The drive to Schaumburg felt longer out of a rig. In truth, it was probably faster, but something about the commanding presence of Gail’s Kenworth altered time. She suspected it had something to do with the shifting of gears, or perhaps the lack thereof. The afternoon faded into night all the same. The silence turned to the quiet sounds of Marla snoozing beside Gail.
Neither of them had much to say anyway, too polar of opposites for anything beyond casual pleasantries. Marla was young, pretty, and attached herself to things too easily, often sentimental to the point that changing a tire was a kind of loss to her. If Gail’d had a choice, she’d have drug Darian along, but he was the only one qualified to analyze Buddy’s logs. Whatever had caused that rig to crash, the event was too coincidental for her; M-T’s pricks show up, and suddenly one of her drivers rolls.
“No way in hell,” she muttered, eyes on the road.
Marla stirred in her reclined seat, but remained asleep. Gail sighed. She couldn’t outright say how, or even for certain that M-T had a hand in things, but there was no denying the feeling in her gut. Ferrero was a veteran driver. He’d been on the road longer than anyone at the company, Gail included. He had an immaculate record, and aside from a DUI at twenty-two– almost forty years ago now– he was a straight-edge that drove by the book, never shirked sleep, and never so much as sped.
The more she thought about it, the more it seemed impossible that the wreck was Ferrero’s fault. The dash-cam had shown enough to say that the rig had tipped, either from hitting something, or avoiding hitting something, and then caught fire. The line of cars behind it, though a few were totaled, said their accidents were secondary. So far as either cam had shown, there were no vehicles in front of nor near enough to the accident to have caused the initial issue. That left only the rig itself at fault, but until Darian could finish his review there was no way to say how it was at fault.
Something felt off. Ferrero drove a T680, a Kenworth that was, by far, the least problematic of the fleet. It had only had a few, minor issues in its more than a decade of run-time. Those were regular things; old alternators, suspension work, a few, minor engine repairs– all things expected from a vehicle doing upwards of 45,000 miles a year. All the work done had been preventative too, never after an accident or incident.
It didn’t add up. Not the way someone would expect it to. Gail’s gut agreed.
Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket and she fished out her corded headset, “Go ahead.”
Darian yawned, exhausted from staring at a computer screen, “I’ve gone through the bulk of the logs and footage of the accident.”
“What did you find?” Gail said, voice firm enough that Marla stirred awake.
“It’d be better to show you, but it’s inconclusive at this point,” he admitted.
She could hear his head being thrown back over his chair. “Buddy didn’t hit anyone. Not from the front-end. From what I’ve seen, it looks like he lost control. Rig rocked back and forth and tipped.”
Gail’s face squirmed with unnatural confusion, “What?”
“Look, I called to tell you…” He trailed off for a second. When his voice returned it was quiet, “Ferrero’s dead, Gail. He died at the hospital. Internal injuries.”
She muttered under her breath, “Sonuvabitch.”
Darian didn’t hear it. “The Cook County Coroner called to inform us. They figured we’d already know, but they’re doing an autopsy before shipping the body back to Buddy’s wife and kids.”
“What about the rig?”
She must’ve sounded more cold than usual, Darian hesitated, “Some place in Schaumburg’s got it. I’ll pull up the details, send ’em to your phone.”
“Thanks, Dee,” she said, attempting to counter the last impression. “Get some rest for the night. There’s nothing more you can do now. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
The phone went silent.
Marla was awake now. Gail’d have to tell her about Ferrero. It wouldn’t be right not to, but she cringed at the thought of the girl’s sentimentality making her overly emotional. Gail didn’t do grief, mostly because her default states were indifference and wrath, but also because she’d never gone in for the mushy crap it required. She didn’t want to hug anyone and tell them lies about how everything’s okay, or how it would be. That was bullshit. Especially now. Everything wasn’t okay. She had a totaled rig, a dead driver, three dick heads vying for a piece of her, and a cut-throat public ready to string her up.
Ultimately, none of that was Marla’s fault though. It didn’t feel right taking it out on her. With what little mushiness Gail could still feel, she pitied the poor girl. She was just a mechanic, drug along out of need. She’d probably end up out of a job over all this– along with everyone else. No need to pile on more.
Gail took a deep breath, glanced over at Marla. It was now or never. She’d never had trouble revealing bad news before, saw now reason for it now, but it was as if a mental block had suddenly been thrown up. It might’ve been the sort of glisten in Marla’s doughy eyes– they were like someone had over-cooked oatmeal cookies, figured something was better than nothing, then stuffed them into her head.
“What is it?” Marla asked.
Gail knew she couldn’t have been watching Marla for more than a second or two, but the acknowledgment must’ve been enough to rouse her suspicion.
Gail refocused on the road, “Ferrero’s dead.”
“What?” Gail didn’t have to look to see the glimmer of water in Marla’s eyes. “B-but I j-just saw him today. How can–” she broke off with a sharp gasp.
It took all of what remained of Gail’s heart– the non-stone parts anyway– not to throw her head back in exasperation. Sentimentality bred tears. That was the reason she hated it. Gail had been raised, if one could call it that, to “buck up,” “suck it up,” and “deal with it.” Anyone watching from the outside would’ve thought those were the only phrases her parents knew how to speak. Then again, in Gail’s case, they’d have thought all she knew how to do was bitch and cry.
“Internal injuries. I’m guessing from the accident.”
Gail winced at Marla’s wracking sob. No shit it was from the accident. What else would’ve caused it? She swallowed her discomfort, dealt with it.
“I know you’re upset, Marla, but I need your head clear.”
“How’m I supposed to do that?” Marla blurted.
“Channel it,” she instructed with a side-long glance. “Take your grief, and mold it like clay– or transmute it into fuel. Use it to keep focused on figuring out what happened to the rig.”
There was a momentary silence, Gail’s eyes on the darkening road. Marla sniffled, “I-I don’t know if I can do that.”
Gail wanted to say more, but wasn’t sure anything else was apt. Any more confirmation might not allow Marla her own, inner-strength to carry on. Likewise, expounding any further might defeat the purpose of saying anything at all, forcing her to rely on Gail instead of herself. As much as Gail was indifferent toward Marla, overall, the last thing she wanted was the girl leaning on crutches.
Marla sensed the purpose of Gail’s succinct reply. “I’ll try.”
That much was a given, at least. She’d try and fail or try and succeed. In either event, she had a job to do, and Gail would be damned sure she did it. The whole company might be riding on her.
They drove on through the night, the exit signs for Schaumburg appearing with their count-down of mile-fractions. Traffic was light enough that the way in was largely empty, small as it was, especially in comparison to Oakton.
I-290 led on to a four lane avenue and into sprawling suburbia at the town’s outskirts. The residences were all pristinely manicured. Gail guessed the fresh siding and constant lawn care came from one of those wave-like effects where one neighbor’d tried outdo the last. The appearance continued through-out the whole town with a smell the money that permeated even through the car’s closed windows. The area was obviously prosperous.
Oakton was a different world from this one. A fast-paced grindstone that sharpened the strong’s wits and minds and shattered the rest. Oakton was city-life in all its gritty, incessant forms. People there lived and died by the dollar. Here, the dollar was a thing people decided to wipe their asses with or not; housewives draped it over themselves, husbands spoiled their brat-faced children with it, and the rest of the people groveled for it as opportunists or sycophants. Gail knew for certain, had the Third Reich still existed, its greatest recruiting ground would be places like this.
She re-focused her mind on the work-order, her other thoughts threatening to heat her fury to a rapid boil. Ferrero had been on a short haul. A day to get there. A day to get back. He’d stay the night in a motel while dispatch tried to work out a shipment to get him home or not. If not, he’d take the rig home alone. According to the work-orders, Ferrero was to make delivery of the aluminum shipment to a local courier. It wasn’t uncommon for the short hauls. Courier companies contracted a rig to haul from point-A to point-B, take delivery, then divided the shipment onto smaller trucks for various point-Cs or destinations. This time, it didn’t get that far.
From what she recalled of the accident, the Rig was just outside of Schaumburg when everything went tits-up. 290 was a long interstate, but the same she’d taken the last leg of the way into the little village. Even so, there wasn’t a single sign of an accident. The ILDOT crews had done a hell of a quick job cleaning up. More than likely, they’d fucked with the truck doing it.
Gail made a mental note of it; Marla and the other mechanics would have to try to separate out the wreck from the ILDOT’s personal brand of destruction. Until they could take the rig back to the garage though, Gail doubted much would be found. As good as Marla was, she was hardly the expert Darian was. Apart from being educated, and naturally mechanically inclined, he was also the most anal retentive bastard in the world when working on rigs. Funny for a guy that only changed his jumpsuit twice a week.
Gail checked her phone to re-read the text message Darian had sent. The name of the tow-yard was hyper-linked with a set of GPS coordinates. She thumbed the coordinates and a GPS map maximized across the phone’s screen. The locator in her phone pinned itself to the road she was on, highlighted the route to take.
They arrived at the lot of “Joe’s Garage” from a side-street of the main road. It’s front-lot was as clean and manicured as everything else in town, as if a lone weed was an affront to God itself. The rear of the lot though, was encircled by a high-fence of slotted aluminum– so whatever ugliness lay there didn’t offend sensibilities or tastes.
Gail and Marla pushed into the office, a lone man there was waiting for them in the late-hour. As much as his drivers would be on-call all night, he was clearly a day-person, this bit of overtime a mournful slight against him. His replies were short, monosyllabic, with just the slightest hint of spite. The name on the shirt keeping his monstrous gut penned said “Joe.” Either it was a coincidence, or Gail had managed to piss off the owner of yet another company.
“My mechanic’s here to make a cursory inspection of the rig,” Gail said formally.
Joe eyed Marla with something mixing derision and arousal, “Eh?”
She rolled her eyes, pressed on, “We’ll need the vehicle shipped back to Oakton as well.”
“I ‘ken do that, but it ain’t gonna’ be cheap.”
“I’ll drive it back. I’m certified to drive a tow-rig. That way you aren’t paying your driver and you’re pocketing everything you make off it.”
He thought on it for a minute. At least she knew how to talk to him, and he knew how to take an opportunity when he saw it. More opportunists. Great, Gail thought, just what the world needs.
“A’right. I’ll get some forms.”
He disappeared into a back section of the office, reappeared moments later to outline the liability releases and take a check for collateral. Gail hoped it wasn’t needed, it was a personal check and hotter than an eskimos taint during a equatorial, mid-summer’s heatwave. It would bounce higher than a super-ball if it were cashed.
A few signatures later Joe was leading the way out a back door, and into the fenced portion of the lot. Marla and Gail were instantly frozen; flood-lights left not a shred of darkness across the rear-lot, and only a few junkers were stationed around the various spots on the gravel yard.
To one side, their rig sat atop an extra-large flatbed. Gail recalled watching the water on the windows of the rig as its flames were doused, and suddenly wondered how the hell the windscreen had survived. What had once been a series of sleek, sleeper-cab curves and rigid, cock-pit angles, was little more than jagged steel, fiberglass, and peeled paint.
The whole front end was gone or melted down, like it’d never existed at all. Gnarled steel from engine parts stuck out here and there, but it was otherwise empty space scorched black from flames. It lay upright now, the rear half of the chassis twisted from the fifth-wheel back, sticking out at odd angles. Though it was difficult to tell, Gail was certain she saw blood along the left-over interior, shattered driver’s window, and door. It was a wonder Ferrero’d been pulled out at all, let alone in one piece.
Gail’s voice was breathless, “Holy shit.”