Hijack

1.

The Kenworth W900 whined and whistled along I-70 East, bound for Oakton, Ohio. The long-haul rig dragged a 40-foot tanker filled with diesel from a Washington refinery. An exchange had been made near Seattle for a load of corn-oil. The diesel-delivery was assigned for four days to give better time for sleep and reduce the risks of accidents. Gail Wolfe was never one to wait though. As a driver, and owner of Oakton’s Lone-Wolfe Shipping, she saw it as her mission to make it into Oakton ahead of schedule.

For most, making such a long haul in a short time was dangerous. Back in the days before Unions fought for standardized breaks and drive time, countless accidents, incidents, and total nervous breakdowns had dominated the industry. The drivers that had built America through its shipping and transportation operations, and worked it for over a hundred years, were simply out of fuel. The profession itself had become so weighted under stereotypes, global economics, and international pressures, that no driver was immune. Even Gail admitted, once or twice, had she been driving then she’d have felt it too.

It was a different world now though, and even the old W900 felt it. The truck had been new twenty years ago, when Gail first built Lone-Wolfe, but they were older, slower, and just a little more tired with each haul that passed. What was worse, Lone-Wolfe seemed to be headed into the same downward spiral. It wouldn’t have been the first of the “old-timers” to go, but if Gail could help it, it would damn well be the last. She’d hold out until she croaked, stubborn to a fault.

Most other companies had been “acquired” by one corporation or another– the big ones, that wrote a lot of zeroes on checks to get their way. One of them, Mechanized Transports Incorporated, had even tried with Gail– Or rather, was still trying. She’d told the reps from M-T precisely where and how far to shove their offer.

The whole thing was a way to shut up people in power, and phase-out drivers for auto-drive software built into new, high-efficiency trucks, or retro-fitted into the older ones that didn’t offend bottom-lines too greatly. Gail had a hard time seeing how the buy-outs were anything less than bribes. Even the Unions were struggling to keep owners from taking them.

But Gail wouldn’t. In fact, if given a choice, she’d burn anyone that did– whether figuratively or literally. They weren’t worth the air in their lungs, let alone the sweat off her back. She’d fight to the death to ensure everyone knew that.

I-70 morphed into highway 127 South. The light of a new day rose to Gail’s left through a quilt of farm-land with river-like striations of trees along it. The rural road was vacant in the early morning, and even the best of GPS programs and software wouldn’t have foreseen how much time Gail would shave off her remaining route. That wasn’t the point though. She’d always gone into Oakton along the Masseville highway. Apart from its emptiness, it offered a modicum of serenity beyond the curtained sleeper-cab.

Fresh, cool dew clung to plants and matured crops near-ready for harvest. Dawn splayed through droplets, stank with the crispness of a new day beyond the cab’s open windows. Gail kept the radios low to soak in the beauty. The occasional murmur of other drivers or dispatchers mumbled from one radio while something old and vaguely folk-ish crooned from the other. The high-whine of the rig was the only other thing to break the still quiet. With that, it left waves of life in its wake, as if the harbinger of day arousing nocturnal dreamers from their slumber.

The rest of Masseville passed in similar fashion. A half-hour of winding roads and sharp-intersections forced Gail to downshift, then roar back up to speed again. To say she was somewhat of a romantic for Masseville’s views was to miss her otherwise utterly unsentimental nature. She couldn’t help but find a special place in her heart for the open road, however cold it was to everything else.

The quilted farmland began to degrade into the urbanity of Oakton’s outskirts. The shift had always been gradual, but there was no denying its jarring effect. Trees and fields turned to sparse homes and small office-complexes. Full-on city suddenly appeared, as if progress were shoved up to eleven to allow the metropolis to unfold.

The way in was clear enough that Gail hit only a pair of stop-lights before the diesel delivery-station. The place was a warehouse-sized shipping-receiver with a fleet of various rigs and trailers. She eased up to the guard house, diesel idle purring like a house-cat, and handed over her work order. A guard directed her across the lot near two other tankers. Before long, she had the trailer backed in, the work order signed, and the W900 ready to pull away.

Lone-Wolfe’s headquarters were partitioned to a large, industrial lot on the city’s West side, just a few miles from the delivery location. Making it to the garage from anywhere in the city was more habit than anything, and when the truck finally came to a rest amid Lone-Wolfe’s fleet vehicles, Gail was ready for the business-end of things before finally conking out– probably hours after her return.

The interior of Lone-Wolfe was more like a repair garage than anything. There was enough space for three rigs, loads of diagnostic equipment, toolboxes and the like, and some vending machines with couches and coffee tables to one side. One of the drivers, Carl Reyer, was passed out on a couch, his face hidden under a trucker-cap as he snoozed away.

Gail ambled past. Carl was the type to be on the road more than home. Most of the time that meant he was or crossing the country, long-hauling haz-mat cargo or the occasional low-boy with hired hands flagging ahead and behind. Like Gail, he had a sort of love for the open road that kept him running when he should’ve been at home, in bed. Even his wife had gotten tired of it, left him. Since then, he’d taken his sleep in his cab or on one of the garage-couches. Gail empathized, if little else.

She strolled across the smaller section of the garage to the offices in its opposite corner. Carl’s snores followed her in to the first section. The two desks, back-to-back, were reserved for the dispatchers running tracking and comm software, and monitoring traffic and weather with real-time uplinks to NWS and various news-agencies. From the two desks, the company’s six, dispatchers could communicate with and track the dozen drivers Gail employed 24/7. Apart from one or two other, necessary upgrades, Dispatch was the only thing Gail had let progress seep into. Even the rigs themselves were elderly by most standards. If it weren’t for Darian Foster and his crew, the fleet would’ve been dead years ago.

Darian was the highest paid employee at Lone-Wolfe, and for damned good reason. He had more mechanical expertise than a submarine full of engineers, and a degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. If it weren’t for the dire, crushing debt he’d had a decade ago, Gail would’ve never survived. She’d hired him in on basic salary in a downsizing economy, and before she could get out the door on her next haul, he’d proven himself worthy of a raise.

Presently though, Gail was focused on the back-office and the silhouette behind its frosted glass. She stopped to hand a file to Walt Thacker, a dispatcher with a beer-gut larger every time she saw it.

“Latest pay,” Gail said unceremoniously. “Make sure Brianne gets it before shift-change.”

He grunted an “eh,” in reply.

Truth was, she didn’t care to hear his Hutt-like wheezes anyhow. She glanced at the frosted glass, checked her watch, 7:30 on the dot, “Who’s here?”

Xavier Knaggs replied, “Suit.”

Gail’s face turned red, and she stormed for the office, “Son of a bitch!”

She burst into the office to find a pair of suits sitting in the chairs before her desk. A third one stood behind and between them like a guard dog. Something about the two men and woman said they felt accosted by the sheer thought of sitting in a dingy office like Gail’s. Part of her wanted to keep them there for that fact alone, but the rest of her won out.

She stepped around the desk, nostrils flaring. The woman in the chair extended her hand, “Missus Wolfe, I’m Eleanor Tyler, Mechanized Transport’s Acquisitions Department.”

It took all of Gail’s sense not to punt the scrawny bitch through the frosted glass– that, and the obvious bulldog look of the blood-thirsty lawyer between her and the window.

“These are my associates,” Tyler said with a gesture. “Lloyd Wembley and Matthew Benton–”

“I don’t care,” Gail snapped. “Get out of my office.”

“Missus Wolfe–”

“If you’re going to patronize me, at least get my fucking name right. I was married once, I’m not now. At no point during was my name Wolfe.”

The scrawny bitch recoiled from her own faux-pas. A mental flash of her arcing backward through the glass almost caused Gail to smile. She didn’t though, especially not now. Instead, she stiffened up, arms crossed, “I’ve told your company, I’m not for sale. Keep this up, and I’ll sue your asses for harassment.”

The bulldog’s ears perked up. Gail could’ve sworn she saw his ass wiggle like a tail. “I assure you, Mizz Wolfe, that these meetings are more than legal by any definitions of the law.”

Her eyes sharpened to pointed knives, “I may not be a lawyer, Mr. Benton, but the last time I checked, trespassing wasn’t. This is private property owned by Lone-Wolfe Shipping, and if I say leave, I mean it. Now go, before we see who’s right.”

The bulldog-face crumpled together. He muttered something and signaled a rise from the other two. Tyler followed Benton out immediately, but Wembley laid a card on the desk and gave a smug bow of his head. He followed deliberately, steps paced as if he owned the joint. She slammed the office door hard enough to rattle loose its panes of glass in their fittings.

She fell into her desk-chair, palm to her forehead, and glanced at the card. “Lloyd Wembley,” sat above “Board of Directors, Mechanized Transports Inc.” A phone number and a few other lines of contact filled out the corner. The only thing missing was the word “Prick” next to his name. Gail hoped someone was fired for the oversight.

2.

Like most of her drivers, Gail didn’t have much of a home life. She lived and breathed asphalt and exhaust, time-tables and invoices, miles to go and miles driven. Mostly for the sake of paperwork though, she kept a small place near the garage, along with a beat-up, 4-door Chevy more often parked in Lone-Wolfe’s fleet-yard than the rundown place she called home.

She fell into bed sometime around noon. The mattress was a decade past its prime, still barely used. It was small. Home was small. Everything was. Not having many possessions nor sentiment did that, Gail guessed. Keeping three-quarters of her wardrobe in a duffel bag probably didn’t hurt. The few pairs of jeans, t-shirts, and underwear would get her through whatever haul she’d be on. All of it was topped off by a tattered jean-jacket and a pair of steel-toe boots that left her without shoes every time they were resoled.

She hit the bed, passed out in more clothing than usual, shit-kickers included. The haul had been easy for someone rarely needing sleep. It was one of the few things she knew made her a great driver. Unlike most people, she only needed four and a half hours sleep. Anything more or less and she was wrecked, but four and a half was the Goldilocks zone.

Four and a half hours later, she was up brewing coffee and squeezing into her train-compartment-sized bathroom to shower. By the time she was out again, it was a quick redress and mugful of sludge-black coffee before heading to the garage. The beater coughed out rust as it started, then did its job carrying her to work. She sympathized.

Coming home to find M-T’s suits in her office had left a bad taste in her mouth. It lingered, spurred by an accompanying stink of something like a high-end cologne bath mixed with money and the pig-stench of greed. She’d hauled everything from manure to sulfur over the years, and nothing was ever quite so rancid as a wealthy asshole. The more there were, the worse it got, too.

Her arrival preempted the shift-change. Before long, Walt Thacker was forced to belly away back and away from his desk like a slug. Gail watched him disappear from the outer-office as she refilled her mug with black sludge and Brianne Hampton sauntered in. The penultimate sweetheart of the office, Brianne made every man in the company salivate over– and every woman envy– her hourglass figure, big tits, and plump ass.

Gail had never understood the fixation on Brianne’s “type.” She agreed she was an attractive girl, but apart from being good with numbers, she didn’t have much personality. She was a blank page of dullness that sometimes reflected other peoples’ color, but also happened to be the daughter of an old friend Gail had owed a favor to. If it weren’t for Brianne’s father, Murphy, Lone-Wolfe would’ve never gotten off paper. The least she could do to repay the debt was hire his airhead daughter for dispatch work.

“The rather succinct gist of it,” Gail had once told Darian, her chief-mechanic, was that Murphy had run his own shipping business for decades before getting heavily involved with the Union. The “friend of a friend” situation connecting the two gave her an in to the Union. Even with a rig-license, and thirty years of political progress, the Unions were still largely male-oriented. Murphy’s acquaintanceship overrode that, at the promise that she one day return the favor.

When that marker was called in, Brianne was hired, no questions asked. Gail had since sussed out that Murphy had been investigated– and eventually tried and convicted– of bribery. The loss of his kickback-fueled income to a family on caviar and wine tastes was jarring, but so long as Brianne remained useful, and didn’t screw the company like she screwed everything else, Gail didn’t care.

A newspaper plopped onto her desk from the body in front of her. Carl Reyer was awake for once, and dreadfully alert to the world around him. He nodded at the paper between them, and she unfurled it to read the headline; “NHSB to Local 413: Integrate or pay-up!” She looked to Carl over the paper, “Who the hell d’they think they are?”

“What matters is the content,” he said dismally.

She skimmed the article, “National Highway Safety Bureau has received reports citing… non-integrated trucking as number one cause of accidents!? What the fuck?”

“Flip to the back.”

Crinkling newspaper flapped and folded. She skimmed some more, read aloud what she knew Carl was intending her to find, “According to a study conducted by Mechanized Transports.” She lowered the paper, “Those asshats are actually trying to spin this against us?”

“Not just us,” Carl reminded. “The whole industry.”

Gail gnashed her teeth together, growled from the back of her throat. Anger seemed pointless, especially given the article wasn’t directed at her, but for the trio to have come in on the morning the paper was printed showed just how they felt about the industry around them. It was as if thousands of jobs and livelihoods were no more than pawns in a game of money. She wanted to shout, but could only manage a frustrated sigh.

She folded the paper up, gave it back, “Give me some space, Carl.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice.”

She knew as much; her fury was something of a legend, though it was rarely directed toward her employees. Unless they’d severely screwed the pooch, it was generally directed at corporations, competitors, or politicians. The lines her employees couldn’t cross had always been thick enough that it wasn’t often someone toed them, but when they did, Gail gave “Hell hath no fury,” new meaning. For now though, she wasn’t going to scream or rage. She needed to think. She wasn’t even sure why, or what about, but calm was necessary.

Beyond the office, Carl passed Brianne and Jude Gardner on dispatch. It was looking to be a quiet evening after an even quieter day. Only a few rigs were out at the moment, and running two dispatchers was more for keeping the place staffed in case of emergency rather than out of need. Brianne was on auto-pilot. The twenty-something was an air-head at the best of times, but that transitioned to ace dispatcher when necessary. Even though her mood never seemed to change, nor her dolled-up face for that matter, she knew her job. Most everyone figured it was a savant-like trait– something had to fill up that head when the oxygen content drooped.

Something was different now, Jude noticed. Brianne was poised over her keyboard, hands working as she hailed a driver over the headset. A lack of external sound from the noise-canceling headsets dispatchers wore was usual, but it seemed more poignant. The edges of Brianne’s figure hunched toward her screen with a hand at a headphone, tension outlined her joints and limbs. Jude’s heart leapt into his throat; everyone knew Brianne rarely reacted to things, that she was, terrified him.

He nudged a speaker off his ear. “Bud?” Brianne said in her nasal-tone. “Bud? Come in. I didn’t–”

An alarm screamed in her headphones. It was so loud she threw them onto her shoulders and yelped. Jude was up. Gail heard it, threw open the door to her office, and jogged over. Carl peered in from a doorway. Darian and his crew appeared behind him, pushed for views of the scene. Gail heard the alarms; the tracking software was programmed to alert of various events in certain ways. From the sounds of it, this was a critical alarm. A rig was in serious trouble.

“What is it?” Gail asked, bracing against Brianne’s desk and chair.

Brianne rubbed an ear, “Buddy. Ferrero. Running aluminum to Schaumburg on a short haul.”

Gail looked over the status warnings on Brianne’s screen. They were red and yellow, flashing. This was critical. A fire in the engine somewhere. Based on the codes being thrown out, it had to be near a fuel source. What was more worrying though, was the “Collision” and “Unbalanced Load” alarms. The truck hadn’t just caught fire, it had hit something and overturned first.

“Pull up the dash-cam,” Gail ordered.

Brianne’s fingers worked. Dash-cams had been added years ago to better capture accidents and resolve insurance disputes. Fifth-wheel and trailer-cams had been installed as well, but neither would be as important given the fire. A video player flashed on-screen, buffered for a few seconds. It gave way to a bright-orange glow that obscured everything but curls of black smoke at its sides.

“Trailer Cam,” Gail said.

Brianne keyed it up. The afternoon road behind the trailer was tilted left, ninety degrees. Worse, a line of cars had piled up along the left side of the road. A few were utterly totaled. Gail’s heart was in her throat. Blue and red lights flashed. Squad cars bounced along the median and shoulder, rocketed toward the trailer. A pair of cruisers sped past, another pair forced their way over to set up a perimeter, begin directing traffic. A news chopper hovered in the distance. From the angle, a few miles back, but enough to catch the line of cars probably stretching for hours backward. More emergency lights flickered in the camera’s periphery, red and white; fire-trucks and ambulances. EMTs rushed over the median toward the worst cars. More lights, more EMTs, fire-fighters.

Gail became acutely aware of the group at the door shifting behind her. Jude still had one headphone on beside her to monitor his frequencies, but he stared, open-mouthed. As if instructed to by Gail’s thoughts alone, Brianne pulled up the dash-feed beside the trailer-cam.

Jets of water and foam rained down the windshield. Like the trailer, the rig was on its side, obvious from the angled, flashing lights of fire-trucks on the road ahead. The fire was shrinking, but anything beyond the storm of fluids was impossible to discern. Shadows flickered behind the camera, as if from lamps casting back-light on the camera’s view. It took a moment for the washed-out color to re-focus. When it did, the bulk of the rain had fallen away to streams trickling along gravity’s pull. Bodies of firemen and EMTs were formed up around the right edge of the view, by the looks of it, all working together. Gail knew what was about to come next, but she shuddered anyway.

Buddy Ferrero’s dark-skinned body peered from between the emergency workers that rushed him across the feed. Someone fought to fit a mask over him and squeeze a breath-bag. Buddy disappeared behind the cluster of bodies that rushed him to the median, reappeared for a moment as he was lifted, then disappeared as the group reformed. They rushed him to the rear of an ambulance, then dispersed as the doors shut. The ambulance pulled a U-turn through the gawker’s pace of traffic, and sped away with lights flashing. They watched until it became a mere blur of color, and disappeared.

Gail’s shaking hands pushed her upright. She glanced ahead and sideways, “Jude, Brianne, get back on the radio. Darian?”

“Yeah, boss?” The slim, jump-suited, black kid replied.

“I want you in my office. Pull all of Buddy’s routes for the last month. Go through them one-by-one, starting with today’s. Find out what the fuck happened to that rig. I want a month’s worth of history. I’ll be back in to review everything soon.”

“Sure thing, b-boss,” he stammered, mind caught in what he’d seen.

“Marla, you’re with me,” she said to the tomboyish girl now standing where Jude had been.

“Whatever you need, Gail.”

“The rest of you make yourselves useful, help where and how you can. If you’ve got hauls, check your rigs now,” she instructed, heading for the office to grab her jacket.

Marla followed her to the door, hands in her jump-suit pockets, “Where’re we going?”

She grabbed her jean jacket from the chair Darian sat in, handed him a two-way radio, “If anyone calls us, let me know A-SAP. If it’s the press, hang up.”

“Got it.”

She pulled Marla along for the door and out of the offices, “I need a mechanic, and you’re the only one I can spare. Gerry and Simon are still rebuilding the alternator on Felicia’s Coronado.”

Marla followed her out to the beater Chevy, “So, uh… where are we going?”

“To Schaumburg. I don’t want anyone else examining that truck before we do.”

They slid into Gail’s car as she internalized her last thought; because this is way too fucking coincidental.

3.

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.

“How?”

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.”

“You can.”

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.”

4.

The cursory inspection lasted long enough for Marla to glance at the rig, and admit it was going to be impossible to tell anything. Gail took it as the signal to close her mouth, and instruct her to set up her car for forward escort duty. Before long, the two were working their way out of the lot, one after the other with “Wide-Load” signs hanging off their vehicles and yellow-beacons warning of their proximity.

Gail was glad Marla had slept most of the way to Schaumburg; the faster they got home, the faster they’d get ahead of the inevitable shit-storm the NHSB would kick up to further their agenda. Fat chance, she knew, the morning edition would already be lambasting Lone-Wolfe, and probably the whole profession, and threatening them with bullshit intimidation tactics. That was all the NHSB was good for in this day and age. They had political connections, sure, but they were just that, connections. Local 413 had the same connections and more pull with them. Kick-backs and bribes had kept the Unions strong for a century. That wasn’t looking to change now.

Even so, there was still the nagging fear the impotent blow-hards might still destroy Lone-Wolfe. Especially if, as Gail suspected, M-T was behind the accident somehow. It would be hard to prove, and likely nothing would ever come of it, but if M-T’s bulldogs were on the warpath this wouldn’t be the only incident to occur. Corporate espionage was a way of life for entities like M-T Inc, legal teams the deploy-able smoke-screens that kept them safe.

Night turned once more to day, and the pair pulled into a rest-stop to relieve themselves and fuel-up on caffeinated beverages. Marla was looking more haggard as the minutes passed. Gail sensed she’d been wracking herself with some type of guilt. Wherever it had come from, she couldn’t allow it to stay. The pair leaned against the hood of the Chevy for Gail to smoke and stretch her legs.

“You know it’s not your fault, right?” She said, unceremoniously. Marla gave her a deranged look. “It’s not. I can see you blaming yourself for something you did or didn’t do. You’re thinking, maybe you didn’t top off the transmission fluid, or tighten a bolt on the steering-column, or something else utterly fucking trivial and now it’s somehow your fault.”

Marla’s left eye twitched, and she nodded.

Gail slugged back some cola, “Well, it’s not. So don’t think that. I need you fit to drive and to work. You and Darian are going to be all over this ’til you find out what the hell went wrong. I need you at your best. Ferrero’s death has nothing to do with you, so get over it.”

Marla’s face said her heart had been stung by a iron-rod. Gail admitted maybe she’d been too harsh, but only silently. The girl finally gave another nod, “I know it wasn’t my fault. But that’s what I keep thinking. I’m responsible for the fleet. If something goes wrong, it’s on me.”

“Technically, it’s on Darian,” Gail corrected callously. She recovered with a soft, “Sorry. What I mean is, accidents happen. Even if, by some extreme luck, what happened can be traced back to the garage, it’s no-one’s fault. If Ferrero couldn’t pull out of what happened, no-one could’ve. Even then, there’s no telling if his actions saved more lives than would’ve otherwise been lost.”

Marla considered her words carefully, “You’re saying it’s on the drivers if the rigs are running wrong?”

Gail shook her head, “No. I’m saying, even if the rigs are running wrong, it’s in the driver’s hands to keep the situation from getting worse. Most of us have driven long enough to know how to compensate in any situation. But shit happens. People get hurt, or die. This time it was Bud.”

Marla eyed her, “But you don’t think either of us are at fault?” Gail confirmed her thoughts. “Then what went wrong?”

“That’s what you’re going to find out.”

“No, what I mean is, what’s your best guess?”

“Oh.” She took a deep breathe, chest billowing and depressing. “Well, what I think’s a hell of a lot less important than the actual truth– whatever it may be.”

Marla seemed to connect various, mental dots. “Because M-T showing up and an accident the same day’s too coincidental?” Gail cocked an affirming brow. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

“Let’s just hope to fuck I’m wrong.”

Marla nodded, stared off until the pair broke for their vehicles and started on again.

By the time they reached the garage, the day was in full bloom again. Gail cleared the garage and backed the flat-bed tower in. Employees gathered to watch the rig’s ingress, each with the same, glazed and breathless expression Gail had experienced. She set Darian’s team to work pulling the wreck off the flat-bed while Marla grabbed shut-eye on a cot in her office. The pair were exchanging a few, last minute words when Walt Thacker waddled up, newspaper in-hand.

Gail was immediately boiling: the headline barely registered before her teeth were grinding. “Local shipper Lone-Wolfe’s non-compliance fuels NHSB debate.” She read and re-read the headline three and four times before looking up. Marla and Walter were standing beside one another, one red-eyed with exhaustion, the other wondering whether his best waddle was enough to flee from Gail’s imminent explosion. He shifted uncomfortably in place, bespectacled eyes massive and downcast behind their coke-bottle lenses.

Gail sensed the pair’s cringing for cover and managed to control herself. “Get back to work, Walter. Marla, sleep in here, or my rig, but I’ll be here too.”

Marla fished some headphones from a pocket, “I’ll be fine.”

She stuffed the buds in her ears, then fell onto the cot, and hid beneath the wool-blanket she’d been given. Walter waddled away, slightly faster than usual, not needing to be told twice to go. The last thing his heart need was another jog through terror. Gail’s office-door shut with a relieved sigh, glad that it wasn’t being slammed again.

She fell into her desk-chair, beyond exhausted. She wasn’t physically tired, sleep was out of the question anyway, but mentally drained. Swallowing her anger had taken more out of her than she’d thought, and coupled with the past couple days’ reality, it was a wonder she hadn’t collapsed yet. For the next couple hours, all she could think to do was sit at her desk drafting a press-release. Eventually the media would come to her asking for comment, and it was better to be prepared and ahead of things than get swept up and dogged by them. She’d have to be sympathetic toward Ferrero’s family, and the accident in general, but maintain a professional distance.

There would also have to be some mention of the investigation going on. After all, it was technically an industrial accident. Whether or not inspecting the vehicle herself would come back to bite her in the ass was less important than learning the truth. If someone else was responsible for the accident, or even Ferrero himself, it needed to be made clear to Darian’s team, then independently verified by an external source. Buddy’s Rig was the only avenue of truth left, and Gail’d be damned if someone else was going to be responsible for proving Lone-Wolfe’s innocence.

Time passed, Gail’s mind honed to a point. The release was typed up, revised, deleted whole, then rewritten and revised again. The whole process was a storm of clacking keys interrupted by various pauses to re-read what had been written. If Lone-Wolfe had the extra funds for a P-R department, Gail still wouldn’t have let them draft the release. This had to be in her own words, her own diction, to ensure it was as transparent as possible Most of all though, she had to ensure to keep any suppositions out and relay only facts. The accident had been widely reported on, but until she stated the company’s preliminary findings, no-one knew what had really happened.

She slipped on headphones, queued up their cam footage, and synced it to dispatch recordings. Everything had already been pulled during Darian’s review and included a report that detailed his observations and notes on his analysis. Gail had deliberately waited to read anything until after she’d drafted the release. Everything factual from her point of view would have to be stated differntly from Darian’s or else she risked public back-lash for confirmation bias.

The video player spooled forward with views of I-295 similar to what she’d seen the previous night. Aside from the growing daylight, the only differences were from their respective view-points of the rig. The fifth-wheel cam was stationary apart from road-turbulence and its effect on the electrical couplings. Likewise, the trailer-cam was monotonous, never-ending highway travel, as if staring out a car’s back-window, and roughly as entertaining and informative as it sounded.

Gail was focused on the dash-cam though; it and the transcript of the various warning codes. She skipped everything to a few minutes before the first code. In the headphones, Brianne’s autopilot-voice emitted various checks and code call-outs to drivers. They responded tinnier and more distant, but clear enough to be heard.

The first of Ferrero’s codes came, synced with an alert in Brianne’s chatter. “Ferrero. Looking for confirmation on a code-12.”

Gail heard the utter lack of worry in Brianne’s voice. Code 12 was an engagement of safety protocols. All rigs– all road-vehicles, actually– were equipped with crash-response systems that spooled real-time metrics into CPUs from sensors on the vehicles. Through them, hardwired safety-protocols engaged to tell which parts of the vehicle were near-collision and which ways the vehicle should compensate. Everything from pre-priming of brake-lines to auto-retard of the vehicle’s speed was calculated and queued up to ensure any possible accident was no worse than it had to be.

All of this happened within a twelfth of a second; less than the time it took a dispatcher to read the code. The problem was, most codes happened unnecessarily. The safety-priming occurred anytime a vehicle was traveling beyond a certain speed and within a certain distance of other vehicles. Things as simple as a vehicle dropping too much speed to change lanes in front of a rig might cause a code-12. Every dispatcher knew that, and Gail herself had often reported “Code-12 acknowledged, disregard.”

She waited for the repeat of the phrase, or at least part of it, but there was nothing. The next code flashed. She heard it as she had the last. “Ferrero, come in. Code 12 and 16, acknowledge.”

Sixteen was worse, especially after a twelve. Even Gail would’ve been on alert if dispatching. That Brianne’s own, monotonous voice seemed to quiver with concern said she recognized its problematic nature too. Code-16 was a hard application of breaks. The next three codes dinged at-once over the headphones. Three, separate tones sounded. Codes 17, 22, and 6, were confirmations of 16, if nothing else.

The dash-cam showed little change, save a marked decrease in speed. 17 and 22 alone wouldn’t show anything, let alone with a six. Respectively they were the engagement of the ABS systems, exhaust brake, and the prime of the airbag. Anytime a 16 or 17 showed up, it was sure a 6 was near by. Still, there was no way to see anything in the cab behind the camera to confirm driver-awareness.

Something crept sideways into Brianne’s voice as she attempted to hail Ferrero again, and received only silence in reply. More alerts began to ding in her headset, followed by numbers. The cam footage synced as Gail mentally followed the protocols. The dash-cam scenery slowed. The trailer cam showed cars slamming on their brakes, swerving at either side of the truck. One car zoomed past in the fifth-wheel’s peripheral.

All at once, the rig swerved left. The scenery shifted. More codes. A lone car speed away through the windshield. The scenery shifted right. More codes, more alerts. Vehicles slammed into one another in silent destruction. A power-steering code went up. The truck swerved again. A balance code. Brake codes. A veritable stream of safety alerts spooled across the log, mirrored by sounds in Brianne’s headset. Gail sat on-edge. The rig went left, right, left again. The camera jolted right. The truck was on its side. It slammed a guard-rail at an angle, sheered off a section of hood and engine. The steel rail wedged into place– a pry-bar jammed in the righ that drug along the highway. Engine parts rained across asphalt. Metal ground into showering sparks. Fire lit.

Codes and alerts were endless now. Alarms screamed beneath Brianne’s trembling calls. She’d been too frozen to check the cameras before Gail came over, but the footage was there. Gail’s heart was uncharacteristically in her throat. The flames were growing, spewing out smoke. The twisted guard-rail broke free, took the bulk of the engine with it. Debris blew backward with flaming plumes. Oil and gas-soaked steel soared past, sprayed the front-end’s remnants. Smoke and fire obscured everything. The trailer cam caught the last of the evasive cars, and less fortunate drivers, crashing or swerving away as sparks died with the trailer’s momentum. The syrupy stream in her headphones continued for a few moments of inaudible shock before Gail’s own voice piped up on the recording.

A few moments later, it was over. The fire was out. The smoke was gone. EMTs were rushing Ferrero away and fire-fighters were cutting into damaged vehicles to free their occupants. Gail suddenly felt the tension in her body. Her knuckles were white, gripping her chair’s armrests. Her body was poised forward, pulse racing: It could’ve been anyone– it could’ve been her. She swallowed hard at the thought, fished an old flask from a desk-drawer, and after a breath, took a long pull from it.

5.

The official press read;“FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE. Re: I-295 Accident. Lone-Wolfe shipping, and I in particular, would first like to extend condolences to the family of Buddy Ferrero, a veteran driver, and exceptional individual. He will be greatly missed.

In the wake of this tragedy, preliminary inspection has been carried out on vehicle footage and dispatcher recordings. In accordance with OSA standards, we are committed to discovering the cause of the accident be it through vehicle failure, driver action, or third-party neglect. Unfortunately, at this time, preliminary evidence is inconclusive.

It is acknowledged that a series of safety alerts starting moments prior to the accident alerted dispatch to a possible issue with the vehicle. Attempts to hail the driver were made with no success. Video footage, dispatch logs, and system alerts acknowledge that the vehicle in question was traveling at safe-highway speeds before its anti-lock brake and exhaust brake systems engaged. Error codes coinciding with video footage support that the vehicle’s suspension system attempted to compensate for over-steer at below-threshold speeds. The vehicle could not regain full-equilibrium before coming to a complete stop. Error codes corresponding with footage also show the vehicle’s safety systems properly engaged, but were unable to keep the vehicle from overturning.

The resulting damage tore away critical engine parts, severing further contact with the vehicle’s safety systems. Dispatch system-logs confirm the same markers, corroborating that no more can be found after the final code. A more-thorough examination of the vehicle is ongoing and all information garnered from it will be released upon completion. Until then, official cause of the accident remains inconclusive.”

The media cherry-picked it for nearly two full days, misquoting or intentionally obscuring Gail’s words until she was certain they’d made it their mission to spin the story against her. Interviews with NHSB talking-heads, drivers, union reps, and even politicians filled news-reels. Responses ranged from indifferent, to scathing or downright insulting. Gail expected them all, and was just as pissed as she knew she’d be.

Whatever happened would be impossible to determine until Darian had disassembled every last piece of the rig and examined it. What the IDOT crews hadn’t tossed in the garbage was shipped over and combed through equally. Darian remained tight-lipped.

Gail couldn’t think about any of that now. Buddy’s routes had been divvied between her and the company’s other, short-haulers. Schedules had to be kept, deliveries made. Personally, Gail needed to get away from the morbid air the damaged rig had infected the garage with. If nothing else, time on the road meant time to clear her head. A short haul was best for that, too long and it would have an inverse effect.

She packed her bag, did her pre-haul check, and saddled up the W900 for the jaunt between Oakton and Detroit. The sun was just setting when she pulled from Lone-Wolfe’s lot. The pick-up was across town, a few minutes of gridded streets and constant shifting led to a warehouse on the city’s edge. The fifth-wheel locked, truck idled long enough for her to scrawl a few signatures, and the haul began.

The promise of a long night and empty roads was enough to keep hope battling her demons. The shipment of fragile electronics forced her to focus just enough to combat what little made it through. Unfortunately, a momentary oversight in the mental routine she’d built let something slip through that sat in the back of her mind for the first half of the haul.

The rig eased up into an extra-long parking space outside a rest-stop, and the long-walk between the cab and the rest-stop entrance began. Stillness had commandeered the night, only distant highway-sounds to break it. Gail stretched her legs, used a restroom, then bought sodas from a machine. At either side of it, were other vending units tempting her with their dollar-and-change wares. One was a classic, glass-faced snack machine filled with junk food no-human could resist. The other was specialized, dripping with old, hot coffee from a dispenser beside locked paper-cups.

Gail knew better than to trust the coffee in the things; no person hoping to retain their bowels would ever drink from it. It was reserved for the few, inexperienced suckers on long car-trips willing to pony up cash for anything other than soda– in a place like this, that was a piping-hot colonic.

Gail opted for more salt and sweetness than a normal human being might be capable of handling, and headed back out to the truck. Better to drown one’s sorrows in food than self-pity. She fished out a bottle of water from her pack, and spread her bounty along the passenger’s seat and center cup-holders, needing only a glance to decide what to stuff her face with next.

In retrospect, it was the last positive thought she had the whole drive. The nagging surge of thoughts she’d suppressed began to spill over the hope-levee that had kept it contained. By the end, she was NOLA after Katrina; it would take months to fully beat back the waters, and even then, things would never be the same. The wave came on slow, as if the tides receded slightly. In fact they did, but such indications only mark the start of such catastrophe. As she reveled in the growing silence of her mind, sickness sparked a flare in her gut.

Had she known what was to come, Gail might have vomited in regret. Instead, the tidal wave struck. At once, terror and worry rushed in. The levee gave way. She suddenly understood Plant’s griping moans better. Anxiety tightened her chest; she shouldn’t have released a statement; she should have, but made it more personal; No, more impersonal, only facts; she should’ve waited to speak with the Union, the OPD, or the Illinois State Police; a million more things she should’ve done, and she’d done none of them.

The second half of the haul was like descending through Alighieri’s Inferno. Abandon hope all ye who enter here. She must have missed it, but it had to have been passed. Each level of worry was succeeded by more dread, more fear, more suffering.

By the time she reached Detroit, she wasn’t sure if she was living or dead. An argument could be made for either. The hellish fires abated long enough for her to meet a receiver at an electronics store, then returned full-force to accompany her back home. The relentless introspection worsened matters, soon proved almost everything she’d feared was coming true.

Hours later, she arrived back at the garage more haggard than she could ever recall. Marla had vacated the cot in her office, and despite running on roughly the same cycle as usual, she collapsed on it and fell into a dreamless, dead sleep. Her awakening only confirmed the hellish night had actually happened.

Her eyes opened on Marla standing over her. She’d evidently slept longer than usual, judging by the evening light streaming in from the frosted, office-window.

“Didn’t mean to wake you,” Marla said.

Gail sat up, rubbed sleep from her eyes, wishing she’d drank the bottle of liquor her head seemed convinced she had. “It’s fine. You need something?”

Marla inched her way in as Gail fell from the cot into her desk-chair. She only noticed Marla’s hands hidden behind her back when they appeared with a paper. She laid it on the desk, physically distanced herself against the impending explosion. Gail didn’t have the energy to explode, even if she’d wanted to. She blinked hard to focus her eyes on the newspaper, “NHSB to Lone-Wolfe Shipping; Not good enough.” Gail’s face formed a deranged look. She glanced between Marla and the paper, then again, then studied it to ensure its authenticity. The date alone confirmed it, but the headline seemed like a caricature of itself.

She skimmed the text, reading aloud, “NHSB says condolences aren’t enough… Issues statement to meet compliance standards, and… has asked that OPD’s Forensics team inspect the vehicle citing, quote, “the unreliability of internal company review…. due to possible refusals to admit fault?” The deranged look met Marla’s eyes again, “Are they outta’ their fuckin’ minds?”

Marla bit her lip, “OPD’s already on it. They’re afraid to appear soft on possible crime or neglect. It’s an election year, and Oakton’s Mayor’s campaigning for re-election so they’re–”

“Wait, wait, wait,” she sputtered out. “What do you mean OPD’s already on it?”

Marla was visibly tense, nearly drawing blood on her bit-lip, “We got a call from the Chief of Police, he’s facing political pressure. He wants to meet with you tomorrow morning with someone from their Forensics division.”

“Wonderful.” She put a hand to her head, thought to scream, but hurt too much to voluntarily add to the pain.

“That’s not everything,” Marla said sheepishly. Gail remained motionless. Marla’s voice cracked at first, “S-someone c-came in earlier today, while you were on the r-road. A Union Rep. He said the best thing to do is let OPD assist.”

Gail’s rage manifested in a throbbing temple, “I’m guessing there’s an “or else” in there.”

“Or else,” Marla began. She wasn’t sure how to phrase it. Gail sensed her sentimental well of tears bubbling to the surface and raised a single brow at her. “Or else, they’re going pull our cert, and we’ll all be considered non-union.”

“This just gets better and better.”

She threw her head back against the chair, closed her eyes to let the worst of the throbbing subside. The Police Chief and Local 413 were gunning for her. Whatever the hell she was going to do, she needed to do it soon. Otherwise, Lone-Wolfe was going to sink like a torpedoed cruise-liner. Along with it, all of her employees would go down, black-balled by the Union. None of her drivers would haul again. The only one likely to come out of it at all was Darian, but his reputation would be scarred forever.

She sat upright to find Marla staring at her feet and wringing her hands. “Why’d you draw the short straw?”

Marla’s eyes enlarged. She cleared her throat, “Oh, uhm. Well…”

“Spit it out already.”

“Everyone else figured I was the one you’d be least likely to explode on. I’m not sure why.”

Gail wasn’t either, but she had to admit a momentary amusement. It gave enough fuel to move forward. She shifted topics with a sweeping hand, “Tell Darian to be ready for the meeting tomorrow. I’m assuming the Union rep will be there?” Marla shrugged. “He will be. Make sure you’re here too.”

Marla’s face lit up, “Me? Why me?”

“You were there when I retrieved the rig. I need you to ensure I don’t get bull-rushed. You have to be willing to state what you saw, and emphatically ensure we aren’t hung out to dry.” She was definitely nervous, but gave a slight nod to comply. “Head home. I need you rested for tomorrow. Something tells me it’s gonna’ be a shit-show.”

At that, Marla scampered off with an obvious conflict. She appeared caught between fleeing at full-speed, bawling her eyes out, and slipping out without arousing suspicion of the previous two states. Their presence infected her gait with an unnatural, extra step that forced her to compensate. Gail rolled her eyes, nostrils flaring from other, more pressing issues.

The meeting tomorrow would only be the first of the shit-storm’s waves hitting. As much as she wished otherwise, hoped to keep it from being so, OPD and Local 413’s involvement signaled just how cocked-up the situation had become. NHSB may have been a fledgling watchdog group full of more blow-hards than a congressional whore-house, but she’d underestimated them. They’d obviously had more clout than she’d known, or enough in the right places that muscling in on the Union had worked.

It didn’t matter which way she sliced it, how she came at it, things weren’t looking great. Only the eventual conclusion of zero fault could save them now. Gail had her doubts. Lone-Wolfe’s reputation was already taking a hit, and the longer this lasted, the less likely they’d pull though it– if at all.

6.

The morning meeting came as much welcome as anyone had expected. It was 8 AM on the dot when the Union Rep pulled into Lone-Wolfe’s lot. The Chief of Police followed immediately. Little was said between them as they stepped for the door, brief-cases in hand. Gail had made coffee and forced Carl off the couches so she might sit with Darian and Marla across from the pair. The rest of the employees gawked one room or the other, hidden in shadows or at desks and chairs only half-listening so no-one would notice.

They laid out files and folders across the coffee table between them, set up audio recorders “for the record.” Gail figured that meant, “to sell to the nightly news.” She allowed it for the sake of moving forward, and began by introducing Marla and Darian.

“Marla and I were retrieved the vehicle after the accident. Darian is Lone-Wolfe’s crew-chief, and is inspecting it on grounds of his experience with it.”

The Police chief spoke first, and at Marla, as if singling her out for the weakest link, “And you submit the vehicle arrived in roughly the same condition it left the tow-lot?”

Marla eyed him, but spoke expertly, “The vehicle arrived here in identical condition. We have cell-phone photos to prove it.” She fished out fuzzy print-outs from a file-folder and set them up, “As well as high-resolution images of the rig’s arrival and unloading.”

She thumbed out a few pieces of photo-paper, and the Chief’s mouth squirmed. He’d expected her to be the weak link, not a well-spoken professional. Gail sensed almost immediately how in over his head he was; he’d made it through life bullying the weakest making his way forward from it. He’d expected to get through the morning the same way, but now couldn’t. Regardless of Marla’s standing in the three, she was still expertly skilled, however often Gail found fault with certain personality traits.

Gail hid smug satisfaction at watching the Chief squirm. He’d already revealed his agenda, and the whole damned building knew it. He wasn’t there to meet out justice. He was there to appease constituents and critics, crack-down on the little guy. Gail wasn’t little by any means, even less so a guy, and infinitely less of one to be fucked with so crassly. It was going to be one of those days, and everyone knew it now.

The Union Rep explained, “Local 413 is prepared to argue in your defense provided you meet certain criteria.”

“In our defense? Is someone taking this to court?” Darian asked suddenly.

“We’ve received word the NHSB is preparing a lawsuit to be brought to the state’s Supreme Court. As I said, we’re prepared to represent you, provided you allow a forensic investigator to assist in your examination of the vehicle.”

Gail fumed, but did her best to keep her cool, “What good’s a Union that can’t protect us?”

“That is what we’re attempting–”

“No. It isn’t,” Gail spat sternly. “You’re covering your own asses and throwing us to the wolves. All of this is politics and optics. If you had the clout you pretend to, it’d never go so far.”

“Need I remind you this conversation is being recorded?” The Chief said, mirroring her previous smugness.

“I’m allowed to be angry,” Gail said, clamping her jaw shut. “I’m allowed to admit that I feel we’re being hung out to dry. That the Union has only its own interests in mind concerning this case.”

“Gail, please,” Darian interrupted with a low hand. He eyed their visitors and Gail, “I see no reason not to allow a forensic investigator to observe, so long as that is all they do. I have a job to do with regard to the vehicle, and I intend to do it. I’ll comply as much as is reasonable. I can always use an extra set of eyes. That said, I can’t allow anyone to compromise my inspection. What I’m doing here will set the tone for everyone’s defense– be it Union, Lone-Wolfe, or otherwise.”

The Chief seemed to relax at Darian’s obvious command of the situation, “Very well. Then I’ll ensure you’re deferred to as authority during the inspection.”

“And so long as there is no evidence of non-compliance in this matter,” the Union Rep said. “Local 413 will be behind you every step of the way, but I warn you Ms. Wolfe, your company’s on thin ice, with the Union as well as the Press. You’re under the microscope for the time being.”

“Which means what?” Marla asked outright.

“We’ll be sending in representatives to observe and document the company’s work and responses to the investigation.” He managed a round-cheeked smile that made Gail want to knock his teeth in. “Consider it our own form of investigation regarding personnel and operations. Should everything check out, your certification within the Union will remain in good standing.”

“And if not?” Gail asked with a slight snarl.

He winced and rose from the couch, “Let us hope it does not come to that.”

The group rose with him, Gail’s arms firmly crossed as the two saw themselves out. She watched the garage door shut, then about-faced and marched into her office. Darian and Marla trailed after her, passing gawkers that did their best to suddenly appear casual. Gail sank in her chair while Darian and Marla stood before her.

“Shut the door,” she instructed them. Marla slipped away for a moment, returned with her arms crossed. “Darian, watch this… investigator carefully. Don’t fuck up your job over it, but make sure they’re not allowed access to anything sensitive. Especially on the rig.”

Darian nodded, “I’ll handle it.”

“Have you found anything yet?” He shook his head. “What’s the hold up?”

“What’s left of the rig’s pristine, or as much as it can be after the accident. So far though, it’s looking more like driver error.”

“Have we heard from the Cook County Coroner yet?”

Marla replied this time, “Someone took a call from the office yesterday, but they said it’d be a couple days before they released their reports. Apparently they’re backed up on paper-work, but Bud’s wife took possession of the body yesterday. She called in to alert us of it, and that she’d call back once they’d made the funeral arrangements.”

“You should go,” Darian insisted. “A lot of us have already decided to. Ferrero was a good guy, a friend to all of us. It wouldn’t be right not to. The dispatch crew’s spoken to one another about it, they’re planning to go in shifts.”

Gail heaved a sigh, leaned back in her seat with fingers tensed against her forehead. She hated funerals. They were an extension of people’s inability to accept things and move on. To her, “Closure” was just another word for attachment. She respected Zen philosophies most, ones where nothing was sacred and all things would pass. Anything else just seemed self-indulgent and delusional.

While she agreed with Darian’s assessment, not attending was still better than attending without a proper show of sympathy– or any for that matter. Sympathy was one of those emotions she had trouble with. It required a certain level of sentimentality, and she seemed to be losing what little she’d had by the day.

She straightened in her seat, “Fine. I’ll go. Marla, keep me informed of anything we hear.”

“And until then?” She asked simply.

“Help Darian and keep an eye on that squint when they come in. If I need you for something more, I’ll let you know.” She waved them off. “I need time to think.”

They nodded at one another and headed for the door, stepping out as someone else began to step in. The fleeing movements of their departure damn-near confirmed what the stink of money said before she looked up. She found herself eyeing M-T Inc’s leading, suited prick.

“Get out of my office and off my lot!” She shouted, nearly tipping her chair back as she stood.

“Ms. Wolfe, if you’ll allow me–”

“I won’t.” She reached for a phone on her desk. “Get out now, or I’m calling the police and having you charged with trespassing.”

He cleared his throat, “That won’t be necessary. Mechanized Transports merely wishes to extend our sympathies to you and your employees over the recent loss of your driver.” She lifted the phone to dial, but he stopped her, “And I’m certain, as this is my purpose here, it would only engender more negative opinion were you to have me accosted over it.”

Gail froze, poised with phone in-hand and finger ready to dial. She clenched her eyes shut for a moment, tensed her jaw, and flared her nostrils with a furious breath. She set the phone back on its receiver. “You have exactly twenty seconds before I hurl you off my lot with both hands.”

“I shan’t need more,” he said with a cocky half-smile. He set a briefcase on the desk, popped it open to produce a packet of papers. “In addition to our condolences, I am also authorized to present you with a copy of the offer-contract we’ve written up. Our price is more than fair, and I assure you we’ll hold to that offer as outlined.”

He set the packet on the desk, shut the briefcase. Gail couldn’t help it, she laughed– one, robust laugh that melded desperation with exasperation. “More than fair? You want to buy us off, gut the company, and eliminate the competition to further your corporate agenda.”

“I assure you–”

“Listen Mr. Wembley–” Genuine surprised that she remembered his name etched over his face. “My boots alone have twenty years on you. If you want to spout rhetoric, go home and practice in the mirror until you believe the bullshit you’re selling. I started this company. I built it with sweat and blood, and I’ve kept it running with good sense since then. Now you come in here, high and mighty, and expect me to roll over like you would. If you think I’d ever sell to you, you’re a lot more of a lost cause than I thought.”

His face turned to a scowl, clearly bothered by her slight, “You cannot hold out forever.”

“Watch me,” she challenged with narrow eyes.

He sneered toward the packet of papers, “That offer is contingent upon the public value of your company, Ms. Wolfe. The lower it goes, the lower we go.”

Her previous suspicions flared up in the back of her mind. Her voice turned low, venomous, “Don’t think I don’t know what’s going on here. You show up, and suddenly one of my drivers is dead. I don’t know how your company is involved, but I aim to find out. When I do, you won’t have paper enough to wipe your asses with.” His eye twitched, but he remained silent. “You’ve had more than your twenty-seconds. Get. Out.

A corner of his mouth twitched and he turned away, body considerably more stiff than before. The door to the office shut with a deliberate attempt not to slam it. Gail fell back into her seat, waiting a moment to recollect herself and contain her fury. In a perfect world, she’d have kicked the little shit through a window, smashed his head into a desk, then left him in a bloody heap outside Lone-Wolfe’s front-gate. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a perfect world, and any physical violence she might want to exact on the assholes trying to set her up would have to be transmuted into more-clever legal maneuvering.

One good thing seemed to have come out of everything though, however negative in the longer run: M-T’s involvement. She hadn’t been sure before. She’d wanted to believe it as a matter of personal pride, and because coincidences happened even less often than she knew they did. Wembley’s reaction though, confirmed M-T’s involvement.

She’d been on the fringe of the corporate world long enough to know that Corporations did two things; shouted denials when involved in lies, and went dead silent when caught with their pants down. It wasn’t just the companies as a whole though, it the individuals themselves, an extension of the so-called “corporate-culture.” Wembley was nothing if not an embodiment of that culture. No doubt he’d be running to their lawyers crying like a child to mommy when he got back to M-T’s offices.

As much as it was a win to discern involvement, it was a loss as a whole. She was now waging corporate war against the seemingly infinite resources of a modern mega-corp. On top of that, they had public opinion and a guard dog safety-bureau on their side controlling both her own Union and the local Police. However things wound up ending, it wouldn’t be pretty.

7.

It was just after lunch that OPD’s forensics rep appeared in the garage. Contrary to Gail’s expectation, it wasn’t a guy like Thacker with even thicker coke-bottle glasses. In fact, it wasn’t a guy at all. Her name was Nora Roselle, an English-born Oakton Crime Forensics officer who’d retained a slight accent from her youth. Darian was instantly smitten by it, however well he hid it. Gail sensed it in his over-accommodation and slight, dreamy-eyes. She eye-rolled internally, externally remained unchanged; Nora was good-looking, if slightly plain, but her accent and diction had enthralled the untraveled and intellectual Darian. They might’ve been an excellent match were it not for the circumstances surrounding them. Before long, the trio stood at the damaged rig, now in more pieces than it had arrived in.

Nora’s well-shaped brows and full lips inflected learned charisma on her speech. “I understand you have documented the process of disassembly.”

“Quite well, in fact,” Darian said, still somewhat dreamy.

Gail cleared her throat to snap him out of it. He shook off his entrancement and called over one of his crew– curiously, Gerald Rush, the married and less attractive of his two, currently unoccupied employees. He introduced Rush and set him about gathering their camera footage and inspection notes for Nora’s review.

“Thank you, Mr. Foster. It will help immensely to integrate me into things,” Nora said, the pout on her full-lips now evidenced as permanent.

“Please, Darian,” he corrected somewhat uncharacteristically.

If Gail hadn’t been standing slightly behind Nora, she’d have seen the world-tilting eye-roll that once more put Darian back in his own shoes. He said something Gail didn’t need to hear to know was flirtatious fluff-speak, and she cleared her throat again.

“Miss Roselle, if you don’t mind, I have a business to run. Is there anything you need form me?”

She reached into a leather briefcase, “This is a standard non-disclosure agreement stating that you may overhear privileged information during my time here. Often times, it is not regarding my work on the premises, but elsewhere. It is merely a safety protocol to ensure against information leaks.”

Gail nodded, “Fine. But I have over twenty other employees, I can’t sign for them.”

“They will be asked to sign separate disclosures,” Nora assured her.

“And if they don’t?”

Nora winced, “Then they may not be present during my time here. I’m sorry, I know it is an intrusion, but it is required.”

She took the packet, led the pair to the couches and table, and sat down to flip through it and scrawl her name on the last page. She handed it back, “Anything else?”

“No, thank you.”

Darian gestured Nora along, “Well, Ms. Roselle– may I call you Nora?”

“You may.”

“I’d be happy to review our information with you. I’m certain Rush has it compiled by now.”

“Very well,” Nora said, rising with him. She looked at Gail, “Thank you again for your cooperation, Miss Wolfe. I’ll do my best not to be a bother.”

Gail finally stood, “Clear things up. That’s all I care about. Good luck.”

Nora gave a courtly forward-tilt of her head and Darian led her to the far corner of the garage where his desk was sequestered. They disappeared around an edge of the damaged rig, and Gail blew a breath through her lips. At least someone’s day was looking up. Hers, on the other hand, was only looking to get more complicated. Almost immediately preceding Nora’s arrival, dispatch had received alarm codes on one of the short-haul rigs. Felicia Euwart, the driver, immediately confirmed the issue, but it had put everyone on-edge. ABS warning-codes had gone up, and Felicia lost pressure in her primary brake-lines, it wasn’t earth-shattering, and even Darian confirmed the rig had needed new brake-lines. With the state of things, he’d let it out on the road with the mind of replacing them on its next return, expecting they’d make it one last haul.

However understandably wrong he was, the extra time required to bring the rig back, exchange it for another, then haul its load to its destination would now put Felicia behind schedule. It was just enough, that she’d never make the next haul, assigned to her from Ferrero’s schedule. With most of their long-haulers on the road, and only Carl on his mandated time off left at the garage, Gail was forced to pick up the slack. In other words, after greeting Nora, she had enough time to go home, sleep off the day’s bullshit, then head for Northern Indiana.

Afternoon writhed and wriggled into night, passing only for Gail to rise more tired than usual. She chugged her latest mug of black-sludge coffee and made for the garage. The morning’s wee-hours found the office door spitting light across the garage’s outer-sanctum. The night-shift dispatchers were slumped at their desks, imbibing caffeine and barely visible from the angle, but Gail’s attention was drawn to low-lights glowing from Darian’s desk-area. She had more than enough time to dally before getting on the road, figured she’d scold Darian for skimping on sleep. She rounded the corner of Ferrero’s damaged rig, and found Nora poised over Darian’s desk with loads of paper-work atop it.

“Nora?” Gail asked approaching. “Why’re you still here?”

She didn’t respond. Gail eyed her oddly, then stepped up and laid a hand on her shoulder. She snapped ’round with a start. Gail lurched back, panted terror.

Nora yanked ear-bud headphones from her ears with a breathy, “Cry-st!”

Gail gasped, “Sonuvabitch! I think I need to change my pants.”

“I’m terribly sorry. I didn’t hear you.”

Gail recomposed herself, pushed onward, “What’re you still doing here?”

“I’m accustomed to long nights,” she admitted, finally catching her breath. “In my profession, it is a useful skill. I work a thirty-six hour days, sleep eight hours, then repeat.”

Gail sympathized, however apprehensively, “I know the feeling.”

She smiled, “I imagine I’d have been an excellent driver in another life.”

Gail nodded to the papers, “Quite a commitment to the job.”

“It is important I examine as much of the vehicle’s history as possible, however mundane. A faulty, third-party part could be as much to blame something factory-spec that never required replacement. In either case, the vehicle’s history will allow me to narrow it down as Darian has attempted.”

Gail leaned against a wall at the desk’s edge, “Any ideas yet?”

“No.” She picked up a sheet of paper, skimmed it, then met Gail’s eyes again. “But I have seen the video footage.”

“Off the record, what’s your assessment? Driver error?”

Nora seemed to consider if her opinion could be professionally damning, then relented, “Off the record, there is no way to be certain. Ever. Driver-error is always a possibility, but given the driver’s history, it’s too far of a stretch for my liking. Unfortunately, I can’t rule it out entirely without proper evidence. As far as the vehicle goes, nothing adds up.”

“How do you mean?” Gail asked with genuine intrigued.

Nora shuffled some pages, “These are all of the work orders on the vehicle’s maneuvering systems and suspension. All post-work diagnostics indicate perfect functioning, as far as the tests can tell. From what I can personally see, the vehicle was expertly maintained. Some evidence of this is only days old.”

Gail skimmed the pages with a look, “What’s it tell you?”

“Simply? That there was no earthly reason for that vehicle to act as it did.”

Gail’s skeptical look urged her to explain. She dug a laptop from beneath the mounds of papers, and flipped it open. Gail braced herself on the desk and chair from beside Nora. On-screen was a crude, wire-frame model of a T680. She keyed in a command and the wire-frame began to move as if traveling at highway speeds. All of a sudden, the rig jolted left, then right, left again. The model tipped and ground its side until it struck a guard-rail. Simulated debris rained behind it, smacked away like particles. The wedged rail caught the road, took the rest of the engine with as it broke free, and crude flames sparked on the overturned rig as it came to a stop.

Gail was suddenly aware of her white-knuckled grip on the desk and chair before her. Nora seemed to notice it too, tactfully ignored it. Gail eased from the tense poise and cleared her throat; it had been like watching the accident all over again, except every bit of the first-person dash-cam played over in her head atop the third-person render. It was horrifying, enough that even Gail’s hardened heart felt sympathy for Buddy’s last moments to have been in such fear.

Nora allowed Gail a moment to recollect herself, then explained, “As near as I can tell, the vehicle was traveling in a straight-line, at safe-speeds, in preferable road conditions. Nothing short of a driver error or an electrical failure could have caused the first swerve.”

“But you disagree it was driver error?”

She was careful, evasive for the sake of her job more than anything, “Personally, I do not believe that to be an issue. This was a deliberate motion, too instant and sudden for the drifting of a fatigued or inebriated driver. More-over, none of the preceding video shows any indication of driver distraction.”

“So, it was the electrical system?” Gail asked outright.

“Logic would suggest as much, given the video evidence. As I’ve said though, there is no mechanical reason for it to have happened.”

Gail went quiet for a long time, wondering how the findings might fit her M-T theory. For someone to sabotage the vehicle, as she suspected, they’d need access to it. Overlooking the obvious fact that it was damn-near impossible to get to, Gail wondered what they could have done to cause the accident. She’d been driving rigs long enough to know this wasn’t a frayed wire snowballing into a colossal fuck-up. If it had been, the rig would’ve shown signs before-hand, and it would’ve been caught during one of the vehicle’s inspections Darian and his crew had done.

But without clear evidence of tampering, Gail couldn’t point a finger at M-T without bringing a serious shit-storm upon herself. She suspected something would be found though. Even Nora seemed to be leaning toward that– in as much as her suspicions did not involve neglect by either driver nor mechanic. While Gail didn’t know much about the woman, her high-intelligence was obvious in her methods and demeanor. If others respected her as Gail expected, especially given the Chief of Police personally assigning her the case, her word might be enough to back up Gail’s suspicions if necessary.

“If you don’t mind my asking,” Nora said finally, breaking the silence. “What do you believe happened? You must have suspicions yourself, right?”

“Off the record?” Nora blinked once. “I think someone fucked with that rig, someone from M-T Inc.”

“Mechanized Transports?” She asked, accent drawing out certain syllables.

“Yes. The assholes have been trying to buy me out and I’m not interested. I wouldn’t put it past them to do something like this then hide behind their lawyers.”

Nora looked away to think. Then, with a resigned grimace, she met Gail’s eyes. “If that is the truth, it is all the more imperative we discover how they’ve done it. Otherwise, many more innocent people may die.”

8.

Gail waited a few hours to mull over her conversation with Nora. She’d come away from it feeling a little less like the whole world was against her. That Nora acknowledged even the possibility of Lone-Wolfe’s innocence kept her spirits up. Enough to wait out the morning in piled-up paper work, anyhow. By dawn, Darian had appeared in the shop, more pressed and dressed than usual. Gail prepped to run her pre-haul check and get on the road. She was anxious to drive. The last run may have been hellish, prescient in its way, but this could be the reprieve she’d sought. She was no longer waiting for the tidal wave to crash down. Instead, she was doing her best to eye the damage, clean up. She even had official help to do so.

She loaded up the W900, fired the engine. It wasn’t long before she was across town, trailer hooked up, and headed for the highway to Indiana. She kept her wits about her, but managed to relax for the first time in days. Oakton Shipping had taken an order for a steel haul to USX, to be delivered at US Steel’s Gary Works. It was a comparably short jaunt to most steel hauls. Usually, she’d pick up steel from USX or Mittal, haul it to anywhere from the East or West coasts to be used in Industrial applications. Easy treks from Oakton’s importing warehouse to the mills, were few, and further between. This time around, it was coils on a flat-bed chained “shotgun style” and secured with wooden 4x4s.

Ferrero’d always insisted on the shotgun style hauling coils. He’d become somewhat notorious for it between Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Illinois’ shippers. It was yet another reminder that his accident was out of character. He’d even take simple coil-hauls seriously. If hauled “Suicide” style, one slip of a chain could easily kill a driver by crushing their cab. Worse, it might murder the poor saps riding behind them. Gail had always been glad for Ferrero’s cautious nature. She was even more glad now that she’d been forced to fill in for Felicia.

In all the years she’d been driving, Gail’d avoided accidents. It was mostly luck. Most drivers had at one under their belt, usually from bumper-stickers– people riding a rig’s ass too and ending up eating trailer or bob-tail axles. Most of the time, they didn’t walk away unscathed. Other times, they didn’t walk away at all. It never ceased to amaze Gail the amount of CB traffic reporting accidents or near-hits.

It helped to keep off the CB, or out of open channels, anyway. She’d submerged herself in the “culture” enough years that it no longer felt necessary. Most of the new-age drivers didn’t use handles, or even for that matter C-Bs. Otherwise, there was no-one to talk to; each day more rigs were autonomous, computer driven. That was M-T’s contribution to the world. That was what they wanted for everyone. Every once in a while Gail’d see the driver-less cabs hauling refrigerated box-trailers or tarp-cover dump-trailers. It always forced a chill along her spine.

She caught site of one of the A-I rigs just past the Ohio-Indiana border. It looked like any other rig at first-glance. On longer inspection, there was a glaring lack of humanity to its driving. It didn’t need to constantly and minutely correct its steering. Instead, it was always “within tolerance.” At that, it never changed speed. The only other indications of anything out of the ordinary were evenly-spaced sensors along its exterior. A normal person might’ve missed them, but Gail’s hyper-alert experience with rigs homed in on them instantly.

Ice once more clambered along her spine; this was the future. Mindless algorithms. Sensors. No hearts pumping blood, no brains thinking. Their routes were cold, calculated, driven by programmers accountable for mistakes or success. People were the weak-link. She couldn’t help but see a future filled with these things. People were too unpredictable. They kinked the proverbial hose’s pristine flow necessary for their function.

For someone as admittedly as cold as Gail, she’d half-expected to find some measure of companionship in the idea. Instead, she felt her first moment of sentiment. With it, came the unassailable gut-sickness that it was merely from her place as a human in a human’s world. That world was fading fast. The rigs were just one symptom, one sign, of a deeper truth; she– and everyone else—were becoming humans in a computing world. Robots, drones, algorithms, A-I, sensors replaced security, cameras, drivers, the list was endless.

Her gut-sickness only increased as the Kenworth pulled alongside the A-I rig. Its M-T Inc logo glared at her from its door: Mechanized Transports. This was their fault. They’d flooded the roads with A-I rigs. Flooded the Unions with work-less drivers. They’d given shipping corporations incentives to cut out drivers– people and switch to machines. That left the smaller companies hanging by threads, incapable of competing with their profit/cost ratios.

Then, the bastards had the gall to try to by her out. It forced her to become even more of an ice-queen bitch than she’d been. When she declined, they’d turned public opinion against her. Like others, she was just trying to make ends meet. M-T and the like managed to smear them, and kill off an American tradition in the process. But they weren’t content with that. When Gail continued to refuse, they murdered one of her drivers. She wasn’t sure how yet, but between Darian and Nora’s investigations, she would learn how. In time, she’d set fire to M-T, that prick Wembley, and their reputation. Then, she’d sit back and watch them burn to the ground.

She sighed. The road emptied of the few cars around her. They dispersed along merges or ramps. She’d left the A-I rig far behind her, hammered-down just to keep her mind elsewhere. She eased off the throttle, let the speedometer sink back toward the speed-limit. The last thing she needed now was a speeding ticket.

Judging by the yard-sticks, she wasn’t far into Indiana. Roughly two-thirds of the trip still remained. If she was lucky, the haul would only take a few more hours. She might still make it in and out of Gary without excess headaches. She wasn’t holding her breath. The place was usually a nuthouse of rig-jockeys fighting for what few hauls weren’t already automated. She was already certain she’d be driving back load-less, wasting fuel and time, but it couldn’t be helped. Ferrero would’ve stayed overnight, waited for another load to be arranged before returning. Gail didn’t have that luxury. Too much needed to be done with the media-circus. Plus, she needed to ready to attend Buddy’s funeral at the drop of a hat.

The road was clear. The sun had just begun shining alongside the highway. Dew still clung to reflectors and guard-rails. Infinite droplets gleamed in sheets along grassy plains that buffering woods and civilization from asphalt. The tranquil serenity Gail had always sought during her hauls returned just in time for the gut-sickness to ramp up. Whether one caused the other, she wasn’t sure.

The brake pedal twitched near her foot. She had enough time to say “What the hell.” Thacker was squawking over her CB. Her hand lifted for it. The rig jerked left. Her stomach dropped. Her pulse started into a sprint. Her hand locked back on the wheel. The rig jerked right. The wheel went with against her will. She recalled Ferrero’s accident, anticipated the next swerve. The rig went left again. Her hands worked. Exhaust and air brakes screamed and chattered, piercing the silent dawn. The trailer brake locked up. The rig was doing its best to come to a stop. It screamed in defiance of the forces acting on it. Technology and physics tugged at it.

The wheel jerked right again. The rig readied to tip. The brakes squealed, chattered, chirped. It couldn’t anymore. Gail’d bled enough speed. The coils weighed too much. Thacker’s voice was frantic. Gail wasn’t listening. She was too focused. She threw on her hazards, blared her air-horn. The rig tried to swerve again, still couldn’t. Gail wrenched the wheel right as it fought for the left. It threw her onto the shoulder. Angry hornets growled beneath the tires from the shoulder’s rumble-strips.

The screams, squeals, and growls waned with the last of the rig’s speed. When it finally came to a complete stop, a quarter mile of smoke trailed behind Gail. A few cars zoomed past in the fast lane. One blared its horn. Somewhere in the back of Gail’s mind, she wanted to flip the bird. The rest of her was too focused on keeping her heart from seizing. She sat, body locked with both feet on the brake and Thacker’s voice badgering her. She breathed, put the rig in neutral, and killed the engine– whatever happened couldn’t continue if the truck was dead.

“Thacker, I read you. Confirm codes–” She rattled off a strings numbers. “I’m pulled over on I-74 just outside Shelbyville. I’ve got a serious problem. Find Darian. Put him on the closed-channel.”

“10-4, Gail. Glad to hear you’re in one piece,” he wheezed, as near to cardiac arrest as Gail felt.

She downed a half-bottle of water before Darian sounded on-air of their private CB channel, “Go ahead, Boss.”

She leaned out the driver’s window, eyeing her mile-long skid-marks, “I’m just outside Shelbyville. My rig’s shot. I need a pick up and exchange with one from the garage.”

He sensed she was avoiding saying too much, “10-4, Boss. Dispatch has your GPS. I’ll tow another rig out myself, prep the other back for inspection.”

His shortness told Gail exactly what she hoped to hear; he’d sensed her subtext and knew to haul the rig to examined it against Bud’s. Hopefully, she wouldn’t total another rig hauling the coils, but the risk had to be taken. At the very least, if something else happened, she’d be ready now.

“Copy, dispatch. I’m issuing operations cease as of today. Have the other drivers finish their hauls and report back. Until we inspect the fleet, I want the rigs under lock and key. And keep Roselle with you. Tell her to use her badge.”

“Dispatch copies,” Darian said a moment later. “ETA two-hours to meet. Sit-tight.”

“10-4.”

Gail threw her head back. It wasn’t often she stared death in the face. That she’d lived through it was almost a stroke of pure luck. The rig had been too heavy. Her memory too attuned to the Ferrero’s dash-cam. She’d recognized the vehicle’s attempts to execute the same maneuvers. However it had been done before, it had obviously been duplicated here.

Darian had flown at top-speed in one of the company flat-bed’s, arrived a half-hour ahead of schedule. Ben Schrier’s Freightliner Cascadia occupied the flat-bed, had just been in for minor repairs. Schrier was currently on vacation with his wife and son somewhere in Florida. Gail helped the pair to lower it off the flat-bed, then carefully maneuvered through the growing traffic to set up for the trailer-hookup. Darian pulled in front of the W900, used the flat-bed’s tow-winch to drag it up the bed and disengage the fifth-wheel. They weren’t about to take chances turning the engine back on.

Gail fitted the Cascadia’s fifth-wheel to the trailer, secured it, then dragged the trailer the rest of the way onto the shoulder. She climbed down and out, engine idling, and met up with Darian and Nora at the rear of the flat-bed. Its hazards flashed, attracting a gawkers in the fast lane. Darian was testing the last of the chains as Gail approached.

“Don’t report it yet.”

Nora’s jaw clenched slightly, “I’m afraid I have to. It’s my job.”

“Not yet,” Gail said firmly. “Confidentiality. Use it. We have to ensure no-one outside the company knows this rig’s compromised. If someone finds out, it could corrupt your investigation.” Nora’s face stiffened at questionable logic. “I know that rig is safe. I’ve driven it for fifteen years. But that’s not everything.”

Nora was uncertain, but resigned to hear Gail out, “How do you mean?”

Darian appeared. “Everything’s green. Ready when you are.”

Gail stayed him with a hand, “Ferrero.”

“You nearly lost control?” Nora asked pointedly.

“I did lose control, Nora,” Gail said carefully. Darian was leaning in now, focused over the sounds of traffic. “The swerving was a point-for-point match. The only difference was that I was heavier, recognized it, and compensated before it completely took over.”

“It? You mean the rig ?” Darian asked skeptically.

“Or whatever’s compromised it.”

Nora shook her head, “This is asinine, Gail. You’re jumping at shadows. You need–”

Gail cut her off, “Someone has done this! They murdered Ferrero. Now they’ve tried to take me out.” Darian and Nora exchanged a disquieted look. Gail sighed frustration. “Just take the rig back. Tear it down. Find the problem. I’m going to Gary. You two hail me on the CB if you find anything. Keep it quiet otherwise.”

Darian shrugged, “We’ll do what we can.”

Nora agreed. “I’ll hold off on anything formal for now.”

“Thank you,” Gail said with genuine gratitude.

The trio dispersed. Gail started out again for Gary again. Whatever the hell had happened, her body was still stuck in it. Mentally, she’d deduced that the danger had passed, but her stomach was knotted and her heart still in her throat. Most of all, she was angry; angry that Nora had doubted her, that Ferrero had been killed, that she could’ve easily been next. However it had been done, she felt M-T’s hand in it through her knotted gut. Whatever hand that was, Ferrero’s blood was on it. Bud may not have even been the first? Who knew how many they’d killed, or could.

Gail couldn’t be sure, but if she had her way, this attempt would be the last. All she had to do was wait for the evidence, then take her opportunity when it came. M-T would burn for this.

9.

The delivery and flip-flop from Gary was otherwise uneventful. Gail was grateful. She’d had enough of a close-call to last another twenty-years. Before signing off, Thacker alerted her to Darian and Nora’s return. Brianne took over. Minutes later, she relayed news from Sharon Ferrero; Bud’s funeral was set to be held in two days. Gail confirmed with a “10-4,” and dispatch fell back into its idle chatter on the CB. It followed her back home, a constant thrum of noise in a mind too fatigue-wracked to notice it.

Gail found the garage in a somber mood. The T680’s damaged husk was had been torn down to its basic components. Everything from the engine block, down to the remaining lug-nuts were arranged in specific fashions. It was like someone had sent the 680 through a time-warp, with only the scored, charred, or road-rashed parts to separate it from a yet-to-be assembled new vehicle. Likewise, Gail’s W900 had become the focal point of the crew-chief and OCF’s attentions. Together, they were disassembling the engine and its various parts, aligning them in the meticulous fashions, or comparing them to the T680’s.

Gail was glad to see Nora getting her hands dirty. The rest of Darian’s crew had sequestered themselves to the garage’s edge. Whether ordered there, or gravitating there, they did their best to watch without gawking and speak in silences. At Gail’s appearance, the entirety of the garage eyed her. She caught onto it in a flash. Dozens of eyes darted away, as though somehow guilty through inaction. Gail hesitated, bag on her shoulder.

At the sound of the door, Marla stopped mid-pace between couches. She caught Gail’s gaze, and the gaze of the garage eyeing her. Half-snoozing on a couch, Carl was jerked awake by Marla’s sudden burst of movement. She rushed Gail: a million worried questions spilled from the girl. Each one welled more water into her eyes. Gail swallowed hard, paradoxically comforted and uncomfortable by the level of water she’d engendered. She almost seized up from the opposing states.

She cleared her throat, “Marla, thank you, but I’m fine.”

Marla’s eyes gleamed, “Are you sure? Can I get you anything?”

Gail shook her head as Carl rose from his half-sleep. “Hey Gail, knew ya’d pull through!”

Gail threw him an affirming eye, and turned for her office, “Marla, unless you can turn back time and resurrect Ferrero, there’s nothing you can do.”

Marla followed like a puppy, nipping Gail’s heels, “I would if I could, believe me.”

Gail quietly rolled her eyes. She was less exasperated than displaced. So much had gone wrong so fast. It had been one thing after another, since Bud’s death. There’d been days between certain things, but the time-lapses were too enveloped in shock. No proper comprehension of things could come from them. Even the short-hauls Gail had caused more problems. There had been no escape.

Gail needed to reassess, view things from all angles. Whatever she’d missed would be there, between the lines. Only a proper examination could reveal or connect them. She sat down at her desk with Marla at attention before her.

“Give me some time to think.” She slipped a company credit-card from her desk, “Get lunch for us. Take your time.” Marla nodded quietly, took the card. “And close the door on your way out.”

Marla left. The door shut. Immediately, Gail had a glass on the desk. She poured two-fingers of whiskey from her flask. She sipped once, then set it down to fix her eyes on the remaining liquor.

Everything pointed toward her refusal to sell. Ferrero’s damaged rig rang too reminiscent of sabotage. Nora’s assertions only furthered the feeling. The accident and the sale were easily linked, at least in her mind. She’d need proof to convince others, but it wasn’t necessary for her to think on it.

M-T was angry about her refusal to sell. That much was obvious. That the accident occurred only hours after had triggered Gail’s mental alarms. Instinct or not, she knew she was right. Then there was the ongoing campaign against Local 413 and the industry. Somehow, this was linked to that– either through M-T, or as a result of their malice.

The Union had long been fighting the NHSB. It had always been at the latter’s loss. Until recently, the watchdog group had only minor influence. Usually, over officials or politicians the Union had long been allied with. Now, they were making massive strides in their agendas, forcing 413 to kowtow to their demands or face very public repercussions. There could be only one reason for that; power. Where grabbing for more, or as the result of a shift, all of this revolved around power.

But in the business world, money was power. Gail’s only fears of losing to M-T spawned from that. Mechanized Transport was big. Their Oakton division’s bottom-lines could buy and retrofit Lone-Wolfe’s fleet a hundred times over. Oakton was only one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of divisions. Mechanized Transports was like a hydra. It was big, amorphous, and well-rooted in the world and its economy. Even if she managed to prove wrong-doing on Wembley or the other pricks’ parts, there was no doubt the beast would just lop off the withered heads to grow new ones.

Comparatively, Gail was flea’s tits on a big red dog’s ass. Small. M-T Inc could scratch her from existence without even realizing it, or caring. That obscurity had been important. Until the refusal to sell made her known to them, they’d had no more care of her than she had for a bug splattered on her grille during a long haul. Now they saw her. It was bad news. That hydra had turned at her, and was rearing. Bud’s death wasn’t even the rigid crack of a vertebrae below a single head.

Gail employed a little over twenty employees. M-T had somewhere on the avenue of three times as many bathroom attendants in the US alone. That, to say nothing of the scores of blood-thirsty lawyers and money hungry executives. Now, every single one was turning at her. The odds were not in Gail’s favor.

Even the NHSB wasn’t comparable. Some members were independently wealthy, but used the organization to bolster their clout and waste others’ time. That was how they’d been overlooked as a threat. No one in the organization had wanted their agenda to pass. If it did, the NHSB ceased to grab headlines, make profits off donations, garner publicity. If it succeeded, it ceased to be relevant. The NHSB’s motivations had always reeked of money to Gail. Always.

Something was different now. The recent flexes of authority reeked of motivation. As if it were all part of a longer game-plan with no room for failure at this level. Not because it couldn’t tolerate it. Rather, because the plan said this level wasn’t open to failure or success. The NHSB didn’t work like that. They never had. Moreover, neither their donors nor members had the private fortunes required to squeeze the Union.

But Mechanized Transports most certainly did.

Since their inception, over a decade ago, M-T had grown into a thorn in shipping’s side. And Gail’s too. Whether private or unionized, drivers and owners alike loathed them. The one-time, meager software company grew big, brass balls almost overnight: Clever maneuvering made them a monstrous entity looking to monopolize an industry they’d never been part of. Their strategy for doing so was swallowing and downsizing the competition so fast and severely it kneed the guts of anyone watching.

It wasn’t anything that hadn’t been attempted though. Since the first boat owner began charging to ferry things across a river, to the trans-pacific railway and modern rigs and air-freight, people and companies big and small had vied for the biggest slice of the transportation pie. M-T had ruffled feathers by coming in and trying to take over. They weren’t a shipping company. Not really. They did R-and-D for A-I and self-driving cars. Yet, they were suddenly trying to dominate the industry. They were attempting to take over, to monopolize a behemoth so massive and enormous most others had quit trying.

And, above all, they were succeeding.

One, particularly successful software contract allowed M-T to patent and trademark designs for a self-driving freight-vehicle. The first public tests succeeded. Their stock soared. Larger companies lined up to purchase tech from them. They were literally eating their industry’s poison out of M-T’s hands. Willingly. With a smile. All to save a few bucks and remove the “human” problem.

The smaller companies felt the change too, however indirectly. Drivers began demanding more from the Unions. More money. More vacation. More work for them. Less work for others. The Unions agreed. 413 agreed. The Unions forced new rules, used Senate and Congressional lobbying to push laws. The five-year unemployment report suddenly stated that 70% of drivers had been replaced by the new tech. People panicked. The Unions panicked. M-T profited. Like a creature thriving on chaos.

Things could only get worse.

M-T owned the patents to all the tech involved; software, sensors, GPS chips and monitors, everything. At every turn they banked off the upheaval. That money built fleets of driver-less vehicles, further dominating shipping.

Now to keep public support, they were buying up as many of the smaller companies as possible. Buying up and buying off. M-T were securing the silence against their actions. They’d partnered with larger corporations both stateside and internationally. The move was as much for the acquired companies’ profit as assurances of long-term survival. That survival though, was contingent on M-T’s whims. If they weren’t earning, they were non-existent.

As Gail figured it, this was about power– monetary power. That meant the pressure coming from the NHSB was fueled by M-T’s money. If not directly, then by some middle-man. She’d make a point to have Nora look into it. If she could prove her suspicion, she might further connect the rising political pressure, and thus M-T’s involvement, to the accident.

She was at a total loss for how she’d do that though. In fact, most of the “how” of things was so far elusive. How could M-T have hidden the money-transfer from the public? How had they managed, together, to pressure the Union and the OPD with it? How had they caused the accident? If it involved tampering with the rigs, how had they gotten to them?

The more she wondered at it, the more she went in circles. She was almost wholly absent when Marla returned with lunch. She’d knocked once on the door and let herself in. Gail was completely unaware until she appeared in her peripheral vision. Marla said something. Gail’s eyes finally rose from the glass.

“What?” She asked, oblivious to Marla’s remark.

“I said you look intense,” Marla admitted, setting a bag of food on the desk.

“I’m thinking,” she said, more caustically than she meant– a result of the bend her thoughts had taken.

Marla’s voice shied away, “Uh… okay. I’ll leave you to it, then.”

Gail eased her body forward, rubbed her forehead, “No. Stay. I could use the company.”

Marla brightened, but managed to keep her spirits contained. She sat before Gail’s desk, dug through her food-bag to eat. Over the crinkle of paper-bags, Gail drained her whiskey and replaced the glass and the flask in her desk. They were quiet for a few minutes until all that remained were the sounds of chewed food and sucked straws.

Marla clearly found it awkward, but hid it well in the few words that slipped past a cheek-full of food, “Mind if I ask what you were thinking about?”

Gail raised an eyebrow sarcastically. It seemed an unnecessary question. Marla must have missed the gesture, or deliberately ignored it, and instead stared for an answer.

Gail found her voice, “The accident.” Marla nodded over a sip from her straw. “I was thinking; “how?”

Marla squinted an eye at her, “How what?”

“How any of it.” She reiterated, “How’d someone force the Union to investigate, or pressure the Police Chief into political fears? How’d someone sabotage my rig, and Bud’s, and how’d they find the opportunity?”

Marla nodded with a distant stare. She chewed the last of her food, swallowed it down, “You’re thinking sabotage? That someone did this to you– and Buddy– so they could pressure the Union and police to investigate? To what end?”

“The pressure in itself,” Gail admitted. Marla’s brow furrowed. “Think about it. We have a massive corporation trying to buy us out so they can phase-out our drivers and monopolize the industry. Hours after we, again, reject their offer, the papers are warning the Union to integrate A-I rigs. Then, moments later, we lose a veteran driver with no history of accidents. What about that doesn’t scream sabotage?”

Marla looked away again, her mind elsewhere, “When you put it like that…”

“Exactly,” Gail said, finishing the last of her meal.

Marla finished eating in silence, mind elsewhere as she puzzled something out mentally. When she was able to speak again, she shoved leftover trash into a bag. More crinkling paper sounded beneath a long sigh, “We’ll if you’re right, then we’re screwed no matter what we do.”

Gail was taken aback, “What?”

Marla winced, shoved the bag into a trashcan beside her, and sat upright to address Gail seriously, “If someone’s sabotaging the company, and our fleet, they’ll find some way to keep doing it.” Gail was speechless. “Gail, admit it, we’re small fish. Even though the pond’s the same size as it’s always been, the bigger fish are taking over. They’re being helped by progress. By technology. If history’s any indication… well, drivers will be going the way of the Pony Express.”

Gail’s face stiffened with a stubborn will, “Not if I can help it.”

Marla shook her head, preempting any outburst Gail might’ve planned, “No. You can’t. And the more you try, the worse it’ll be for you. For all of us. Technology is the future, Gail. More than that, it’s the present. Every day, more and more people put their trust in it. It’s only natural. It’s like writing, or speaking. Communication as a whole. It’ll take over as much as possible. Romanticizing something beneath it, and fighting its evolution, is swimming against a current. Eventually, if you don’t adapt, if you don’t let the current take you, it’ll overwhelm you. You’ll drown in it.”

Gail stared at her. Wherever the insight had come from, she’d underestimated Marla and her perspective of things. She couldn’t help but think back to the Police Chief and his singling her out as the weakest link. Maybe Gail had been it after all.

“The way I see it,” Marla said. “You can either change– adapt– and swim with the current, or get out of the river. Either way, change is coming. For you. For them. For the industry. Maybe me too, but I don’t know. Mechanics are always needed somewhere. That’s how we’ve survived. My schooling consisted of more technical training than any class before me, and that was years ago. The trend won’t have stopped.”

The door opened behind Marla. Both women found Nora standing in the doorway. She’d stopped short, but the grave look on her face forced her inward. “Forgive my interruption,” she said with unequivocal gravity. “But we’ve found something.”

10.

Gail and Marla rushed from the office with Nora. They moved so fast the dispatchers strained just to see them leave. Standing before Darian, they were suddenly wishing they hadn’t eaten lunch. He held an engine control module– a large computer-chip Gail knew to be hard-wired for safety protocol deployment– with its casing removed to the bare circuit board and the myriad of transistors, resistors, and miscellanea. What made Gail want to toss her lunches was significantly smaller.

Darian had it held up by two fingers beside the heavy module. It was small, square. A pair of short prongs protruded from it, bent as if violently tossed about and wedged somewhere.

“This is it.”

Gail was almost forced to squint. Marla was already a mile ahead, “Another transistor, right? What’s the big deal?”

“It’s not on the specs,” Darian said.

“It’s not supposed to be,” Nora added.

“And judging by the lack of wear, it was put on in a recently.”

Gail’s head began to spin. Every question she thought to ask was like a dam. Thought-rapids wanted to rush in. She stammered a few words through the spinning, “Wh-what does it mean?”

Nora and Darian exchanged a look, but Marla responded. “You were right,” she said, hands on her hips. “Someone did this.”

Gail’s head shook. Her eyes fell to her feet. A hand went to her forehead, “I can’t believe it.”

Darian grimaced, “It was your suspicion.”

“I must admit to some skepticism myself,” Nora added.

Gail steadied herself on the Kenworth’s fairing, sat down against it. She took a few, deep breaths. The group shifted and reformed before her. She kept her eyes closed, mind on her breaths. She wanted to explode in a murderous rage, but it wouldn’t help. Even if she’d had someone worthy nearby, she couldn’t have let it happen. However stubborn and hot-tempered she was, this was a time for caution. She needed to be smart, above all. Flying off the handle would only complicate matters.

“Okay.” She repeated it a few times to keep calm. Her hands visibly shook, but she kept her eyes shut. “Okay.” Her voice quivered, “J-just walk me through it. What do we know?”

The trio exchanged looks, hoping to decipher which of them was least likely to incur her wrath. Nora drew the short straw. It was for the best. She was a neutral party. Given her background, she could lay everything out as factually as it was. What was more, she had a voice that could soothe long before enraging.

Nora sighed, spoke as though writing a report. “The facts, as I see them, are this: After examining the video footage, I have concluded the accident’s cause was not driver error. In addition, upon examination of the vehicle’s history, it appears to have functioned nominally through expert maintenance. Furthermore, upon inspection of the vehicle’s remnants, possible evidence of tampering was located on the Engine Control Module. When compared to a stock model of said module, the suspect chip was not found. Thus, it is conclusive the suspect chip was placed there by a third-party.”

Gail nodded, opened her eyes. She swept the other two with a look, came to a rest on Nora, “What’s the purpose of this module?”

Darian cleared his throat, “An ECM is a common component of every road-vehicle. Among other things, it’s responsible for the control and priming of safety features, triggered by various instrumentation readings– speed, brake pressure, fuel-level, etcetera– in order to better protect accident-victims or to avoid accidents entirely.”

Gail stared at her thumbs. The group sensed her mind working, allowed it. Her face was intense, brows knitted and touching over a tight jaw. “Having seen the accident footage,” she said finally, eyes darting between Darian and Nora. “Would it be possible for the ECM to be manipulated in such a way as to cause it?”

Nora eyed Darian. Admittedly, she was out of her element there. Darian knew rigs inside and out. She knew most mechanical skills through a rigorous application of discipline, deductive logic, and research.

He seemed to sense her ignorance, “I can’t say, definitively, until we can access the chip’s firmware… but my best estimate is, “yes.” Gail asked him to clarify. “Those chips were put there for a reason, and not by my crew. Likely too, when the rigs weren’t being serviced. Which means they were in the yard. You’d have seen it happening on the road during a rest-break.”

Nora was nodding along, working her deductive mind to form a theory, “It would have been at night. They might have been caught otherwise. But that also means they’d need knowledge of the usual comings and goings to ensure they had enough time to plant the chips.”

“Intimate knowledge.” Darian said with a sweeping look. Marla’s mind was working, it showed on her face. He eyed Nora again, “You think someone’s been watching the yard?”

“Or the company, yes.”

“Or they’re in the company,” Marla said finally, eyes glistening.

For a moment, Gail thought it was tears, but something insightful flared behind it. She might have overlooked it on a normal day. Today was anything but.

“That doesn’t make sense,” Darian countered. “Who here’d risk their job or their friends’ lives?”

“Why do anything malevolent?” Gail retorted. “Power.” Her nostrils flared like a bull ready to charge. She kept herself contained, “But in the business world, money is power.”

“You think someone sold us out?” Darian asked with shock.

Nora’s mental gears were turning again, “Logically, it makes the most sense. A disgruntled employee, or former employee seeking revenge.”

“No,” Marla said.

Gail agreed, “We don’t have people like that here.”

“No, what I mean is, it isn’t someone former.” The trio looked to see what she’d puzzled out. She left them in suspense to better convince them: “It’s someone hurting. Someone that needs money. Has nothing to lose. Someone who feels there’s nothing sacred left, because they’ve been betrayed, so betrayal feels right. Fitting. Someone… like Carl.”

Gail’s eyes bulged. “Jesus Christ!”

Darian stared, open mouthed. Marla’s jaw clenched, “Earlier, what he said to you–”

I knew you’d pull through!” Gail repeated. “The son of a bitch knew it was going to happen.” She stood fast, “He planted the chips when he was sleeping here, between shifts. Then, when he saw we were getting close earlier, he took off.”

Gail moved to start jogging away, but Nora stopped her, “Wait. Gail. This is supposition. You need proof. Arrests cannot be made on hunches. OPD could never put him away for it. Any Judge in the state would overturn it.”

Gail stopped in a poise, “I can get evidence.” Nora was hesitant. Gail motioned her along. The other two followed on instinct. “We don’t have security cameras in our lot because they’re useless. No-one keeps anything in the rigs when they’re here, and any insurance claims are usually automatic for theft.” She pushed out into night, marched for the yard’s front-gate. “Not to mention rigs aren’t exactly the easiest things to drive. It was something I had to compensate for when I installed all of the dash cams. We could afford lot-surveillance, or road-cams, not both.”

“So? Where are we going?” Nora asked, oblivious. Marla and Darian kept stride, evidently aware of Gail’s bend.

She waited for cars to pass, then jogged across the road, the group in-step. “Two years ago, I filed an insurance claim for damage to our perimeter and one of our rigs. A drunk driver slammed into the fence, up-ended over the wall, bent the wrought-iron, and landed upside down on the fifth-wheel of one of our Macks. The police got involved and learned the lot here–” she said, crossing to a small, local courier company. “Has camera’s facing the road that also have views of our front-lot.”

“And you think they’ll have video footage of the tampering?”

“It’s worth asking.”

“Would Carl have known about them?” Nora asked.

“No,” Darian said, recalling the accident. “He was on a long-haul from Georgia to Oregon at the time. When he got back, it was long over.”

Gail marched for the door, “You have a badge?” Nora’s brow pinched tight over a nod. “Use it. Get them to give us the tapes.”

She nodded. Gail threw open the door, entered into a small lobby and waiting room. It looked like the front of a clinic. Gail knew the appearance to be deceiving. Behind the windowed reception-desk was a complex of accountant and employee offices spanning the distance between the building’s entrance and its sorting floor. From there, courier trucks were loaded with deliveries.

The group approached the window and the young blonde there looked up with habitual boredom. At first, Gail sensed another air-headed Brianne, but the obvious presence of a personality infected her voice with slight fear voice.

“C-can I help you?”

Gail urged Nora forward. She cleared her throat and removed a badge from her belt, held it out as her accent firmed with authority, “I’m Nora Roselle with the OPD, I need to see your supervisor.”

Five minutes later they were meeting with a balding man with coke-bottle glasses that appeared to be Walt Thacker’s long-lost, identical twin. Ten minutes later, they were in a security office watching a progress bar fill on a flash-drive’s transfer prompt. By the time they’d returned to the garage and slotted the drive into Gail’s computer, her fury had turned to determination. It spread to the others. The files transferred over to her hard drive and opened into pairs to the two angles the courier company had of Lone Wolfe’s lot.

“This could take some time,” Gail admitted, watching the near-endless loop of stationary images. The only of progress was the occasional, lone car or pigeon flitting past in the street-lights.

“Jump to the night before the Gary delivery,” Marla said. “Between midnight and three. That’s when no one was in here.”

Gail did. She doubled and tripled the playback, stopped around 1 AM when someone had slipped outside in shadow. It was difficult to tell for certain, but Gail sensed Carl’s presence. He strolled across the lot, came into sharper focus. His face was still hidden by the grainy, wide-view, but she knew it was him. He had something in his hand. His head swiveled both ways. Headlights split the darkness from one side of the road.

Nora pointed, “There, that frame.”

Gail rewound, slowed the playback. Headlights hit Carl’s face. “It’s him. I know it.”

“It’s not good enough for a court-case, but I might be able to clean it up.”

“He hasn’t done anything yet,” Darian reminded them.

Gail resumed the playback. The four poised orward to watch. The headlights hit Carl’s face again. He continued forward, suddenly ducked down. Gail’s brow furrowed, but it and her eyes quickly slacked in sheer amazement.

“That son of a bitch!” She growled, watching her car pull to the far-side of her rig as Carl hid beside it. “That son of a bitch! I was right there!”

She knew what would happen next. She watched in utter amazement at the sheer audacity the man contained. Her figure angled up from the far-side of the truck, headed for the garage. Carl’s head and body tracked her, a tool-pouch in his hand coming into focus. He watched her enter the garage, and didn’t even wait to open the rig’s door. He slipped in. Moments later he was at its side, lifting the hood.

Gail wanted to explode. She kept herself composed with planning. She was going to bury the bastard. Then, as soon as possible, M-T with him.

The playback finished and she was grabbing her jacket to head from the office. “Darian, crack the code on that chip. Nora, come with me.”

Marla rushed after them. “I’m going with.” Gail hesitated at the door, eyed her. Her face hardened, “I’ve earned the right. He killed Buddy. He almost killed you. I want him to tell us why.”

Gail studied her a moment, then relented, “Fine. Let’s go.”

11.

Carl’s house was a little place on the edge of Oakton and Masseville. It was once a nice, quaint place to live. Following his divorce, Carl’d let the place go. The yard was a jungle of knee-high thistle and rough grasses. Even its expertly-maintained past couldn’t downplay its abandoned look. The beat-up Chevy rolled up to the house and came to a stop. It’s occupants look to Gail.

She glanced back at Marla, then to Nora beside her, “Are we covered here?”

“Yes and no,” Nora admitted. “But we know he’s ready to run. We can’t risk losing him.”

Gail needed clarity. “How d’we know that?”

“He was in the garage earlier. Darian and I were combing engine parts. He would have known we were going to find the chip. He’s anticipating something. He’ll be ready to flee.”

Gail nodded. “Marla, go around back. Make sure he doesn’t sneak out. Let’s do it.”

The car’s doors opened, shut with intent. Marla sneaked for the far-side of the gravel driveway and disappeared. Gail and Nora swished through thigh-high grasses, toward the front of the house. The door opened. Carl’s figure hustled into the night, oblivious to their presence. Gail could just make out the bag slung over his shoulder. He angled for the driveway.

“Stop right there!” Nora shouted, holding her badge up. “OPD. Lower your belongings slowly and put your hands behind your head.”

A bright light flared on. Carl swiveled at them. The motion-activated flood-lights blinded the women. Gail’s sight returned: Carl’s bags were on the ground. His body leaned into a double-barrel shotgun.

“On your knees, both of you!” He shouted, finger poised. Nora didn’t carry a weapon. Her face said as much. Carl barked, clacked the double-hammers, “Do it!”

They knelt in the long grass. Its stalks stabbed their chests and necks. Gail shouted, “Put the gun down, Carl. You don’t want to do this.”

“Hell I don’t!” He sneered. “Twenty years of driving! Now they’re phasing us out. ‘N all you want’s to go down fighting. You’re a cunt, Gail. You always been a stubborn, hot-headed cunt. You don’t know shit about driving.”

“This isn’t about me, Carl.”

Nora added, “You’re looking at time. We have evidence. We’re building a case. Killing us doesn’t change that. Don’t make this harder on yourself.”

“The fuck would you know about it?” Carl blurted, turning the gun on Nora. “Your fancy-ass college education doesn’t know spit about bleeding or sweating for a living. How would you feel, huh? How’d you feel if all your life came crashing down? Then– then– you find out you’re being replaced by machines?”

“That’s not what’s happening, Carl,” Gail insisted. “I’m not selling the company.”

The shotgun trembled in his raging hands. He growled, “Don’t you get it, Gail? You can’t stop it. All you can do’s hope to hold out long enough. Hope to walk away saying you fought the good fight. And who takes the hit? You? No!” He spit at the ground in front of her. His tongue was acidic. Venomous spite misted the air, “No. It’s us that takes the hit. All that time between those offers. Waiting. Hoping. Thinking you’ll find a way to hold on. Keep the world from changing. And all the time those offers keep getting smaller. The noose gets a little tighter. The company’s a little less profitable. Whose gonna’ lose their paycheck, their benefits, when the garage goes under? When the machines take over? It won’t be the owners, it’ll be the drivers. The Union boys. ME!”

“Is that why you killed Buddy, Carl? Why you tried to kill me?” Gail asked. A shadow flitted behind him. Gail caught it, did her best to keep him distracted. “You made a deal with M-T, didn’t you? Plant the chips, they write you a check. That’s it, isn’t it? How much, Carl? How much did they give you to murder your friends? Did they promise you’d get away with it, too? Answer me!”

“You think you’re my friend, Gail?” He threw his head back with a laugh. “The only person you’re friends with is yourself. And only because you don’t realize how god-damned unbearable you are.” He re-shouldered the shotgun, “I’ll be doin’ the world a favor takin’ you out.”

His finger touched the trigger. A heavy rock slammed down against his head. He crumpled like a rag doll, unconscious. Marla tossed the rock aside, grabbed up the shotgun.

“Son of a bitch!” She spit with adrenaline.

Nora hurried over to slap hand-cuffs on Carl. Gail took the shotgun from her, “Nice job. Took long enough though.”

She heaved a sigh to calm herself, “I needed to hear him say it. We know the truth now.”

“I need to call this in,” Nora said. “We’ll have to book him, but the charges will stick ‘til we get the rest of the evidence. He’ll never see daylight again.”

Gail helped her to lift and carry Carl to the car. Marla rushed over, opened a door. They stuffed him inside, dispersed for different doors. They climbed in to head for the police station. Nora dialed her cell-phone.

The beater rocketed along, fueled as much by Gail’s fury as the need to exact revenge. Nora’s voice was a steady stream flowing into a phone to reveal everything. Having a gun pointed at her fueled her as much as it had Gail. Nora’s usually silken voice was grating from fury. She relayed everything, ending with a request to have a cell ready.

Gail wasn’t sure what would happen to Carl, but the Union wasn’t about to get near his defense. If the evidence held up, he’d be defended by lawyers bought with M-T’s money. Then again, if they wanted deniability, they might throw him to the wolves just for getting caught red-handed and pants-down.

Gail’s fury was only invigorated as they passed one of M-T’s A-I rigs. That the bastards had the gall to run them past her now was the ultimate slight. Auto-guided by software or not, it made her jaw clench. She grit her teeth, accelerated along the empty, rural road. Flashing hazards glowed ahead. Yellow emergency lights splayed across the roads and trees. A jack-knifed rig blocked both lanes just past an intersection and stop-sign. Gail rolled to a stop, hesitated. Nora eyed her carefully.

“Gail? Just go around.”

She glanced back at Marla and Carl; the latter was still unconscious, slumped against the left window. Marla was poised forward, squinting at the rig.

“One of yours?” Nora asked.

Gail was focused on the tow-rig in the oncoming lane. It was a new model Kenworth, based around the T680 body style. Its massive tow crane was still flat across its rear-end. Its lights spun with alternating splatters on the rig-body behind it– a similar T680 type. Her gut wrenched into a knot.

She choked out words, “Oh shit.”

Nora’s heart leapt into her throat, “What?”

Marla craned her neck around the side of the seat. Her eyes widened. Nora caught it, about to repeat herself. She saw it too: no driver. None for the tow-truck. None for the rig itself. The road was completely deserted. Nora squinted harder. Little bars were spaced along the trucks at bumper-level. More were doubled there and near the roof of the trailer. A-I sensors. Nora looked to Gail, her eyes focused on the rear-view mirror. Blinding headlights charged at them. A flash in the side-mirror caught the others’ attention.

Shouts went through the car to run or drive. Gail stared. Waited. It was obvious now. Far from being caught off-guard, Gail was going to use it to her advantage. Screaming apexed in her ears, rebounded off windows and doors. The face of the A-I rig sharpened as it bore down. Its lights blinded Nora and Marla, left imprints of high-beams and sensor strips.

Gail breathed. “Checkmate.”

Her foot hit the gas. The Chevy lurched, spun left through the intersection. It took a few yards of road before its brakes clamped down in a skidding stop. Exhaust and air brakes screamed and growled through the night. Gail wrenched around. The A-I rig was attempting the turn. It could never make it at such a speed. It jack-knifed, slid in an L toward the intersection.

Its software tried to compensate, lost equilibrium. It teetered at the intersection, overturned, rolled. A gut-splitting gnarl of metal and shattered glass echoed from the intersection. The charging rig rolled, smashed the other two at top speed. The tow-rig was demolished, along with the trailer of the second M-T rig. The twisted steel flipped and crashed. It ricocheted along the rural road, rebounded off trees and aged asphalt.

The trio stared at the wreck, frozen.

Then, the jack-knifed rig winked. It’s lights flickered on and off. Gail swallowed, dropped her boot on the gas. The M-T rig lurched to life, freed from its offending trailer. It revved after them like a locomotive rising to full-power. Gail’s beater struggled for higher gears. Her arms locked in front of her, knuckles white on the wheel.

“Jesus, Gail. Faster!” Marla cried.

Nora was kneeling in her seat, looking back dumbfounded. The rig’s high-beams lit, forced her back around. Her hands trembled to affix her seat-belt. “W-what do we do?”

“Get the fuck out of here!” Gail shouted, one eye on the rear-view.

She threw the car around a corner, lost traction on two wheels. The other two squealed to compensate. Old suspension groaned with a wheezing engine that sprinted for top speed. Air brakes sounded as the A-I rig rounded the corner nearby, fought to regain its pursuit.

“Shit,” Gail breathed.

She repeated the word over and over. Needles stabbed her foot from her pressure on the accelerator. They shot up her leg, into her torso, settled in her chest. It heaved with panting terror. However it was happening, the A-I was pursuing them. There was no escape.

Headlights flashed in the distance ahead. Another M-T rig manifested from the darkness. It barreled from beneath a canopied intersection, weaved into Gail’s lane. She was dimly aware of instructions and frightful cries. Her mind was hammer-down, fighting to slalom its way past certain death. Coupled with a complete loss as to escape, she almost froze.

The rigs charged them from both sides. One nudged the Chevy’s rear. It fishtailed with a burst of speed. The rig dropped back to compensate. It roared back up to her bumper. The one ahead stared them down, grew larger. It readied to sandwich them into the other. Gail tasted diesel fuel and blood on the air. The rigs would stop at nothing to end them. Whatever was controlling them wouldn’t rest until the witnesses to M-T’s crime were lost.

She felt the rumble of engines, sensed them ready to sandwich her. At the last possible second, she jerked the wheel left. The rear-right fender clipped a rig’s fairing. Marla and Nora screamed. Gail tensed up. The Chevy three-sixtied into the left lane. Wheels spun along grass at the top of a ditch. Grass and mud splattered the air. The two rigs collided head-on.

In the split second before steel was engulfed in flame, she saw the thwack of antennas. Heat of ignited fuel and oil tainted the car’s innards. Gail fought to regain control. Their spin arced toward the trailer of the wrecked rig. It missed by a hair’s breadth, came to a stop on the far-side of the road.

“GPS,” she said quickly. “They’re tracking us. Shut your phones off.”

“Gail!” Marla shouted, fumbling for her pocket.

More headlights were closing from three sides. The sat at the edge of an intersection. Gail’s eyes widened. She slammed on the gas. The Chevy’s tires spun, tearing away dirt and sprinting through and away.

“Shut them off! Now!” Gail ordered, fishing out her cell-phone.

The headlights closed, merged into a line of three-wide rigs. They expertly avoided spilling into ditches. She thumbed her phone’s off-switch, watched the wall of steel and fuel. It gained ground, closed. She expected to see it drop away. Instead, it continued gaining. Her stomach and heart were in her throat.

“It’s not working!” Marla squealed.

Nora craned to watch the rigs. “A-anymore id-deas?”

It didn’t make sense. There was no other way to track them except…

“Carl!” she said suddenly. “It isn’t about us.” Marla was already fishing through his pockets. “They want Carl dead. M-T does. They’re sending the rigs after him. We’re caught in the middle. They don’t want him telling anyone.”

“Shit,” Marla said, fumbling to pry apart the phone’s case. “It’s locked I can’t–”

The steel wall slammed their rear-end. The phone fell, slid under Nora’s seat. A din of various cries and demands rose. Marla ducked down, clawed for the phone. Her fingers caught its edge. The wall rammed them again: the phone jerked away.

“I… can’t–”

Metal crunched. The Chevy lurched again. The phone slid further under the seat. Marla’s hands struggled with her seat-belt. It gave way. Another ram threw her into the seat-back.

“Marla!?” Gail said, terrified. “Are you-”

“I got it!” She slammed it against the door to crack open the case, tore the back off the phone. She pried out the battery. “Shit, they’re still–”

“The sensors,” Nora cut in. “Break line-of-sight.”

Gail rubber-necked the area; they were in rural Masseville. The place was mostly forests and open fields. She spied a break in the trees. Dense wood and canopy gave way for a hundred yards to a wire-fenced field. It was worth a shot.

The Chevy’s engine topped out, screaming. The right rig lurched, slammed the bumpers together. The center rig made an attempt to get alongside her. She wouldn’t let it. The car swerved back and forth, kept the wall in check. Their software compensated. With a final jerk of the wheel, the Chevy ramped off the road, caught air. A back wheel tore down the wire fence, drug it along behind them. The car plowed through the empty field into the obscurity of the trees.

One of the rigs tried to follow. It caught air. Its gravity shifted. The trailer went up, over. The fifth-wheel was wrenched clean off. The rig landed wheels-up. The trailer splayed across what was left of the open ground. All at once, the remaining rigs skidded to a screaming stop, their lights and engines shut down. Gail’s terror finally bled in. She drove on, dragging the fence.

Her heart managed to slow itself enough for logic to take over again. They needed to stop, get the fence free, get Carl to the police. She slowed to a stop and the trio of women staggered out on rubber legs, awestruck by fires that glowed randomly in the distance. Marla vomited. Nora tended to her.

Gail stared, stilling her trembling limbs. So much destruction. All for money, power.

“M-T’s got a lot to answer for,” Nora said finally, returning to her side.

Gail nodded, eased into motion. Together, she and Nora pulled the bit of stuck fence from the bumper, then took a moment to breathe. Whatever would come of it, one thing was certain; M-T’s so-called accident-free rigs could now be linked to this. Only time would tell if the charges stuck.

Epilogue

After seeing Carl to the local lock-up, Nora and Marla returned to the garage while Gail gave a statement to a Detective. Though it had yet to be proven, rumors of foul-play against M-T soon came to light. They spread like wild-fire through the net and media journals that saw them as a great way to catch views and strengthen readership. The knife of publicity cut both ways.

Almost immediately after returning to the garage, Darian confirmed to Gail a connection to M-T. The chips he and Nora had removed had been hacked, and after a preliminary examination, contained identical code written for use in A-I rigs– the same code both patented and owned by M-T. Subsequent investigation confirmed the source: the chips were manufactured and distributed by the same subsidiary, and were identical, to those used in the damaged rigs found on the roads.

The media ate up the stories. M-T’s spin-doctors declined all comment. Their silence proved their already obvious guilt. The Federal Grand Jury scheduled to meet. Also scheduled, for expert and witness testimonies, were Gail, Darian, Marla, and Nora. They would do their best to damn M-T. Carl too: He’d been persuaded to testify once it was clear M-T would not rescue him.

Unfortunately, none of those facts changed what Gail recognized as true: Bud Ferrero’s death was an omen of things to come– for Lone-Wolfe, for the industry. She was standing over Bud’s freshly-marked grave, Marla beside her, when the epiphany hit. The funeral had months before, and the media-circus had long forgotten him. It still raged elsewhere, but the reason for the initial tent-pitching was no more a thought than Bud himself. Nothing had been concluded. Nothing would. That was the point of the circus. It merely went on.

Likewise, progress would not stop. Gail knew it now. She stood, hands in her jean jacket, feeling more sentimental than ever in her life– either from depression, or Marla’s daughter-like presence.

“Carl was right about one thing…”

She stared at Bud’s epitaph: “He delivered love to our hearts.”

Marla sniffled, eyes teary. “What do you mean?”

For once, Gail didn’t mind the tears. She’d have added to them if it weren’t for the stiff upper-lip she’d cultivated. She knelt before the head-stone, “We can’t change the future. We can’t avoid it. Everything has its time. Its season.”

Marla’s face showed hints of confusion, sorrow. “I don’t understand.”

Gail winced, “One day the drivers will be gone. The culture with them. All of it will just be another footnote to history, like milkmen and carrier-pigeons. The most we can do’s try to make up for it ‘til then. When it happens, we’ll do our best to avoid hardship.”

Marla was quiet, thinking about it. Gail sensed it, kept her mind on the same frequency. It was an eternal story of society, the making way for the new by discarding the old. Lamp-lighters or milkmen, cobblers or drivers, it didn’t matter. Some things faded. Where the people went, she wasn’t sure, but she had a feeling she’d find out soon.

She pulled her hand from her pocket, set a small, toy-rig at the base of Bud’s grave. The T680 was the same color as Bud’s. For the first time since the accident, Gail’s stiff-lip trembled. A tear formed in her eye, slipped down her cheek. She rose solemnly with Marla at her side, and turned away.

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