Hijack: Part 9

9.

The delivery and flip-flop from Gary was otherwise uneventful. Gail was grateful. She’d had enough of a close-call to last another twenty-years. Before signing off, Thacker alerted her to Darian and Nora’s return. Brianne took over. Minutes later, she relayed news from Sharon Ferrero; Bud’s funeral was set to be held in two days. Gail confirmed with a “10-4,” and dispatch fell back into its idle chatter on the CB. It followed her back home, a constant thrum of noise in a mind too fatigue-wracked to notice it.

Gail found the garage in a somber mood. The T680’s damaged husk was had been torn down to its basic components. Everything from the engine block, down to the remaining lug-nuts were arranged in specific fashions. It was like someone had sent the 680 through a time-warp, with only the scored, charred, or road-rashed parts to separate it from a yet-to-be assembled new vehicle. Likewise, Gail’s W900 had become the focal point of the crew-chief and OCF’s attentions. Together, they were disassembling the engine and its various parts, aligning them in the meticulous fashions, or comparing them to the T680’s.

Gail was glad to see Nora getting her hands dirty. The rest of Darian’s crew had sequestered themselves to the garage’s edge. Whether ordered there, or gravitating there, they did their best to watch without gawking and speak in silences. At Gail’s appearance, the entirety of the garage eyed her. She caught onto it in a flash. Dozens of eyes darted away, as though somehow guilty through inaction. Gail hesitated, bag on her shoulder.

At the sound of the door, Marla stopped mid-pace between couches. She caught Gail’s gaze, and the gaze of the garage eyeing her. Half-snoozing on a couch, Carl was jerked awake by Marla’s sudden burst of movement. She rushed Gail: a million worried questions spilled from the girl. Each one welled more water into her eyes. Gail swallowed hard, paradoxically comforted and uncomfortable by the level of water she’d engendered. She almost seized up from the opposing states.

She cleared her throat, “Marla, thank you, but I’m fine.”

Marla’s eyes gleamed, “Are you sure? Can I get you anything?”

Gail shook her head as Carl rose from his half-sleep. “Hey Gail, knew ya’d pull through!”

Gail threw him an affirming eye, and turned for her office, “Marla, unless you can turn back time and resurrect Ferrero, there’s nothing you can do.”

Marla followed like a puppy, nipping Gail’s heels, “I would if I could, believe me.”

Gail quietly rolled her eyes. She was less exasperated than displaced. So much had gone wrong so fast. It had been one thing after another, since Bud’s death. There’d been days between certain things, but the time-lapses were too enveloped in shock. No proper comprehension of things could come from them. Even the short-hauls Gail had caused more problems. There had been no escape.

Gail needed to reassess, view things from all angles. Whatever she’d missed would be there, between the lines. Only a proper examination could reveal or connect them. She sat down at her desk with Marla at attention before her.

“Give me some time to think.” She slipped a company credit-card from her desk, “Get lunch for us. Take your time.” Marla nodded quietly, took the card. “And close the door on your way out.”

Marla left. The door shut. Immediately, Gail had a glass on the desk. She poured two-fingers of whiskey from her flask. She sipped once, then set it down to fix her eyes on the remaining liquor.

Everything pointed toward her refusal to sell. Ferrero’s damaged rig rang too reminiscent of sabotage. Nora’s assertions only furthered the feeling. The accident and the sale were easily linked, at least in her mind. She’d need proof to convince others, but it wasn’t necessary for her to think on it.

M-T was angry about her refusal to sell. That much was obvious. That the accident occurred only hours after had triggered Gail’s mental alarms. Instinct or not, she knew she was right. Then there was the ongoing campaign against Local 413 and the industry. Somehow, this was linked to that– either through M-T, or as a result of their malice.

The Union had long been fighting the NHSB. It had always been at the latter’s loss. Until recently, the watchdog group had only minor influence. Usually, over officials or politicians the Union had long been allied with. Now, they were making massive strides in their agendas, forcing 413 to kowtow to their demands or face very public repercussions. There could be only one reason for that; power. Where grabbing for more, or as the result of a shift, all of this revolved around power.

But in the business world, money was power. Gail’s only fears of losing to M-T spawned from that. Mechanized Transport was big. Their Oakton division’s bottom-lines could buy and retrofit Lone-Wolfe’s fleet a hundred times over. Oakton was only one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of divisions. Mechanized Transports was like a hydra. It was big, amorphous, and well-rooted in the world and its economy. Even if she managed to prove wrong-doing on Wembley or the other pricks’ parts, there was no doubt the beast would just lop off the withered heads to grow new ones.

Comparatively, Gail was flea’s tits on a big red dog’s ass. Small. M-T Inc could scratch her from existence without even realizing it, or caring. That obscurity had been important. Until the refusal to sell made her known to them, they’d had no more care of her than she had for a bug splattered on her grille during a long haul. Now they saw her. It was bad news. That hydra had turned at her, and was rearing. Bud’s death wasn’t even the rigid crack of a vertebrae below a single head.

Gail employed a little over twenty employees. M-T had somewhere on the avenue of three times as many bathroom attendants in the US alone. That, to say nothing of the scores of blood-thirsty lawyers and money hungry executives. Now, every single one was turning at her. The odds were not in Gail’s favor.

Even the NHSB wasn’t comparable. Some members were independently wealthy, but used the organization to bolster their clout and waste others’ time. That was how they’d been overlooked as a threat. No one in the organization had wanted their agenda to pass. If it did, the NHSB ceased to grab headlines, make profits off donations, garner publicity. If it succeeded, it ceased to be relevant. The NHSB’s motivations had always reeked of money to Gail. Always.

Something was different now. The recent flexes of authority reeked of motivation. As if it were all part of a longer game-plan with no room for failure at this level. Not because it couldn’t tolerate it. Rather, because the plan said this level wasn’t open to failure or success. The NHSB didn’t work like that. They never had. Moreover, neither their donors nor members had the private fortunes required to squeeze the Union.

But Mechanized Transports most certainly did.

Since their inception, over a decade ago, M-T had grown into a thorn in shipping’s side. And Gail’s too. Whether private or unionized, drivers and owners alike loathed them. The one-time, meager software company grew big, brass balls almost overnight: Clever maneuvering made them a monstrous entity looking to monopolize an industry they’d never been part of. Their strategy for doing so was swallowing and downsizing the competition so fast and severely it kneed the guts of anyone watching.

It wasn’t anything that hadn’t been attempted though. Since the first boat owner began charging to ferry things across a river, to the trans-pacific railway and modern rigs and air-freight, people and companies big and small had vied for the biggest slice of the transportation pie. M-T had ruffled feathers by coming in and trying to take over. They weren’t a shipping company. Not really. They did R-and-D for A-I and self-driving cars. Yet, they were suddenly trying to dominate the industry. They were attempting to take over, to monopolize a behemoth so massive and enormous most others had quit trying.

And, above all, they were succeeding.

One, particularly successful software contract allowed M-T to patent and trademark designs for a self-driving freight-vehicle. The first public tests succeeded. Their stock soared. Larger companies lined up to purchase tech from them. They were literally eating their industry’s poison out of M-T’s hands. Willingly. With a smile. All to save a few bucks and remove the “human” problem.

The smaller companies felt the change too, however indirectly. Drivers began demanding more from the Unions. More money. More vacation. More work for them. Less work for others. The Unions agreed. 413 agreed. The Unions forced new rules, used Senate and Congressional lobbying to push laws. The five-year unemployment report suddenly stated that 70% of drivers had been replaced by the new tech. People panicked. The Unions panicked. M-T profited. Like a creature thriving on chaos.

Things could only get worse.

M-T owned the patents to all the tech involved; software, sensors, GPS chips and monitors, everything. At every turn they banked off the upheaval. That money built fleets of driver-less vehicles, further dominating shipping.

Now to keep public support, they were buying up as many of the smaller companies as possible. Buying up and buying off. M-T were securing the silence against their actions. They’d partnered with larger corporations both stateside and internationally. The move was as much for the acquired companies’ profit as assurances of long-term survival. That survival though, was contingent on M-T’s whims. If they weren’t earning, they were non-existent.

As Gail figured it, this was about power– monetary power. That meant the pressure coming from the NHSB was fueled by M-T’s money. If not directly, then by some middle-man. She’d make a point to have Nora look into it. If she could prove her suspicion, she might further connect the rising political pressure, and thus M-T’s involvement, to the accident.

She was at a total loss for how she’d do that though. In fact, most of the “how” of things was so far elusive. How could M-T have hidden the money-transfer from the public? How had they managed, together, to pressure the Union and the OPD with it? How had they caused the accident? If it involved tampering with the rigs, how had they gotten to them?

The more she wondered at it, the more she went in circles. She was almost wholly absent when Marla returned with lunch. She’d knocked once on the door and let herself in. Gail was completely unaware until she appeared in her peripheral vision. Marla said something. Gail’s eyes finally rose from the glass.

“What?” She asked, oblivious to Marla’s remark.

“I said you look intense,” Marla admitted, setting a bag of food on the desk.

“I’m thinking,” she said, more caustically than she meant– a result of the bend her thoughts had taken.

Marla’s voice shied away, “Uh… okay. I’ll leave you to it, then.”

Gail eased her body forward, rubbed her forehead, “No. Stay. I could use the company.”

Marla brightened, but managed to keep her spirits contained. She sat before Gail’s desk, dug through her food-bag to eat. Over the crinkle of paper-bags, Gail drained her whiskey and replaced the glass and the flask in her desk. They were quiet for a few minutes until all that remained were the sounds of chewed food and sucked straws.

Marla clearly found it awkward, but hid it well in the few words that slipped past a cheek-full of food, “Mind if I ask what you were thinking about?”

Gail raised an eyebrow sarcastically. It seemed an unnecessary question. Marla must have missed the gesture, or deliberately ignored it, and instead stared for an answer.

Gail found her voice, “The accident.” Marla nodded over a sip from her straw. “I was thinking; “how?”

Marla squinted an eye at her, “How what?”

“How any of it.” She reiterated, “How’d someone force the Union to investigate, or pressure the Police Chief into political fears? How’d someone sabotage my rig, and Bud’s, and how’d they find the opportunity?”

Marla nodded with a distant stare. She chewed the last of her food, swallowed it down, “You’re thinking sabotage? That someone did this to you– and Buddy– so they could pressure the Union and police to investigate? To what end?”

“The pressure in itself,” Gail admitted. Marla’s brow furrowed. “Think about it. We have a massive corporation trying to buy us out so they can phase-out our drivers and monopolize the industry. Hours after we, again, reject their offer, the papers are warning the Union to integrate A-I rigs. Then, moments later, we lose a veteran driver with no history of accidents. What about that doesn’t scream sabotage?”

Marla looked away again, her mind elsewhere, “When you put it like that…”

“Exactly,” Gail said, finishing the last of her meal.

Marla finished eating in silence, mind elsewhere as she puzzled something out mentally. When she was able to speak again, she shoved leftover trash into a bag. More crinkling paper sounded beneath a long sigh, “We’ll if you’re right, then we’re screwed no matter what we do.”

Gail was taken aback, “What?”

Marla winced, shoved the bag into a trashcan beside her, and sat upright to address Gail seriously, “If someone’s sabotaging the company, and our fleet, they’ll find some way to keep doing it.” Gail was speechless. “Gail, admit it, we’re small fish. Even though the pond’s the same size as it’s always been, the bigger fish are taking over. They’re being helped by progress. By technology. If history’s any indication… well, drivers will be going the way of the Pony Express.”

Gail’s face stiffened with a stubborn will, “Not if I can help it.”

Marla shook her head, preempting any outburst Gail might’ve planned, “No. You can’t. And the more you try, the worse it’ll be for you. For all of us. Technology is the future, Gail. More than that, it’s the present. Every day, more and more people put their trust in it. It’s only natural. It’s like writing, or speaking. Communication as a whole. It’ll take over as much as possible. Romanticizing something beneath it, and fighting its evolution, is swimming against a current. Eventually, if you don’t adapt, if you don’t let the current take you, it’ll overwhelm you. You’ll drown in it.”

Gail stared at her. Wherever the insight had come from, she’d underestimated Marla and her perspective of things. She couldn’t help but think back to the Police Chief and his singling her out as the weakest link. Maybe Gail had been it after all.

“The way I see it,” Marla said. “You can either change– adapt– and swim with the current, or get out of the river. Either way, change is coming. For you. For them. For the industry. Maybe me too, but I don’t know. Mechanics are always needed somewhere. That’s how we’ve survived. My schooling consisted of more technical training than any class before me, and that was years ago. The trend won’t have stopped.”

The door opened behind Marla. Both women found Nora standing in the doorway. She’d stopped short, but the grave look on her face forced her inward. “Forgive my interruption,” she said with unequivocal gravity. “But we’ve found something.”

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Short Story: Reel-Gun Blues

Detective Arnold Foster had been on the force near-on twenty years, but nothing had been like this. He’d done his fair share of high-profile cases and seen enough things to make the average uniform retch, but nothing had ever been so rough. He took off his gray fedora and knelt beside the body, tailored trench-coat falling around him to rest on the floor just beyond the pool of blood.

She lie on her side, arms near one another, left hand clutched half-closed as if sleeping. Everything about her was peaceful, as if lying in her own blood with a gut-wound was just another night of beauty sleep. Even her auburn hair had fallen around her pale-skin like a woman sleeping the greatest sleep of her life. Foster wasn’t sure about that, but it would certainly be the longest.

There was nothing unusual around the scene; no marks on the wrists, no broken glass or furniture askew. Nothing had been thrown, or knocked around. There was just her body and a pool of blood. It was still the most difficult thing Foster’d ever forced himself to witness.

Ali was one of the few friends he had left, alongside the now-primary suspect, her husband. Neither one had ever been the angry type. What had kept Foster on such good terms with them was their glowing love that welcomed him to bask in it. He enjoyed it.

But there was no glow now, just pale skin wrapped around coagulated veins and dead organs.

Foster rose from his stance. He shouldn’t be here, his heart said it, his analytical mind said it. There was nothing to find, and he’d been explicitly barred from the case on grounds of personal attachments. He disagreed with that decision and he doubted the Chief himself could have stopped him from coming.

But the Chief wasn’t there, just a group of uniforms, a few forensics squints, and a few reps from the coroner’s office. Even if there’d been something to find, Foster wouldn’t have needed it. The fact that Sten was missing was enough. He’d been the loving husband that stood by Ali through everything. If he wasn’t here, lying in a pool of his own grief, then he was the one responsible. Foster didn’t need any further proof. The door wasn’t forced, the room wasn’t askew; Ali had known her attacker, hadn’t expected her death. If she had, she’d have run, tripped, fallen, knocked over a lamp– left some sign that it wasn’t the man she loved and trusted.

Foster re-fitted his Fedora, and stepped away from the body. He pushed through some uniforms, passed the ambulance and coroner that helped EMTs to remove the gurney, and headed for his unmarked car. Like him, the Ford Sedan was getting on in years, but remained reliable enough not to be cast out. Its turbo-charged police engine had always gotten him from point A to point B, no matter the situation or urgency.

The Sedan was now the one constant in a world of variables. As he slid in and ignited the engine, it agreed with him. They were a package deal, it seemed to say, two old dogs trying their best to keep up and abreast of all the new tricks. The times had changed enough that technology was often their greatest asset and biggest rival, but today both sensed it was unnecessary. Personally, Foster didn’t need a bold repertoire or an extensive case-history to know where he’d find Sten.

When the Ford rolled up to the edge of the pier, Sten’s pickup was already there. Foster could just see him through the back and front windows of the truck, propped backward against the bumper with his hands in his pockets. For a moment, Foster considered leaving, but Ali’s dead body was too prevalent in his mind. Her supple, vibrant skin was too pale, eyes too closed and dead to let him leave.

Foster checked the reel-gun he’d inherited from his father to ensure it was still loaded. Cleaned, oiled, and fired regularly, it was as near to mint condition as an old thirty-eight could be. Part of him want to aim it through the windows separating him from Sten and pull the trigger. Something about Sten’s refusal to acknowledge his presence made him hesitate. It reminded him of the few times he and Sten had talked office-politics or work-business. Sten was always reserved, quiet, only letting out enough not to defy the NDA’s his software company made him sign. He was always honest, straight as a razor, Foster’d liked him for that.

But now he was jagged, crooked enough to have murdered his own wife then run to the one place he knew he’d be found; Why? Why any of it? Why murder his loving wife? Why make it so obvious? Why stand still when he could run, leave Foster in the dust? The old detective had to know, and there was only one route to the truth.

He slid from the sedan and sidled between the bumpers, reel-gun in hand, to approach Sten from the truck’s right.

“You don’t need the gun, old man,” Sten said as he approached. “I’m still the same man you’ve always called a friend.”

Foster stopped just out of arm’s reach, near the front-right fender, “My friends don’t murder people in cold blood, let alone their loving wives.”

“If you think that, you don’t know your friends too well.”

“What the hell’re you talking about, Sten? You killed Ali, your wife, and all you can do’s be a smart-ass about it? What in the hell’s happened to you?”

Sten finally moved, but only his head and neck. It still made Foster tense, just in case his so-called friend had any designs in mind. “Jumpy today,” Sten said blankly. “Why don’t you come over her, take a load off with me?”

Foster’s mouth half-snarled, “You son of a bitch, you think I’m gonna’ risk my neck for–”

“I think,” he interrupted. “You should hear me out. You wanna’ take me in after, fine. You wanna’ blow my brains out on the gravel, fine, but hear me out. You owe me that.”

Foster remained still, it was enough of a sign for Sten, whom turned his head back to the ocean. He was lost in thought for a long moment before he began with a distant vacancy, “Just before you and I met, I was writing software for a government agency connected to DARPA. Someone in the CIA contacted me asking for a meeting. Two months later, I was field-rated and on my first op. Nine months after that, I met Ali. She’d passed all of our screenings, and she believed every word of my lies. Or at least, I thought so.”

He slipped a hand into his inner-jacket pocket. Foster tensed up again. The hand withdrew, clutching a printed, digital photograph between its fingers. A small memory card had been taped to a bottom corner. He set the photo on the hood of his truck, slid it at Foster, and re-pocketed his hand.

Foster craned his neck to eye it and Sten continued, “That photo was taken two-days ago outside the Villa-Nova hotel. You’ll notice Ali meeting a bald man.”

Foster’s eyes confirmed as much, “This going somewhere?”

“Twelve hours ago the CIA informed me that Ali’s file had been forwarded from a contact in Moscow. Her real name is Ivana Kurleynko, an SVR agent sent to spy on the CIA through me. A contract hit was put out on her by the agency, but I got there first.” He finally met Foster’s eyes, his own sharpened by pain. “I… couldn’t let someone else kill the woman I loved. So I came in, and she saw me, smiled her smile, and blinked. I shot her once and left. I’ve been here ever since.”

They were quiet for a moment, only the ocean and distant gulls willing to force themselves on the scene. They created a background of white-noise that infected Foster’s heart.

He swallowed hard, “How’m I supposed to believe this?”

“All the information you need is on that card, Arnold.”

“You understand I need to take you in ’til this can be verified,” he said, only half believing him.

“Just make sure they don’t try to take retribution on me, you know?”

Unfortunately, Foster did. Wife killers were second only to child molesters when it came to inmate hatred.

“I’ll do what I can,” Foster said, still not sure what he believed.

Sten stepped around the truck. Foster’s followed, pocketing the photo. The two men stopped at either of the front doors and their eyes met again.

“You know,” Sten said. “I guess it’s true what they say, “You never really know someone.”

Foster thought about it, but Sten slipped into the Sedan and took the thought with. He ended up in a mired confusion… just another day of reel-gun blues.