Ill Wind (6 page)

But Todd had a job to do, and he would bust his back cheeks to accomplish it. He couldn’t turn back the clock and prevent the wreck from happening. He had to turn off his disgust at seeing the massive damage grow worse every second. The whole dang world was watching, but he had to focus on the job at hand. Keep cool. There would be time to get pissed later—get good and drunk, maybe even look up that captain and kick some butt. While other people spent all their time yakking and complaining, Todd Severyn waded in and started
doing
something about it.

He yanked off his thick gloves, stuffed them in his pocket, and reached inside his slicker. Hauling out his
walkie talkie
, he clicked the channel to his counterpart over on the
Tiberius
. “Glenn! Give me an update. How much have we offloaded so far?”

The radio crackled after only a moment’s pause. “Close to fifty thousand barrels. Pretty good for a day’s work—”

Todd scowled. “Darn it, that’s only a few percent of what’s still inside.”

 
He heard shouting in the background of the
Tiberius
. Glenn snapped back, “Then shut up and keep pumping! We’re doing everything we can.”

The transfer hoses had been pumping for less than fifteen minutes, throbbing as they sucked barrel after barrel out of the
Zoroaster
’s holds—when the wind picked up. Todd froze, wondering what else could go wrong. Lightering operations were tough under good conditions, but now the sea grew rougher. The fog had cleared, but the sky turned gray like a smoke pudding.

The deck began to creak, and the ship suddenly lurched to the side, increasing the slant.

Todd scrambled to grab the rail as panic welled up in him. He heard the other six men on the tanker shouting. He hated to leave a job unfinished, hated to run away when conditions got worse—but he wasn’t stupid. He knew when to make the call. He pressed the TALK button on his
walkie talkie
. “Getting unstable, Glenn. Start thinking about closing up shop.” He looked at his watch. It was getting close to high tide, the greatest danger, when the supertanker rode highest on its unsteady balance against the bridge pier.

The
Tiberius
responded. “They’re going to crucify us if we abandon this puppy, Severyn. She’s still gushing thousands of gallons a minute.”

Todd wanted to smash the walkie-talkie on the deck. “If the
Zoroaster
goes down, none of my people are gonna be on it. I’m ordering the chopper to start shuttling people back over to you.”

“We’d better check with Oilstar—”

“It’s my call, and I’m making it.” If Emma Branson didn’t like it, she could come out of her high-and-mighty Oilstar office and do the work herself.

He switched off the
walkie talkie
and raised a hand to get the attention of his crew. He pointed toward the helicopter,
then
held up four fingers. Seeing this, the first team of four broke away from their work and struggled up the sloping deck, slick toward the helicopter, which seemed about half a mile away. The pilot started the engine while waiting for them; two minutes later the blades began to rotate.

The walkie-talkie
crackled .
“Oilstar
okays
it, Severyn. But the minute the weather turns better, we come right back.”

Todd’s stomach twisted with the thought of how much oil still remained in the unbreached cargo holds. He shouted as the wind picked up again, “After the chopper takes the first load of my people over, we’ll unlash the two ships. Stop pumping from cargo hold 3. We’ll disconnect right now. Three of us will stay here to get the transfer hose ready when it’s time.”

He turned to see the four men clamber aboard the helicopter. The blades became a blur, and the craft lurched from the deck, heading toward the adjacent
Tiberius
.

As Todd watched the copter land on the other tanker, the
Zoroaster
groaned under his feet, listing and settling deeper. He fell back against a metal supply shack mounted to the deck.
Keep cool
, he reminded himself, but the thought of the tanker sliding off the submerged ledge and plunging to the bottom filled him with terror, which he attempted to smother in front of his men.

Jimmy Mack,
a wide-eyed kid just days
with the company, started yelling about stupid risks. Todd staggered over to help him disconnect the transfer hose from cargo hold 3. “I keep my word—no one’s going down with this ship!” He bent over and used his wrench on the transfer hose connection.

Two men detached the hose from the hold and hauled it toward the deck rail. Black oil gushed from the end, splattering the deck. Todd radioed for the
Tiberius
to shut off the pumps to cargo holds 7 and 8. “Start unlashing the ships,” he said. The words sounded like failure to him, and it made him angry. “Get ready to disengage these other hoses.”

On the deck of the smaller tanker, the helicopter lifted off and began its journey back. Working two men at a time, Todd and his companions threw off the heavy hooks securing the
Zoroaster
to the
Tiberius
. The thumping vibrations of the helicopter grew louder as it approached the supertanker’s landing pad.

“Disconnect those hoses,” Todd shouted. “Move it!”

With a large swell, the
Zoroaster
lurched, tumbling them backward into the water cannons. Todd smashed his elbow against a large red pipe, but managed to grab the rail of a foam-monitor station. Everything was going wrong. Todd felt as if he were standing in the path of an avalanche. One of the men smacked his helmet on a release valve, and water began to spray from a nozzle.

No longer lashed together, the two tankers drifted apart by a few more feet.

The transfer hose at cargo hold 7 sheared away, spraying oil in all directions. With a loud
pop
, the hose connected to cargo hold 8 tore off. The
Zoroaster
began to tilt sideways, away from
Tiberius
.

“She’s going down!” Todd shouted. For just a moment he wanted to run in blind panic to the empty chopper pad, but he had to get his crew off. He shoved Jimmy Mack toward the landing platform. “Go! Now!”

“Yes, sir!”

All three men began a scramble for the helicopter pad near the stern deck. They were covered with petroleum slime, the rough metal deck plates slick with crude. Jimmy Mack tumbled to his knees, disoriented with panic. Todd reached out a big hand and helped him up. “I told you I keep my word!”

The helicopter came in and tried to land, but the
Zoroaster
tilted fast. Todd grabbed a rail to keep his balance. Just as the second team of three made it to the landing circle, the copter rose up and circled back around, leaving Todd and the two others to scream for it to come back. The tanker lurched again.

Over the side of the ship, the black petroleum looked like a vile quagmire, bubbling like lava. Fumes burned Todd’s face and eyes like acid. He couldn’t imagine a death worse than drowning in several feet of crude oil.

The helicopter wheeled overhead and landed with a skid, bouncing across the deck. Without waiting for the rotors to slow, Todd and the others ducked their heads and scrambled to the open door. They tumbled into the back in an oil-stained pile of bodies. The last one on, Todd still hung halfway out of the hatch as the copter took off. “Yeeee-hah!”

The pilot flew without speaking, his jaw clenched, as they lifted up and away from the
Zoroaster
’s tilting superstructure. Todd struggled to a better position to watch through the scratched plexiglass cockpit window.

Below, the
Tiberius
pulled away from the sinking
Zoroaster
. Sliding down, rolling sideways as it lost its slippery grip on the Fort Point ledge, the
Zoroaster
toppled in a slow-motion avalanche. Todd’s stomach sank with it. Water and oil foamed gray in the churning violence of the plunge. The supertanker’s hull yawned open wider, geysering black crude into the waters.

Before his eyes, the disaster became a thousand times worse.

Despite the desperate lightering operations, nearly 50 million gallons of crude oil remained in the breached cargo holds. Cold, dark water swallowed the doomed supertanker in less than fifteen minutes.

Todd watched, sick with disgust. From inside the
Zoroaster
, oil would continue to gush upward for years . . . and now there was no way to stop it.

 

 

 

Chapter 6

 

The
Zoroaster
spill was a shit-storm in a small room, but Speaker of the House Jeffrey Mayeaux had to cover a smile as he faced the audience for the news conference. He took grim pleasure in knowing he had arrived on the scene a full three hours before the Vice President was due. The rooster-faced V.P. didn’t even know he had been upstaged yet.

A techie wearing jeans and a faded yellow T-shirt scurried stooped over like a hunchback, checking leads to the microphones on the podium. Mayeaux walked in, flanked by his Chief of Staff Franklin Weathersee and a Secret Service mastodon. He fixed his eyes on the reporters; they looked like crawfish in a bowl, and he was about to have them for dinner. He wore his gravest “I’m from the government, I’m here to help you” expression.

The Honorable Jeffrey Mayeaux would do his best to witness the concerns first-hand and say the necessary words to foster hope. He was good at that. Yes, the government would do everything possible to help the San Francisco area cope with this crisis. You betcha.

The Executive Branch would be pissing Tabasco sauce by this evening.

Mayeaux had skipped out on his Acapulco “conference” early for the sole purpose of stealing the V.P.’s thunder. Unannounced, Mayeaux was the first high-level government official to respond to this serious disaster—and the bozos at 1600 Pennsylvania would not get the credit this time. Mayeaux would shake the hands and kiss the babies; Vice President Wolani—Miss Congeniality—would get the tough questions a few hours from now. The whole escapade should add at least another ten grand onto Mayeaux’s lobbyist salary after he retired from Congress in a year.

A half
dozen video cameras jockeyed for position as he turned to expose his best side. He eyed a cute brunette gripping a microphone bearing the letters KSFO. Watching the way she wrapped her fingers around the shaft of the microphone, holding its head close to her red lips, Mayeaux thought how deliciously erotic it looked. Admiring the swell of her bodacious breasts against her silk blouse, Mayeaux made a mental note to have Weathersee offer her an off-the-record interview, “inside sources,” before he had to jet back to the east coast. Often enough, promotion-hungry lady reporters were willing to go to extremes for a scoop. And you didn’t know unless you asked.

Like a few other Louisiana politicians, Mayeaux didn’t give a coonass’s damn about scandal. His constituents watched it with the fascination of spectators at a car accident—but as long as they knew some of Mayeaux’s obvious weaknesses, they didn’t dig too deep for hidden flaws. The old saying went that every person owned the same total allotment of vices . . . so the folks who looked squeaky clean usually had some very twisted skeletons in their closets. According to that theory, a holy roller like V.P. Wolani probably got off by pulling legs off live frogs.

Mayeaux straightened, pulling himself to his full height of five and a half feet. For his opening statement, he spoke slowly, careful to smother his leftover Cajun accent, as he always did in public speeches.

“Incredibly devastating,” he said. “This could set back the advances we’ve made in environmental management by decades. I have personally contacted the Federal Emergency Management Agency to encourage their best efforts here. I also advocate calling out the National Guard, but of course that’s up to the administration, whenever they get here. I understand the Vice President is on his way, so you can ask him yourselves. He’ll be along any time now.”

“Mr. Speaker, Mr. Speaker!”

He scanned the crowd until he caught the brunette’s eye. He raised his eyebrow a fraction before nodding to her. He didn’t give a rat’s ass for her question, but he kept his public face on autopilot. He wondered how much of a challenge she would be. “Go ahead.”

“How will this affect the proposed new gasoline tax? Will the administration back the House’s legislation calling for a majority of the tax to be used for cleaning up the environment?”

He pegged her: tough reporter type, arrogant and driven, looking for the big story. Willing to do just about anything for it—and he bet his Louisiana homegrown hot link would satisfy her. “I don’t see how the President could refuse to sign the bill, especially now, with this mess right in America’s lap.”

“But do you anticipate a fight? Could this be a big test of your abilities as Speaker?”

Mayeaux put on his “grave and understanding” expression to mask his utter scorn for testing his abilities. He was in this for the ride and the perks, and by next year he could say goodbye to all the bullshit.

“We all try to work within the system, Ma’am. I’ve been in close contact with Vice President Wolani, who is making time in his busy schedule to personally view this disaster.” Mayeaux squelched a smile before it could form on his face. “I’m sure when he returns to Washington, he’ll convince the President of the necessity for this legislation. If not, then I’ll have to twist a few more arms.” He flashed the brunette a warm smile and turned to answer other questions.

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