By D.V. Bennett
The glory of the gang life. That’s how Ernie Urquidez chose to fill his social niche. He could read any tag on any train, but most of his coworkers thought he was as full of bull as a cattle car.
Jet Franklin didn’t care about that. His only problem was that Ernie talked incessantly, and Jet was paired with the guy for the whole month. If it weren’t for Ernie, working the night shift in the rail yard out of Phoenix would be fine. Jet didn’t know how much more he could take.
Was this annoying story number seven, or number seventeen? He decided to go with his original plan and stop listening. Interrupting Ernie’s endless anecdotes for incidental purposes like work was no longer rude. It was a personal imperative.
Jet’s single aim was to get home and watch the Suns/Clippers game on DVR from his recliner. He loved that chair.
Standing on the small deck of a refrigerated railcar, Jet refreshed the digital readout a couple of times and closed the cover on the access panel, “We’re going to have to call this one in.”
“We are?” Ernie said. “Doesn’t sound like any big deal.”
Jet climbed down, “And that, my young Padawan, is why you fail.”
“Never mind.” The glow from his radio keypad made Jet’s dark skin shine, “Shoot me now.”
Chief Dispatcher Dennis Cooper answered immediately, “Problems, Jet?”
Jet rolled his eyes as Ernie leaned against the rail car, fingering his smart phone. Even unable to see Dennis, he knew the man was smiling.
“We have a car that needs to be taken out of service.”
“So do it,” Dennis said.
“It’s a loaded reefer, and it’s not cooling properly.”
“What’s the cargo?”
“‘Premium frozen beef,’ according to the manifest.”
“Since when are we hauling beef?”
“How should I know, Dennis? I’m only reading what it says.”
“Is it still in an acceptable temperature range?”
“The gauge says so, but the compressor hasn’t stopped running since we got out here. May be a coolant leak. Temperature’s risen two degrees in the last hour. It won’t make it through Nevada before it starts to thaw.”
“Great,” Dennis said, “probably two-hundred-fifty grand of product there.”
“Easily,” Jet said. “It’s Angus.”
“Okay, Jet,” Dennis said. “I’ll round up a Hyster driver and a couple of guys to help. We’ll send out a switcher to roll it into Building B and do the transfer. Give us forty-five minutes to an hour.”
“You catch all of that, Ernie?”
“Standing here, ain’t I?”
“Just wanted to be sure,” Jet said. “You were busy texting.”
Every car had passed over the automated undercarriage inspection system, and now they worked at checking rivets, bolts, welds, doors and a host of other constructs having a tendency to break, vibrate loose or wear out while rattling over hundreds of thousands of miles of track.
“This one’s all good,” Ernie said.
“You have to look at everything, Ernie. Check out this access ladder. Looks shaky.”
“A lot of them look beat. They get used a lot.”
Jet grabbed a rung, rattling it, “It’s loose. Write it up.”
Ernie said, “That’s what my bro Rico says about you, man. Says you see what other people miss.”
“Or I actually pay attention.”
“Aw, don’t be that way. I didn’t notice because I was talking.”
“Then it’s a wonder you ever notice a damned thing.”
“Rico also told me you were a hard ass.”
“Who the hell is this ‘Rico’?”
“Rico’s an old buddy of yours.”
“Of mine?” Jet thought for a moment, “Rico Contreras?”
A wide grin stretched Ernie’s lips to their limit as Jet made the connection.
Jet looked out over the Western end of the yard as two sleek vehicles rolled slowly toward them.
“You know Rico Contreras?”
A single person stepped from the passenger side of one cars as the drivers cut the headlights. The big man wore his dark hair the same way Jet did, high and tight. The same height as Jet, he had longer, leaner muscles.
He wore a black sleeveless tee shirt, his right shoulder bearing a tattoo with a grinning skull beneath an Army “RANGERS” banner. Jet’s shoulder bore the identical image, save the fact that Jet’s had a deep knife scar running through it from top to bottom.
“Rico,” Jet said.
Rico Contreras said, “Thought I’d stop by to say hi.” He whistled through his teeth, “Chicos, salen.” Three men emerged from the cars.
“My birthday’s in September,” Jet said. “This is July. Why the surprise party?”
Rico laughed, “You see, Ernesto? This guy and I haven’t seen each other for six years, and he acts like we shared Qabili in a cave eight-thousand miles away, just yesterday.”
“Yeah,” Ernie said, the planetary grin straining his facial muscles, “and he’s still a boy scout, like you said.”
“The most unmotivated boy scout I ever met,” Rico said, “but there’s nobody more capable when you’re in it real deep.”
“What do you want, Rico?” Jet asked.
“You’re going to be working for me tonight, Jet.”
“Why would I want to do that?”
“I knew you’d ask me that,” Rico said, whistling again. “The simple answer is because I’m going to provide you with the proper motivation.”
Two men emerged from the passenger side of a glossy black ’65 Impala. Guys on the slick side, muscled up and looking like they paid to have their tats waxed and buffed. Rico’s personal bodyguards, Jet thought. Well-trained buzz saws. They would have to be. They were carrying Jet’s usual working partner, Stephen Little Hawk, and he was no pushover. His wrists, knees and ankles were bound with several plastic zip ties. They dropped him on his side onto the gravel. Blood from one nostril trailed across his face.
Stephen looked up at him, “Jet.”
“You always were the wordy one,” Rico said.
“And you were always a small-minded punk with a big mouth.”
One of the bodyguards kicked Stephen across the backs of his thighs. Stephen didn’t wince.
“Stop it, Rico,” Jet said.
“Your friend here's tough,” Rico said. “I think he’s even tougher than you are, Jet, but he still bleeds.”
“What’s your game, Rico?”
“Your buddies will be rolling up any minute to take this car away. You need to stop them.”
Ernie produced a Charter Arms Bulldog .44 special. He aimed it at Stephen’s head.
Jet’s radio lit up and Dennis Cooper’s voice boomed, “Control. Jet, switcher’s about to head over. Keep clear.”
“Answer him,” Rico said.
“Negative Dennis,” Jet said. “Abort. Problem solved.”
“Little bit of good old American ingenuity.”
Dennis said, “You sure about this? Lot of money we’re answerable for, sitting in there. ”
“Yeah, an overload connector vibrated loose. We pushed it back together, refreshed the gauge. Cooling fine now.”
“You might have tried that earlier, instead of having me pull people from what they were doing.”
“We fixed the problem. Now we’re on schedule. Relax. Maybe you can skip the antacid tonight.”
“You’re a pain in the ass, Franklin.” The connection ended with a fuzzy click.
“He going to buy that?”
“He will,” Jet said. “Dennis is no electrician.”
“Nice work,” Rico said.
“Why me, Rico?” Jet asked. “I know we weren’t close friends—”
“Friends?” Rico said, “You weren’t friends with anyone, except for the Lieutenant, and he was a suck-up to the brass.”
“He did the job.”
“He was a weed.”
“Because he followed orders?”
“I spent six weeks in the infirmary because he followed orders, but why would you care? You never got a scratch.”
“Oh, I got a few,” Jet said, “but I got mine facing forward.”
“Yeah, well I never expected our paths to cross again, Jet. I wish they hadn’t, but I’ve got business to take care of, and I can’t allow you to disrupt it.”
“You didn’t know I worked here then?”
“Not until Ernesto mentioned you in passing a week ago,” Rico said.
Rico nodded, “Mine too. I didn’t want you anywhere near this car, but now that you’re involved, you’re going to obey my orders.”
Ernie backed away, slipping the Bulldog into its holster, covering it with his shirt, “It’s going to be okay. No one will question the war hero, right?”
“Let’s get on with it,” Jet said.
“You need to clear this car from the registry,” Rico said.
“I’d have to go back to the building, get to a computer in Rail Operations and Logistics, but I have no business being there.”
“You’ll figure it out.” Rico threw an arm around Ernie’s shoulders, “Ernie will go with you.”
“It’ll look weird,” Jet said. “We’re supposed to be out here, doing the job. We have a tight schedule to keep.”
“Then keep it, and we’ll keep your friend company.” The bodyguard nudged Stephen’s leg with the toe of a shiny boot again. “If you’re not both back here in thirty minutes, I’ll put pennies on your buddy’s eyes for you. Get moving.”
Jet hurried toward the main building complex as Ernie struggled to keep up. Two-hundred yards away from the car, Jet said, “You’d better hope Little Hawk is alright when this is over, Ernie.”
“You do what we tell you to do, hero, and—”
Jet’s rear kick caught Ernie low in the gut. He folded, sucking air, staggering backward. He recovered quicker than Jet expected and grabbed for his gun, but Jet kicked it from his hand.
“You’re a stupid old man,” Ernie said.
“Old?” Jet said.
Ernie feinted to his left and launched a vicious spin-kick at head level. Caught off guard and unable to completely dodge it, Jet felt Ernie’s boot clip his nose. He raised his hands, blocking as Ernie stepped in with what seemed like a prearranged pattern of strikes, aimed at his head.
Jet had met the type before. All speed. No power. Probably dummy-trained like crazy without ever actually learning to fight. Jet waited for his window and surprised Ernie with a left jab. He followed with a solid right elbow to his chin, and Ernie dropped to the ground, unconscious.
Jet looked back toward Rico Contreras and his men. Too dark to see them, he was certain Rico couldn’t see him either.
Wiping his nose on his forearm, he looked down at Ernie, “I’m only forty, you stupid twit.”
He picked up the Bulldog and shoved it into his belt. Slinging Ernie over his shoulder, he moved cautiously to the locomotive shop, knowing the light would expose them. At three-hundred yards, an average pair of binoculars would allow Rico to see how Jet had burned him.
He waited until two men began rolling a large compressor into the shop. They and the machine shielded himself and Ernie from Rico’s view. He made a trudging dash alongside them for the gigantic bay door.
The guys wheeling the compressor and a number of people inside the shop turned their heads as Jet stumbled past them. All of them stopped working to follow him through a door and into the break room.
Everyone in the room stood as Jet picked a table and allowed Ernie’s body to flop onto it, “Somebody get Dennis. See if there’s a Special Agent on duty. Don’t use your radios.”
Michael Bates, the shop foreman, looked back and forth from Jet to Ernie and clapped his hands, “Come on people—move.” A pair of mechanics ran out of the room.
Ernie sat up in a start, and Jet slammed him back down. A couple of people grabbed Jet’s shoulders. He shook them off.
“This fool and his little banger buddies are holding Stephen Little Hawk hostage,” Jet said. “They’re smuggling drugs in one of our cars.”
“Why do they have Little Hawk?” Bates asked.
“To get me to make their railcar full of dope disappear from the radar.”
“Then we’d better give them what they want.” Dennis Cooper, along with several other men and one woman, spilled through the large doorway.
Jet had a great memory for faces and names. He’d seen the woman before at a company picnic, but she hadn’t been wearing the navy blue tee-shirt with the word ‘POLICE’ emblazoned in bright yellow across the front.
“I’m Sergeant Amy Kirk,” she said. “You’re Jet Franklin, and I’m assuming this man is one of the smugglers?”
Jet nodded. Two Hispanic employees stepped forward to hold Ernie in place.
“What’re you looking at, gramps?” Ernie asked the older one.
Jet shook his head, “He has a thing about age.”
“Bring me up to speed,” Sgt. Kirk said.
Jet laid it out for her. A few glances were exchanged when he mentioned he and Rico had served together in Afghanistan.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” Jet said. “They’re expecting me and this idiot back soon.”
“You think they’ll hurt Little Hawk?” Dennis asked.
“This guy out there…he never had a problem killing. Right now he’s desperate or he wouldn’t be doing this. I think his neck is roped to this shipment.”
Sgt. Kirk had finished a quick call on her cell phone and hung up, “I’ve got people coming. They’re maybe twenty minutes out.”
“Stephen Little Hawk may not have twenty minutes, Sergeant. I have to take this punk and get back.”
“I’ll call Phoenix PD.”
“I warned you,” Dennis said. “He’s a pain in the ass.”
Sgt. Kirk said to Dennis, “Get anyone working the Down yard back in here, now.”
“How am I supposed to do that?”
“Lie, Dennis,” Jet said. He pulled the Bulldog and grabbed Ernie by the collar, “I’m saying this in front of everyone, Ernie. If Little Hawk dies tonight, you die too.”
Dennis and the crew watched the two men exit the room before he noticed Sgt. Kirk had disappeared.
In the shop, Ernie said, “You got juevos, dude. You know what’s going to happen when we get back out there?”
“Shut up, Ernie.”
Ernie spun around to face his own gun in Jet’s hand and dropped to his knees, “You take me out there like this and we’re all dead. You, me, your friend? Dead. I can’t say anything to Rico to change that.”
“Get creative or I’ll kill you myself.”
“You won’t. You ain’t like him, and you were right before. He’s got too much invested in this deal. Without it, he’s done. The line bulls are coming man, and I don’t want to be next to Rico when they get here.”
Jet grabbed him by the collar again, “Get up.” Ernie’s body weight seemed to triple, like a dog at bath time.
“You might as well kill me.”
Jet thumped the Bulldog against Ernie’s head, and he was out again.
“Fine,” Jet stepped over Ernie’s prostrate form, “they say concussion is good for the soul.” He turned to Dennis Cooper, “Tie this punk up.”
Jet left the shop at a trot, his mind bombing him with a daisy chain of possibilities. Three-hundred yards closer, he could begin to make out the shape of the reefer car.
At fifteen yards out, he stopped when he heard Rico ask, “Where is Ernesto?”
“He’s in the infirmary.”
“Say goodbye to your buddy.”
“Wait Rico. I had no choice.”
Rico stepped out of the shadows. He raised his arms, extending his Sig Sauer P226, his finger inside the trigger guard.
Jet raised his hands, “It couldn’t be helped. He freaked out. Crapped his pants all over the place.”
“Ernesto wouldn’t do that.”
“He did tonight.”
“Why, Jet? Explain it to me.”
“We tried to get to a computer, but ROL was full of geeks. It’s a closed system, and they’re in the middle of a hardware upgrade. They said we couldn’t have access for at least a couple of hours.”
“That’s too long. Ernie knew that. This car will be connected and out of here well before then.”
“So, once this car and its cargo leave this yard, we can’t remove it from the registry. We’ll be locked out. Only the guys at its next destination will be able to change the cars’ status, and Ernie knew that,” Jet said. “He started making too much noise, saying the wrong kind of stuff, drawing attention.”
“And what did you do?”
“I got him alone, took his gun away from him and pistol whipped him.” Jet made a show of slowly removing the Bulldog from his belt with two fingers, “I told the med tech that he tripped and fell.”
“He believe you?”
One of Rico’s men grabbed the Bulldog and shoved Jet backwards.
Rico lowered his gun, “Find me a way forward.”
“How are your drugs packed inside the car?”
“Centered in the cargo, surrounded by a layer of frozen beef.”
“So that’s how you got it through Nogales.” No surprise that a layer of beef would get the reaction of any drug detecting dog dismissed. Still, somebody should have tumbled, and railcars rarely hauled frozen beef anymore. A payoff.
Jet walked to the reefer car and slid the door open a foot. He climbed up, standing tiptoe on the edge of the deck. Tapping a glossy cardboard box near the top of the opening, he worked his way down.
He shined his flashlight on the interior thermometer. Thirty degrees. He hopped down, slid the door shut and secured it, “You still have an issue.”
“The system’s redundant. It has a backup system.”
“When you deal with lowlifes, maybe you don’t get the best equipment.”
“Let me see that,” Rico said. Jet followed him back to the panel on the end of the car. “Says twenty-seven here.”
“Yeah,” Jet said, “we’re required to file a report if they don't agree.”
“Isn’t the meat still solid?”
“For now, because the car is insulated,” Jet said, “but it won’t stay that way.”
“I don’t care if the meat thaws. The meat isn’t the issue.”
“It is the issue,” Jet said. “You’re hoping that this meat and your dope will be safely delivered to the transport terminal in LA, but the shipment has to get past the line inspectors.
Normally, when shipments are offloaded, your shipper receives it and takes it to the location of your choice. But when the outer boxes thaw, our guys will report the whole load and stop the transport. It’s a serious liability issue. Your stash will be discovered, and there goes your profit.”
“The hero,” Rico said. “So smart. You’ve got this all mapped out.”
“It’s my job, and you should cut and run.”
Rico drew the Sig and pressed the muzzle against Jet’s temple, “No. Come up with better options for me, brother.”
“You won’t like them.”
“You could haul your own dope. Call all your best budds with every car and truck available. Offload the contents here. You’ve got about sixty minutes to get it done.”
“Not enough time. Any other ideas?”
“Release Stephen Little Hawk, and he and I will run interference for you at LA Transport. When it’s done, you cut us loose.”
“I do anything in Afghanistan, make you think I’m stupid, Jet?”
Rico turned to one of his bodyguards, “Get him.” He signaled two other men, who then trotted off in the direction of the cars.
Stephen hobbled into view, his wrists bound. He was hunched over from being in a fetal position for the last hour. He leaned against Jet, waiting for his circulation to return to normal as the black Impala and a tricked out ’78 Monte Carlo rolled away with their headlights off.
“We’ll go with option two,” Rico said, “and if you try to mess with this deal in any way, I’ll kill you both.”
“Can I have my flashlight back?”
Rico ran his thumb along the inscription, “Sua Sponte.”
“I can’t believe you’re still carrying this.” Rico slapped it into Jet’s outstretched palm, grabbed him and pulled him close, “I meant what I said. I’ll kill your friend and make you watch before you die.” He walked away to his bodyguards and the other remaining man.
“A lot of fun, your buddy,” Stephen said.
“Stay sharp, Stephen.” He reached behind his friend, slipping the tactical knife he carried underneath Stephen's belt.
“You know,” Stephen said, “hanging out with you is a real party, too.”
Jet noticed a brief sliver of reflected light from a person moving on top of a CNR car, two tracks over.
Rico returned with one of his bodyguards, “Isidro will watch your friend here. What car are we riding in?”
Jet pointed to a car three places back, directly opposite the CNR car, “That one should have enough room for us.”
Isidro jerked Stephen toward the car, and Rico said, “When your coworkers arrive to get my car hooked up to the train, if you screw me over—Isidro offs your boyfriend. Understand?”
A rifle cracked, and Isidro collapsed. Rico leveled his Sig to fire at Stephen, but Jet grabbed Rico’s wrist and wrenched it upward, sending the shot over Stephen’s head.
The last two men were cut down by rifle fire when they aimed their guns at Stephen.
Rico shoved Jet backward, but he held on and they went down together. They wrestled, fighting to gain control of the Sig until Rico folded his arm, smashing an elbow into Jet’s nose.
Stunned, Jet gave Rico all the time that he needed. Pointing the Sig at Jet’s face, he said, “Goodbye, brother.” He stopped short when he felt a knife blade pressing against his throat.
“How about I kill you and make Jet watch?”
“Stephen,” Jet said, “don’t.”
Stephen Little Hawk stood behind Rico, gripping Jet’s knife, and whispered in Rico’s ear, “Or you could lay down on your face, and live.”
Sgt. Amy Kirk trotted past the trio, carrying an AR-15. She kicked the guns away from the hands of the men she’d shot less than two minutes earlier. Feeling on their necks for a pulse and unable to find one, she took out a pair of handcuffs and tossed them to Jet, who put them on Rico.
“You two okay?” Sgt. Kirk asked.
“Yes,” Jet said. “Thanks.”
“Overheard them talking while I was getting positioned. No way they were going to let you live. Not a lot of options.” She radioed their location to other officers and called for an ambulance.
Backup officers stopped the black Impala and the Monte Carlo at one of the rail yard entrances.
The drivers had tried to escape on foot but were apprehended by the yard Agents and members of the Phoenix PD K-9 unit within ten minutes. Ernie Urquidez had been taken by ambulance and handcuffed to a bed in a local ER.
Rico Contreras sat in the back seat of a patrol car, leaning forward with his head bowed as Police cordoned off the area and began to implement chain of evidence protocols.
Jet and Stephen leaned against a boxcar, isolated from dozens of curious fellow railway workers.
Dennis Cooper barked orders via radio to anyone who would listen, telling the crew that they had inbound traffic and a job to do.
“I’m afraid you two are going to be stuck here for a bit,” Sgt. Kirk said. “People from the DEA are going to want to speak with you.”
Jet nodded, holding a cold pack against his nose.
“When this is over,” Stephen said, “I'm getting a good thick steak. You two want to come?”
“I’m in,” Amy Kirk smiled, “Shouldn’t be more than a couple of hours.”
“Good,” he said. “Jet?”
Jet stared into the distance, smelling the creosote and listening to the sound of Cicadas in the distance. All he wanted to do was go home and watch the game, but it was on DVR and he could see it anytime. After all, Stephen and Sergeant Kirk had just saved his neck. His thoughts ran to his recliner, though. He did love that chair.
D. V. Bennett is an emerging author, like most with a day job, but who still insists that writing is the thing that keeps him up nights. He lives in southern Washington State, and enjoys spending time with his family, training in martial arts, and woodcarving, all of which have been lifelong passions.
Copyright © 2018 D. V. Bennett. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.