Hijack: Part 5

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 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.

Hot Iron: Part 3

5.

It was roughly 4 AM when Kennedy finally shoved her way into her apartment. She’d had nothing but complications through-out her shift, most related to establishing the team for her two, new patients. When she finally fell into bed an hour later, the sun was just beginning to rise behind her blacked out windows. Working the night shift had forced more than a few, anti-day behaviors on her, and covering her windows with blankets was hardly the most offensive of them.

She slept roughly two hours before her cell-phone vibrated beside her bed. It buzzed loud enough to echo through the wood. She slapped a hand for it, put it to her face, “What?”

A voice sounded, “Kennedy?”

She hated that voice. Everything about it. Especially now. He’d been gone a month with his new slut. Whatever he needed could wait.

“Kevin, I worked all night. Call me when you’re dying. Maybe then we’ll talk.”

“Kennedy don’t!” he pled.

“I’m hanging up now,” she griped.

“I just wanna’ get my–”

The phone cut out. She checked her watch, realized she was still dressed for work, then moaned.

He wanted his stuff back. The problem was, it was probably somewhere in Indiana by now, shoved into a landfill by garbage trucks and bulldozers. The same place he belonged. She managed to sleep a few more hours, and as usual, dreamed of him. Or rather, dreamed about him.

They’d been together for years, a decade almost. They’d finally decided to tie the knot one night, high on something Jamaican and more naked than not. She’d been entangled in sheets, coursing with fresh ecstasy when booze or grass made him finally pop the question. It was six months before they set the date. Another year after that and here they were.

Like before, she dreamed about saying no. Somehow seeing the future, she rejected the drunk, stoned proposal. The reality was, she’d said yes, then climbed atop him to pump their brains out. At least that part was good, anyhow. The rest was a nightmare– an even worse nightmare than the near-nightly dreams about being unneeded at work, only to come home and find him pumping someone else’s brains out on the kitchen counter. He was just lucky she didn’t own a gun. For that matter, so was the slut.

She tossed and turned while various incarnations of the “no” path of life melded with everything else the human brain could concoct. When she awoke, she’d only remembered a feeling of dread. The rest would settle with the hallucination-inducing chemicals common to sleep, if that’s what she could call it, anyway. She never felt rested anymore.

The same morning routine that followed Kevin’s departure from her life began her day; a quick shower, a few tears, coffee at the table, and an open laptop to surf the latest waves sweeping social media.

The first hints that something big had happened came from forums she frequented. The posts were days old by now, but that had only given the armchair detectives more time to work. Such was the nature of the internet that anyone with even a scrap of confidence and an ISP thought themselves an expert. Most of the time, this showed up in places where arguments were most easily driven by opinion– who was the latest, most popular celebrity, who’d win the next Stanley Cup, or whether well-done steak was truly an affront to the Gods. They were innocuous, harmless things.

This was different though. It was always easy to tell the speculation from the evidence-bearing news. When it was real, a site’s admins often got involved, usually pinning the post to the site’s front page for all to see. In some cases, even live RSS feeds would be linked to act as aggregates for all information on a given topic. Mostly those were reserved for dire situations still unfolding as posted. Everything from natural disasters to terrorist attacks were covered, and now it was obvious something had recently occurred.

The pinned post and dead RSS feed at the top of one of her frequent favorites was posted as someone posing a question: “Just heard an explosion outside work. Neo-C piers. Nothing obvious yet. Anyone?” The thread had been up forty hours. She must have missed it during her last, morning net-scour, but it was one of the big ones now. Hundreds of thousands of comments, millions of views; the sort of thing referred to as viral.

To scroll through the comments, she’d have had to miss the giant blotter comprising the first, full-page of the post. Bullet points with random times from the last two days broke up the otherwise mile-long wall of text. They were cold, hard facts, corroborated by a dozens of blue, external links.

She skimmed them, then read them over in depth. Together, a picture formed that became clearer when combined with her last shift: Something had happened on a pier, somewhere in new-Chinatown. The place had been established as a shipping port, then gravitated to for its open, bazaar-like qualities. Sometime in the evening hours two nights prior, an minor tremor registered on seismographs. The lone incident was inexplicably isolated to a small part of northern Chicago, and the armchair detectives had seized it as an opportunity to jump into action. Various private and public satellite and instrumentation sites confirmed some type of explosion with thermal, seismic, and eyewitness data.

The end picture was obvious; something had exploded underwater at the “Happy Fish” imports pier. Eyewitness reports had been suppressed on-scene by police and emergency crews, but a few had made it out. It was enough to tell of rumors of a SWAT raid. Men and women in riot gear had breached a facility, covered by a sharpshooter inside a police perimeter on the water, but nothing else tangible had been concluded.

Kennedy didn’t need years of med-school training to add two and two. All she needed was her two patients and the rumors. Only she could confirm what most suspected. While no-one on the net knew for sure what had happened, Kennedy did. She thought to post, then remembered she’d been bound by the NSA and FBI’s suits to keep her mouth shut. More importantly, HIPAA ensured if she opened her mouth she’d lose her license as well as end up in jail– probably for high-treason.

There was a certain, ominous tone to that thought. She liked it even less than she admitted. Whether from intuition or pure logic, she sensed things had only begun to go sideways.

6.

Melissa Fannon, formerly Melissa Torres, was Juan Torres’ only sibling. His elderly sister by only a pair of years, she’d weathered time better than he’d managed to. She was a bombshell of Hispanic descent with something vaguely Italian mixed in. She held herself to the highest standard of beauty, spending upwards of three hours each day carefully primping, preening, and making-up her face. To any onlookers, she was Miss Universe without the plastic and a heavier head.

Which is why, when she entered to find her brother covered in bandages, her cries shattered the hearts of all those around. A feeling akin to a porcelain doll shattering on a floor swept through the ICU. There and then, the four guard-officers exchanged looks, fidgeted from the shrill cries emitting from Torres’ room.

Kennedy was already inside, standing at the bed, and watching the shattered doll’s make-up run. She swallowed acid to place a lone hand on Melissa’s shoulder as she wept. To the woman’s credit, her tears didn’t last long, but it felt like an eternity to Kennedy. She was frozen in place, too human to leave, too professional to cry. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever seen, but it ranked, and learning to compartmentalize work and emotions was the only thing that kept her in one piece.

Emotions were a good thing for a nurse dealing with the elderly, children, or clinical-work. In an ICU, ER, or Burn unit, emotions were a good way of killing someone. Most medical work was exact, a science of numbers requiring as much logic as clear-headedness. Emotion was its antithesis. A misplaced thought might incur a slight over-dose of a medication that turned lethal when combined with others. Anything more was a certain mistake to come. Being angry and misreading a chart could kill as easily as putting a gun to someone’s head. Kennedy didn’t like that fact, but she held herself all the more rigidly to its truth.

She retained her composure long enough to let Melissa ease out of her own grief, then pointed her toward a washroom. When she was certain the woman had gone, she exhaled a heavy sigh and choked down her emotions to keep focused. She gave herself a full minute to straighten out, then reset her face into its usual passiveness.

She and Kevin had fought about that for years; being been able to turn her emotions off and on meant she often did it without realizing it. Being in her line of work didn’t help. Perhaps it was the frequency with which she was required to do so that it so autonomous at times. Whatever the cause, he’d often insulted her as being “Robotic” and “Cold.” The truth was, when they fought, she flipped the mental switch and compartmentalized. Most times, she did become cold, logical, and right.

Kevin hated that, had never been able to accept being wrong, and was the type of person confirmation bias had been discovered from. He was always trying to find or twist facts to his point, able to turn a perfectly normal debate into a colossal argument when proven wrong. He was thick-headed, stupid to a fault, and narrow-minded. What else could he be if he expected to pound some whore in her kitchen without her finding out?

Kennedy hated him for that. She hated him for a lot of things. Most of all, she hated that he continued to creep into every facet of her mind.

She went about checking vitals as she considered it. The motions were autonomous, robotic in a way. That was the point; learn your job well, and be able to do it in your sleep. Problem was, it gave her time to think. Time to think meant revealing the roots of their relationship burrowed through-out her life as if some disgusting parasite. Its countless arms and small feelers extended and inlaid over the folds of her brain and life, attached via hooks that held on past death. She’d managed to cut away the beast itself by throwing Kevin out on his ass, but every now and then, disgorged feelers appeared, hidden in places she wasn’t even aware had existed.

I’ll still be finding ’em when he’s dead. Bastard.

The thought gave way to a check of the time as she thumbed Torres’ vitals into a charting tablet. The soft steps of heels clicked a syncopated rhythm over her thumbs as they made their way into the room. Kennedy was momentarily fascinated by Melissa’s recovery. She’d managed to reverse from nuclear fallout to bombshell with astounding quickness. Aesthetically, she looked better now than before.

Melissa sat in a chair beside the bed, held Juan’s hand in hers, “I’m sorry for my outburst.”

Kennedy feigned sympathy, an unfortunate necessity of having to compartmentalize, “I understand. Has the doctor spoken to you?”

She gave a small nod, “I know he’s being kept in a coma. You’re worried about some sort of shock?”

Kennedy was professional again, “Injuries of this nature require we keep the nervous system stable and unresponsive to the pain. At this stage, it would send him into shock and his vitals would go hay-wire. It’s safer this way.”

Melissa gave another small nod, eyes on her brother’s hand, “The doctor said as much. How long will he have to be like this?”

Kennedy’s mouth pulled into a half-grimace, “I honestly can’t say. We can keep a coma going as long as necessary. In his case, a few weeks, maybe longer. He’ll require skin grafts and other surgeries before he can be resuscitated.”

Melissa kissed Juan’s hand, then set it on the bed. She patted it, “I’ve been told to act as his legal proxy while he’s… like this. Will that be a problem?”

Kennedy considered it, “He has no spouse or other family?” Melissa shook her head. “Then no. I’ll be leading the team that sees to his needs, so if you need anything, it’s my job to help.”

She seemed to consider the question. There was a resigned look away that most would have taken for their signal to leave. Kennedy knew better. It was usually what family or patients did immediately before asking or relaying something vital.

Melissa suddenly met her eyes again, “Do you know– they won’t tell me– what happened?”

Kennedy swallowed hard. The words “National Security” came to mind. What did that mean in this instance? Melissa wouldn’t wait for her to figure it out. The longer she stayed silent, the more guilty she looked. She cleared her throat, did her best to evade saying anything specific, “The term is, “injured in the line of duty.” I can’t say more than that. I would like to, for your sake, but until I’m certain… I can’t risk my job. I’m sorry.”

Melissa frowned, “In the line of duty.” That’s more than I knew before. Thank you.”

Kennedy promised to return and offer any information Melissa might need then. She left the room, shut the door, then nearly doubled over with guilt. A stuttered breath made its way through her lips as she choked back tears.

Hot Iron: Part 2

3.

Kennedy Hart, a full-time nurse at Neo-Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center, had seen just about everything someone in her occupation could. Between the ICU and ER units in a metropolis, she’d tended to her share of GSWs, horrendous accident victims, every type illness and infection known, and more than an abundance of O-Ds. In short, she wasn’t the squeamish type and had the chops to back it up.

She fast-walked toward the E-R doors in teal scrubs. Her brunette locks were wound up in a bun under an elastic band that bobbed from the half-nod she gave the receptionists. The sea of non-emergency admissions were fixated phones, tablets, and the large flat-screens inlaid into the walls, there to steal attention from those unlucky saps that deserved it more. Comprising more than half the ER’s visitors in the night, it left the unit short-staffed, rushed, and half its patients unstable and spilling over into ICU when they should’ve still been in the ER.

As usual, Kennedy would have to deal with it. She shoved her way through double doors as a buzzer unlocked them at her approach. The RFID chip in her hospital I-D, and its readers stationed around the facility, were probably the most useless, advanced form of technology they had. Funds had been appropriated from various, other places to install the readers. In the process, short-staffed units got overtime when they should’ve gotten new staff. Such was the way of the “industry” these days.

Kennedy emerged from a long hallway for the nurse’s station. Station was a liberal term. It was a desk stacked with black-screen charting tablets, and a pair of flat-screen monitors. Behind it on the wall was a second pair, massive in comparison, and probably costing more then Kennedy’s car. Subdivisions of vitals read out the two-dozen patients’ states networked in from their rooms. From here, a nurse could watch and chart the various EEGs, heart and O-2 monitors before shooting off and up the hall. There, she’d draw meds, pass them out, then double chart and check the patients again for “posterity’s” sake– in other words, to keep from losing her job to a network error.

Given her enormous school debts, the amount of time it had taken to attain her RN status, and the general ire of those she worked with, she found it difficult to believe anyone walking into her field was sane. She certainly didn’t feel like it anymore.

She grabbed a charting tablet off the desk, engaged its screen to thumb at it. Two, equally over-worked, and underpaid women watched with general disapproval. She was too young, too inexperienced to be in charge, or so they felt, anyway. Evidently, their superior felt otherwise. Kennedy loathed her for that.

“Two new admits?” She asked the older, grayer of the two women.

“Mhmm.” Her fingers tapped information into a digital form. “Man and a woman.”

“Severe Burns?” Kennedy said, flipping through the pages. “Who the hell sent us burn patients?” The woman only shrugged. “Christ, clocked in five minutes and already screwing me over.”

“That surprise you?” The less-gray woman asked.

“No, it pisses me off.”

She rounded for the patient rooms, tablet in-hand as she skipped through the last few hours of charts. The new admits had been stuck across from one another, nothing unusual, but certainly not something she’d expected. According to the information, they’d been admitted at the same time, moved from the ER, and into the ICU with orders to treat as burn-ward patients. That was impossible, especially on an understaffed ICU.

She rounded the hallway for their rooms. A line of police officers speaking in hushed tones were clustered through-out the hall between the patients’ rooms. They were packed densely enough Kennedy had to force her way through with a command. She sidled past badges and body-cameras, pushed her way into the first room.

According to her charts, the woman had been placed in a medical coma due to the severity of the 3rd degree burns on her back and side. Kennedy couldn’t see them directly, but the bandage wrapped along her side, back, and angled forward over her shoulder and chest, left no doubt of the severity of her state. The bandages would have to be changed every four hours, the wounds scrubbed, and the anesthetic drip replenished.

Kennedy fumed. There was no way in hell they were equipped to handle a burn victim of this magnitude. They barely had enough people to administer meds on schedule. The kind of intimate care required for a lone burn victim was extensive. Several people and powerful meds were needed to keep them stable, even to clean and re-bandage the wounds. Caring for two was going to be impossible.

Kennedy growled futility, checked the woman’s vitals as quickly as possible, and entered the information into the tablet. She noted the name “Mendez,” under the time, then pushed out and through the crowd for the other room.

The man was considerably worse off– in a way that stung Kennedy’s usually hardened heart. The whole right-half of his face was hidden under bandages, the left side streaked with debris wounds that reddened his olive skin. Little else on him was visible, save random, small bits of unaffected skin between bandages.

Kennedy swallowed hard, felt her chest tighten, then lifted the chart to read “Torres.” Her knees turned to rubber from sickness curdling in her gut. A shaking index finger trembled against the tablet to scroll through the information: Torres’ entire right-side and back had been scorched extensively, it said. The images accompanying the report were grisly. Freshly charred skin mingled with the burned impressions left by super-heated armor plates. According to the O-R report, he’d been operated on for four hours to extricate melted fabric and plastic from his wounds. It was a wonder he was alive, to say the least, but what the hell happened to him, and when? The report was days old.

She ran her quick check, then returned to the nurse’s station to make a call to a superior. When the woman answered she was quick to tell Kennedy someone was already headed down to explain things. The call ended immediately after.

Kennedy was dumbstruck, put off by a finality in the woman’s tone that held something more beneath. The only thing she could place it as was fear, but what scared a burnt-out nurse in one of the busiest hospitals, in one of the largest cities in the world? Kennedy wasn’t sure, but it couldn’t be good.

She turned for the hall and straight into a man with a suit cut sharp it made her eyes bleed. She was stunned. He pulled out a bi-fold wallet, flashed a badge that vaguely registered as FBI.

“Missus Hart?”

“Miss,” she corrected habitually. “Yes? Can I help you?”

“Miss Hart, would you come with me please?”

Kennedy glanced at the other nurses behind the station. They stared up, open-mouthed. Kennedy cleared her throat, stammered out a reply, then followed with a curious amble. The FBI man directed her into a room with other suited men and women, extended a hand to a offer her a seat, and shut the door behind him.

Kennedy eased into her seat, and the room sat together. A man at the head of table examined her for a long moment. Then, with a lean, he interlocked his fingers on the table, “Everything you’re about to hear is a matter of National Security, should any of this be repeated outside this room, you will be jailed and tried for high-treason. Do you understand?”

Kennedy stared.

4.

There was a literal, full minute of silence before Kennedy’s mouth shut and she stammered out a response, “Wh-what’s this all about?”

The man at the head of the table, his face cloaked in dim shadow, cleared a gravelly throat. Someone flipped a switch below the table, and a projection appeared in the middle of it. Two images, side-by-side, were repeated in four places, like a three dimensional cube connected at its vertical faces with the table forming their base. Judging from the ID-like images, and the obvious collars of NCPD uniforms, the two people projected were her patients.

She almost didn’t recognize Torres. It only worsened her gut-sickness. Combined with the clandestine feeling of the dark room, its air, and the people in it, she guessed things wouldn’t be getting better anytime soon.

The gravel-throated man all but confirmed her hunch as he began to speak. “The two patients currently occupying your ward are members of NCPD’s SWAT team. Several days ago, Officer Juan Torres conducted a raid on a suspected heroin refinery. The exact location is classified. We’ve been fortunate to retain media black-out, but several officers were killed in the explosion. It is our hope that we may work together to ensure these two officers do not suffer the same fate.”

A woman down the table, whose only identity lay in the overt confidence of her tone, continued from there, “Miss Hart, we believe these patients may be targeted for retribution by certain suspects or their associates. Given their states, and the care required, it is necessary to reallocate them, as well as their care-givers, to your ward from others units across the campus.”

“Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency hope you will accommodate us in this matter,” the man at the head of the table added. It sounded more like a casually veiled threat than anything.

The room settled back into a ringing silence. Kennedy still stared. She wasn’t sure what the hell was going on. Everything beyond “retribution” had been lost on her. Who the hell sought retribution against cops for something like this? And why’d she have to be worried about it? Moreover, why the hell did they choose the ICU of all places?

The questions kept coming. With no answers in sight, her mouth finally shut. She readied to reply as formally as possible, the situation evidently hinged less on her compliance than her job did. She let out a short breath, “I will, of course, do whatever I can to ensure the safety of my patients. But I’m charge-nurse… for tonight. My job, for tonight, is to act as liaison for the unit’s nurses and our superior. I don’t really have any power.”

“From here on out,” a man said nearer to her. His features were dark, eyes unyielding. He slid over a micro SD card, “You will act as liaison between us and those assigned to these patients. The staff directly in charge of them will take your word as ours. Your other duties are suspended until such time as the two officers make a full-recovery.”

Kennedy drew the tablet over with a hand, slotted the card to access it. A pair of folders appeared with patient ID numbers as the names. Those numbers were the same as the ones used by the various machines reporting their vitals and meds through the hospital’s network. Kennedy could ID both of the patients by them alone.

She gave an outward look to no-one in particular, “I can offer compliance in my case– I certainly can’t refuse anyway, but I have questions.” A resonant pause ushered her onward. “First of all, why have you assigned these patients here, instead of the burn-ward?”

A woman with slightly less confidence than the last explained, “We believe anyone seeking retribution will know to check N-C’s burn-wards. We hope placing them here will better obscure their presence and still allow for the care they require.”

The dark man nearer her added, “Upon closer inspection, you’ll see those files have been doctored. Their real names do not appear anywhere.”

She took his word for it, “Okay. Then my next question–”

The man at the head of the room anticipated her, “We believe the person, or persons, targeting these patients have access to internal NCPD and FBI intelligence. In order to draw them out, and ensure the officers’ survival, we must allow all agencies involved to believe both Torres and Mendez are dead.”

Her eyes widened, “There are thirty cops in the hallway, and you think you can contain this?”

Another man spoke, one that hadn’t yet. From his air of superiority and vernacular she suspected him a doctor, a veteran one at that. “That is why, once your team is in place, you will simulate a cardiac incident on both patients. We will prepare everything externally necessary. Otherwise, you will receive further instructions soon. For all intents and purposes, it will appear as if your patients have died.”

Kennedy’s eyes narrowed skeptically, her tongue sharp– the same way she was when she dealt with her ex that’d left her a week before their wedding. “You want me to fake their deaths!?” Another resonant silence. Awkwardness underlined it this time. Kennedy felt herself squirm involuntarily. She swallowed hard, “I… don’t see how I can refuse, but I’d like it noted I have reservations.”

“Duly noted, Miss Kennedy,” someone said.

She didn’t see them speak, was too busy wrapped in her thoughts. Losing not one, but two patients would look bad on her record. She could lose her job. More importantly, she could lose any hope of getting another if this assembly decided to take charade the next step and “investigate” her. If the media ever did get wind of it, she’d be black-balled faster than she could click a pen.

She spoke to this effect, “I can do what you request, but it will take time. More importantly, I can’t allow this to permanently affect my license. When this is over, any public knowledge must be officially retracted so my livelihood isn’t lost.”

The man at the head of the table replied firmly, “Your livelihood will not be permanently affected, but you may have to follow through with things. We will brief you in time on what that may require.”

With that, the projected image dissolved and the table rose together, save Kennedy. She was stuck in place for another, full-minute before she rose snatched up her tablet and followed after them. She stepped into the hall to find they’d disappeared. The one, confident woman remained behind to speak to an officer. Her hair was fine, golden threads in the lights that reflected off it in a wet-like sheen and gave her a glow that modestly accented tanned skin.

Clearly whatever she did officially allowed for more fun in the sun than being stuck in an ICU all day or night. Kennedy envied her for that alone.

She returned to the empty nurse’s station just as the uniformed officers began to disperse. Two men and women remained to stand guard on either side of the patients’ doors. The blonde woman clicked and clacked her way past along the hall, her face fixed with indifference, and her mind consumed by her work. Her heels sounded her progress past, then disappeared into a stairwell beyond a heavy, closing door.

The grayer of the two nurses appeared, snapping bright-orange, nicotine gum in her jaws, “S’that all about?”

Kennedy shrugged, checked her watch, “Hell if I know.”