Chapter 17


After countless hours hidden in the cramped metal-walled crawl space down in theYucatan 's pump room, Keene's idea of what was and wasn't reasonable had undergone a 180-degree change. The passage so far had been long and dreary, with nothing to see, no creature comforts, and too much time for reflection. He would have liked to play a card game or even do something as simple-minded as tic- tac-toe.
Anything to keep himself from thinking about Arthur. By now, after so many years and so many adventures in the Daredevils Club, it should have been easy to accept the death of a member - par for the course. But it was never easy. Were it not for this confinement, the loss of Arthur would have come in sharp stabs of pain, engendered not so much by memories as by sights and sounds that reminded him of his friend. Out of deference to his partner, who was perfectly content to spend the time in silent contemplation, he did not suggest any trivial amusements.
The droning engines stopped a little after eleven-thirty as the tanker pulled up to theValhalla 's secondary pumping pier. Keene glanced at the luminous dial of his watch. "Nearly two hours late. Our Captain Calisto seems to be a true Venezuelan. Manana, manana...What do you say we give them half an hour to anchor themselves and get the crew off before we wander up and take a look around?"
McKendry didn't answer.
"Hey, Sleeping Beauty," Keene said.
This time, McKendry's answer was a light snore.
As Keene fidgeted impatiently, an idea began to take form. By midnight, it had become a plan. He tore a page out of the small notebook he carried in his pocket. Using a red felt pen he'd found on the floor, he wrotemidnight at the top of the page. Then he wrote a brief note to McKendry, who would be awakened soon enough by the silence of the engines: Always wanted to piss into the wind from a great height so I'm swimming over to the rig to play King of the Hill. If you can't see me swimming back by 2 a.m., start worrying.
He threw the pen aside, placed the note where McKendry was sure to see it upon waking, and, groping his way up the metal staircase, left their quarters. Practiced in moving stealthily without losing time, he made his way up the seven decks to the bulkhead door that opened onto the sprawling main deck of the tanker.
Once outside, he took a welcome breath of fresh, albeit humid, air and looked around.
The empty supertankerYucatan was anchored under quicksilver starlight in a calm black sea, about a quarter of a mile from the monolithic offshore oil-production platform. The rig itself stood like a skyscraper on the ocean, raised up out of the water on four enormous concrete piers like stilts. The platform's tall derrick, numerous cranes, helipad, and flare boom rode several hundred feet above the water. The long shaft through its center plunged down into the sea bottom like the proboscis of a voracious mosquito.
Keene had once invested a small amount of money in offshore drilling. The investment had led to a significant amount of reading for which, he thought, he was presently grateful. Without that, he would not have had the vaguest understanding of what was going on. Because of it, he knew that theValhalla rig pumped crude oil from strata deep beneath the sea, but did not bring it up into the big platform itself; instead, the fresh crude was shunted to a pipeline laid across the ocean floor toward a separate derrick, a stand-alone pumping station to which the oil tanker was secured.
On a crane high above the secondary platform, heavy nozzles dangled downward. With the cargo holds of theYucatan open beneath them like the gaping mouths of hungry birds, the crude oil from theValhalla rig gushed out of the nozzles, filling the numerous interconnected but compartmentalized chambers that made up the bulk of the tanker.
TheYucatan had a double hull, an outer shell to avoid punctures of the inner compartments - extremely conservative efforts designed to prevent disastrous oil spills. The crude petroleum poured out from the pumping platform at an enormous flow rate, but even so it would take many hours to fill the supertanker. The respite gave plenty of time for most of theYucatan 's crew members to shuttle over to the relative metropolis of theValhalla rig.
Keene was struck by how much the tanker's deck looked like the Great Plains, only uglier. The expanse was dirty and stained, a long series of riveted metal plates studded with hatches and vent chimneys. Lines of different colors - red, blue, and yellow - were painted in patterns across the deck, zone demarcations of some sort. The hieroglyphics were too large for anyone to make out at this level. He figured that they were something like the lines and roads Incas had made in the South American plains, depicting giant shapes visible only from high-flying aircraft.
The crane holding the hoses from the pumping substation extended down into the prow's main hatch, pouring into the primary tank holds. Behind them, the tall nine-deck structure of the bridge housing and habitation levels looked the size of an office complex. Lights blazed from the windows, gleaming up on theYucatan 's radar mast and the long cable of the radio antenna.
Keene fixed his gaze on the huge structure of theValhalla platform a quarter mile away. Holding the tanker's deck rail, he stared at the rig - a dazzling cluster of lights riding high above the gentle Caribbean waves. A torch of natural gas blasted from the end of the flare tip which extended on a long derrick far from the rest of the structure. A tall derrick stood like the Eiffel Tower in the center of the airport-sized deck.
When he saw a challenge like that, he had to go for it. The central derrick was the highest thing around. He wanted to touch it, the way a kid reaches for the star on the top of the Christmas tree. McKendry would say he was thinking crazy - which was true. On the other hand, that was what he was good at.
Keene stripped to his shorts. He climbed down the metal ladder on the outer hull of theYucatan and plunged into the tropical waters. The water was calm and warm, and the tanker and the production rig were huge landmarks even under the pallid moonlight. A powerful swimmer, he estimated that he could relax and cross the distance in less than twenty minutes.
Just enough to work up a little sweat, he thought, interrupting his steady, gentle strokes to tread water so that he could look up at the star-studded night sky. Neither the weather nor the distance concerned him. Unlike McKendry, he didn't have a problem with whatever critters inhabited the depths of these Caribbean waters.
He recalled one time on Lake Tahoe. A couple of dancers had taken the two of them on one of those boat tours around the lake. About halfway around, one of the women took it into her head to move to the rail and yell, "Shark!"
To give him his due, McKendry hadn't been the only one to go on automatic and suspend disbelief. However, while the others moved to the rail on a shark watch, McKendry paled and moved farther away from it.
Time to get over it, buddy, Keene thought, laughing out loud. As far as he was concerned, if he couldn't outswim a shark for a mere quarter of a mile, then he wasn't much of a swimmer.
Stroke after stroke after stroke.
Doing nicely, Keene thought, a little surprised despite himself. He was feeling the effort in his muscles, but that was to be expected. It had been some time since he or McKendry had done any serious exercise. His partner would feel the strain every bit as much.
Closing in on theValhalla platform, thinking about his partner, Keene became aware of the sleek death of sharks swimming below. The idea, he admitted to himself, was not exactly pleasant. He wanted to believe that the noise and chemical leakage and higher temperatures from the offshore structure would drive away such predators, but he knew differently. Part of his education as a short-term investor had taught him that the environment around oil platforms was a boon for fish, and with the increased schools living among the concrete support pillars, he supposed that sharks might also hang out in the better feeding grounds.
He increased his speed, and was happy to reach the shadow of the platform and pull himself up to the metal rungs alongside the fat elephant leg of the pier. Better not rest here, he told himself. You look like somebody's midnight snack. He grasped the rungs and scrambled up, not stopping until he was ten feet out of the water.
Access ladders led up the concrete support legs to the main platform. He looked at the long line of rungs waiting for him. It was quite a way to climb, especially if he wanted to make it to the top of the central derrick in good time.
He climbed higher, to the underpart of the main platform. It hung like a broad airplane hangar above him. Lifeboats dangled under the deck; in an emergency, they could drop a hundred feet down to the sea. Keene recalled having read somewhere that more people were killed during oil rig safety drills testing out the hazardous systems than had ever been hurt in other kinds of accidents on oil rigs.
He listened to the waves echoing in the superstructure, looked at the immense core of theValhalla, and found himself awed that something this huge could be built in a harbor and towed out to sea to be anchored elsewhere.
"Moving on up," he said into the wind.
He began to climb again. Once he reached the undercarriage of the main platform, he followed catwalks, ascended metal steps, ducked through hatches until he stood on the main deck.
A helipad covered a large, flat circle atop the main platform. Next to that was an oil-processing area filled with huge tanks and a nightmare maze of piping. Radio masts and cranes protruded like spines from the rig.
At any moment, Keene expected to be stopped by a security patrol, but the platform supervisors were ridiculously complacent in their security. The pumps and generators hummed and clanked, making loud sounds in the night, but he met no one. Most of the blazing lights he had seen from a distance seemed to be for decorative purposes only, except for the natural blowtorch off to the side; the flare tip hissed and blasted its perpetual flame, removing excess natural gas from the operations.
Keene sprinted across the platform deck toward the central derrick, which stood like a skyscraper in the middle of theValhalla . He could have taken an elevator, of course, but that would have been too easy. And too noisy. Even sleeping security guards could be awakened if the noise was loud enough. Instead, he took the winding ribbon of metal stairs around and around the iron latticework of the structure, heading toward the narrow tip that supported the rig's central production shaft and pipe.
Panting heavily, dripping with sweat, he reached the top platform. The sultry breeze brushed his sweaty chest. Between breaths, he could hear the whispers and clatter of the rig's superstructure, the thrumming guide wires and anchor cables holding the various portions in place. A searchlight beacon flashed around and around in a slow strobe, signaling low-flying aircraft of the danger.
He stood in silence, grinning at the night and gripping the rails. Under stormy seas, he thought, this place must dance like a hiccuping marionette. He looked around the top level. Like a crow's nest on an old sailing ship, it was adorned with the spikes of lightning rods and radio towers.
He raised his fist in the air and gave a short yelp of triumph. "I'm King of the Hill."
Good as that felt, it was not enough to gratify Keene. Still needing completion, he went to the edge, pulled down his shorts, and urinated. Then, grinning and satisfied, he sat down, leaned against the rails, and fell asleep.
The sound of an insomniac seagull woke him from his nap. Not until the third successive squawk did it occur to him that the gull was McKendry, at the bottom of the derrick.
Keene's watch read one-thirty. Unable to believe that his lighthearted infiltration had gone so smoothly, he descended slowly and carefully into the shadows.
"You dumb son of a bitch!"
McKendry's words and fist hit Keene simultaneously. Keene reeled and swiped at his nosebleed. "Are you crazy, McKendry? You've probably broken my nose."
"You have about as much sense as a centipede," McKendry said, clinging fast to the iron rung Keene had used to descend the derrick.
"At least now we'll have a story to tell next New Year's Eve."
"You'll have a story to tell. I probably won't make it." McKendry let go of the rung and sank to the deck. He held one hand over his left ribs. With the other, he pointed at his foot. "Shark," he said, his voice reduced now to the slightest whisper.
"Oh my God!" Keene fell to his knees. In the dim light, he could see huge, red blotches, leaking around the protection of his partner's hand and running across his ankle. "McKendry, I'm so sorry. Oh my God!"
"Could you...could you kiss it better," McKendry whispered.
Keene looked up and into his partner's eyes.
"And while you're at it, Joshua, could you..."
McKendry's voice was so close to being inaudible that Keene had to lean into it. "Anything, buddy."
"Good," McKendry said, whimpering. "Then you can kiss my ass." He wiped one of the red blotches vigorously. It paled as it left a stain on his fingers.
"The red pen," Keene said.
"The red pen,buddy ."
"You scared the shit out of me," Keene said.
"I meant to."
"I'm sorry your leg."
"We're supposed to be looking for Selene Trujold, not running around at two in the morning playing King of the Hill. As long as we find her, we'll call it even." He paused. "Since we're here, I'd like to take another look around. But first, would you mind telling me what possessed you to pull off this dumb stunt and jeopardize the whole mission?"
"I pissed on the world from up there," Keene said halfheartedly.
"Was it worth it?"
For a moment Keene was quiet. "Yes, it was." He decided to give an honest answer, though he didn't expect McKendry to fully understand. "Listen, we're out here and we're ready for whatever happens. Right now, everything's quiet. We've already spent weeks sitting around in Caracas, taking canoe trips through the Orinoco Delta, drinking beer in dockside cantinas. I had to dosomething, Terris."
He raised his eyebrows and spread out his hands innocently, indicating the ghost town of the oil platform.
"Had to find myself a story to tell. Just in case."