BLACK OIL, RED BLOOD: A Legal Thriller
PrologueI didn’t even know how to use a gun before yesterday, and I certainly hadn’t become a crack shot overnight. That didn’t bode well for my chances of survival at the moment —especially since I was currently staring down the wrong end of somebody else’s barrel. What was I supposed to do? Duck? Shoot first? Run? Maybe the decision would have been easier if I hadn't loved the guy pointing the gun at me. I watched his trigger finger tense as the smoky, toxic air around us seemed to grow even thicker. Walls shook and the floor rolled beneath me as an explosion thundered through the building. The PetroPlex flagship oil refinery was fast on its way to becoming nothing but a memory. The doorframe buckled before my eyes—my only means of escape. Sharp orange tongues of flame lapped at me from above, sending down a rain of fiery particles as acoustic ceiling tiles disintegrated overhead. That’s when I knew that gun or no gun, I was going to die.
CHAPTER 1The thing about cancer is it's hard to prove somebody gave it to you on purpose, but I can prove it. In fact, I make a living proving it. I sue oil refineries that would rather save a buck than comply with safety regulations designed to do important things like, you know, keep people alive. It’s not unusual for my clients to pass away in the middle of a case, but I’d never had an expert witness turn up dead until today. My favorite client, Gracie Miller, hurried toward me as I walked up the stairs to the courthouse. I had hoped to put off talking to her until after I’d spoken to the judge. Her untamed gray hair spiraled out of a would-be bun, curls going in a million different directions. “Chloe!” she said. “Is it true? Say it ain’t true!” She didn’t wait for me to answer. “I didn’t believe it at first,” Gracie said, “because I heard it from crazy Mrs. Bagley, and everybody knows she ought to be in a home already. But then I called Mrs. Scott, and sure enough, her husband is out at the crime scene with all the other police, and oh! I’ve lived here for forty years and we ain’t never had a murder!” That seemed like a pretty big stretch to me, seeing as how we lived in Kettle, Texas, human population: four-thousand; gun population: thirty-four-thousand-three-hundred-fifty six. With all those guns around, there had to have been an incident at some point in the last forty years. I took Gracie’s arm. She was not going to like hearing that yes, Dr. Schaeffer—her expert witness and the key to winning her case—was indeed dead. He had been scheduled to present critical evidence at a make or break summary judgment hearing twenty-four hours from now. A loss tomorrow would mean the end of our case. Gracie searched my face and saw the truth before I said a word. “Oh Lord, a’mighty! What are we gonna do?” she said. I had a plan, but it was kind of a desperate one—and Gracie didn’t need to know about it, now or ever. I smiled encouragingly at her as I carefully omitted the truth. “I’m about to ask Judge Delmont for a continuance. If he says yes, we’ll have enough extra time to find a new witness.” “Sweet Jesus, Mary, and George W. Bush! Gracie said. “You know perfectly well he ain’t gonna agree to that! Ever since Derrick died, it’s been real lean times. I’m probably gonna lose my house. And I ain’t got all his medical bills paid yet, neither.” Her lip trembled and one big tear welled up and left a streak on her face before it fell to the ground. Gracie’s husband, Derrick Miller, died only a month ago from a rare form of leukemia caused by exposure to a toxic chemical called benzene. Derrick had worked his whole adult life in the benzene unit of the PetroPlex oil refinery situated in the middle of town. PetroPlex never provided Derrick with safety equipment and also never warned Derrick that benzene would kill him. I was now representing the Millers in a wrongful death suit against the Big Oil industry giant, and tomorrow’s hearing would have been a slam-dunk win if somebody hadn’t offed our expert witness. “You think it was just a coincidence?” Gracie asked. “Him turning up dead like that the day before our hearing?” Of course I didn’t think it was a coincidence. The whole situation reeked. If your expert witness dies of a heart attack while surfing in Aruba, that’s life. If he’s murdered the day before he’s set to testify at a hearing that can make or break a case, that’s friggin’ suspicious. But I didn’t see any sense in getting Gracie more worked up than she already was. “One thing at a time,” I said. Let me go in there and get the judge to move the hearing date back, and we’ll worry about the rest later.” Like it was going to be that easy. Gracie nodded. “If anybody can do it, you can. I gotta get back to my cake. I left it in the oven, and the pastor’s wife gets real snarky when I bake ‘em too long. That woman hates a dry cake. It beats all I ever seen.” “Your cakes are always perfect,” I said. Gracie beamed. “I got another one mixing up just for you. Strawberry with cream cheese icing—your favorite. You come on by this afternoon and get you a slice, you hear?” My mouth watered just thinking about it. “That sounds great,” I said, omitting no truth there. I waved goodbye and hurried into the courthouse.
#Judge Delmont was waiting for me in chambers. When I walked in, he had his arms folded across his chest and a look on his face he reserved for. . . well, me. He didn’t like me too much. I was lucky he’d even agreed to an emergency ex parte conference. Here went nothing. I mentally willed myself into super-lawyer mode. We exchanged greetings, and I pulled a motion for continuance out of my briefcase and slid it across his desk. He took a cursory look at it and laid it back down. “Look,” he said. “I’d like to help you out, but it ain’t my fault your expert’s dead.” “Not dead,” I said. “Murdered. There’s a difference.” Delmont shrugged. “What do you expect me to do about it? I ain’t Jesus. I can’t resurrect him.” “I just need time to regroup,” I said, pulling some more papers out of my briefcase and sliding them over to the judge. “I already drafted the order for you. All I need is your signature—no miracles required.” Delmont shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “If you had any evidence to support your claim—“ “I have it. I just need an expert witness to present it, but I can’t find a replacement for Dr. Schaeffer by tomorrow morning.” “Well,” Delmont said, “If you can get opposing counsel to agree to the extra time, I’ll consider the motion.” Uh, right. “Buford Buchanan is conveniently out of town, and he is not answering his phone. Besides, you and I both know better than to expect that he would voluntarily agree to something so reasonable.” Delmont pulled a cigar out of the humidor on his desk and took a long whiff. “Smells good, don’t it?” He offered it to me. The gesture felt like an executioner handing a condemned prisoner his last cigarette before facing the firing squad. I shook my head. “I trust your judgment.” “On the cigar. Just not the case.” This conversation wasn’t going as well as I’d hoped, and that was saying something, considering I hadn’t hoped for much at all. Everybody around here knew darn well the judge in this town had oil stains on his hands. I sighed. “I’d like to hear your reasoning as to why you think a continuance wouldn’t be appropriate in this situation.” Delmont leaned back in his chair and propped his custom-made snakeskin boots on his desk, which was decorated with a humidor, an ash tray (full), a cactus, and a jackalope head. No pictures of wife or family. “The case has been on the docket for well over a year. Besides that, I got too many cases against PetroPlex floating around here already.” “And that ought to tell you something about the kind of business they’re running around here,” I said. PetroPlex is notorious for flouting safety violations and dumping known carcinogens into the air and water. The EPA has been after them for years, but they don’t care. It’s cheaper to pay the fines than comply with regulations. “It ain’t their fault there’s lawyers like you slinking around trying to sue ‘em out of existence. They employ more than half the people who live here. If they leave, Kettle dies.” “If they don’t clean up their act, Kettle dies anyway.” Delmont rolled his eyes. Almost nothing makes me madder than an eye roll from a good ol’ boy. I mentally pulled up my “big girl” panties, leaned over his desk and delivered my most intense “I-am-a-damn-good-lawyer-and-you-will-listen-to-me” glare. “Look,” I said. “Maybe you think cancer is something that happens to other people. Maybe you think you put on a pink ribbon once a year and you’ve done your part to fight the disease. But if you’ve seen cancer—really seen it—you know that all the pink ribbons in the world just aren’t enough.” Delmont pulled out a match and lit the cigar he’d been holding. Clearly he wasn’t concerned about cancer in the least. “You finished, Miss Taylor?” I lapsed into a coughing fit as I waved the cigar smoke out of my face. “You know PetroPlex is dangerous,” I said. “Even if you forget the cancer, how about the explosions? How about the toxic clouds?” “You got an explosion in this case you wanna talk about?” “Not in this one, but—“ “Stick to this case, why don’t ya?” I squared my shoulders and relaxed my glare—but only by a little bit. There was no way I was going to let this stuffed shirt redneck pawn intimidate me into backing down. There was too much riding on tomorrow’s hearing to just roll over on it. Not only would Gracie wind up in a world of hurt if we didn’t come out on top of this, but I would probably also lose my job. I’d had a pretty nasty string of highly questionable losses in this courtroom under this judge for more than a year now, which was fast destroying my reputation as a good lawyer. . . not to mention depleting my bank account. Wrongful death attorneys don’t get paid if they don’t win, and I’d been eating nothing but Ramen for weeks. Meanwhile, I was pretty sure Judge Delmont was living fat and happy off the scraps PetroPlex passed him under the table, but I couldn’t prove it. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s cut to the chase, here. I’m gonna stop pretending like I expect you to be reasonable. So if you wanna stop pretending like anything I have to say matters to you, that’ll be just fine with me.” Delmont shrugged. “What are my chances of getting you to sign a continuance?” “I’d say ‘slim to none,’ but I’d hate to give you any false hope.” I took a deep breath. What I was about to do was likely to land me in serious trouble if it didn’t come off right. On the other hand, Delmont really didn’t leave me any other choice. I reached down to my briefcase and lifted out a manila envelope. Slid it slowly across his desk. Delmont rested his cigar in his ash tray and pulled the envelope toward him. He cracked open the flap and pulled out a series of glossy eight by tens. As he looked at the photos, the lines in his face seemed to deepen. “You really don’t look good naked,” I said. “And I wonder what your wife would think if she saw you with that blonde?” I leaned forward conspiratorially. “There’s no way those boobs are real, right?” Delmont shoved the pictures back in the envelope, grabbed his potted cactus, and threw it at me. I’d been expecting something like that, so I ducked and the cactus smashed against the wall behind me. My heart felt like a jackhammer inside me. I prayed Delmont couldn’t actually see it pumping. If I showed just one sign of weakness, this whole thing would backfire for sure. Delmont put his hands on the desk and leaned over it, getting right in my face. “You think this is a game, Chloe?” He spoke slowly, softly. “I most certainly do not,” I said. “The question is, do you?” “I could have you disbarred for this. Throw you in jail.” “But you won’t.” I tried to put as much meaning behind those words as possible. Delmont pulled back abruptly. “Where did you get those?” I had gotten them from Miles, my fabulous paralegal. Where he’d gotten them I didn’t know. Frankly, I had been kind of afraid to ask. “It doesn’t matter where they came from,” I said. “What matters is the continuance. I expect to see the order signed and filed by eight a.m. tomorrow morning.” “Or what?” Delmont asked. “I think you know what.” Delmont got up from his desk and paced back and forth across his bearskin rug, his fat rolls jiggling with each heavy step. When he turned his back on me, I could almost see his life-sized portrait of Robert E. Lee reflecting off the fresh perspiration on his bald head. I waited. The courthouse was quiet today. It seemed as though the loudest sound in the room was the sound of my own heartbeat. “Fine,” he finally said. Joy welled up inside me, but I didn’t allow it to show. “But you only get a week.” And just like that, the joy was gone. “A week! That is a joke! I need six months!” “You get a week, or I will call your bluff and report you to the bar.” “What makes you think I’m bluffing?” “What makes you think I give two pig farts about keeping my wife?” My jaw dropped open against my will. Seeing as how this was my first attempt at blackmail, I was kind of at a loss. I had never considered the fact that he might not even want to keep his wife. “Get out,” Delmont said. “And pray to God the next time you stand in front of me you got a jury on your side.” I gathered my things together and stood. “A week,” Delmont said. “I don’t care what else you’ve got up that sleeve of yours, that’s all you get. That’s the extent of my patience. Got it?” I tapped the photographs on the desk with my index finger. “I’ll just leave these here for you to think about. I’ve got my own set.” I didn’t wait for Delmont to reply. I just walked out. I was so distracted as I walked down the concrete stairs of the courthouse and into the town square that I stepped wrong and broke the heel off one of my Louboutin shoes. I tumbled down the steps, my briefcase popped open, and my papers scattered all over the town square. I cursed at the shoe. The Louboutins were a relic of better times—the times when I’d actually had no trouble winning cases. The times when the deck wasn’t completely stacked against me. Even if I could find a replacement expert in a week (which was highly unlikely), all of Dr. Schaeffer’s evidence and files were locked away in his house behind a whole lot of crime scene tape. We only had one set because my boss was too cheap to foot the Xerox bill. If I couldn’t convince the police to let me in and get those files, I’d just blackmailed the judge and put myself in jeopardy for nothing.