Precious Cargo

All characters appearing in this story are mine of my own design.
This story is a work of fiction based upon nothing in particular.

Precious Cargo is copyright © The Silver Coyote

Back On Line

When Joe had initially hired on with the Southern California Water District he hadn't been too sure whether or not he'd made the right decision. Sure, the job classification was "electronics technician", but it was industrial process and control, not the high end test equipment and systems he was used to.

Joe's background was two-fold, he had spent years as a "bench tech" with Dymec Industries, a global manufacturer of high tech electronics equipment. His job had been to repair and calibrate all forms of Dymec's electronic test equipment, and later to develop automated test systems and write software to make the systems he built useful to other techs. Before he had left that company he had been writing technical documentation, test procedures and ISO9002 compliance materials for his repair center.

After that, radio had become a focal point in his employment history. He had focused on being a communications technician, which had eventually landed him on the doorstep of the AT&SF Railway radio shop in Los Angeles in the early nineties. Radio was what he liked best, and the railroad gave it to him in droves. But while the pay was good, the railroad also gave him an odd shift schedule. He worked day shift, which was fine, but his workweek was Thursday through Monday. That was rough on his family, as his "weekend" was Tuesday - Wednesday, in the middle of the school week when his kids weren't around. Everyone else's weekend found him working downtown.

Eventually he had grown tired of the schedule, and his supervisor's indifference to his plight drove Joe to the want ads once again. So it was towards the end of 1994 that he found himself mailing an application to the Southern California Water District's headquarters in Los Angeles. The job he had applied for offered a Monday through Thursday workweek, and that was improvement enough for Joe.

They hadn't needed to, but SCWD had offered Joe a considerable pay raise (about 12%) to join them. Joe would have settled for the standard weekend off, the money was thick icing on an already fat cake! The deal was quickly struck, and in early 1995 Joe became a member of the SCWD team in Orange County.

Joe was initially less than impressed with his duties from an intellectually challenging point of view. What he initially spent most of his time with was industrial control instrumentation and equipment. Even the Remote Terminal Unit computers and interface equipment was pretty tame stuff, 8080 processors communicating with the Area Control Center via 2400 baud data on copper wire provided by the telephone company. Some of the sites had 900 MHz data radios for the communications link, but this was simple FSK equipment at 2400 baud, also.

Some of the areas he was required to work in were best described as filthy. He found himself in dank, dark bunkers and vaults as much as forty or fifty feet below the surface. He worked at facilities in neighborhoods where you didn't want to be after sunset. He found himself doing types of mundane work that he seemed to be grossly overpaid for. All these things combined to cause him to wonder, sort of off the cuff, if he was doing the right thing.

But water utilities had their high tech, too, and as Joe grew into the company their infrastructure grew in technology. Joe was ramrod on his unit's first deployment of wide band high speed wireless networking, and was the only field tech that had anything to do with the fleet voice and data radio systems. He was instrumental in the original deployment of the new Remote Terminal Units in the distribution system, DEC Alpha computers connected by 56k data circuits to servers at the Area Control Centers and the System Operations Center. There were thirty four RTUs in Orange County's distribution system, it took almost two and a half years to get all of them deployed and connected to the network, either via copper, fiber optic, or 900 MHz spread spectrum wireless networking.

As Joe moved up the ranks in the organization he was dealt more and more autonomy and responsibility. Fortunately for him, his boss was very supportive in his efforts, providing him with whatever tools, equipment, and assistance were needed to complete any particular task. As the years went by Joe found himself more and more suited to the work he was asked to do, and became quite happy with SCWD.

By the time the Interstate Police Force shoved it's nose into the Southern California Water District's operation, Joe had found his niche in the scheme of things. His days were spent mostly outdoors on the various pipelines or infrastructure systems, which suited Joe to a tee. For the most part Joe liked and enjoyed his job, the furs he worked with, and the places he worked. And as long as the IPF left him alone, Joe was pretty much the happy camper, content to partake in the specification, development, deployment, and maintenance of electronic voice and data systems in the field.

Today, however, was not going to be an enjoyable day.


Annie was having troubles of her own.

She had worked for Dymec for over thirty years, starting as a very young red fox at the age of nineteen in Maryland. Her career spanned several states and locations in that timeframe. She had come to southern California in 1977, two years before first meeting Joe at their workplace in Los Angeles in the summer of 1979.

While Joe had gone through one disastrous marriage between the time Annie first met him there in 1979 and when they finally started dating in 1988, she had ended one marriage and gone through a second.

Her first husband, a Marine, had developed into a mentally abusive and uncaring individual. She invested seven years of her life in that fur, and had finally given up on him after they had come west to California. She had still been married to him when she first met Joe.

Her second husband had done the Marine one better, becoming addicted to cocaine and various other things, which caused him to become unstable in the extreme. He couldn't keep a job, became a pathological liar, and harbored an explosive temperament. While he never physically harmed Annie or their son Michael, he threatened her more than once, and she believed him enough that she finally had to take her son home to her mother in Maryland while she filed for divorce from him. It was on the tail end of that marriage that Joe reappeared in her life.

Annie had started working in Maryland as a data entry fur, called a Repair Order Coordinator. She rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a supervisor of her own Order Processing department. While fully capable in this capacity, she didn't enjoy being a supervisor. Some furs are better suited to supervision, some better suited to the "paws on" work. Annie was a good supervisor, but she didn't enjoy it, so she quit that position and department and transferred into the Support Materials Organization, otherwise known as the "parts department".

As a coordinator again in this department, she began a slow but steady rise through the ranks, but sidestepped the traditional career path into supervision and evolved into Inventory Management. By the time her daughter Debbie was born Annie had become a noted resource within Dymec, peers from all over the United States would call her for assistance in manipulating the various computer databases and applications they used to manage and control distribution of inventory worldwide. Eventually the company formalized this position, and Annie became first a "Business Systems Specialist", and then more recently was promoted to an "Area Logistics Manager".

Somewhere around the time she became a BSS Annie also became a telecommuter. Her office was in a corner of the large bedroom she shared with Joe, upstairs in their home. Her work area was a large corner desk in that room, with all her computer, network, and telecomm equipment integrated into a small office environment. In this environment Annie excelled, and consistently exceeded her superior's expectations. After thirty five years, Annie had arrived at her niche in the corporate scheme as well, and was quite comfortable.

Her job was very stressful at times, however. So many furs looked to her for solutions that she occasionally overloaded, and she could easily work late into the evenings trying to clean up other fur's messes across the country. Normally beginning her day around six in the morning, it was not uncommon for her to still be on line working past the dinner hour.

Today was beginning to look like one of those days for her. For the past hour and a half she had been working on an issue brought to her by one of her peers in the midwest. Jim had called at about ten, wanting to know if she could help with an inter-division transfer he was having trouble with. One thing had led to another, and it became apparent that a problem existed either within both of their computers, or within the database they were trying to access.

Annie growled quietly as her fingers flew over her keyboard. "I'm looking at 24Z right now, Jim. I can see your part there, but can't access it for transfer." Annie wore a headset / boom mic combination connected to her telephone. The stereo system in the entertainment center in her room played some classic rock at a low volume setting while she worked.

"Right," Jim replied. "I've tried several ways to get to that part, and can't access it. I can view it from half a dozen access points like 24Z, RU, and the corporate escalation process, but I can't move it." Annie could hear the frustration in his voice.

"Hmmm..." The claws of Annie's left paw drummed her desktop lightly as her right paw manipulated her computer mouse, calling another screen to her display. A few more keystrokes and she was becoming more baffled. "Jim, try the old SO4 access route, see what you get." She paused while she heard key clicks from Jim's end of the telephone circuit.

"Hey, I'm getting an undefined error message." Jim said. "What the Hell..."

"So am I," Annie replied, looking at the time in the corner of her display. "'Undefined error occurred in 3802AE'. Is that what you're getting?" She interrogated her application for additional information, but none was forthcoming.

"That's it," Jim replied. "And you can't get any more information about the failure. In fact..." she heard more key clicks, "I'm locked up in that screen now."

"Can you go to another screen and continue working?" Annie had also locked up in SO4, but could still work other databases in other open windows on her display. Her brow furrowed slightly as she pondered a possible work-around.

She paused while she heard Jim working at his end. "Yeah," he replied eventually. "It's just SO4 that's locked up. You know this really sucks, because I've got a CE out in Columbus waiting for this part to get a video production hot site back on line. I've been working this for over an hour already." She heard him sigh.

"Tell you what Jim, it's lunch time where you are. Go grab a bite, and I'll try and get our helpless desk involved to see what's up with the errors on SO4. Meanwhile I'll try to see if I can find a way to move this for you. What's the service order number?"

Jim ruffled through some notes on various scraps of paper on his desk. "It's uh..." more rustling. "For Jack Cahill. It's 3620E4401, item four. Asset number of the part in question is SCU 41-714-42185-EXA."

"Got it," Annie replied as she scribbled the last of the information on a sticky note of her own. She placed the note on the edge of her monitor display. "Give me a call at one o'clock your time, OK?"

She could hear the reprieve in his voice. "Really? Thanks, Annie! I owe you one!"

"Don't worry," she grinned, "I'll collect when you least expect it. Talk to you in an hour or so, OK?"

Jim was grinning himself, for the first time that morning. "You got it, Annie. I'm sure glad you're back! Talk to you in a while. Bye now..."

Annie was already calling another database access route to her display. "Later, Jim." As quickly as she disconnected her call her claws were dialing the contracted help desk back east.


It had to be at least 100 degrees in the control room of the OC28 pressure control structure. The stench of dead, rotting rodent filled the room, as well as the valve room on the other side of the one foot thick concrete wall separating the two. Dust and dirt and filth lay half an inch thick on the floor, as well as every other horizontal surface. Cobwebs strung themselves between the motor control cabinet in the center of the room and the RTU cabinet against one wall, the small desk, the paymeter equipment rack, and the fiber optic cabinet. Rodent droppings were everywhere. Joe was standing in the doorway to the control room trying not to breathe, his arms full of tools and equipment, a laptop PC and interface accessories in a backpack slung over one shoulder.

Up on the surface it was only 95 degrees. Joe's truck was parked, along with three other trucks, on the asphalt apron surrounding the surface entrance to the structure. The structure was located in the foothills of the northeast part of the county, good rattlesnake and scorpion country this time of year.

Two of the trucks belonged to the pipeline crewmen, Frank and AD in one, Luis and John in the other. The third truck belonged to Kyle, a journey level electrician. All the furs except Frank were down in the structure. Frank had met Joe on the surface, and they had descended the stairs into the structure together.

" Pretty nasty, huh?" Frank asked as they surveyed the control room.

"Yeah, what's up with this place?" Joe asked. Last time he had worked in this structure with John and some other furs on the valve crew, it had been left clean and orderly with everything operational. "Seems like dead rat central down here."

"I don't think anybody's been in here since that brush fire last fall." Frank tilted his head back, looking at the metal plates in the ceiling twenty feet overhead. "It's too bad we can't pull those access plates to get some fresh air in here. We'd need the boom truck to lift them, though, and it's in the shop."

"Last fall?" Joe asked, glancing around the room. The brush fire had completely surrounded the structure and burned everything on the surface. The area surrounding the structure entrance had resembled the surface of the moon the following morning. "That was over a year ago, wasn't it?"

Frank nodded. He was a couple years older than Joe, and maybe an inch shorter. A wolverine with atypical lighter fur, he had a vaguely Scandinavian appearance with light hair and blue eyes. The old country image was neatly camouflaged by a California - grown desert rat attitude. Frank was very much into off road vehicles, especially ATVs, and had a second home near the Colorado River that he visited often.

Moving his boot toe back and forth in an arc across the concrete floor in front of him, Frank commented "This is mostly ash and dust that's been wet a few times since it fell in here." Dust began to rise from the movement of his boot.

A small conference in the valve room between the collected furs had decided a course of action. While Joe started his work on the RTU in the control room, the pipeline crew would begin hosing down the valve room next door. Kyle finished his electrical work while the conference was taking place, he was gone by the time the water started rinsing down the valve room.

Joe worked diligently and quickly in the control room. He had retrieved a painter's mask from his truck to try and filter out the dust and the stink, and it was moderately successful. While he was running the diagnostics on the RTU computer, John was sitting on the small desk across the room, operating each of the sixteen regulating valves from the motor control panel.

A tenacious badger, John was nearing retirement. He'd already gone a round or two with cancer and was quite thin, yet he still smoked a pack or more a day, and even now had a half a cigarette hanging from a corner of his mouth. What hair he had left on the sides and back of his head was quite gray, a ball cap covered his thinning fur. John was very old school water utility, which meant that while he was a bit rough around the edges and tended to call a spade a spade, he knew these pipelines and pressure control structures like the back of his paw. John had a coarse sense of humor but was a good hearted soul, Joe enjoyed his company very much.

"These valves are fucked up," John kept muttering. At each end of a valve's travel he would make a notation on a sheet of paper of the position indication error. Some were off by less than half a percent, others were off by as much as five percent or more. The system operators squalled if the error was greater than one percent, and John's boss was the one who got squalled at. You know what they say about fecal material and how it goes downhill, hence John's concern. He could see additional work coming their way.

The desk phone rang as Luis appeared in the doorway, fire hose in paw. "Ready Joe?" Luis asked, waving the hose slightly as John turned away, reaching for the phone. Luis was at least ten years Joe's junior, another badger, tall and well built, reddish brown hair over a brown furred face that always seemed to be smiling.

John grabbed the noisy phone pawset. "OC28, this is John."

"Uhh..." Joe looked at the two inch fire hose in Luis' paw, running water as they were speaking, and then around the room at his laptop bag on the floor, his tools and equipment spread out everywhere. "Can you give me a few minutes?"

"Joe," John held out the phone towards him. "Control Room."

"Sure," Luis replied. "Let me know when you're ready." Luis disappeared back towards the valve room with his fire hose as Joe took the phone pawset from John's outstretched paw.

"Thanks, John," Joe nodded. "This is Joe..."


It was early afternoon at the Latrans home. The neighborhood kits would be home from school soon. Annie had not taken a lunch break yet. It was not an unusual state of affairs.

"Hi Jim, this is Annie." She was leaving a voicemail message for her counterpart in Kansas City. "I've figured out a work-around for our SO4 problems. I went to the overstock database for your source facility, which is..." she searched through her notes on her desk, "Saint Louis 65E. I backed the part in question out from 65E to our corporate hub in Palo Alto, and then used 24Z to restock to Jack's service order number for his Columbus customer. It took some doing, several screens worth of work, but it is done. Meanwhile I'm working with the helpless desk trying to figure out what's going on with SO4. I'll keep you posted. Bye." As Annie disconnected her call her computer sounded a Netmeeting prompt.

She clicked "OK" on the permission icon, and heard a voice thick with a mid- eastern accent asking "Mrs. Latrans?"

"This is Annie," she said brightly. And so began her odyssey with the help desk. A contracted service, no one was sure where exactly the furs were physically located. Some guessed Pakistan or India, others guessed New York City, but nobody knew. The techs invariably helped out, once the communications barrier was overcome.

By the time three quarters of an hour had slipped away, the tech and Annie had mutually agreed that whatever the problem was, it was not at Annie's end of the network. That, of course, didn't help much, as Annie's database work was still backing up and other customer engineers and ALMs were continuing to call her.

"Grrr..." she growled quietly between phone calls. In a corner of her mind she saw the snowflakes in the wind of Monarch Pass, saw Joe in his denim jacket out in the wind, heard his happy voice as he climbed into their truck. "No time for this," she told herself as she punched the talk button on her phone and dialed a long distance number in Texas. "Too much to do."

She closed several windows on her display while waiting for her call to connect. "Kurt? How are you? I need some help..."


At about 5:30 that evening Annie heard heavy footsteps trudging up the stairs behind her. She knew it was Joe from the sound of the footfalls. The footsteps sounded tired. She didn't turn to look at him as he entered the room, she was deep in a transfer from a site in northern California.

She felt his breath between her ears just before he kissed the top of her head, his paws squeezing her shoulders gently. His head then hovered over her right shoulder. As he spoke her nose began to wrinkle.

"Hi Angel, how was your day?"

She stopped what she was doing and swiveled her chair around to look at him. "What happened to you?" He was filthy and smelled of sweat, cigarettes, and something worse that she could not readily identify.

"It's been a day. Spent most of it at OC28, underground with the dead rats and garbage. It got up to 105 down there around three this afternoon, and the boys hosed out the structure, so the humidity was sky high." Joe sat down on the love seat at the foot of their bed and began unlacing his work boots. "I'm beat."

Annie smiled lovingly at him, but made no move to get up from her chair. "Why don't you get a shower, and I'll give you a back rub after dinner?"

"That sounds great." Joe removed his boots and set them aside. He stood up and removed his shirt, tossing it on the floor near his nightstand.

Annie returned to her work as Joe unbuckled his belt. No sense getting distracted this early in the evening. She had work to do.

After a few minutes she heard the water running in the shower. About this time a thundering noise coming up the stairway behind her announced the arrival of Debbie and Mojave.

"Hi Mom! Guess what?" Debbie called breathlessly as she entered the room. Mojave was on her heels, tail wagging and banging into the door frame, tongue lolling in her typical big, sloppy pooch grin.

Annie turned once again. "Hi sweetheart. What's the big noise about?"

"Remember Gina and the modeling project? She want's to take us to dinner, you and I, this Friday night so we can discuss the whole deal." Debbie's smile and excitement were infectious. Mojave sat at Debbie's feet, tail thumping on the floor.

"What about your father? Doesn't he get to go?" Annie thought she already knew the answer, but she asked anyway.

"Nope. This is ladies night out! You and Gina and I are going to Raphael's in Tustin. It's her way of getting to know you better, and to also lay out the details of our project." Raphael's was a high end restaurant with a dance floor and live music in the foothills of eastern Orange County.

Annie was a little unsure of herself. What she knew about modeling Gina probably blew out of her nose every time she sneezed. Still, Debbie was quite taken with this woman, so she must not be all that bad a person. And Joe was completely supportive of "the project"... Annie smiled in spite of her concerns. "What time?"

Debbie bounced slightly in glee. "The dinner reservation is for seven. Gina said we could meet in the bar about 6:30 for drinks."

"Just remember how old you are, young lady," Annie admonished. "You may be a full grown female now, but you still have to reckon with the law," she teased gently.

"I know, mom, I know." Debbie looked happy but impatient. Mojave stood up again.

"OK, we'll do it." Annie smiled. "Go call her," she urged, correctly guessing what was keeping her daughter wound so tight.

Debbie stepped forward and bent at the waist to kiss her mother's cheek. "You’re the best, mom!" She turned too quickly to see the glow her statement brought to her mother's face. In a blur of blond and green fur Debbie and Mojave stormed downstairs to find a telephone.

A few minutes later Joe stepped from the shower, a towel draped somewhat haphazardly over one shoulder and around his waist, to find Annie sitting there as Debbie had left her, staring idly at the ceiling, deep in thought.

"You look happy, what's up?"

"I'm having dinner Friday night with Gina and Debbie." Annie's gaze slowly drifted to and focused on Joe. "The modeling project's official kickoff." She studied him for a moment. "You look clean." Her nose twitched slightly. "And you smell much better."

"Thanks, Angel." Joe smiled. "Girl's night out, huh? OK. Maybe I'll go over to Mike's and help him with his Jeep."

A hint of concern tinged Annie's voice. "What's wrong with his Jeep?"

Joe winked at her. "Nothing, yet."

To Chapter Twenty Nine: Divine Will.

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