"Lowboy #22"

First in a new series of book-length, trucker-P.I. mystery & crime stories.


     Bull Schaffner: long-haul truck driver and amateur P.I.. He bathes frequently, he exercises every day, he's picky about hookers, and he cheats on his log only when he has to. So why does everything always seem to go wrong?
     McKay Trucking is missing a rig and a driver, and the company is hoping Bull can find them. Preferably the uninsured rig with the load intact—a combined worth of a quarter-million dollars. The driver, well, hunt for him on your own time.

     Chapter 1      Atlanta GA

     Grabbing the first payphone in sight, Bull Schaffner punched in the 800 number to the McKay Trucking terminal in Missouri while keeping an eye on the huge parking lot. It was late afternoon and the truckstop was filling up fast, the parked rigs shimmering in the August heat and the asphalt rank with the sharp stink of evaporating urine. It had not rained in Atlanta for weeks but dark thunderheads rolling in from west of the huge TA truckstop were no comfort to Bull. A storm breaking loose right now would be bad timing, well, maybe not so bad. the rain and the thunder could provide some cover....
     He involuntarily jerked at a shadow moving up on his right but it was only the clatter of a UPS driver with an empty handcart heading for the restaurant kitchen.
     "Come on, Kate, come on, pick up!"
      A huge, orange Schneider rig turned out of the lot and roared by in low gears. Bull Schaffner, aka Perry Schaffner, (aka "Bullperry" by his aging parents), mashed the phone to his ear to press out the racket. He needed Kate, the McKay Trucking dispatcher and part-owner, but Bull scored her smart-ass, thirteen-year-old brat instead. Little Harold.
      "Harold, listen up. I found your missing truck!" Bull waited in vain for a reaction, then continued. "That missing driver of yours, whatsisname, Denver? I found his rig, his Pete, but..."
     Kate's fatherless, two-hundred pound son let out a long, wet, trolling burp.
     "Harold, this is serious shit! I found Denver's rig but it's hooked to the wrong load and the wrong trailer. Got that? The wrong load? Where's your mother?"
     Another wet but less enthusiastic burp. "She's in the bunkhouse fucking Benny."
     "Benny? Who's... Wait. Ring the phone over there."
     But Kate had already picked up the extension. "I'm not fucking Benny, Harold! Damn!"
     "Well, who then, Mama?"
     "Benny. But I'm not fucking him."
     "Well, maybe not this minute, not as-we-speak, but..."
     "Hey! Can we get serious here? This is Bull Schaffner! I'm at the big TA in Atlanta. I found it. But he's hooked to the wrong trailer and the wrong load. A big Airstream trailer on a marine yacht-hauler. A lowboy. The Airstream has a tarp over it and the doors are locked. You only sent the tractor keys."
     "Bull, I told you, he was pulling a flatbed, no, that's right, our new trailer, the lowboy!"
     "Kate, this lowboy's got somebody else's name on it. Duplan Marine Transport or something."
     Little Harold burped again and Kate yelled at him to hang up his end.
     "Bull, listen, you looked around? Our new lowboy trailer's gone?"
     "Not at this truckstop. And another thing, the generator on the Airstream is running and there's a hole cut out of the tarp on top and one of the air conditioners is running. In other words, I need to know stuff. Like what if somebody's sleeping inside, or maybe Denver's sleeping inside, or..."
     "What if he's not?!"
     "Right. Then what? Unhook the tractor and haul ass? I don't have much time, Kate. I checked the fuel tanks -- they're full -- the engine's idling, and somebody's fixing to take off with it soon. You want me to drop the trailer since it's not yours, and take off with the tractor? Leave the trailer?"
     "You sure you got the right unit?"
      "Burgundy Peterbilt-377. Small crack in the right windshield like you said. McKay Trucking painted on the doors. Number twelve painted on the hood. That good enough?"
     Kate did not answer immediately and Bull jumped at the sound of a sharp crack in the phone, lightening, and listened to her shuffling through some papers up there in Missouri before the thunder rolled in. "It's fixin' to dump here in a minute, Kate. I need to know what you want!"
     Bull felt a cool burst of fresh air, and watched the loose paper and litter swirl up around the parking lot. A few drivers began heading out of the building toward their units, and Bull's focus softened for a moment as his eyes followed a young couple holding hands and running toward their rig in the front row, a flatbed hooked to an old, R-model Mack with a one-man sleeper.
     "Okay, Bull, listen, Denver was supposed to load up two brand-new Massey Ferguson 4-wheel-drive farm tractors in Marietta, on our lowboy to Florida City. I checked after he disappeared and he made the pick-up but not the delivery. Those babies are fifty-thousand dollars a pop!"
     "Kate, you already told me that. I need to know what to do now! I can call the law, I can drop the trailer and get your tractor back, I can run off with the whole mess and ..."
     "Don't call the law! Shit, they'll impound the rig. This is a small company. We can't afford lawyers and we need every unit we have on the road hauling booger! That was a new trailer, that missing lowboy, and all we got is liability insurance on it. And I got to hope the load is insured. Shit, Bull, take the whole hog. Then we'll have their load and their trailer to trade for ours."
     "Their trailer? Who's 'their'?"
     "Whoever's trailer!"
     "Maybe it's legit. What's Denver like? You know him pretty good? You could FAX me a picture and I can look around for him."
     "Legitimate? Bullshit. He went off the screen over a week ago, and his family is reporting him missing. Either he flew the coop, or he got hijacked, or he's ripping us off, or he's dead. He's an older dude. We almost didn't hire him. Carries a laptop and gets shitty because we still don't use email. Has some ex-wives and a bunch of kids he can't support.... In other words, picture you in twenty more years."
     "Thanks, Kate."
     "In other words, if he's not in the cab or in the load, haul ass. Don't be a pussy!"
     "Bust the locks on the Airstream first and see what's inside?"
     "No! Why is there a tarp on it? Why tarp a travel trailer? Well, what we don't know we can't be held accountable for, right?"
     "You sure? You thought about this?"
     "Hell no, you just called me! Go! Call me back when you can. And before you get back here to MO, okay?"
     "What about a manifest? What if they ask for it at a scale or if I get nailed with a DOT inspection?"
     Kate groaned. "How does the unit look?"
     "Good! Even with all the miles it has on it...."
     "No, no, Number-12 is the Pete we bought from Deke's widow. It sat for a couple years and now it's just broke in. Denver said he was fixin' to clock the first 100k before he dropped off the radar. That baby is mint! This is the one we promised you, if you can bring it in."
     "Yeah, OK....  But mine was midnight black, with gold pinstripes and had my name in gold leaf on both sides of the hood and it didn't have a scratch on it before you guys wrecked it..."
      "And ready for an in-frame overhaul and new brakes and..."
     "...and had that AC I could regulate from the sleeper and..."
     "Bull, Denver's unit you can reg the AC and start the engine from the sleeper, jeez! It has a separate AC for the sleeper! You got time to argue about this now?"
     "Well, I got time if it's going to be my tractor!"
     "How does the trailer look? Tread on the tires?"
     "It looks new."
     "Then go! Go hide it somewhere for tonight and get some sleep."
     "Okay, but if I don't call back soon I'm leaving my rental car in front of the drivers' motel. I'm at the big TA in Atlanta. Not the Petro. The TA, got it? The car's on my credit card so I need you to call the rental office. Wait..." Bull tucked the phone under his chin and fished a card out of his shirt pocket, and gave her the number. "Tell them the keys will be at the motel desk. Tell them I got sick or something."
     "Got it."
     "I'm gone."
     Bull looked up at the sky and muttered out loud as he headed for the car. "Dear MasterVisa, Sir!" Another week like this and he'd be maxed out on both of them, and max-out was death for a self-employed trucker. Especially one who was doing private investigation and property retrieval....
     There was only a spattering of raindrops, and the wind seemed to be flagging. He had not really expected to find the missing rig here and was glad he had looked around before checking into the motel. Now all he had to do was move his shit from the rental to the tractor, drop the car keys at the desk, and boogie. He drove down to the back row of the lot and parked in front of the big Peterbilt, in effect blocking it, then had to move the little economy rental out of the way so a Florida Tank Lines rig could back into the empty hole beside him. The tanker made it in there in one, quick shot, something that always made Bull a little envious. The driver was out and chattering away before Bull could finish snatching his stuff out of the car. A suitcase, his motel bag, his laptop-computer carry-on bag, his cooler, his cardboard snack box... He set them all down on the ground beside the Pete's passenger door.
     "Looks like I got the last hole! This place always fills up quick before dark."
     "Yeah, well, I'm fixin' to make another hole as soon as I get my gear squared away."
      Shit, I don't know if there's anybody in the sleeper!
     Bull's heart was pounding now, and he wished the other driver would buzz off. But the guy just stood there, short and plump, gray hair, coke-bottle glasses and red suspenders and a CAT POWER cap, jeez.... Bull pounded on the sleeper with his fist and waited.
     "The old lady got ya locked out?"
     "Pound on that camper-trailer under the tarp for me, will you?" Bull had already knocked on it before calling Kate, after looking underneath to make sure it was chained down.
     The other driver looked puzzled, then winked at Bull. He obliged with both fists and with almost enough force to dent the aluminum. "Who'd be in there with this tarp over the doors? How much they charge?"
     "They're free. Two young ladies. Hot, built, and ready."
     "Yeah, sure, in your dreams."
     Bull dug into his Levi's pocket -- past the .22 Beretta -- for the two tractor keys McKay Trucking had FedEx'd him down to his home in Miami, when he had scored this job. He guessed at which one was the door key and it turned without a hitch. He could have picked the lock almost as easily. 100,000 dollar truck, ten-dollar lock.... A second ignition key would be inside because the motor and AC were running.
     A few, large, ice-cold raindrops splattered the shiny fender and Bull's clean-shaven face, and the top of his balding, crew-cut head.
     "Climb in and I'll hand up your stuff."
     Bull turned and the tanker driver already had the laptop bag in hand and was reaching down for the suitcase. Shit! Bull was tired and nervous and he would have liked a moment to look around, check out the cab -- and scan the lot again for anybody headed directly for this particular truck -- hell, he didn't even know what kind of gearbox he would be driving. But he recognized the fifteen speed immediately, a unit he was reasonably familiar with, and the cab was cleaner than most, the walk-in sleeper empty and the bunk made, and the AC set on LOW. There was a black-leather, laptop case -- an airline carry-on not unlike his own -- lying on the passenger seat. Bull flipped that onto the bunk and turned back to reach for the stuff the tanker driver was handing up.
     "The chicks split, huh, McKay?"
     "Maybe they're getting a shower over in the building. Primping, you know, getting ready for me." Bull reached for his computer bag first. His other gun, the 9MM CZ-P01 was in there with the laptop, plus his credit cards and logbook, his Florida and Alabama carry permits, his eye-drops and his deodorant. All the important stuff.
     "Hey, we ain't gettin' any younger."
     "I'm not as old as you yet."
     "You will be 'fore you know it."
     Bull pulled up the bulging B-4 suitcase next, glanced through the windshield again, and reached down with both hands for the box of truck snacks: little microwave buckets of corned beef hash, scalloped potatoes with ham, Beenie-Weenies, Sweet Sue chicken & dumplings; jars of cashew nuts, and bags of York chocolate mint patties....
      Still no real rain, and no sign of whoever had parked the McKay Peterbilt here. Bull didn't want to be rude to the driver who had just helped him but it was time to boogie.
      Shit, the car!  "Hey! Do us both a favor?"
     "How much are the showers - still five bucks?"
     "Free if you fuel here. Listen, it's fixin' to dump. How about you taking my rental car to the building and drop the keys at the desk? They're coming to get it."
     "Yeah, sure, OK!"
     "'Preciate it. Hey, when the girls get out of the shower they're yours. Tell them PBS said so. My handle. Perry Bull Schaffner. Or Public Bull Station, take your pick."
     "Okay, PBS! Happy trails!"
     Bull reached over and snatched the passenger door shut.
     Happy trails, Christ!
     But he looks honest....
    That was dumb. Letting him know who I am....

    Bull could even hear him: "His handle's PBS, the guy who stole that rig!"
    One more glance back into the sleeper to reassure himself that he was alone, and a mash-down on both door-lock buttons. Then a quick settle in behind the wheel and a fiddle with the height of the Ultra-Ride seat and the realization that the previous driver was the same, average-joe size. The idling engine sounded steady and smooth, the temp was at 180, both fuel gauges showed full, the brake-air gauges were at 120 where they belonged.... He would have to assume that all the lights worked.
      The AC felt good through Bull's sweaty shirt, and he tested the wipers. Okay! Deciding to leave the seatbelt alone until he was in the clear, he dug into his laptop case for his glasses, which he needed for driving in poor light. He studied the fifteen-speed's gear lever for a moment but when he released the parking brakes, Bull was startled by the familiar, exploding hiss which would be heard all over the lot. He looked from the mirrors to the windshield and back to the mirrors, half expecting someone to come running up and shouting.
      The storm broke with a flash of lightening and an instant crack of thunder, and in the ensuing downpour no one noticed McKay Trucking's unit No.12 ease out of the hole.

     <end Chapter-1>  
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