Hijack: Part 10

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.”

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Hijack: Part 9

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.”

Hijack: Part 1

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.

Short Story: The True Patriot

His fingers flew over the keys with pointed urgency in place of agility. Normally, he might take his time, savor each string of code written or command entered. Today, he was only concerned with finishing before the clock hit ten-to-five. If it did, the entire plan would be shot, and he’d have to return to his handlers with nothing, forced to slog through one more day where his ruse might falter.

His name was Shane Yates; a nobody, low-level programmer working for the largest tech firm in the known world. Arc Systems was the number one creator and distributor of mobility and security software for cybernetic augments and prosthetics. Shane had written code for them on everything from Optical HUD augs to bionic-limb movements. Most every major augment on the market had some of strings of his work in them. All the same, he lived on minimum wage, ate day old leftovers, and showered in cold water with the lights off.

Such was the nature of the US after the Corporate Take-over displaced the Government as the country’s overseer. Unlike London or Paris, where silent or violent revolutions were taking place, the US had willingly allowed the take-over. The population had been pacified by a bolstered economy that allowed higher-wages, lowered cost of living, and faster, freer internet porn. Even to those that were awake, aware, the revelation that the Corps were taking over was nothing new. Most didn’t care. Those that did, found themselves as an extreme minority.

All of that changed with the Corporate Accountability Act; a ratification to the US Constitution that gave corporations all the rights of individual people with none of the responsibilities nor– contrary to its name– legal accountability of the people. In essence, the CAA allowed Corporations the right to do anything a person could without fear of reprisal. In America, that meant espionage, sabotage, and the lobbying of political figures for one purpose or another. It wasn’t long before the government’s power was almost wholly transferred to the few, corporate boards that already controlled its economy.

Shortly after, the US militaries were absorbed into local branches of Corps whose headquarters were scattered around the globe. A few, smaller businesses still remained here and there, but only through the laziness of the thirteen, global corporations that couldn’t be bothered with things like dry-cleaning or pizza delivery.

Shane was one of the “lucky” few who managed to keep their job when that American Dream turned into a seedy nightmare. The Corps’ lobbying power was unmatched, their only concerns their competition with one another. Their money lined the pockets of every politician until they nearly drowned in a sea of their own materialism. Then, once sated by the glitz of the money offered, they blindly ratified new bills and laws so filled with legalese even lawyers couldn’t properly discern them.

Everything changed then; the CAA led to power for the Corps whom corrupted the government until it was, quite literally, useless. All the same, a few, minor acronym agencies managed to survive the obsolescence of their governing system. One of those few, was the CIA.

Though its funding had been cut, and its duties merged with that of the maligned and poorly perceived NSA, it still largely functioned as intended. In an era where Corporate-Security was both police and national defense, surveillance was more invasive than even most, high-level Corp employees knew. With its coverage, the CIA remained powerful enough to act as the last investigative body and line of defense against any threats, internal or otherwise, to America’s sovereignty.

With that in mind, it was of the utmost importance they procure the work passed off to Shane; next-generation augment-software that controlled small, embedded magnetic fields and cameras to create true-to-life invisibility. With the magnetic field capable of masking both thermal and motion-sensors, as well as deceiving both human and electronic eyes, there was no end to the possible applications– whether for a national spy agency or a rogue, terrorist force. More importantly though, Shane wanted out, and the CIA knew that.

Shane had always been a simple person. After graduating from College, he’d been happy just to get a job. The nature of the world was soon revealed to him though. He began to slave away each day for less pay than he was worth. The bolstered economy showed its true face then. It was little more than a facade to keep the people in-line, give them enough to live on but not to become overly roused by passions or pass-times.

Unlike most other countries, whose digital currencies were still worth something, the US’ digital dollar was mostly useless outside a few, non-corporate shops. Otherwise, everything was calculated in terms of debt. What had once been credit-card balances became life-debts; the amount owed to any corporation by an individual that had “charged” anything. When first introduced, the idea was meant to help repay a surplus National Debt from decades of war, but like everything else, it too became yet another collar and chain around the peoples’ necks.

The CIA approached Shane on a park bench. It was one of the gray-afternoons he’d come to expect of his rare days off. He sat alone, staring, with hazel eyes glazed over by the ferocity of his exhaustion. A man sat next to him with mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses.

“Don’t get up,” he instructed. “Don’t make eye-contact. We’re being surveilled, but I’ve managed to deploy a net to interfere with any audio devices. We have two minutes.”

Shane’s mind was dulled, but intrigued. He kept his eyes forward, “Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important,” the man replied over a gust of cold wind. A casual glance swept the the park ahead as he continued, “What I want is simple; your employers have something you will receive. I need you to copy it, then corrupt everything they have on it.”

Shane’s eyes widened, his neck locked against turns for fear of reprisal, “Are you insane? Why would I do that? I’ll lose my job, and Corp-Sec will murder me.”

“My people have been watching you,” the man explained quietly. “Like many others, you’re not happy with the state of the country. You can decide, here and now, whether you’ll be one of the few that does something about it.”

Shane swallowed hard, “What’s my incentive?”

The man checked his wrist-watch, replied, “Let’s just say, our government still has enough support that you can choose to start fresh anywhere you want, as whomever you want.” He rose to button his long coat, readied to walk away, “If you choose to help, we’ll contact you.”

“How will you know?”

He began to walk away, “We’ll know.”

And so he sat, one week to the day later, at his desk. His eyes darted between the clock and the progress bar on his screen. It crawled forward as it copied the gigs of data the software represented. The seconds ticked away. At ten to five he was expected to be up, ready to clock out with all of the other wage-slaves like him. The progress bar jumped to completion. He sighed relief, exchanged the USB drive for another, and shut off the screen to his computer.

A few minutes later Shane was in the street, waiting for the bus. About now, the auto-injection computer virus contained on the second flash-drive had finished uploading. It would be unfurling its corruption through Arc Systems’ servers.

A man in a fedora and black overcoat appeared. He walked toward Shane with mirrored sunglasses and a hand stiff at his side. Shane palmed the flash-drive in his right hand. The man brushed past him and with a sleight of hand, took the drive from Shane to disappear into the crowd.

The large, electric bus rolled quietly into place. Shane Yates entered the bus for the last time that afternoon. Who he had been was gone, and who he was to become hadn’t been decided yet. In time though, the CIA would repay the man that had turned against his masters, helped ensure the sovereignty of his homeland. No matter what the Corps would call him, he was a true patriot, willing to cross the line, give up everything when his country asked him to.

Short Story: Modern Day Trojan Horse

England had become a police state. It was all over the news; coppers in riot gear, clouds of tear gas, the city on fire. London burned. It wasn’t the first time. No-one was fool enough to believe it would be the last either. Nothing could stop burning, not then. Hell, maybe not ever.

It had started in Paris, with something called the Paris Incident. Basically, every cybernetic and bionically augmented person in Paris had finally had enough. They rallied to march on the city of light, waving banners to protest the corporate occupation there. Every major corp had some outlet in Paris then, still do now– almost makes everything that came after seem pointless.

The numbers were never officially recognized, but everyone saw it; thousands and thousands of people clustered butt-to-gut together, stomping their way through the city. They chanted, thrust signs upward; some with obvious bionics, others with theirs carefully concealed by proto-plastics that resembled skin. Still more were bone and flesh, normal humans fed up with the mistreatment of their friends, family, lovers. If they’d know then what was about to happen, maybe they would have run. Hell, maybe they wouldn’t have. Maybe it would have made them all the more determined to stand their ground, and they would have made a difference.

What sparked their tempers was a string of bad decisions that even today no-one understands. I know I don’t. Though the Augs had rallied behind a single image, an icon, for what became known as the Paris Incident, each of them had their own reasons to be there. Renee Lemaire was just the tip of the iceberg, a rally cry for a people already subjugated, oppressed. She’d supposedly been murdered after it had been discovered that her neural augs had been activated without her knowledge. Simply put, she was brain-hacked by some entity to do their dirty, wet-work. The casual observer of her eventually-public revelation would have blamed the French Government, but everyone else knew the Corps ran the government.

Even before she was killed in a car-bomb, supposedly another “tragic loss” for Locust Group Inc, her employers, the augs had long been mistreated. Corporate Security had taken over the streets of Paris in the years preceding the event, were particularly prejudiced against augs. Corp-sec had developed a strict beat-first, question-later policy. Just about every Aug in Paris had felt some measure of that prejudice.

So what the French had was a largely lawless flame burning in the hands of the Corps, and a powder keg of resentment in the form of mistreated, augmented humans. There was no way that shite wouldn’t catch, explode, and blow a few thousand people the hell. Christ, these people were the very reason half those corps had as much power as they did. Almost every Corp had some stake in physical or cyber augments. Half were even software providers for Neural and prosthetic augs from the other half. Still their own people were prejudiced against them. It was almost dizzying the level of hypocrisy: the augs kept the Corps in business, and the Corps paid corp-sec the augs’ money to beat ’em senseless.

I guess we should have expected the fucking horror show that came. Everyone had Lemaire as their symbol, but in their own ways, they each had their “Lemaire moments”– those times where because of what they were, or were associated with, they’d been looked down upon. Usually that downward look came from the end of a corp-sec barrel or fist. For those lucky few that escaped unscathed, the look came from at least atop a high-horse, however rare that was.

After the initial march began, it was clear that corp-sec wasn’t going to be able to contain thousands of people to the streets. Damn near all out chaos broke out then. No-one was sure what happened first– if someone threw a punch, a rock, a bullet and then corp-sec responded, or vice-versea– but it wasn’t long before they tear-gas was nearly choking people to death, and others were dead or bleeding from random shots fired into the crowds.

Paris became an all out blood-bath. Augs and norms alike were attacking corp-sec, corp-sec was attacking everyone not in their color uniform, and anyone not being attacked was fleeing before they were. I happen to know for a fact Aries Security Corp even took out a couple of Warhound Protection squads in the insanity. Whether this was an accident or just an opportunity to dent a rival corp’s bottom-line, no-one but the corps could say. Let’s face it though, if corps could talk, they still wouldn’t give a shit about telling the truth.

What I can say is that the blood bath didn’t end for almost two straight weeks. There was nearly a full-on civil war that raged after those first shots were fired. It was a while of people attacking corp-sec on hit-and-runs before they rallied to fight back… fight back, right. What the corps did would be classified as a war-crime if there were any governments left to charge them.

Basically, the corps banded together for once. A terrifying thought for a group hell-bent on cutting each other’s throats at every opportunity they got. Clearly it was in everyone’s best interests to nip the bud before it bloomed though. I think even the augs would have quit while they were ahead if they knew what was to come.

The mega-conglomerate dropped a few special deliveries on the 14th night after the marches turned into a massacre. Both Aries and Warhound birds– supersonic jets composed of all menacing points and screaming turbines– flew in squadrons over twelve different districts of Paris. Each one was residential, outside the territory of the corp’s own housing buildings. The packages they delivered lit the night sky with fountains of blood and fire.

Everyone in the world saw that. The corps wanted us to. It was a message; those of us that wanted could rationalize the move however we chose, but the corps were in power. To go against them in such a way as the augs had was to risk their wrath. And if the news-vids were anything to go by, that wrath was smite and hell-fire.

Of course everything was “authorized,” and “sanctioned” by the various governments, but those of us that knew the truth about the governments didn’t even bother to listen. The battle was polarizing. To a point where countless cities rose up in attempts to kick the corps out or offer safe-haven to the augs, or even declare their allegiance. Berlin was one of the safe-havens– notice past tense, was. To see it now, you’d almost think the blitzkrieg had turned on itself. I guess, in a way, it did.

London though, we’ve been of the first group. The uprising started roughly around the time the corps declared war on the people that didn’t serve them. Really, those people are slaves. They don’t have the same chains around their necks, or whips at their back, but crushing corporate debt and fear of stepping out of line work all the same.

I wish I could say I have hope, but I don’t. We’re really just trying to survive. We’re like Paris in a way; outlets of all the major corps nearby, and half our historic sky-line bombed to rubble. See, the thing is though, we’re English, so we don’t quite do things the same. We prefer to infiltrate the corps, poison them from the inside, then get out before the whole damned entity dry-heaves and withers.

I can’t help but straighten my tie in the mirror with a smug grin. I’m the Bond of the twenty-second century, and my evil villain’s my employer. I live large– as large as I can– off the corp while I sequester a little away for myself, or to the side for my comrades in the ghetto. I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for them, stuck in the damp and dank, wet cold while I’m riding penthouse suites to the bank. But I never forget my job here.

My counter-surveillance software makes sure too, that the corps don’t know I’m wired to the teeth with augs, neural and otherwise. One day, it will all be worth it. Until then, I just bide my time, feed a little information to the others like me. Or else, I fuck with the Corps a little more to keep them on their toes, keep them from watching when we extract someone important, or steal something to help us bring them down.

I’m like a modern day Judas and Trojan Horse all in one, and sooner or later, I’m gonna’ open up, bring this place to its fuckin’ knees. Lemaire might be dead, but the rally cry lives on. Whatever its purpose, I’m with the others; Viva Le Revolution!

Short Story: Masquerade

His head was clear through the digital sights of her scope as she stalked him from the shadows of a fifth floor balcony outside an empty apartment. The building straight ahead was the usual conglomerate of department stores for the first three levels, the fourth jam-packed full of offices. The fifth story contained the high-class and fine cuisine the wealthy elite were so accustomed to. She knew he would find him here sooner or later, in this seat; it was his favorite place and seat, and this was his favorite time of day.

Overhead, lighting cracked in clouds that unleashed the torrential downpour between the two buildings. Somewhere below, cars splayed streaks of light across wet asphalt while people scurried like ants through the rain. She cared nothing for them or their existence. Her mind and gaze were fixed, her posture rigid. Her rifle’s bi-pod sat studiously atop the cement edge of the balcony wall, it and her beneath a specially-made poncho that masked her heat signature from any surrounding surveillance. In moments, she would make the hit, he would be dead.

The why didn’t matter to her. It was her job to kill, not to care. She did, however, know the man’s steel-gray hair and chiseled features from newscasts. He was Leo “The Lion” Wilco, CEO of the fortune five-hundred company Wilco Industries. The company was deeply embedded into every major manufacturing industry through either its own holdings or those of its subsidiaries. With proper motivation, Wilco was perfectly positioned to make a swift move, gain market share and monopolize all of those industries. Evidently someone believed it was about to.

Another crack of lightning. With it she racked the bolt on her rifle, placed her finger beside the trigger. All she needed was another strike. The thunder that followed would hide any remnant of sound that her rifle’s flash-sound suppressor left for prying ears. Through the scope she watched the minor shift of the wind indicator along its edge, inched the rifle back into alignment. The cross-hairs flashed red, a kill-shot centered on the left-side The Lion’s head.

He sat with his hands on the edge of the table, fingers-interlocked to await the arrival of his meal. His back was rigid, un-moving, but his jaw and face made the subtle hints of a low conversation. His mistress of the month curled a hand around her wine glass and sipped with a forward lean. She was clearly a trophy, arm-candy; all legs and tits that crossed and bulged beneath her crimson dress. She gleamed with millions of dollars worth of diamonds that decorated her ears, neck, and fingers.

The woman’s obvious vanity made the assassin sick, for a moment she thought of turning her rifle on the trophy. But it wasn’t her job. Eliminating gold-diggers and trophies was a job for street-thugs and heart-disease. That, and it never paid nearly well enough. No, her job was simple, fruitful; one breath, one round, one life. A hundred G’s was all it took to end the insanity Wilco was positioned to bring.

Unbeknownst to his assassin, The Lion’s head was sought for what was known but that he believed to be unknown. Wilco’s closest friend and associate, Robert Kiely, with him since the start of Wilco Industries and largely responsible for its success, had recently discovered that business had a way of separating those believed closest to one’s self. This information came in the form of a mysterious package Kiely had found on his doorstep in the middle of the night.

The forty-eight year old millionaire of modest home, was drawn from his bed in the wee hours of the morning by a ringing doorbell. Like any cautious homeowner, he answered the door with a 12-gauge shotgun in his hands, ready to bring hell to any would-be intruder. Instead, he found a small, brown-box with his name on it and nothing more. Kiely laid his shotgun on the island counter in his kitchen, tore open the box to find a lone SSD flash-drive. It took mere moments for Kiely to boot his laptop and sift through the contents.

Both video and text files alluded to a massive, off-the-books deal that would end with Wilco holding a monopoly over three separate industries; construction equipment manufacturing and sale, Northwestern US Logging, and West-coast Realty development. In essence, Wilco was ready to purchase, develop, and monopolize the entire West-coast of America. The how and why bothered Kiely much less than the final two snippets of information he found; information, that in time, would lead him to hire Wilco’s assassin.

The first snippet was a money trail to various contract lawyers. There was little to go on, but it was clear Wilco intended to cut Kiely out of the deal, and likely, out of Wilco Industries entirely. The next was a simple text file that offered a solution without explanation. The small notepad file enlarged onto his screen, readout; “We have a mutual problem. Bring $100,000 US to the address below. Tomorrow. Midnight.”

The address was somewhere in NorCal; a nondescript storage facility made of small, garage-like units. The moon overhead made a shadow of Kiely as he followed instructions that led him to the last unit in the back, right corner of the storage compound. It was open, dark, but from the way the shadows seemed to breathe outside the unit, clearly occupied by a man.

He lit a cigarette, his face showing only enough to hint at angry, European features despite his obvious, American accent, “Toss the money inside, and leave. The problem will be handled.”

And so here she knelt, in freezing rain, ready to correct the problem. It was her job. She was an assassin for the highest bidder. She did her job well, had eliminated more targets than most in her line of work. Partly, it was her handler that allowed her to get her work, and partly it was the fact that no-one suspected a small, ex-gymnast girl with a dyke spike and no tits could ever be a threat.

She smiled at the thought. Lightning cracked. Her finger laid over the trigger. Her breath stopped. The world around her was silent. For a moment, the thunder seemed not to come. She knew it would, even through a calm dispassion.

Then, the low rumble. The trigger was squeezed. A crack and the thunder apexed. The rifle recoiled with a thump and near-invisible flash from its barrel. It was hidden from view before Wilco’s brain finished splattering out the far-side of his head. The trophy’s screams signaled the successful hit as the rifle broke down into its few pieces, was deposited into the small backpack she kept it in. She slipped back inside the empty apartment in time for a group to gather around Wilco’s corpse.

Someone examined the tempered glass to locate the single, small hole while she made her way down in the elevator. It stopped at a random floor, her masquerade solid as a man entered and paid her no mind. Somewhere in her pack, the rifle was still warm with fresh powder, but no-one could ever know.

When the elevator opened in the lobby, police cruisers screamed past. She and the man from the elevator exited the building together.

He stopped to watch the cruisers fly past and around the corner, pulled on a set of gloves, and mused aloud, “Must’ve been an accident.”

She didn’t smirk, or smile, or anything else that would indicate inside knowledge. Instead, she was indifferent, stone-faced, “Guess so.”

She and the acquaintance parted ways. Off on their separate paths to their seemingly ordinary lives. Her job was done and it was time to collect payment. Lighting cracked overhead to blind anyone watching, but by the time their vision would have returned, she had disappeared into the rain-storm, and back into obscurity.