rather find a corner down in the pump room or the engine control room. Keep ourselves out of the way where no one can see us. We're investigating a potential...threat."
"Top secret," Keene added.
"I'm afraid that is not possible," the captain said. His lips became thin and hard, like the slash of a scowl. "Yes, indeed. Most impossible."
McKendry looked at the man, trying to discern whether he was opening a door to a large bribe or if he simply enjoyed playing hard to get. Calisto seemed honestly indignant, with no interest in providing passage for the two men, regardless of the circumstances.
Keene stepped in, speaking in the man's own language. "We understand your position, Captain. However, this is a serious political matter. I'm sure that you understand the delicacy of the arrangements between Oilstar and the Venezuelan government. If anything should happen to interfere with that...relationship, many people could be out of jobs."
"Show him the faxes," McKendry said.
Keene took out letters from Juan Ortega de la Vega Bruzual for the Security Ministry, and Fredrick Van Alman for Oilstar, both of which firmly requested cooperation "in whatever these two gentlemen desire."
The captain sighed. "Politics!" He practically spat out the word.
"If you wish, we will pass on your reluctance to Minister Bruzual" - McKendry could see by his flinch that Calisto recognized the security minister's name - "and arrange for you to discuss the matter with him. However, he's a busy man and may not take too kindly to being disturbed."
"I'd prefer to know more about your...activities," the captain said. "What are you trying to do?"
Keene's nostrils flared. "I will have Senor Bruzual contact you. You will be able to ask him as many questions as you like, provided you still have a job."
The captain gave best. "What is it you want of me?"
McKendry saw his partner's relief. "We need to go with you to theValhalla platform and return here, if necessary."
"Yours is not to reason why."
McKendry shot Keene a look to tell him to let up a little.
"After we load from theValhalla platform, I'm going up to the Caribbean next," the captain said. "Not back to Puerto La Cruz."
"Wherever." Keene shrugged his shoulders. "We'll manage."
"There's a utility closet down in the pump room. No one goes there except for maintenance, and we're not due for any. You're welcome to stay there. Sleep if you can." Calisto reached up to point at a chart on the wall, a large and detailed map of the Venezuelan coast and the Caribbean.
"We'll head out of here in an hour and make our way around the Araya Peninsula between the coast and la Isla Margarita" - the captain's finger traced a line along the northeastern coast of Venezuela  - "around the Paria Peninsula through the Dragon's Mouth" - his finger passed through the narrow patch of blue between the point of the Venezuelan coast and the northern edge of Trinidad - "down the Gulf of Paria and into the Serpent's Mouth to theValhalla platform."
"Sounds reasonable to me," Keene said.
The captain looked at him as if he believed he was not all there. "Remember the map well, because you won't have a view. There are no windows in the pump room."
"We're not tourists," McKendry said.
The captain nodded. "Very well. There will be a new moon tonight. We will arrive at the pumping station at approximately ten o'clock. Most of my crew take a boat over to theValhalla for their replacements. Until then, you are to stay in your quarters. Around midnight they should all be out of the way and you can safely come out on deck."