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Excerpt from 13 Days: The Pythagoras Conspiracy (Lynn Dayton Thriller #1)

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By L. A. Starks
1.
Thursday morning, Houston, Texas
Summer

“What's wrong with the flare?” Lynn Dayton, executive vice president for TriCoast Energy's US oil refining operations, pointed to one of the giant, sentry-like structures visible through the refinery's conference room window. The yellow flame should have been soaring at least fifteen feet above its 120-foot stack. The three executives meeting with Lynn turned to look a quarter mile away at the feeble smear of orange and smoke.


Lynn's job had traditionally been held by men, a tradition hard to change. Khakis she'd thrown on at four thirty this morning for the flight to Houston hinted at her long runner's legs. “Is a unit down?”


“I'll check.” Reese Spencer's short, white hair seemed to bristle to attention. He hurried out of the conference room with his cell phone. She'd hired Reese, ex-navy pilot and long-time friend, to run this refinery she had convinced TriCoast's board to buy just before it hit bankruptcy court. She'd promised the board she would make it profitable by refitting the refinery to produce more gasoline at lower cost.


Four weeks left. A blink of an eye compared to the time required to find the perfect piping changes that would increase efficiency, make the calculations, bid it out, get the welders on site to install it, and restart the unit, hoping the whole time the fix worked and you didn't have a fire on start-up. A nanosecond when it took weeks to find additional crude oil supply, unload tankers, run the crude, pipeline the resulting gasoline to wholesalers, and get paid. And you're the only one in this room who cares if you don't meet the deadline because you're the only one who'll be toast.

Starks has made an impressive debut with command, passion and the insight of an insider.”--Michael Lucker, executive producer at Trailblazer Studios


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This too-small flare meant yet another setback.


A group of the refinery's executives, including the two resentful people in front of her, had also tried to purchase the refinery in a management buyout but hadn't been able to raise the cash.


A frown pulled at Dwayne Thomas's tobacco-stained lips. Lynn glanced at him and the woman sitting next to him, angled back in metal-frame chairs.


She wondered if she could get all four of the VPs to pull together before she and they lost their jobs or worse, were reassigned to suffocate in Special Projects. “We want to answer questions about the merger of Centennial with TriCoast. Where are the others?”


Dwayne hacked a smoker's cough and clamped his ham-sized hands together. “Riley Stevens told me he had a morning meeting.”


Riley's probably at a banker's breakfast. If he valued his job he'd be here. Lynn had met the Centennial CFO only twice. But in the last few weeks she had heard rumors about his attitude toward women.


Jean-Marie Taylor, a six-foot-tall woman who was VP in charge of safety and pronounced her name “John-Marie,” nudged Dwayne and rolled her eyes. “And Jay's on a golf course somewhere.”


They're accounted for so your worry is irrational. Hurricane season was starting. Luckily, only a few TriCoast employees had been missing after Katrina. But it took weeks to find their bodies.


Dwayne kept staring out the window. Lynn followed the gaze of the operations VP. An easy-to-read beacon of the refinery's health, the flame atop the ten-story, needle-like structure telegraphed in a glance whether operations were normal. The same flame was still too short, too skinny. Dwayne turned. “Lynn, when you combine your existing Ship Channel refinery with ours, how many of us will you fire?”


What will you say this time to reassure him? “We need everyone. Now more than ever.” Except one.


“I don't mean now. I mean . . .”


“Five operators down!” They heard Reese's yell just before the wail of hydrogen sulfide alarms echoed off every tower, exchanger, and furnace.


The three of them jumped and rushed to the window, as if they could spot the source of the poisonous gas. But they knew hydrogen sulfide had no color.


“Where?” Lynn strained to hear over the high whine of the alarms.


Reese sprinted in from the hallway. “Adric thinks the leak is at a pretreater.” That's why the flame on the flare is so short and skinny. The control center supervisor, Adric Washington, had likely turned off oil flowing into the pretreater to isolate it. By stopping the oil he was stopping the production of deadly gas.


“How many souls on board?” Reese asked quietly.


Souls on board. What a pilot says when the plane's going down.