A Texas Christmas Mystery
A lady Coastguardsman searches for a killer. An oil rig troubleshooter accused of murder races to clear his name. The murderer strives to silence them both. As Amber Meredith seeks to arrest Derrick Darbonne, sparks fly. She needs to solve her first case. But the handsome Cajun suspect makes her heart race and her toes tingle. Derrick has worked all his life for his high-paying, adventurous job. When his past threatens his future, will he endanger the woman he loves?
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. ~ Mark 11:24
Only one thing scared Derrick Darbonne. He had no fear of fire, hurricane, sabotage, high seas, drunken roughnecks, reckless roustabouts, brawls, or hard work. But losing the job he’d slaved all his life to obtain terrified him.
He’d worked himself up from oaks draped with Spanish moss, murky alligator-filled water, and a tiny cabin on the banks of the bayou with no running water or electricity. He’d finally gotten to where he wanted to be. And now someone was trying to pin a murder on him. Some Christmas present.
Derrick crushed the schematics he’d been scanning and jammed them into his pocket. He braced his legs wide on the steel floor of the oil rig and raised the powerful navigational binoculars. A Coast Guard cutter slashed a white wedge through the sparkling Gulf waters straight toward his oil platform.
His jaw tightened, his spine stiffened, and he swallowed.
Standing beside him, Joe Bridges, the MIC—Man in Charge—swore.
If Derrick had been a swearing man, he would have joined Joe. Instead, he gripped the navigational binoculars tighter. “Third time this week. If I had anything to hide, I’d jump ship.” He smacked his hard hat so thoroughly his ears rang. “Thought so! That guardsman is a female.” Here was a Coastie bearing down on him with the authority to shut down the operation. The men would be out of work just in time for Christmas. What pretense to investigate the murder was the Coast Guard using this time?
Derrick lowered the binoculars and frowned. “She looks familiar.”
“Ever since you arrived for the routine inspection, Cajun, the Coast Guard’s been on our backs.” Scowling, Joe thrust out a hand for the glasses. “Then there was the murder. That’s the reason the big boss’s keeping you out here again, so long.”
“Don’t I know it! I’m looking for a murderer and a saboteur. Probably the same guy.” Derrick slapped the binoculars into Joe’s hand and tried to lighten his foreboding with a jabbing tease. “Now I’ve got to get the Coast Guard environmental crew out of your hair.”
“Rib me, will ya?” Joe repositioned his yellow hard hat over his bald head and shook a work-hardened finger. “I’ll bet you I can get that Coastie to go for me and my shiny head before she goes for you and that Cajun accent of yours. Loser pays a hundred bucks.”
“You want us to distract her with our masculine charm so she won’t sniff out any violations that could shut us down?” Derrick surveyed the rig’s two-hundred-foot deck looking for any OSHA or EPA trouble the Coast Guard might use to give a citation. Sunlight slanted off the metal plates causing enough glare to hurt his eyes. He didn’t like Joe’s plan.
“You got it.” Joe grinned.
Derrick gave a tight smile. He slid his gaze to the roughneck inside the glass-enclosed room, jiggling the joy sticks and pushing the buttons that worked the rig’s floor. The big man hooking a new drill in place beneath the five-hundred-foot drilling tower wore his safety equipment. No problem there.
Derrick flicked his gaze over the new hire, the eighteen-year-old from Galveston. The kid’s long blond hair straggled from beneath his yellow hard hat. He was bent over washing sludge and mineral oil through sand to clean out the last drop of hydrocarbon before reusing the sand. Kid was a hard worker, already adept at his job. No laws broken. No environmental procedures shortcut.
The rest of the roughnecks and roustabouts worked steadily. None violated safety measures. No oil spills or pipe breaks had occurred. The hole drilled through the sea bottom was clean and not yet exceptionally deep. They should hit oil soon. Joe Bridges had a salty vocabulary, but the boss man ran a tight rig. So why suddenly all the anonymous phone calls about regulation problems? Had to be the murder.
Derrick needed to come up with answers.
“Alamo Oil pays you a hefty salary to make sure things run smooth on all two hundred of its rigs.” Joe’s voice sounded more than a little jealous.
“Don’t I know it.” Derrick ran a hand over the stubble already growing after his close morning shave.
“Alamo doesn’t want to fork out any stiff fines or lose any drill time because of environmental pollution, safety violations, mismanagement, or accidents. So make sure that Coastie’s distracted.” Joe winked. “And don’t mention the murder. We’ve trampled that ground too many times with the Coast Guard already.”
“Right.” Derrick rubbed the back of his neck. An uneasy feeling kept nagging him about the murder. Nothing he could put a handle to, but—too many clues led directly to him. Once the Coast Guard put the puzzle together, they’d come looking for him. He grunted. How had his personal helmet wound up grasped in the dead kid’s hand?
Joe swore loud enough that the crew cleaning sand looked up. He lowered his voice. “That Coastie’s gonna cause trouble. I feel it in my bones.” His eyes, shadowed under his hard hat, looked wary. “We gotta keep her thinking about us, not her job.” He handed the binoculars back.
Derrick frowned. “I think you’re just hard up for a date. You want a girlfriend to share Christmas with.”
As the Coast Guard cutter pulled alongside their offshore rig, Derrick focused the binoculars on the trim figure in her blue uniform. He’d not seen many women in the Guard, and none that looked so curvy…wow, hotter than a Louisiana mudbug boil. He loved that spicy crawfish dish. Dread inside his gut heightened. Sweat beaded his forehead. He got tongue-tied around women. “This can’t be good!”
“Yeah. The broad’s probably a—”
“It’s Amber Meredith!” Derrick fumbled the expensive binoculars, made a grab for them, and caught them just before they hit the deck.
“You know her? Not fair. Since you know her, you pay me two hundred bucks if I win.” Joe thrust out his hand. “Toss me those binoculars before you break them.”
“She’s my landlady.” Derrick mentally rolled his eyes at the MIC’s ridiculous betting.
“Your landlady’s a Coastie?”
“Yeah. Crazy, eh?” More sweat broke out between Derrick’s shoulder blades and ran down his spine, wetting his flame retardant work shirt. His legs felt shaky so he leaned his hip on the inside rail that protected the perimeter of the huge drill. “So that’s where Amber’s been. She left for college but never said a word about the Coast Guard Academy.”
“Probably didn’t want to scare you. You’re not going to chicken-out on this bet. You owe me two hundred smackers if I get her phone number and you don’t get a date.”
“No way. I don’t bet about women.” Derrick worked up a weak smile.
“You big lummox. You’re scared of a woman Coastie. She’s got you shaking in your work boots.” Joe’s grin spread from ear to ear. “Never thought I’d see you scared of anything.”
Derrick crossed one ankle over the other, and erased all emotion from his face. “You got me wrong, man.”
“Yeah?” Joe winked. “Prove it by getting that date. I’m breaking for lunch.” He hung the binoculars strap around his neck, turned and walked toward the stairway that led down into the interior of the rig. “But if I get her number and you don’t score a date, you owe me two hundred smackers.”
“No bet.” Derrick made his voice stern, but Joe just grinned and shook his head. Derrick sighed. Now, he was forced into getting a dinner date. If he didn’t, Joe would spread the word that he was a cheyrette. And he was no wimp. On an oil rig, to do his job properly he needed to be tough and respected. Derrick stepped away from the huge drill, now back in full operation, grinding its noisy way into the sea bottom. He leaned over the railing to look two hundred feet down at the cutter throwing out her anchor just off the rig’s port side. Two guardsmen lowered a launch. The trim Coastie, sun glinting on dark blond hair peeking from beneath a peaked blue hat, stepped down into the small boat. Another Guardsman followed. A burly man.
From where Derrick stood, the launch’s outboard motor sounded like a child’s toy. The small boat drove directly to the rig’s sea-level elevator that rose through all five stories to the top deck.
The clanging elevator gears shuddered into action. Derrick whipped out his handkerchief, pushed back his hard hat, and swiped his forehead and neck. Bad as his day started, it was falling fast into a disaster nosedive. After Danny’s murder, cops and guardsmen swarmed the rig all week, getting tangled in the Christmas decorations. Then they’d had two days’ peace. So now why, after the initial investigation into the murder, did the authorities send two more Coasties? He arrived at the elevator just as the doors shrieked open. Derrick braced his legs and steeled himself.
What else had the Coast Guard dug up that tied him to the murder? Were enemies from his past catching up to him?