Hijack: Part 7


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

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

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

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

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

“Please, Darian,” he corrected somewhat uncharacteristically.

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

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

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

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

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

“And if they don’t?”

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

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

“No, thank you.”

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

“You may.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But you disagree it was driver error?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hijack: Part 6


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That is what we’re attempting–”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which means what?” Marla asked outright.

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

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

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

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

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

Darian nodded, “I’ll handle it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And until then?” She asked simply.

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

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

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

“Ms. Wolfe, if you’ll allow me–”

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

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

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

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

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

“I assure you–”

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

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

“Watch me,” she challenged with narrow eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hijack: Part 5


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This just gets better and better.”

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

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

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

“Spit it out already.”

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

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

Marla’s face lit up, “Me? Why me?”

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

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

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

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

Hijack: Part 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.