Excerpts: Hell Rig

Hell Rig

 A novel by JE Gurley


Gulf Coast, Global Platform Thirteen, September 17, 2005 –

 Jeff Towns loathed flying with all of his heart and soul. It usually required dire circumstances to get him up in an airplane, especially sober. Now he found himself trapped in a rusted out Vietnam era Huey helicopter a decade older than he was. The olive drab camouflage paint had flaked off in chunks as large as his hand, revealing a dull gray undercoating underneath. It had been haphazardly repainted in various shades of green making it look like a child’s first attempt at finger painting. The ancient Pratt and Whitney Turbo-400 engine labored as loudly as his complaining stomach while the foam flecked mocha brown waters of the Gulf of Mexico sped by at 160 mph two hundred feet below him. He gripped the straps of his safety harness strapped across his chest with both hands, like a parachute, his teeth clinched so tightly his jaw ached. His stomach coiled python-like around the two-egg Denver omelet and hash browns he had unwisely wolfed down just before the flight. He groaned as his stomach rumbled yet again.

“Wanna bite?”

Jeff opened his eyes and looked over at one of his companions, ‘Big Clyde’ Gleason, a big redheaded country boy from Picayune, Mississippi as Clyde calmly sliced off a large sliver from a plug of chewing tobacco with his Case pocketknife. Jeff looked down at the tobacco offering with disgust. Clamping down on his revulsion, he simply shook his head negatively. Gleason laughed, a deep hardy, knee-slapping guffaw befitting his farm boy upbringing.

“Getting a little queasy, Towns?” Gleason asked, holding the fresh cut tobacco offering under his nose and sniffing it approvingly before popping it into his mouth.

“No, a lot queasy,” Jeff answered bitterly, waving his hand in a dismissive gesture. “Now, get that shit out of my face.”

“Leave him alone, Big Clyde,” Eric Tolson yelled from his position at the edge of the open door of the helicopter. His feet dangled over the side of the old Huey chopper, the ends of his long blond Fu Manchu-style mustache snapping in the breeze. The pulled down brim on his oil-stained New Orleans Saints cap and his dark shades hid his mischievous blue eyes. Jeff could barely hear him over the thumping blades and rushing air. “Can’t you see he’s still enjoying that greasy omelet and even greasier pile of half-cooked hash browns he had for breakfast? Lordy, they were slimy.”

That was all it took. Jeff grabbed the airsick bag he was hoping to avoid using, placed it over his mouth and let go. His throat burned as he regurgitated his breakfast.

“Oh, my Gawd, he’s spewing!” Gleason warned with a chuckle, holding up his hands in a mock defensive posture.

Jeff finished emptying his stomach and took a couple of deep breaths. He wiped his mouth on his sleeve and groaned. His stomach gurgled menacingly but remained in place. He folded over the top of the airsick bag and looked for a place to set it out of the way.

“Here,” Tolson said, reaching over and grabbing the bag from Jeff. He tossed it out the open door and watched it plummet to the sea. “I hope fish like eggs.”

“Sure they do,” Gleason chimed in. “Ain’t you ever heard of caviar. That’s fish eggs, right?”

Tolson laughed. “Yeah, but people eat caviar, not fish.”

“I saw a fish eating fish eggs once on National Geographic. It –”

“Stow it, you two,” Ed Harris broke in, his deep bass voice cleaving the din like a scythe. He sat in the front of the chopper, leaning back over the front seat to confront Tolson. “Save your energy for the clean up. We’ve got seven days before the refurbishing crew comes in. If we haven’t finished by then, I’m out some cash. And shut that damn door, Tolson. I’m tired of screaming to be heard.”

Tolson swung his legs in and slid shut the door of the Huey in one fluid movement and smiled up at Ed. Immediately, the sound level dropped several dozen decibels, from a roar to a dull throb.

“I just wanted some fresh air,” Tolson commented.

Ed Harris owned Re-Berth Incorporated out of Port Charles, Louisiana, a small salvage and restoration company for whom they all worked. Tolson and Gleason, for all their good-natured bickering, respected their boss and usually avoided giving him any unnecessary grief. They knew Ed had called in all the favors he could to get the Global job. It was the biggest clean up they had ever attempted and could lead to similar good paying jobs in the future.

Jeff was not sure about some of the new hires. He glanced at Greg Bale sitting across from him quietly reading a Times Picayune newspaper. Bale, medium build, short brown hair, body deeply tanned from the sun, did everything quietly, even his exercises, which he did with a religious fervor. Bale had been with the company for almost six months, no new hire but still unproven in Jeff’s eyes. His long, diverse resume seemed to indicate a drifter or a man unconcerned with his future. He worked hard but Jeff did not trust a man who could pull up stakes so casually anytime he wished. A man needed roots, even roots as tenuous as Jeff’s were. Dependability was a part of the job.

Bale harbored a dark secret. Jeff could see it haunting his eyes sometimes when Bale thought no one was watching. He often reached up and touched, almost caressed the crucifix he wore around his neck as if fearing it but fearing more to give it up. He spoke very little, as if afraid he might let slip his secret. In spite of his cross, he never professed a faith in God or his fellow man. The cross seemed incongruous to his nature, more burden than reassurance, an albatross on a silver chain. Jeff assumed everyone had secrets, but Bale’s secret was big and dominated his life. He was a man running from some calamity in his past too big to escape.

Gleason and Tolson were old hands and despite their proneness to off-color jokes and childish shenanigans, Jeff had no doubts about their abilities and trusted them with his life. He watched Tolson pull out his cell phone, dial a number and frown when the call did not go through. Probably calling his secretive girl friend, he thought. For all his womanizing talk, Tolson had dated the same woman for months, though he had never brought her to any of their frequent drinking sessions. Jeff suspected Tolson’s wild rover days were nearing an end.

He glanced over at Sid Easton, fully absorbed in a comic book, pimple-faced and barely out of his teens but trying hard to make everybody believe that he was a blooded, street-tough punk with his slicked back, black hair, his propensity for foul language and multiple earrings. He was new, a nephew to Ed or something like that. He might be okay if he didn’t flake during crunch time. At least he seemed eager to get to work.

Ken McAndrews, or Mac as he insisted they call him, was also new, a former oil field worker from Shreveport with a penchant for poetry and multisyllabic words. He was tall, lean and muscular. He claimed his father was a Scot but his drawl condemned him as being born and raised in Louisiana. He had signed on for grunt work and as a welder’s helper. Jeff hoped Mac was not as flaky as most welders’ helpers he had known.

Matthew Sims was an oddity, even among oddballs. A former shrimper out of Venice, Louisiana, Sims had lost his boat and crew during Katrina and had refused to return to the sea. He had shown up at Re-Berth two days before their scheduled departure asking Ed for a job. Ed, always soft hearted, had hired him on the spot. He was quieter than Bale but claimed a wide variety of skills that could prove useful offshore. He was tall, thin and wiry with close-cropped brown hair and dark brown eyes that roamed constantly. The smile that he flashed more often than necessary seemed more cruel than humorous, as if he knew a deep dark secret about you. Jeff didn’t trust a man who could give up on his life’s work so easily. Most shrimpers would rather die than give up the sea. Salt water ran in their veins. He did not trust Sims. 

He looked over at the fourth newbie, her eyes closed, headset plugged into a pink I-Pod held in a delicate, long fingered hand tipped by hot pink nails. She wore no makeup but was one of those women who did not really need it. Indeed, she looked lovely without it. Lisa Love was a complete mystery to him. A recent graduate of LSU as a chemical engineer, she was a real looker, not the usual broad shouldered feminist roustabout type of women one usually saw working in the oil fields. She had kept to herself, hardly speaking during the entire trip from the office to the heliport. Ed had brought her along as a safety engineer and radio operator. There would be numerous dangerous chemicals and safety concerns in an old platform like Global Thirteen. Her job would be to categorize them according to the danger they presented to the crew and fit their cleanup and repair into the already busy work schedule. Almost as if she felt Jeff’s eyes on her, she opened her eyes, looked at him and smiled, running her long delicate fingers through her auburn hair.

The last member of their little group was a blank page. Ric Waters was a Global man sent out ostensibly to oversee the clean up and monitor the gas pressure manifolds and wellheads for any possible danger from leaks. Any problem with them could send the whole rig up like a bomb. Waters sat by himself, his back against the pilot’s seat, hardly moving except for the gentle swaying caused by the helicopter. The cold, distant look in his haunted eyes frightened Jeff. Waters looked like one of those Sudanese refugees he had seen on the news or a Gulf War vet who had seen too many dead bodies. He was a vacant body whose owner had left no forwarding address.

Waters had worked previously on rig number Thirteen before Hurricane Katrina hit and knew it better than anyone alive. They would depend on him for details, but Jeff hated to think their lives were in his hands.

Jeff leaned over and tapped Ed on the shoulder. “What really happened on number Thirteen?” There had been numerous conflicting rumors explaining the deaths of the crew on number Thirteen during Katrina, each more suggestive than the previous, but very little in the newspapers.

Ed looked back at Jeff and shook his head. “I don’t know for sure. Rumor is it caught fire during the rush to shut it down before Katrina hit. Everyone died.” He looked pointedly at Waters who ignored him, lost in a world of his own. “Everyone but him. They say he was off platform shutting down the injector wells when it happened. Came back to find everyone toast. Shook him up quite a bit, though. He spent a couple of weeks in the hospital up in Shreveport.”

That’s the reason for those dead eyes, Towns thought. “I don’t like the idea of working on a ghost rig,” he said, fingering the amulet around his neck. He didn’t believe in voodoo, but had bought the small round Loa Agwe medallion at a shop in New Orleans. The cute little sales clerk with large breasts and a perky smile had told him Loa Agwe was the guardian of the seas and seafarers. Jeff bought it because of the small sailing ship stamped into the metal, surrounded by a circle of intricate symbols. It was supposed to bring good luck to sailors and, he hoped, rig workers.

Ed glared at him. “Don’t ever say that again,” he warned. “Names stick.”

“Yeah, Jeff,” Tolson added, overhearing. “We don’t need no damn zombies walking around.” He glanced over at Lisa Love. “It might scare the skirt.”

Lisa Love opened her eyes, crinkled her pert nose and smiled. Jeff noticed her eyes were a very light blue, almost azure. She removed one earphone. “I don’t wear a skirt when I’m working. Just consider me one of the guys.”

“None of the other guys have tits like yours,” Tolson replied, smirking.

“Pipe down, Tolson,” Ed snapped. “She’s one of the crew. Give her some damn respect.”

Tolson smiled at her and doffed his Saints cap, showing his freshly shaved pate. With his bald head, Fu Manchu moustache and Death Head skull tattoos running the length of his right arm, he looked like a Neo-Nazi skinhead, but he was an intelligent and gentle man though a bit pre-political correctness. “No offense meant. I really like your tits.”

“Tolson!” Ed growled.

Lisa took Tolson’s remarks in stride, flipping him the bird with one long, slender finger. She began to replace her earplugs.

“It is haunted.”

They all turned to look at Waters. His soft voice had barely registered above the noise in the chopper. He looked up slowly, his cheeks pinched and his dark eyes just depressions in his skull. His Atlanta Braves baseball cap almost swallowed his head. No trace of emotion marred his pale face or spilled over into his voice as he spoke.

“It is haunted,” he repeated. “They all died there and they’re waiting for me. You, too.” He nodded his head several times in affirmation.

“Who’s waiting?” Ed asked.

Waters looked up at Ed as if seeing him for the first time. “The Digger Man and the others. He warned me not to come back, but I did. Now I can’t live with the nightmares any more. I’ve got to see for myself; see what’s real.”

“Bullshit!” Gleason burst out.

Waters stared at Gleason for a second before continuing, ignoring Gleason’s outburst. “I found them. I found them all.” He shook his head and closed his eyes. Jeff noticed a tear roll down Waters cheek. “I found him.” Waters’ voice broke. He paused. “He was looking down at me, smiling, staring at me with those dead, empty eyes, taunting me.”

“Who was?” Jeff asked.

“The Digger Man.”

Jeff shivered at the name, as if someone had stepped on his grave.

Ed turned to Jeff and whispered an explanation. “John Diggs was a Cajun mechanic on the rig. He used to be a driller, so they called him ‘Digger Man’. Rumor is he cracked up and killed a couple of guys during the fire.”

“The Digger Man,” Waters repeated, nodding his head as if agreeing with Ed but likely did not hear him. “He killed them all. Now he’s waiting for us.”

“Well, kiss my ass and call me a frog,” Gleason burst out with a deep southern drawl. He wagged his thumb at Waters and chuckled. “He’s nuts!”

“You’ll see,” Waters said. “You’ll all see.” He settled back down and withdrew into his own world again.

The flight continued in silence. Waters had given everyone something to think about. To Jeff, even the sound of the big Huey was now somehow muted, as if the sky was swallowing the sound before spitting it out again in tattered whispers. Twenty minutes later, he caught his first sight of Global rig number Thirteen out of the cockpit window and wished he had stayed home.


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