Authors: Lee Mims
Tags: #fiction, #mystery, #soft-boiled, #murder, #soft boiled, #humor, #regional, #geologist, #geology, #North Carolina, #Cleo Cooper, #greedy, #family, #family member, #fracking
Saving Cecil: A Cleo Cooper Mystery
Â© 2015 by Lee Mims.
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First e-book edition Â© 2015
E-book ISBN: 9780738743929
Cover design by Ellen Lawson
Cover illustration by Ken Joudrey
Map by Bob Murray
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This book is dedicated to the memory of Ron Lowery.
He was a computer tamer extraordinaire and a fine friend.
You are gone too soon.
“Why has not anyone seen that fossils alone gave birth to a theory about the formation of the earth, that without them, no one would have ever dreamed that there were successive epochs in the formation of the globe.”
Discours Aur Les Rvolutions Du Globe, Tudes Sur L'Ibis Et Mmoire Sur La Vnus Hottentote
“Amidst the vicissitudes of the earth's surface, species cannot be immortal, but must perish, one after another, like the individuals which compose them. There is no possibility of escaping from this conclusion.”
â Charles Lyell,
Principles of Geology
“It was during my enchanted days of travel that the idea came to me, which, through the years, has come into my thoughts again and again and always happilyâthe idea that geology is the music of the earth.”
Conversation with the Earth
You know how it
feels when you think someone or something is watching you? Well, I can tell you the creep factor goes
up when the latter is suspec
ted. It was a Wednesday, October 2nd to be exact, and a gorgeous fall day. I was in my favorite place on the planetâthat being anywhere in the woods of North Carolina. The leaves were starting to turn. The air was nippy and tinged with the faint hint of wood smoke. Normally, I'd have reveled in this pleasant assault on my senses, but instead I was distracted by another sense â¦ that sixth sense that alerts us to unseen dangers. Some call it ESP. I call it the jitt
Whatever it was, the snap of a twig here, the crackle of a dry leaf there, had me on edge. Occasionally I'd stop and listen, but nothing ever revealed itself. I was trying to quell my unease, chalk it up to too much caffeine, when I detected the scent of something other than wood smoke, something deeply rooted in my memory bank.
I stopped again and sniffed the air.
The scent proved to be as frustratingly elusive as the phantom sounds. Still, I stared intently into the deep woods for a few moments. Then, deciding I needed to put a check on my imagination, I reached into the back pocket of my jeans for a freshly printed
satellite photoâthank you, Google Earthâof the immense family-
owned dairy farm I was currently trekking.
My hope was that the old game trail I'd stumbled upon would be a shortcut to the forty-acre pasture where I'd parked my Jeep earlier this morning. I'd already accomplished my mission of flagging a second drill site. Shouldn't be much farther now. I refolded my map, jammed it back in my pocket, and moved on.
After a while, I came to a clearing where an ancient oak spread its low-hanging branches, creating even deeper shade than already existed in the old-growth woods. Mossy undergrowth muffled my steps. My wariness momentarily waned as autumn sunlight, filtering through the dense hardwood and pine canopy above, danced in brilliant patches at my feet. Just then, another rustle, this time to my left, brought me up short again.
And the smell had returned. What was it?
As I tilted my head, trying to pick up even the slightest sound, the abrupt jangle of my iPhoneâprogrammed with the old phone ringâsent me straight up off the ground. Fumbling it like a hot potato, I managed to answer without dropping it.
“Babe,” my ex-husband, Franklin Donovan Cooper IV, chirped on the other end.
“Hi Bud,” I answered,
using his nickname from birth, the one that everyone who knew him used if they expected a response. “What's up?” I eyed my surroundings warily as I talked.
“I just got all warm and fuzzy thinking about last night and wondered when you're coming home. I thought I'd make you some of my famous clam chowder. We've got several bags of chopped clams in the freezer.”
Now, Bud never makes me his clam chowder, being the rather arduous process it is, unless he wants something. Of course, I knew what he wanted and decided to save him the trouble. “By âhome,' I take it you're referring to my house,” I said, peering around the mighty oak before I leaned against it. “Which, in turn, means you're still there and apparently planning to spend another night.”
Bud sighed. “If you're trying to imitate a shrew, you're doing an admirable job. Play nice. I'm simply suggesting that we actually go over some of the wedding arrangements that are being made for you because you're too â¦ busy to take part â¦ ”
“Hey!” I butted in. “I helped with the hard part, picking the actual date.”
“Yes,” Bud said patiently. “And we've both pencil-whipped our calendars until we could set aside a whole month for that honeymoon we never had.”
I closed my eyes as Technicolor images of Bora Bora floated before them.
Bud continued, “A cozy bowl of chowder, some of your jalapeÃ±o cornbread, a little coleslaw, and we'll both feel â¦ fortified â¦ to take on the task. It won't be hard, I promise. And, if you'd take the time to meet the wedding planner I hired, I'm sure you'd like her. She's handled all types of affairs from big corporate events with a thousand people or more to small intimate weddings with only a few hundred people.”
Bora Bora evaporated. My eyes blinked open. “What?” I squawked. “Bu
d! How many people have you invited?”
“Well, I've got a large corporate family, you know. Then there's all our friends and family, plus all the people you do business with. The kids and I have kept it down to around five hundred â¦ ”
“Are you insane?” I screeched. I could hear him sputtering something as I tapped the phone off, dropped it into my windbreaker pocket, and turned to stare square into the face of a very large wild boar.
I froze. The blood-curdling shriek that had formed in my chest hung up at my lips and my feet were stuck to the ground. When the massive beast backed up a few steps, squinted his beady little eyes at me and clattered his tusks, my mobility instantly returned. Whipping around the massive oak, I took the only escape route available at the time, a low-hanging branch. I leaped, wrapped my arms around it, and swung up just as the boar skidded to a stop under me.
From my inve
rted position, I not only realized the source of the illusory musky odor, but two other things as well: an upside-down boar doesn't look any friendlier, and, this hog was
larger than any I'd ever seen, and I'd been to several pig pickins where wild boar was featured. Not only was this guy a plus-size shopper, he was also a fast learner. He quickly walked his front feet up the trunk and tried to hook me with his deadly tusks, barely missing my butt.
My buttâbeing one of my better featuresâis very dear to me, so, hand over hand, legs crossed at the ankles, I scooted up the limb as fast as I could. Many years spent in the field has kept me in great shape. I was quickly gaining altitude. “Ha!” I shouted triumphantly down to the vile creature.
Then the limb began to droop.
Porkulus, realizing this, abandoned his position at the trunk and returned to stand under me, drooling with anticipation. Only now, his jaw smacking was creating a frothy foam. Wonderful! Had I known when I left home that I'd be served up like an hors d'oeuvres on a toothpick to an angry member of the porcine tribe, I'd have stayed home.
Accompanied by tiny cracking noises, the branch swayed down another few inches and, great shape or not, my biceps were beginning to fatigue. I needed another plan. My cookies!
With one elbow hooked over the limb, I reached into my other back pocket and found the packet of Nekots I'd placed there before leaving my Jeep. “Hey, fatso! Want a cookie?” I tossed the pack to the ground at Porky's feet.
He never even looked down, just stomped right on my mid-morn
ing snack. To add insult, he ground it into the dirt, pawing like an Spanish bull. Rude noises erupted from somewhereâI didn't want to think whereâas he leaped and lunged at me. I hugged the
“Have you thought of Weight Watchers,” I called down to himâhumor often lessens fearâwhile struggling to roll up on top of the limb instead of hanging under it. Hogzilla's response: a frightened little squeal. I looked down just in time to see him hauling freight up the path, tail pointed straight in the air.
Who knew hogs were so sensitive? The small modicum of relief I felt upon witnessing his retreat gave me strength, and I managed to pull myself over the limb and straddle it. I scooted back against the trunk. When my heart rate returned to normal and I was sure Elvis had indeed left the building, I carefully stood up on the branch. Hugging its trunk cautiously, I peered to either side of it, wondering if the clever boar was just waiting down the path for me, hiding in the thick underbrush.
Why was he so big? He'd probably tip the scales at 450 pounds. Typically, wild boars average around 200 pounds. And, not discounting my fat joke, why had he run off like that? I peered through the limbs and leaves for a hunter who might have frightened him, but saw no one. Thinking more height would help, I hauled myself astride another larger branch higher above me. This, however, proved to be a waste of time and energy. The foliage was even denser up here. Then I thought I heard something.
I stopped scrambling about in the branches and listened.
Only birdsong and the whine of a far-away chain saw met my ears. I returned to the limb below and thought of my next move. Did I climb down and risk another encounter with the boar? I thought not. With balled-up fists, I gave my head little faux punches and exclaimed aloud, “Damn, damn, double damn!” Why hadn't I strapped on my Beretta this morning?
I knew better than to enter woods, no matter how small, without protection, but hell, I was practically in the suburbs. I was little more than 15 miles from downtown Sanford, the Lee County seat. To be precise, I was in a small fifty-acre patch of woods, one of many scattered about as windbreaks, separating the rolling pastures of the Lauderbach Dairy Farm.
I'm a geologist, educated at UNC in Chapel Hill, trained in the field for many years, working for several private companies in various geologic capacities. Presently, I own my own geologic consulting business. Actually I am the business, but lately I've been putting some serious thought into hiring someone to do the leg work â¦ especially on days like today. So far, though, I haven't found the time or, honestly, the inclination to start a search.
Anyway, the Lauderbachs had contracted an energy company, Greenlite Energy out of Pennsylvania, to find gas on their farm. As is customary for operators, Greenlite hired an independent wellsite geologist, me, to work with Schmid & Medlin, the contractor they hired to do the actual drilling of the well.
Lauderbach Dairy Farm comprises over 2,200 acres of gently rolling pastures and primitive woodlands situated on a sweeping outside bend of the Deep River. Two small towns, Gulf and Cumnock, are only a few miles away. Once beyond the boundaries of the farm, it was impossible to go very far in any direction before encountering an isolated house, a small farm or, for that matter, another drilling operation. I blew out a frustrated breath. That was no excuse, I should have worn a sidearm.
What an easy shot that would have been. Right between the eyes, and it would have been lights out for Porky Pig. Besides being a solid guarantee that he wouldn't charge me again, he'd have made a tasty donation to one of the many charities in the state that process game for the needy. Still, there was one bright spot. Good old fate had intervened and I hadn't brought Tulip with me.
She's a deerhound that found me in the far reaches of a pine plantation one day while I was prospecting for granite and she was looking for her owner. She'd adopted me on the spot and has been my trusty field buddy ever since. Feral hogs can make short work of hunting dogs. Thankfully, she was at the vet's, getting her annual checkup.
Just thinking of her made my heart rate slow and my frazzled nerves even out. Tense shoulder muscles relaxed. I closed my eyes, listened to the woodland sounds, and tried to convince myself of the prudence of waiting a little longer. But I didn't like being treed. It gave me too much time to pontificate on marrying Bud again, which brought back memories of how we happened to get married in the first place. Memories made me â¦ well, anxious. To my mind, I was more than justified in feeling this way. After all, I'd been here before, both physically and metaphorically.
Physically, I'd been in this very location. In a geological sense, that is. It was 26 years ago and I was right here in the Sanford sub-basin doing the same thing I am now, working for an exploration company engaged in drilling for natural gas. Only back then, the wells weren't production wells like they are today. Back then, we were drilling the first-ever exploration wells in the area. Without a doubt I can say that was the lowest point of my life.
Metaphorically, I was under enormous pressure to marry Bud Cooper just like I am now. Again, the lowest point of my life. The only difference: back then Bud wasn't acting like a wedding planner on steroids. I got a shudder just thinking of crowded ballrooms in a stuffy hotel, champagne flowing, drunken friends, giggling children, and the cloying smell of wilting flowers.
Okay, enough of that!
Throwing caution to the wind, I swung to the ground and resumed my hike to the drill rig. Wild boar or no wild boar, I was outta here!
Once on the ground, I quickened my pace to a brisk clip. I still needed to introduce myself to the LauderbachsâI'd be their liaison with Schmid & Medlin. I'd already met the drill crew when I arrived this morning and they seemed like a nice bunch of guys. But then I've never met a drill crew that wasn't. They'd been here for over a month already, doing site preparation and taking care of the myriad of things that must be done before I'm needed.
Besides site prep, which included digging and lining the pits that would hold drilling mud, fracking fluid and flow-back water, they'd also dug the cellar for the well and installed the conductor pipe. One of their new generation of flex-rigs had been brought in and was now completely set up. The surface hole had been dug and the casing cemented. This was the stage where precautions were taken to prevent contamination of the ground water, generally located in the Sanford area about 200 feet down.
The drill team had drilled past the water table, inserted surface casing, pumped cement down the well until it came out the end of the casing and was forced back up between the casing and the well to the surface, thus sealing off the water table. Then the casing head, and the BOP, blowout preventer, had been installed and tested and now vertical drilling was underway.
They were cutting through surficial deposits of recent age, which wouldn't require any sampling, so I wasn't really needed on site. Once we reached the Sanford Formation, the formation overlying our target, I'd get back on site and earn my keep. I had scheduled at least three more weeks to complete this well. My plan for the rest of the day, once I spoke to the Lauderbachs, was to leave here so I could prepare to wrap up some loose ends on old projects. In particular, one in DC.