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.”
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.