Avery stepped down on the tarmac. From what she could see, Zapata was just another uninhabitable and godforsaken border town. Rattlesnake country, dusty and desolate. A gust of hot wind blew an affirming layer of grit over her freshly applied lipstick.
“Ms. McAndrews.” The copilot met her at the base of the stairs, holding her suitcase. He shot her a sympathetic smile. “We’ll return for you whenever you’re done.”
A small rush of panic pulsed through Avery. She glanced up at the corporate jet, tempted to hike right back up those stairs. “You mean you guys aren’t hanging around?”
He laughed. “Cancun, yes.” He glanced about at the forbidding terrain. “This place, afraid not. We’re based in San Antonio, though. When we get your call, it’s thirty to forty minutes, tops. The captain says you have his number. Just let us know when you’re ready to head back. We’ll be here for you.”
“Thanks.” Avery grabbed the handle of her wheeled suitcase. A black SUV with heavily tinted windows and with the Rockforth logo emblazoned on its rear bumper was parked just beyond the chain link fence. Next to it, an older man with a sizable paunch waited, his gaze focused on some point beyond her.
“Hi. I’m Avery.”
“I’m looking for someone named Derrick. Was he on the plane with you?”
“No. I’m his replacement.”
“I’m sorry, you haven’t told me your name,” she said, trying to ignore his obvious skepticism.
A second man stepped down from the SUV, extending a hand. “I’m Manuel and he’s Bruce. We’re the security team.”
“Security team? My boss didn’t say anything about that.”
“He didn’t mention security was an issue out here?” Bruce asked.
She gritted her teeth. She should have known. Eric had spent ten minutes dismissing her concerns about safety along the border, assuring her repeatedly that she had nothing to worry about. Typical. He only cared about one thing, and that was keeping Sam Rockforth happy. She didn’t blame Eric for that, though. Working on Sam’s projects came with a lot of perks. Today’s private jet had been one of many.
“No. He didn’t mention a security team. But I just found out last night that I’d have to take over for Derrick.” She hefted her bag into the back of the SUV and climbed into the back seat with her field gear in hand. She tried to stifle any misgivings she had about her so-called security team. At five-six, Avery had seen the top of Manuel’s head. And neither he nor Bruce appeared anything like the retired Navy SEALs or even night club bouncers she might imagine. But people weren’t always what they seemed to be. Being a female engineer meant she’d been the target of that enough to know.
“Facility’s about thirty miles out of town,” Bruce said as they accelerated along the road.
And this is town? Avery choked back a laugh. The sameness of the highway was broken up only by the occasional run-down restaurant or abandoned gas station. Tumbleweeds seemed to be the sole evidence of plant life, and only plastic bottles, cans, and other assorted garbage punctuated the fallow expanse of dusty terrain.
She retrieved the site map from the file folder. Derrick’s projects were always such a mess. Nothing but a few random notes and receipts from bars with names that sounded suspiciously like strip clubs. With her index finger, she traced and retraced the production line. There was nothing unique about this particular tank battery. Based on the schematics, it looked just about like every other one she’d seen throughout the Gulf Coast and Rocky Mountains. The engineering was basic. Flow lines, separators, and pumps. It made no sense. Leaks and mechanical issues were hardly uncommon. Why go to the expense of sending an engineer at her pay grade when a local operations manager should be able to handle it? She chewed her lip. And why had Derrick let things spiral into a crisis mode?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the driver’s voice. “Mr. Rockforth probably would have sent more guys with us if he’d known we’d be guarding a woman.” Bruce’s eyes met hers in the rearview mirror. “What made ’em change their minds and send a pretty thing like you? Surely you don’t want to work in the oil field. Do you?”
It was a question Avery had had to answer many times before. Typically, it was posed with a bit more tact. She remained focused on the plant diagrams.
Bruce persisted. “Where are you from?”
“Denver,” she said with a sigh.
“Welcome to Texas.”
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s good to be back.” It was time to shut the man down. “I got my master’s at A&M. I’ve been working in the oilfield for years.”
“Well, here on the border they play by different rules than what you’re probably used to. You need to stay in the car unless we tell you otherwise.” Bruce paused to turn up the radio, which was playing an unfamiliar country song. “Manuel and I are both armed.” He drew out the syllables of the other man’s name with an exaggerated twang. “Guess it don’t matter that they sent a woman. When you’re dealing with low-life drug lords, it’s all the same. A bullet don’t show preference.”