Hijack: Part 4

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.

Hijack: Part 3

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.”