Although this is a Tale from the Shack, it can be read as a standalone tale. As with the rest of the Tales from the Shack, this is written in a Noir style. I typically don’t write graphic sex into this story line and that remains true here. Special thanks to Sbrooks and Crkcppr for the editing and Beta reading. Any remaining errors are entirely mine -- probably added after their assistance.
Favors. In my world, favors are more important than almost anything else.
A favor owed is immensely important, sometimes insanely difficult or expensive. Sometimes easy and cheap. Usually all the cheap ones cost you is pieces of your soul.
Those favors are why Trace and I were sitting in the enclosed box seat the symphony. He looks amazing in a tuxedo – tall and thin, the contrast of the close cropped grey hair against his almost jet black skin. Very distinguished, so much so that nobody even blinks that he’s with a white woman; that’s still a little unusual these days, though less than it was. I suppose, given my rather plain appearance, that some probably wonder why he chooses to be with me.
He runs technical exploitation for both sides of CUMULOUS, which means he sort-of works for me since I am the Director. CUMULOUS is mostly a covert surveillance program with two sides. GREEN is the more conventional, Army-standard covert program with highly trained agents in various intelligence disciplines. RED is the dark side, where we recruit the desperate, the lost, and the hopeless. Assets that won’t lead back to us, assets that don’t know who they are working for, or even what the mission really is.
I’ve distanced his chain of command as far as I can from me because we’ve been “friends with benefits” for just a bit less than two decades. Ever since we both worked much further down in the food chain. Long before the project was even named CUMULOUS.
Trace and I will be together until one of us dies, we both know it, but neither of us is the “marrying kind.” I’ve always been pretty much married to my work. And regardless of how I might or might not feel, he’s still carrying a torch for his wife. He still wears his wedding ring. The fact that she’s been dead for almost 25 years hasn’t lessened his love for her at all. Or his pain.
He’d been driving home with Josephine after a little too much to drink at a company party, celebrating because she’d finally gotten pregnant, when he crossed the lane into oncoming traffic. She was decapitated, dead instantly, but he walked away without a scratch. That was before they prosecuted drunk driving very much, so he got a suspended license and a very empty home. It didn’t take very long for ghosts and spirits to start tearing him apart.
The ghosts of his Josephine and unborn child and the spirits of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels.
He fucked up again, of course. Trace was one of the first of them; a drug addicted, alcoholic electronics expert recruited to an experimental program that would later become CUMULOUS RED. And I was the junior grade Army Counterintelligence Agent assigned as his handler. Far too inexperienced for the job, though I’d have told anyone different. Including myself.
The very first lesson in handling an asset is: Do Not Get Emotionally Involved. It’s practically on the front steps at the school. Maybe they really should carve it there. I don’t know that it would have helped, but maybe.
He was pretty much a wreck when he was handed off to me – been living in gutters for over a year, despite an advanced degree in electronic engineering from CalTech. Filthy, miserable, utterly repulsive, foul beyond belief. Disagreeable at the best of times. He was devolving, starting to talk to himself. And answering. He didn’t have much time left to be of use to us and I knew it. Logically, it was nearly time to drop him, let him wander off and die. Any stories he could tell of bizarre espionage operations would be written off as the fever dreams of a dying alcoholic.
But I watched him sleep, and heard him talking to his Josephine, pleading, begging her not to die this time, as he relived his nightmare over and over.
For months I ignored it, maintained my distance, and maintained that precious gap between us.
I was weak. In the end, it turned out that actually watching a basically good man destroy himself with drugs and alcohol is more difficult in practice than in the classroom. We were together so much and his pain was so intense. And, worst of all, he wasn’t really what I’d been trained to deal with – he certainly wasn’t betraying his country or seeking money or sex or revenge or any of the usual motivations CI agents are trained for. He was just trying to stop the pain.
I could almost hear Josephine begging him not to do this to himself.
It ate at me every day. Josephine’s voice got louder in my mind. I just didn’t have enough experience yet to ignore her.
He failed to show up at a meet to examine a computer we had “temporarily appropriated.” Even as incoherent as he was getting, he was still the best.
We had to return the computer unexamined, leaving me furious. Pissed beyond belief.
I headed straight over to the abandoned factory where he was living in the basement, stormed down the rusting metal stairs and found him passed out in his own vomit. Probably only alive because a crumpled pizza box was holding his face out of the actual pool of half-digested food and booze.
He’d probably pulled the box of pizza out of a dumpster.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Without thinking it through, I stripped him, emptied his pockets and all of his little stashes, then dumped his assortment of drugs in the floor drain, washing it down with his booze. I dragged his sorry ass into the bathroom and handcuffed him to a cast iron pipe. The only thing he had on was his wedding ring.
I kept him there for months and it almost killed him. The fatality rate for the DT’s from sudden alcohol withdrawal alone is almost 15 percent, much less coming off the cocktail of whatever drugs he could scrounge. But I decided that he’d be better off dying than to “live” like he was. It wasn’t my decision to make, of course, but I made it anyway.
I do that a lot.
I do the things that have to be done because other people can’t bring themselves to do them.
He had full-on Delirium Tremens with hallucinations, fever, and seizures. All of the worst symptoms. He screamed, ranted and howled like an animal. In almost any other neighborhood, somebody would have called the police. In a religious one, they’d have probably called for an Exorcist.
In this one, people looked down, studied the broken pavement, pulled their coats a little tighter, and maybe walked a little faster.
He’d lay in his own vomit and shit until I came by and rinsed him off with buckets of cold water. Several times, I had to bring in our off-the-books medical support – a doctor whose license had been pulled for fraud – to give him IVs. The “doctor” never questioned what was going on – even in those early days, “assets” realized that curiosity was an unhealthy habit.
I went from being “Donna” to “You Fucking Diseased Cunt” to something ugly he just whimpered venomously under his breath, huddled in the corner. With tears streaming from clenched eyelids.
Until he really learned to hate.
Day by day, I watched it grow until it was stronger than his need for alcohol. When his hate was so strong he refused to beg me for a drink, I figured we’d reached a turning point. He answered in one syllable words for a long time. Eventually he stopped speaking altogether and just sat glaring at me. Silently making promises to himself about things he’d do to me. Someday, when he got the chance. When I dropped my guard.
I gave it another couple of weeks. Then took a bottle of whiskey and a backpack with me to visit him.
I put a bottle of whiskey in front of him and walked around behind him, pulling my throw-away gun out. An unregistered Beretta Minx. A Minx fires .22 Short rounds, and it only carries six. No stopping power, no real penetration to speak of. Not a good choice for self-defense unless you get attacked by newborn kittens a lot. As long as they only show up six at a time. It’s a terrible combat gun by pretty much any measure.
But it’s perfect for executions.
“Go ahead. Take a drink.”
He stared down at the bottle sitting a little unevenly on the cracked white ceramic tile floor in front of him.
“I’m done. You want to fucking kill yourself, go ahead.” I leveled the gun at the nape of his neck. “Make it a good long drink though. It’s your last. I’ll just speed things along. I figure I can either just leave you here or roll you out of the van on 14th.”
He slowly looked back over his shoulder until the barrel of the Minx was only a half inch from his eye.
“Just another dead junkie in the street?”
“Happens every day. Nobody will even bother to ask who you were. At least it’ll be quick.”
He turned back to look at the bottle. Then slowly reached out to pick it up. I felt the sadness wash over me, but I’d made up my mind.
He unscrewed the cap bit by bit. He moved brokenly. Rhythmless. Wordlessly, he upended the bottle over the green brass floor drain, watching the amber liquid slowly stream away.
“You’re a fucking hateful bitch, you know that?”
“Yeah. I know.”
“What if I slip up?”
He knew I wasn’t bluffing. Knew that I’d never forget. I could see that understanding as clear as his hate.
.... There is more of this story ...