Drill Baby Drill
By Jim Fruit
By the side of Rural Route Nine, two men in cheap suits crouched in a ditch. The shorter man pulled a cigarette from the pack labeled Goldenhawk Hi-Tar, and lit it in a cupped hand. He took a few puffs, and then held the tip to a crawfish hole. With a whoosh, a six-foot belch of yellow flame rocketed past his fingertips, and his startled partner fell backward on his ass.
“You dick hole!” the bald man on the ground croaked in a sick voice. “We could have both gone up there, Mason! And my slacks!” His black mustache curled in a grimace of disgust.
The short man was laughing. “Shut up and look between your feet, Trevor.” Mason pointed. Between Trevor’s boots, a low blue flame ghosted along the surface of the mud.
“My god,” Trevor wheezed, helping himself to his feet. “If this site is experiencing surface venting of this composition…” He smiled weakly. He still looked pale, and shaken.
“That’s right buddy. This is the real deal.” Mason stomped the flame out, and pressed the button on his keys. “Change your pants; we’ve got a heist to make.” He walked a few feet away, unzipped, and pissed right on an ant mound. Watching the tiny ants struggle and drown, he laughed. Behind him on the highway, an orange pickup truck passed slowly by.
Fifteen minutes later, their blue sedan turned off the road and through the broad cattle-gates. There had been a bigger sign out by the interstate, but here at the entrance was the original wooden one: a roaring lion beside a waterfall, rhinoceroses behind it, and in big pink letters WEBB WILDERNESS SAFARI-LAND. Many of the original neon bulbs were smashed; in the dark it would read: W_ B W_L__ES _S__I-__ND in ghostly, luminous purple.
The sedan pulled up to the white plywood booth that said TICKETS on it, and an ugly man in overalls leaned out. He looked like he had been in some sort of fiery accident, decades ago.
“Six-fiddy!” the man shouted. Mason unrolled the driver’s side window. Instantly the smell of dried animal shit filled the car. Cicadas whirred from the distant trees. The man extended a filthy hand. He wasn’t wearing a shirt. “SIX-FIH-DEE” the man shouted more slowly.
“No, damn it. Uh, we’re here to talk to the owners? About the land?” Mason said. He held up a colorful geological survey map and handed over a laminate that read: MASON BLACK PhD., CORRAL ENERGY®, VICE PRESIDENT ACQUISITIONS. He smiled, pushed his bangs out of his eyes.
“What thit mean? He expectin’ you?” The man studied the laminate. “You call?”
“No, this is an unscheduled pop-in but…we uh, have a limited time offer. There may be natural gas here. We want to make your bosses an offer. Can you please direct us to them?”
“There oil here?” the scarred man looked puzzled. “Oil here?” he repeated thickly.
“We have to discuss that with the owners.” Trevor said. “What’s your name sir?”
“I’m Paul!” the man said. “But th’ owners Misser Webb. He up at the house. G’won in, take the lef’ road, n’ go all the way up and don’ turn. I’ll let him know you comin’ up.” He handed Mason’s credentials back, and grinned at them with a terminal case of meth mouth. “G’won in now.”
Mason pulled away without rolling up the window. “What a hillbilly FREAK,” he said loudly. He hocked and spit outside. The looger hit a Happy Hippo sign with a meaty thump.
“Some place.” Trevor wheezed from the passenger seat. He was searching in his black bag of medicine. He uncapped one pill bottle, took three octagonal pills from within, and chased them down with about a pint of prescription cough syrup. He gulped, wiped his wet handlebar mustache with a paper napkin from lunch. He pulled his inhaler from the bag, breathed deeply from it, then removed another, larger inhaler and took a drag from it as well. “Colorful people,” he gasped. “Really classy.”
“Yep. Please God, tell me it’s a family of methed-out ‘necks again. Remember those yokels up in Parson’s Head? Betcha these douche bags bite on my first offer.” Mason said. He turned left, driving past the Ernest Elephant sign that read WRONG WAY, FOLKS! He lit a cigarette, didn’t bother to blow the smoke out the window. Why should he, Mason thought. He’d smoked before Trevor was assigned to be his field geologist, he’d smoked their first three years on the job together, and he wasn’t going to stop now just because the son of a bitch had cancer, damn it! That wasn’t part of the “Corral Code”.
Corral Energy® was a lean company with strong central management; that is to say, the Mongol cavalry of the 21st century. The Chief made all final decisions, the board had no vote. The quick decision process and take-no prisoners ethical simplicity allowed Corral to outmaneuver the far more well funded Axxon® and English Petroleum® on fast-paced land grabs. So, when marketing showed rising consumer suspicion about the environmental consequences of their harvesting operations, creative and cost-effective steps were taken. Rather than refit all equipment with expensive new safe parts, the Chief hired industrial chemists to declare the existing parts and process were adequate. Even better, let them pitch the deals to landowners, if they had the necessary temperament and moral… flexibility.
Mason Black, PhD Chemical Engineering, had gone from spraying test rabbits with carpet cleaner to convincing poor rednecks the drilling process was absolutely safe (and profitable!). Lost in the technical bullshit of a certified ‘doctor’ and ‘scientist’, landowners usually forgot expensive contractual clauses about “materials safety”, “sub-terrestrial containment”, and “liability for damage pending”. Mason fit in well at Corral; his salary went up annually, his benefits were solid, and he and Trevor had gotten invited to the Chief’s Big Barbecue Executive Retreat two years running.
“How’s April?” Trevor asked.
“Dumb as a rock and twice as heavy.” Mason sneered over the steering wheel. If he cleared six figures on this deal, maybe he’d use it for a divorce lawyer. He smiled, imagining the look on her face as his attorney notified her, maybe on her birthday. Trevor said nothing back to him, but frowned.
They took the long dirt road up the hill. Below, Mason could see the twisting gravel loop which tracked by the camels and wildebeest and giraffes and two toothless old lions in their dusty pastures. Trevor had a manila folder open in his lap, and was making a last-minute review of the county topography. Mason was whispering his memorized spiel as they crested the ridge, tapping his thumbs.
At the top of the wooded plateau the big yellow farmhouse crouched, facing away from them. White pillars lined the wraparound porch. The house had high windows like shocked eyes. Mason noticed there were iron bars over them. He parked in the grassy backyard, beside an orange pickup.
“Okay buddy.” Mason said. He ground his cigarette out in the ashtray, checked his freckled face in the rearview mirror, and fixed his pompadour. He left the window open, it was a nice day. “Time to rape and pillage!” They high-fived, and got out of the car. Mason locked it.
Halfway up to the house, Trevor said, “Do you hear that?” He wheezed deeply, then hacked and hacked into his sleeve. He bent over, coughing in a wet staccato rattle, his bald scalp tomatoing dull red. Blood soaked into his shirtsleeve, brown drops hanging from his mustache.
“Jesus CHRIST!” shouted Mason. “I’m trying to sell safety here! You’re a deal-killer, Trev! The last thing we want these people thinking about is fucking CANCER!!”
Somewhere upstairs, a window slid shut quietly.
Mason could tell by the look on Trevor’s face that he’d gone too far. But the days when Trevor could fight back were gone. “Look, let’s split up. Get your gear; take your samples and readings.” Mason said. He tossed the set of keys, the big-tittied-mermaid keychain glinting in the sun, and Trevor caught it, glaring at him. Still got a little bit of life left, eh buddy? Mason thought. But you used to be a badass.
“I said <wheeze> do you hear that?” Trevor repeated. His bloody mustache dripped once, twice. He turned and went back toward the car, his backup pants flooding up around his ankles.
Mason cocked his head, listened. There was definitely an odd noise; strange animal calls, and a metallic hammering sound. He walked along the side of the yellow house. Wild roses climbed the rusty iron bars of the first floor windows; the pale green vines were coated in razor-sharp thorns.
Looks like original wood siding, nice, Mason said in his head. I wonder if that’s lead paint keeping it so fresh. “Eat up kids!” He said out loud, imagining a fat little country bumpkin, bucktoothed and cross-eyed even in Pampers, chowing down on big flakes of yummy yellow house paint.
Mason laughed at the image, but he could see no signs of children here, as he had at many big country homes. No sandbox, no swing set, no plastic toys strewn across the yard. Bad sign, he thought: that meant fewer mouths to feed, and less desperate clients… but then, these were bad times. The low tide sinks all ships. And Mason Black was a shark, you better believe it… what’s that banging sound? He turned the corner of the house. Mason gasped in surprise; it came out as high-pitched as a startled girl.
Monsters were watching him from an iron cage in the front yard. It was like a huge Victorian birdcage, with an ornate swirl to the black bars. Filling the cage was a bleached maple tree, gnarled and barren, covered in dark stains. Big monkeys, the size of Rottweilers, clambered among the shadowy branches in olive-hued pelts. Smiling jaws of amber fangs split blue and red faces. Squealing and hooting and barking, their long hands reached out for him, and battered the cage bars in black fists. Two had pinkish gray babies clutching their fur. Mason approached, delighted in spite of his usual hatred for all living creatures. ‘So ugly…” he whispered, breathless.
From a hollow behind the dead tree, a beastly monkey the size of a hog burst into view. Bristling and grunting, scattering the smaller apes, it charged straight at him. Mason backed up, heart pounding. The muscular monkey slammed into the cage, tried to force its blue jaws and red nose between the bars. It furrowed its brow, and then shook the whole cage with its hands, making an alarming loose rattle. Mason could see its sharp fingernails. The monkey glared, then turned and displayed a stumpy tail, swollen blue buttocks and enormous testicles in a ritualistic war march. It strutted, balancing on fingers and toes, its leathery palms never touching the ground. The hulking male urinated on the cage floor, a clotted golden stream, and then rubbed his blue ass in it. Must be the big daddy, Mason thought. “Stupid aggro baboon.” he muttered to himself.
“They’re MANDRILLS!” boomed a voice from the porch. Mason spun around, startled, and tripped over his own feet, sprawling on his hands and knees in the dirt, his ginger hair flopping forward into his face. The monkeys screamed and hooted in withering mockery.
Was that funny, you stupid dirty animals? thought Mason. It’ll be funny when the industrial waste from this site makes your fur fall out and your monkey kidneys fail. I’ll be sure to come visit this place next year, when the plants are dead from EXF-9, and your bones have spiral hemorrhages from Compound K! But Mason didn’t say anything. He wriggled around in the dirt in his suit like a fancy salamander, and looked up slowly at the man on the porch.
The man was tall, silver-blonde, and tanned to leather. He was dressed like a cheaply costumed Nazi explorer from an Indiana Jones movie: khaki shorts and a chambray work shirt, moccasins, an orange bandana tied jauntily around his neck. He leapt off the porch in one bound, placing himself between the apes and Mason. Cupping one worn hands to his lips, he whistled a long eerie note. The mandrills went silent instantly. The big male remained by the bars, chest heaving, glaring and drooling. The man bellowed “SARGON!! TUT TUT TUT!,” and the monkey stalked away sullenly. The jungle German turned, extending an open hand down to Mason, helping him to his feet.
“Greetings, Dr. Black. Paul said you were on your way up. My name is Casper Webb.”
Forty minutes later, when they seemed at an impasse in the negotiation, Mason’s curiosity got the better of him. Sitting in an old burgundy club chair in the shadowy parlor, Mason asked, “So, not to change the subject from the contract, but what’s with all the monkeys right outside here? They don’t put up a ruckus? No one wants to see them?” He prided himself on his folksy bullcrap. He didn’t give a shit about this man’s life or his animals, although he found the brown fossilized skulls on a high shelf appealing. He pondered stealing one somehow, perhaps if Webb left the room...
“Ah yes, my mandrills.” Webb said, from the seat opposite him. His Bavarian accent was very light, but his English sounded as if he’d learned it from books. “Mandrillus Sphinx. I had thought they’d be high demand. The Big Ticket! Right after the ‘Lion King’ came out, we got the new lions, but the little children kept asking: ‘where is Rafuki, where is Rafuki?’” Webb said in falsetto, a wistful look on his face. (Lonely, Mason thought. Loser.) “I obtained a breeding pair, from an exotics dealer operating out of Cameroon. Cost me half the annual budget, but would you believe, I soon had six of them?”
“You don’t say,” Mason said. Behind his eyes, he was kicking himself. This man was foolish, and weak; Mason wished he hadn’t gotten into the threat of drainage so early in the negotiation. The monkeys had unnerved him; his threat to lowball the neighbors and drain out the gas from the adjoining properties was crude, and insecure. But Webby seemed oblivious; the deal was apparently still on the table. Further proof of the fool’s weakness, Mason thought.
Webb was still talking. “But it seems the mandrills are not destined for show-business. They just aren’tcamera-ready. At first, I kept them in the back pasture, with the emus and warthogs, let them roam. But a few hands got bitten, kids sticking fingers out the car windows; and then a transient, poor soul, was...well, hurt. He’d been trespassing.” Webb nodded defensively. On the wall hung dozens of framed photographs of himself, posing with happy families, holding baby animals, standing beside half-naked African villagers. “After that, I’ve kept them in the old vulture cage, away from the guests.”
“Well they’re…charming animals.” Mason said with a straight face.
“In many ways. More than the other animals, I consider the mandrills my children, my legacy. Such marvelous creatures…their color, and strength! I’ve seen the blue bull, Sargon, heave a boulder twenty meters! And this is the only private zoo in the hemisphere with so many! Though, I wish I could afford to feed them better than dog food. Business has… not been well out here lately, but…” Webb looked strangely excited; distant and agitated. Then he seemed to catch himself, and visibly relaxed. “But you didn’t come here to discuss my ‘drills, Dr. Black. We were discussing the recurring interest in any lease of my mineral rights.” He smiled gently, showing even rows of white teeth.
Mason smiled fakely. Think you’re so smart, you old kraut, he thought. Will you be smart when your tap water smells like kerosene and I’m laughing my ass off in a pile of cash money? Fine, let’s talk your pitiful little payday. But what he said was: “Of course, Mr. Webb.”
“My percentage... ahem…a tenth of one point seems… low. After all, this is my land.”
“See, this is actually a generous special rate, Webby. The hydraulic fracture process, when done clean, is quite expensive for us.” Here Mason launched into his practiced routine. “If you want it clean, it’s to be done right. All you need to do is sign a piece of paper and net one whole tenth of a percent off the back end, forever. That’s a tenth of a percent of several billion, over a few years at least. We have to dig the holes, operate the machines, drill, set the pipes, processing, distribution, fluid containment…” Mason twirled a freckled finger, “On and on.”
“That brings us to a major sticking point,” Webb said. “I want to be absolutely clear that all the fracturing fluid must be contained. I already had to dig one new well, when the old one went sour last spring. My animals get their water from the many aquifers and cisterns here; the remaining pure ones must not be polluted. Is that possible, Dr. Black? Do I need that guarantee in writing, or can I trust you?”
“Mr. Webb…Casper, if I may, I promise you, as a scientist, that not one drop of frac fluid will harm your land.” Mason lied pleasantly. “But, if you ever DO have any trouble like that, here’s my home number. Call me day or night.” He scrawled a number on the back of his card and slid it across the table, winked. It was the disconnected number to his dead mother’s house.
Webb looked at him for a long moment, his cobalt-blue eyes studying Mason. Then he picked up his green fountain pen. “Where do you want me to sign?” he smiled warmly.
“You… don’t need to speak to my partner? I’m sure he’s almost finished his analysis.”
“That is quite alright. I am all alone out here now, but for my animals, and my work. I’m willing to accept a standard fee. If it is one tenth, it’s one tenth. If you could write me a small advance, I will gladly sign now.” Oh sweet Lord, thought Mason. I’ve gotcha, Webby. Not so smart after all! He pulled out a green checkbook that said CORRAL® on it, filling out a check quickly in his poor handwriting. The MEMO box was almost illegible.
“Excuse me.” Webb said, standing. He walked smoothly across the parlor’s hardwood floor, picked up the heavy handset of the rotary phone, dialed three numbers. “Paul? Yes. We are almost done here. No. No, I don’t think so. Head on up and find Mr. Black’s associate while we finish up. I think we’ve reached a decision.” Webb said this last looking into Mason’s eyes.
Stepping out the front door, Mason felt on top of the world. In two hours, he'd be back in his deluxe condo. If April had dinner on the table and it was halfway decent (maybe a veal cutlet, or lamb chops), he might find the energy to make selfish love to her. She’d put on the Sarah Palin glasses, and whisper “drill, baby, drill” in his ear over and over until he finished. It rarely took long. April could never imagine this, but he got a dull thrill from the twisted way this exercise reminded him of his work: marking up territory, securing a transaction only one side benefited from. “Working a bit of overtime”, Mason said, and laughed. He ambled down the porch stairs, watching his feet. Mason thumbed his ruddy bangs out of his eyes, and looked up. In shock, he dropped his leather briefcase in the dirt.
The heavy iron door to the mandrill cage, swinging gently in the late afternoon sun, cast striped shadows across the lawn. It was wide open. The dead tree was empty. Behind him, Mason heard the front door slam shut, and the click of a lock.
Mason’s heart leapt into his throat so fast that he nearly choked. Trevor was nowhere to be seen, and neither were the ‘drills. “Maybe… they moved them?” he whispered. Then he heard it, above the droning cicadas, a crunchy, wet sound; like stomping through leaves after the rain, or wrapping bloody steaks in aluminum foil. Mason wanted to run away, but… Trevor had the car keys. Mason found himself walking toward the noises, as if hypnotized, and around the corner of the yellow house.
Trevor was on the ground a few feet from where their sedan had been parked, six hairy shapes hunched over him. Both cars were gone. Trevor was shuddering, gurgling. Mason watched the mandrills at their quiet work. They looked busy, sometimes hooting or clicking their teeth. He walked closer on shaking legs. The grass was covered in bits of bloody clothing.
Sargon was squatting his blue ass on Trevor's face, pulling something from inside the man’s ripped shirt. The big monkey’s manner was both diligent and worshipful, like a Vatican archivist presenting a scrap of the shroud of Turin. Sargon lifted the prize up in the fading sunlight and Mason saw what the bull held in his bloody primordial fingers: a pair of human lungs. Their spongy pink surface was covered in big brown spots, like overripe bananas. The circle of mandrills gazed at the diseased organs in serene, religious awe.
“Oh, Trevor. You really were a rotten bastard.” Mason said, in spite of himself. The bull mandrill dropped the lungs with a plop, rising up slowly from Trevor's splintered ribcage. His huge head and paws were soaked in liquefied Trevor. Dripping blue lips pulling back to scream, Sargon's orange eyes blazed straight into Mason’s. The mandrill’s hair bristled straight up with hostility. Mason fled.
He ran blindly, as fast as he could. He worked his legs in long strides, but the world seemed in slow motion, as if in a dream. His shoes barely touched the ground. He was giddy, numb, experiencing one of those rare emotions which punched straight through his personality disorders: the basic adrenaline terror of pursuit by animals. Behind him, the mandrills roared. He looked back with wide green eyes as he reached the tree line, and plunged into the underbrush.
Mason was still running full speed when his loafer caught the sunken lip of the old well, which lay almost flush with the back yard. He pitched forward with a cry, splintering dusty boards, catching himself by the elbows on the other stony edge. He thumped his head, the wind was knocked out of him, and his arms scrabbled desperately to keep from sliding down. He was bleeding in a dozen places, one knee felt broken; he probably needed a tetanus shot. Or three.
From below, he smelled the rotting egg reek of sulfur, the hard fart of methane, sickly-sweet benzene. He knew there were others he could not even smell, but would only perceive through slow nervous system failure. The ancient fumes poured over him, hot as a lover’s breath, released by his crash from above. The soil here was, indeed, rich with poison treasure.
Mason tried to pull himself up, and nearly whitened out from the pain. His collarbones were fractured, and his left shoulder dislocated. He could hang on, but not pull himself out of the well. Above, the sun was setting just out of view. Salty blood seeped from his bangs into his eyes.
After a while, he noticed Mr. Webb was standing over him in the twilight. There had been no sound of his approach. He was looking down at Mason, saying nothing.
“Oh please Mr. Webb, please help me. Don't let me fall.” His lungs burned.
“You…and your friend tried to make a monkey out of me, Dr. Black,” said Webb. He studied his fingernails casually. “Your friend...he looks about monkeyed out.”
“You BASTARD!” Mason wept bitterly. “Look, look. I’m sorry, okay? Please. We can renegotiate. We can renegotiate!” He had the most terrible chemical taste in his mouth.
“I’m afraid we cannot.” Webb said. He pulled the folded pink contract out of his pocket, and tossed it past Mason, down the well. It fluttered out of earshot, not hitting bottom. The original was in Mason’s briefcase, back by the front porch.
“You see… I signed a deal with Axxon two days ago. They offered me a full point of gross profit to drill my land. A full point, Dr. Black. I can finally afford to leave this bleak region; relocate my entire zoo somewhere clean, with state-of-the-art facilities, nutritious food and fresh water.”
“But not,” Webb continued. “Not if you and your partner convince our neighbors to sign with Corral instead of Axxon, right? Not if you drain the land around me, cut into the total profits. I had not even thought of someone doing that, until you painted the picture for me so rudely. So, thank you for that, I suppose. And foryour paltry check. Maybe I will use that to buy the mandrills little vests!”
“No! NO!! You old Nazi apefucker!” Mason hissed, struggling in his trap. He looked at Webb with a pure expression of hatred, clutching with his good hand. “You can't do this to me.”
“Do?” Webb repeated. “Do what? Cash this charitable donation, anonymously turned into our lost and found? Or walk away from some nasty little nobody, who I never even met?” Casper Webb’s expression was completely neutral. He turned, and disappeared into the trees.
“NO!! Webb! WEBB!!” Mason screamed. The cicadas whirred, the crickets chirped.
Mason held on for a while, cursing and trying to pull himself out; he was unable to help breathing the fumes. His legs treaded air, scrabbled against the smooth water-worn sides of the well; they felt heavier and heavier. His arms were a saga of pain, struggling to hold on with numb fingers. It got dark out fast, but there was no moon, no stars. He tried to think of April, but couldn’t remember her face. Mason thought he could hear the mandrills hunting through the foliage, somewhere out in the night. After a while, he fell. The earth swallowed Mason Black; if he screamed again, it was lost to the vapors below.