Wildcat Play: A Mystery

Hardcover | November 11, 2013

byHelen Knode

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Hipster movie critic Ann Whitehead pushed a Hollywood murder case to a bloody climax and almost died herself. Changed forever-less stupid and more fun-she has moved on to a place she knows well: the San Joaquin Valley, where her grandfather''s closest friend, Joe Balch, owns the oil company that keeps one town alive. Balch gets Ann a job with the Oklahoma contractor drilling his wildcat well. It''s hard work, but Ann loves both it and her crusty old boss, Emmet. Then a guy on her crew is killed by a falling hammer. Sheriffs rule it an accident but Ann''s LAPD squeeze, Detective Doug Lockwood, says it''s murder. Ann can''t resist the challenge of chasing a killer-and then the killer starts chasing her . . . From a writer whose first novel was praised as ''highly literate, exceptionally action-packed and occasionally harrowing'' ( Chicago Tribune ), this is a wild ride full of bad behavior and laughs, oil-field characters, and small-town atmosphere, starring a heroine who never does anything halfway.

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Hipster movie critic Ann Whitehead pushed a Hollywood murder case to a bloody climax and almost died herself. Changed forever-less stupid and more fun-she has moved on to a place she knows well: the San Joaquin Valley, where her grandfather's closest friend, Joe Balch, owns the oil company that keeps one town alive. Balch gets Ann a job with the Oklahoma contractor drilling his wildcat well. It...

Helen Knode put her experiences as a staff writer and film critic for the L.A. Weekly into her first novel, The Ticket Out . She was born in Calgary, Alberta, heart of the Canadian oil business, and Knodes have worked in oil since the nineteenth century, a history that inspired Wildcat Play . She lives in Austin, Texas.

other books by Helen Knode

Wildcat Play
Wildcat Play

Kobo ebook|Jan 10 2014

$23.99

Format:HardcoverDimensions:320 pages, 9 × 6 × 1 inPublished:November 11, 2013Publisher:Houghton Mifflin HarcourtLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0151004293

ISBN - 13:9780151004294

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1I STOOD AT the window of the Kwik Gas and suddenly laughed out loud. The only people on the streets of Wilson at two A.M. were drunks leaving the bar, meth addicts, and cops. I watched a patrol car glide into the curb across the way. A policeman got out to check on a guy who’d collapsed in front of the newspaper office.   What on earth was I doing here?   I’d left L.A. to come live with an old family friend in Wilson, an oil town in the San Joaquin Valley over the mountains to the north. But for weeks I couldn’t find a job. I’d discovered that being an ex-journalist and –movie critic qualified me for nothing. In fact, it made people suspicious. It made them even more suspicious that I’d settle for any crumb-bum gig when my only reference was Joe Balch, Wilson’s leading citizen and largest local employer. Then yesterday the manager at the Kwik Gas hired me for nights—and tonight was my first shift on.   I watched a battered sedan pull up and park outside. There was a kid asleep in the car seat in back.   The woman driving wore a parka over her nightgown. She came in to buy five dollars’ worth of gas and a pack of cigarettes. Not bothering anymore with hello or a smile, I took her money and switched on the pump she asked for. I’d been making some version of that sale for hours—gas and cigarettes, beer and/or candy. Occasionally a quart of motor oil or milk. People who used the Kwik Gas, I’d learned, did not smile or want to chat, especially after midnight.   The woman left and I turned back to the window. Smiling, I tapped my reflection in the glass.   Ann Whitehead.   Of Calgary and Paris and L.A.   I was barely thirty-five and my life was a smoking ruin.   A year ago I’d found a woman murdered in the guesthouse where I lived behind a mansion in the Hollywood Hills. I pushed my way into the LAPD investigation and, in the process, fell in love with Detective Douglas Lockwood. The investigation led to near death for me, bloody death for three people—which I witnessed up close—and a political scandal. I’d quit my hip, happening newspaper job because movies and hip tasted like dust. With no idea what to do next, I spent my savings and sold my laptop and car to eat. I was living out of a suitcase, sleeping on a girlfriend’s couch, and resisting Doug’s invitation to move in when Joe Balch said come to Wilson. Joe and his wife, Alice, were old friends of my grandparents. I’d known the Balches since before I was born.   Leaning closer to the glass I checked my face. It was tough to see with the lights of the store behind me.   I’d deserved every minute of the apocalypse, though, and felt like a better person for it. Dire experience had also improved my looks.   Not physically. Physically I was about the same as a year ago. I was still attractive, without being pretty, in a small, athletic way—and still had too much unrestrained personality around the jaw line, although my brown hair seemed wavier and my blue eyes were sparkling again after being so dead and harrowed. The big thing was, I was finally over the worst. I was feeling coherent inside, more stuck together, and my humor was back. That’s really what improved me, I thought: the return of my normal sense of fun.   Engine rumble caught my ear and I looked outside. A tractor-trailer hauling drillpipe went screaming by headed east, probably to Bakersfield.   I watched the semi disappear and flashed on a scene from one of my favorite movies—Sunset Boulevard.   It’s New Year’s Eve, the night Joe Gillis realizes Norma Desmond’s in love with him. He and Norma are lounging on a divan in her private ballroom and she’s bought him a gold cigarette case he doesn’t want to accept. He says she’s bought him too much already. Norma doesn’t get what his problem is: she has tons of money. The way Gloria Swanson says it, she lolls her head back, flaps her wrists inward, and goes, “I’m rrrich.” She describes how rich she is, listing her various investments and ending with “I’ve got oil in Bakersfield pumping, pumping, pumping.” Her wrists flap in a bored way with each pump in pumping. She even sticks one leg up and flaps a bored foot.   Lifting my foot, I flapped it in rhythm and said out loud, “Pumping, pumping,  pump—”   “Open the cash register and give me the money.”   I froze.   The guy was standing behind me pointing a gun at my back. He had on dark glasses and his hair looked like a wig in the reflection.   “Now.”   Anger boiled up so fast I almost choked. This was not going to happen my first shift.   “No—I—won’t!”   Yelling, I twirled and slapped the gun right out of the guy’s hand. It went flying down an aisle as I raced around the counter:   “Get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here! Get out of here!”   Caught off-guard, the guy started to back away. I shoved him towards the entrance.   “Go get a job, you freaking loser! There’s a boom on in the oil fields! The price of crude oil is at record highs!”   He caught his sleeve on a rack and spun around. I kicked his leg, snatched the door open, and shoved him out to the parking lot.   “Drilling companies are hiring! Service companies are hiring! Western Well is hiring! Halliburton is hiring! Balch is hiring!”   The guy tripped over the sidewalk, losing his glasses, stumbling for balance. He didn’t see and I didn’t see the cops who’d pulled in for gas. I was yelling and the guy was running and out of the dark two cops were there. Shouting, “Stop!,” they blocked the guy, knocked him down, and had him spread-eagled and cuffed in four seconds flat. The guy was too surprised to resist.   I yelled, “He tried to rob the store!”   The cops looked over as my knees gave way and I sat down abruptly on the concrete.   One cop hurried up to me. “Are you okay?”   I managed to nod, then burst out laughing. I was shaking from the adrenaline, panting for breath, and I could feel sweat dripping down my face. But still, I had to laugh.   The armed robber was a sign. It was time to take my own advice. 2WHAT AM I GOING to tell your grandmother, Ann?”   Alice looked up from reading as she heard me cross the foyer. It was her cocktail hour. She was sitting on the sectional sofa in the living room, a glass of red wine in one hand and a letter in the other. A fire was burning in the fireplace and she had a string quartet on the stereo. I walked in and flopped down on the carpet beside the coffee table. A decanter stood on the table with a wineglass for me, and Luz had put out a plate of deep-fried flautitas and hot sauce.   Alice repeated, “What am I going to tell Evelyn?”   “You could tell her that fall in the San Joaquin Valley is beautiful and they’ve started harvesting the cotton.” I grabbed a flautita.   Alice made a face of distaste and studied me over her reading glasses. I chewed the flautita and reached to pour myself some wine.   I’d never figured out how to like Alice.   She and Joe had lived apart for ages, and she’d moved to L.A., where she turned herself into a Beverly Hills snob in the old-money style. A youthful sixty, icy blond, tight-faced, and too thin, she was perpetually in classic Chanel and perfectly groomed. I’d never seen Alice not looking perfect—not her hair or makeup, not her gold and pearl necklaces, not her cream silks and wools. She was my grandmother’s best friend and she acted and thought so exactly like Evelyn it was weird. But those were only two of the reasons I had a hard time liking her.   Alice sipped her wine. “I’m very serious, Ann. Your grandmother would be horrified to know you were working at a gas station. She would blame me.”   I reached for another flautita and dipped it in hot sauce. Alice didn’t like me, either. She just didn’t realize it.   “Hey, Evelyn should be proud—”   Interrupting, Alice pointed the letter she was holding at the flautitas. “We cannot eat these—they’re much too greasy.” She raised her voice. “Luz!”   Luz appeared from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. She was a short, plump older woman who wore baggy men’s shirts over stretchy pants and kept her bun up with a ribbon.   Alice pointed at the plate. “Take this away, Luz, and would you please not serve it to Mr. Balch, thank you? We must be careful of his heart now.”   “Sí, señora.”   I gave Luz a low-lid look that she returned as she walked in to remove the flautitas. Joe’d had a mild heart attack after I moved up to Wilson and Alice was using his health as an excuse for this visit. Frowning, she watched Luz until she left the room. I continued my sentence.   “Evelyn should be proud—the cops say I stopped a one-man crime wave. That guy was wanted for armed robbery all over the county.” I smiled. “They’ve asked me to join Wilson PD. I have to put on a hundred pounds but they’ll waive the height requirement—”   Alice clipped, “You will not. Under no circumstances. The sensible idea, don’t you think, is to come back to Los Angeles? There is clearly nothing for you here, and with my charity work and social calendar I’m in need of a personal assistant. It would make your grandmother happy. She and I have already discussed it.”   I quit smiling and took a slow drink of wine, buying time as I contemplated evasions.   Alice tapped the letter on her knee. “Well, Ann? Shall we say L.A.?”   “Alice, I don’t—”   Joe’s den was kitty-corner from us, at the far end of the foyer. His door swung open and saved me.   Joe walked out with two men, everybody trailing cigar smoke and talking. They had the country twang of the area and their voices were loud from liquor. The pear-shaped man was CFO of Balch Corporation—Joe’s money guy. He was also running the oil company since Joe’s heart attack. The bowlegged man in denim work clothes ran Joe’s drilling business. They didn’t give a hoot about me so I liked to torment them by being friendly.   “Hi, Mr. Mahin. Mr. Bray.” I wiggled my fingers. “How are you this evening?”   That got lukewarm nods. But they gave Alice a distinct nod and an “Alice” as Joe herded them outside to their trucks. When he came back in I said:   “I have to talk to you, Joe.”   “Not before I talk to you, young lady.” He shut the front door. “Is this story about the Kwik Gas true?”   I drank a fast mouthful of wine and jumped up. “I was going to tell you but you were sleeping, then I was sleeping—”   Joe gestured in the direction of his suite. Alice said, “Joseph, you know you’re not supposed to smoke.”   Deadpanning her, Joe started across the foyer. He motioned for me to follow him with his cigar.   Alice set her glass down and stood, smoothing her necklaces. “I would like to speak with you first, dear. It’s important. It concerns Junior.”   She showed him the letter she’d had with her this whole time. Joe waved his cigar for her to come along too.   The house had two wings, off the right and left of the foyer. We turned right and trooped down the hall. Me in the rear, breathing expensive perfume, I thought again how mismatched the Balches were. Alice was a low-voltage Doheny and Joe looked like a working rancher—tall and spare, gray and weathered, with a crook in his back from roughnecking that made him slant. He was ten years older than her too, and looked older than that because of his hard, outdoor life.   Alice followed Joe into his sitting room and tried to close the door on me. Joe said, “Let her come in.”   “But, Joseph. Junior—”   “She’s family. She can hear.”   Alice stepped aside and I went in. I was living across the hall and Joe’s main room was similar to mine, in the same tans and browns, like the whole house—and it ran to the same oil theme in the books and pictures. But Joe had a drill bit, polished and mounted, by the fireplace, and his furniture was arranged to make space for a wet bar and a desk with two computers on it. One screen was showing that day’s oil prices from the Bakersfield paper. The other showed an international oil newsletter with an ad for a conference in Dubai, and headlines from Calgary, Houston, China, and Norway.   Alice said bluntly, “Ray Junior’s dead.”   Joe was silent. He walked over to the sliding glass doors on the far side of the room.   Ray Parkerworth Junior was Alice’s younger half brother. He’d run away as a teenager and was a painful subject for Joe. I only knew that because Joe never talked about anything painful to his feelings, and he and I had never talked about Junior beyond brief mentions of his name.   “This arrived today from Louisiana.” Alice held the letter up. “I hope you don’t mind—I opened it.”   Turning his back on us, Joe gazed out the doors. “How did it happen?”   “I don’t know. The letter doesn’t say. It was written by a friend of Junior’s from a welding shop and the man is barely literate. I don’t know why he didn’t just call you if he found your address among Junior’s things. It has already been a week.”   Alice waited for a response. Joe just puffed on his cigar.   “I am flying to New Orleans tomorrow morning. They’re holding the body in a small town on the gulf.”   Joe half turned, but didn’t look at Alice. “You? Why you, for Christ’s sake?”   “Please, Joseph—your language.”   Joe turned away again as Alice said, “Because there is nobody else. The doctor won’t let you travel and Luz can’t be trusted—”   Joe cut in. “His mother.”   “I have called down there and left a message. Who knows where she is—she might be anywhere.”   “You’ll bring Junior back to Wilson. We’ll bury him on the Westside with his father.”   “He may have had other wishes. He’s been gone for such a long—”   Joe cut in again. “Ray Parkerworth’s son belongs here.”   Alice’s mouth tightened slightly. “You’re right, of course, dear. I would be very surprised if Junior left any formal instructions. I’ll take care of it.”   Scrunching the letter in her hand, Alice looked at me. “We will continue our discussion at dinner.”   She walked out, perfume wafting, necklaces jingling. I started to go also, thinking Joe might want to be alone—   “What discussion is that, miss?”   Joe signaled me to come join him so I crossed the room and stood on his right as he pressed a latch and opened the glass door. A cold wind blew in through the screen and we heard a squalling noise in the distance. Joe was drilling a wildcat north of the house—that noise was the brake on the drawworks of the rig. It sounded like the trumpet of an elephant combined with the screechy sound of metal on metal.   “Isn’t it pretty?” Joe tapped the mesh of the screen.   I cupped my hands around my eyes to look out. There was a windbreak of eucalyptus behind the house, but the country was flatter than flat and you could see the lights of the derrick through a gap in the trees.   Dropping my hands, I said, “It always reminds me of an elephant.”   “Not a white elephant, I pray to a merciful God.”   “I saw heavy crude broke seventy.” I pointed behind us at the computer screens on the desk.   “Natural gas is up too.”   “Alice and Evelyn want me to move back to L.A. and become Alice’s pet poodle . . . I mean personal assistant.”   Joe flicked a glance over. Deadpan was an art form in the oil fields and Joe was a grand master. No matter the provocation, he rarely changed his expression and his gestures were never big.   “She may also want me to lecture her movie group. From Billy Wilder to Bollywood.”   “But you’re finally coming to roughneck for me.”   I smiled. I don’t remember saying it, but according to Whitehead family legend, I was three years old on a trip to Wilson when I uttered the immortal line “Joe, me wuffneck.”   “High time. I wasn’t going to ask you again.”   “I resigned at the Kwik Gas after the cops took their prisoner away.”   “Let me see what I can do.” Joe patted my shoulder. “Some of these crews I wouldn’t want you within a mile of.”   Which was precisely why, although he was desperate for rig hands, I’d hesitated about his offer before. When I was a child, roughnecking seemed all romance and glamour. I knew better as an adult.   “Thanks, Joe. Thank you.”   He nodded and took a puff of his cigar. Turning to leave, I heard him say quietly, “Junior—poor kid.”   I thought he was talking to me and glanced back. But he was talking to the screen, and the wind had carried his voice into the room.