Blackjack clung like a beachside fishing village to the ash gray desert that sprawled as far as the eye could see toward the craggy-hewn peaks of the Kingston Range, a motley collection of sun-parched ridges in the southern end of the California Sierras. To the north lay the natural furnace of Death Valley; less than a hundred miles beyond the mountains, Las Vegas nestled like a multicolored jewel in the parched wilderness of the Mojave. It was almost mid-day, and today, like every other day of the year, most activity had ground tediously to a standstill so that men and machines could be replenished. A dozen or so of the men huddled under the tin roof of the open-ended maintenance shed, talking quietly so as not to exert themselves in the scorching heat, waiting for the signal to shuffle back over the powdery wastes and return to their jobs on the oil derricks. Blackjack had a long, if not glorious, history as a mining town. First as a base camp for fruitless gold hunts in the killer mountains, later as a home for borax miners, and now, though mostly in ruin except for a few unpainted cabins that were still inhabitable, as the temporary hometown for nearly twenty roughnecks and whatever families they possessed. Blackjack had been invaded seven months ago by Benny Terrell and his ragged crew of fortune hunters, in search of an elusive reservoir of crude oil that might or might not exist, in hopes of a fortune that might or might not fall into their hands. And all of them, including Jamie Olsen, working for wages that seemed as elusive as this tricky oil field they were searching for.
San Mateo, California, was suffocating under a coat of brownish-purple smog. On the Bayshore Freeway, traffic crawled, stopped, then crawled slowly forward another fifty feet before stopping again. Horns honked. Tempers were short.
Ella slid the card into the slot and pulled down on the door handle.