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A summer hire to manage a drilling operation finds his job complicated by intrigue, murder — and interns

In "The Hole Truth," author J.A. Turley draws on his decades of experience in the oil and gas industry to create a fictional conspiracy that powers his murder-mystery

J. A. (John) Turley is an engineer by education and experience.

He and his family lived across the U.S. and in the UK before settling in Colorado in 1998. After retirement, he took up writing fiction. His entry “Body Shots” won the 2008 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Mystery award, and he has been writing and publishing ever since. Turley taught petroleum engineering at Marietta College before joining a major energy company, from which he retired in 2001. 

The following is an excerpt from “The Hole Truth.”

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit


Colorado Authors League finalist for mystery

Prologue

Francine Elizabeth Rach, PhD, outdrove the arrogant bastard and his high-beam headlights as he chased her in and out of traffic southbound on Houston’s Beltway 8. Looking ahead, she blasted her well-tuned Mazda RX-8 up the elevated US 59 overpass and backed off the gas only slightly as she approached the curve at the top, where he caught up, pulled alongside, and shot her in the face.Had the brilliant geophysicist not been dead when her bright-red coffin spun out of control, flipped end to end, jumped the retaining wall, and fell to the roadway below in a ball of flame, she might have screamed his name.

Accident investigators took pictures, measured skid marks, interviewed shocked witnesses, and eventually added one more tragic, random, road-rage death to Houston vehicular statistics.

They were right only about it being tragic.

One

Cool air in the hotel lobby welcomed me. “Checking in,” I said. “Zanatelli.” I spelled the name. 

The desk clerk watched my lips.

“Tony,” I added, in case there were hordes of other Zanatellis destined to spend a humid mid-May night in Lafayette, Louisiana.

“Been waiting for you,” the clerk said, before retrieving an almost empty box from under the counter and handing me two envelopes. “Confidential,” he added, “so they’re sealed. They came in about noon.”

I thanked him and reckoned the countdown to start my consulting job had just reached zero—launch underway. 

Little did I know that the associated body count had also just begun.

I read the first note, from Fred Winlan: Call me. I’ll buy dinner.

Works for me, I thought.

But the second note told me to call Hank Gormann as soon as possible. Hah—ASAP. My gut rumbled. Why? No idea. I liked Hank. A lot. Respected him. But my gut didn’t often lie. 

In my capacity as a summer-hire company man, I would manage the drilling of an exploration well in the Gulf of Mexico and would work for two bosses—Hank and Fred—hence, two notes, both important. But Hank was a vice president, and Fred reported to Hank. 

Author J.A. Turley.

And me? I was a professor at CSM—Colorado School of Mines—and I needed my 2005 summer-job paycheck, as approved by Hank. So I called him first.

I dialed Hank’s direct number from my hotel room and spoke to southern softness. “Tony Zanatelli; I’m returning Mr. Gormann’s call.” 

Southern Softness identified herself as Hank’s admin assistant and then said, “He’s on another call, sir. Something about a blowout. He told me if you called to put you on hold. Do you mind?”

Crap, I thought. Blowout! Mind?

Innocuous music filled my ear. I didn’t recall answering the woman’s question because the word blowout tore at my guts. I’d spent my career, offshore and while teaching, ensuring no well ever lost control. And blowout was the opposite of control. Mutually exclusive. Like control and Mount St. Helens in the same sentence. 

I checked my watch, needed to get on the road. Drive. Fly. Chopper. Get to wherever in hell I needed to be. I thought about flashing my phone but feared I’d lose the connection. Kind of like the connection with Mother Nature. Don’t tap the wrong switch. Never give her a chance. A chance to be uglier than science fiction. Because her wrath isn’t pixels; it’s real time. In your face. Unrelenting. Without limit. 

And in my job, I’d often mused, if I lost well control and let Mother Nature win, there was nobody to blame but—

The phone went quiet.

Crap. Redial? Tap the— 

“Tony, thanks for calling,” Hank said, his signature voice rumbling like a bass woofer. “Sorry to have left you hanging yesterday—too many people around. You alone?”

“In Lafayette. In my room. Sorry about the blowout. Give me the stats and tell me where I need to go, and I’ll—”

“Whoa, Tony. Not a drilling blowout. My wife had a flat tire, and it’s been fixed.”

 Flat tire? Blowout? “Sorry, mixed message on this end,” I said, relieved no rig was involved. 

“Good,” Hank said. “I need to finish my story before you talk to Winlan.”

“Haven’t called him yet,” I said, glad I’d called Hank first. I opened my notebook. “Go ahead.”

“Your job is to drill the well, safe and on budget, so we can find out exactly what’s down there⎯oil, gas, dry hole, whatever. Unfortunately, I’m afraid there’s something going on with my drilling program that might complicate your job.”

“I’m taking notes,” I said, just to remind him I was still there. “Go ahead.” 

“The Hole Truth” by J.A. Turley.

He did. “Like I started telling you yesterday, I’ve got a problem with four wells we drilled a few years back. They’re all in the Gulf. All exploration wells. At the time, we wrote off each one as a dry hole. But now I’m thinking maybe they weren’t so dry, because after we relinquished the leases back to the feds, other operators picked them up, and now all four leases are producing reserves we failed to find.”

“Coincidence? Or do your guys need a short course in well logging?”

“Maybe both. But I’ve studied those wells, and they all share some of the same people, inside and outside the company. I’m thinking somebody’s stealing or changing data, like industrial espionage. If so, it’s probably somebody I know, and I’ll bet my ass your well’s next. I’ll send you copies of my files, and then we’ll talk about coincidence.”

“Insider?” I asked, since industrial espionage had the ring of Hollywood. 

“Maybe, maybe not. Suspects? Somewhere between none and everybody. Which means this is between you and me—just you and me.”

“What about Fred Winlan?”

“Not Fred. Not your wife. Just you and me. Just drill the well, keep it safe, watch over the interns, and help all you can with my problem. Call me from the rig—we’ll talk more.”

He hung up before I could tell him I was neither clairvoyant nor a detective.

My summer job as consultant was supposed to help me decide whether to continue teaching at CSM, where I would soon finish my doctoral studies, or go back into oil and gas, where I had two decades of domestic and international drilling experience. I hoped Hank’s problem wouldn’t bias my decision.

Then I had a good idea—decide later. In mere minutes, my teeth exuded the aroma of mint, and I dialed Fred’s number.

“Fred Winlan.” His voice was effeminate, three octaves higher than Hank’s. They made a great pair at cocktail parties, their alto-bass chitchat always entertaining.

“Fred, it’s Tony. Dinner sounds good, and I’m ready. I’ll walk to the Blue Dog Café and meet you in the bar.”

“I’m close; ten minutes.”

A man of my word, I walked a hundred yards south on Pinhook and went straight to the Blue Dog lounge, where I ordered exactly what I wanted—a double dose of aged Lagavulin single-malt scotch, neat. I raised the man-sized tumbler and savored the heavy-peat aroma, knowing I was holding my last drink for months to come. 

Two sips later, a hand landed on my shoulder.

“Tony Z, my man.”

Not knowing if the squeaky voice was a biker bitch or Fred, I turned on the barstool and faced the intruder, whose stumpy-necked, puffy-cheeked head resembled a ten-pound peach. “Fred, good to see you. Thanks for joining me.”

“Wouldn’t miss it. After you called yesterday, I chewed out Hank for not telling me you were coming.”

“Yeah, I believe that,” I said, not believing it.

“Then Ms. Lila—she’s my secretary—stomped through my office in a huff and pulled this file”—he held up a manila folder—“out of my in-box with all the letters and stuff about your summer job like I was supposed to have read it or something.”

“Good, then you’ve got files on my two college interns.”

“Well . . . yes and no. But let’s talk after we get a table. He nodded to his right and got us escorted to a quiet booth.

My entrée, a charred-rare, fire-grilled rib eye, was fork-tender. I wondered if it would be my last good steak of the summer. Fred—my longtime friend and now a potential felon—engulfed every morsel of his sausage-stuffed, two-inch-thick pork chop glazed with brown sugar and mustard, and then stared at the hole in his plate as if contemplating the big lick. I watched him, tried to think like a detective, and wondered what he might know about Hank’s investigation. Then I realized it wasn’t only Hank who was paranoid. 

Fred belched and leaned back. “How about dessert?” 

I declined and joined him for dark-roast coffee. 

While sipping his, Fred asked, “You hear about Doc Rach?”

“Don’t know him. Should I?”

“Her. Francine Rach. R-A-C-H, pronounced rock. She’s a geophysicist. You’re about to drill her well.” He hiccuped. “She got killed in a car accident on Saturday. Hank says she was by herself, went over the side of an overpass near Houston. Burned up in the wreck.”

I didn’t need the gore. “What do you mean her well?”

“I was at a board meeting some months back when she presented the geophysics for the well—the one you’re about to drill. She’s been around for years and always did a good job, but especially on this one.”

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A link? I wondered. Hank’s problem and Rach’s death? “Does the accident change anything? Delay the program?”

Another hiccup. “No. Just thought you might know her.”

“I didn’t know her, and I’m sorry she died, but let’s get back to the files on my two interns. Explain yes and no.”

Fred looked at me and puffed his already protruding cheeks. “Yes, you have interns. No, it’s not two.”

“I lost one?” I made my face droop, as if heartbroken. “What happened?”

“You didn’t lose one. You got two more.”

“Two more what?”

“Two more interns. Total four. They were here last week for safety training and are ready to go.”

I waited for the grin that did not come. “Four. Tell me you’re joking.”

“No joke,” he said, his voice a squeal. “Four interns.”

“Does Hank know this?”

“He did it. Yesterday. Two were assigned to a Main Pass platform rig, but we drilled our third dry hole and . . . ” 

Four? Crap. I had already killed intern Denny Fontenot, so I damn sure didn’t need four more. I considered tipping the table as Fred chirped away, but I wanted to keep my job. “Fred, stop. It doesn’t matter. The bottom line is, I not only have a tough well to drill”—I caught myself before broaching Hank’s secret topic—“I get to play daddy to four summer interns, who probably have nil experience.”

“Not true. One does. She’s a petroleum engineering student at Marietta College.”

Words failed me. I must have looked stunned.

“Come on, Tony. Nothing wrong with Marietta.”

“She? Four greenhorns and one’s a she?” 

“No. Two are women.”

I did the math. Two women. Two men. Four total. Hah. And all I had to do was keep them alive. I looked at my half-full coffee cup and my bone-dry tumbler and for a few seconds considered blessing the latter with another double shot.

“Fred, just tell me about them,” I said. “All four.”

Later, fully up to speed on my young charges, I tried to force a laugh, but my face throbbed with conflicting emotions. I didn’t want to talk about interns. 

“Do I get this?” I asked, raising the folder. 

“It’s yours,” Fred said. “I have the originals.”

“Hank says we’re using a big Rowan jackup, the Bob Palmer. And tell me about the well.” 

“Yep. The biggest of the big. And we need it—the location’s in about 450 feet of water.” Fred was in his element—rigs, water, wells. “You’ll be drilling on East Cameron Block 378. It’s rank exploration, with most of the acreage, including the target, under the ship channel. And that means the well will be deep, directional, S-shaped.”

“How deep?” I asked. 

“Twelve thousand feet subsea, with measured depth just under twenty thousand.”

“Hell of a well. You expect me to finish it?”

“Maybe, but I doubt it. Prognosis says 110 days, but there’s very little contingency time included for trouble.” 

I rummaged in the folder. “There’s no well program.”

“Sorry. There’s one on the rig, unless you want to stop by the office tonight and get a copy.”

“No way. I’m fading. Two more topics. First, tight-hole status.” 

“It’s tight,” Fred said. “Really tight. Too many open blocks around us, and we don’t want a bidding war.”

“Works for me. Second topic, morning reports.”

“You can send your reports online,” he said, “but I still like the personal touch.”

“What time?” 

“I’ll call between six fifteen and six thirty. If you’re tied up, have one of the interns give me the verbal report, or at least tell me it’s been sent.”

We shook hands in the parking lot, and I predicted I wouldn’t see Fred again until late August, if then.

From my room, I called Marie, my wife of twenty-six years. She had accepted an invitation to spend much of the summer in Oklahoma City with our daughter, Patti, and her husband, Jordan, and their energetic two-year-old twin sons, Grip and Rip.

“You sound tired,” she said.

“Long day at the wheel. “

“Tell me about your interns.” She knew I’d been assigned two. 

“I’ve got four. Two men. Two women.”

A long beat of silence. “I’m sorry, Tony. Four is a lot, but I know you’ll make it work. You OK?”

“I’ll be fine as soon as I get to the rig and meet them. See what they’ve got. Until then, they’re just names.”

“You know anything about them, like where they go to school? Where they’re from?”

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“That, yes.” I looked at my few notes. “Charles, Chuck, Bridgestone’s a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Rice. Jill Hamilton—a touchy feely writer—is working on dual degrees in sociology and journalism at Kansas State. Evan St. James is an environmentalist from Northland College, located in some Podunk town in northern Wisconsin. And my saving grace, Paula Freitag, is a young petroleum engineer from Marietta College.”

“Sounds like a nice mix.”

“Yeah, if you’re looking for a debate team.” 

“Be nice, Tony; I’m on your side. When do they go to the rig?”

“They’re supposed to be geared up and in Cameron tomorrow morning for the first boat run. Same one I’m on.” Fred had told me about issuing them steel-toe boots, hard hats, and coveralls with nametags. He’d sounded like a used-car salesman listing seat-cover options. “And that means I better get some sleep.”

“I already miss you. Call me when you can talk.”

“I will. Give the family hugs for me.”

Her “I love you” was in unison with mine. I set my clock to wake me, turned on the television, and fell asleep waiting for the ten o’clock news.

The rogue wave reached critical height, rolled across the boat’s deck, and consumed everything in its path, including my warning scream to the terrified young man who had but seconds—

My dream scream failed to awaken me, but the 3:00 a.m. blare of the alarm saved me from once again having to watch Denny Fontenot die. I sat up, found and punched the snooze button, and wilted back under the sheet.

Eyes open, room dark, I was pissed that Denny—my nightmare nemesis—had followed me to Lafayette. I wanted my extra five-minute doze, but memories of his violent and watery death ricocheted inside my skull and . . .

The alarm buzzed a second time and blasted Denny from my head and me out of bed. I didn’t look forward to driving two hours to Cameron, whether via interstate to Lake Charles then south, or along bayou-country back roads all the way, but if I missed my boat ride to the rig, I’d lose half a day. I flipped on the bathroom light, and the mirror reflected an ugly sight—me, disheveled beyond repair.

I turned on the shower and wallowed in its heat. More than once in the past two years, I’d thought of Denny while soaking in the shower, the only place I could allow my emotions to run free. But not this morning, I thought, my head filled with visions of Marie, her smile, her body, her coffee—none of which I would share for the next hundred days. Me? I’d be dealing with my summer job and whatever challenges awaited me: deep well, interns I didn’t want, Hank Gormann’s conspiracy.

Hah, I thought. Driller. Dorm Dad. Detective.   

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Interview with author J.A. Turley

Rising Sun