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.
I pulled a set of clothes and a bar of soap from my pack, then unlocked the handcuff for the first time since I put it on him, looking at the torn skin underneath. It would heal – but he’d always have those scars.
“Get cleaned up and get dressed. We’ll go get something to eat and get you settled into your new home. We have an abandoned hotel. Even has heating.”
He nodded, an undying hatred simmering behind his eyes.
That hatred was always there, always just under the surface, always palpable; like that thunder you can feel in the distance rather than hear. I caught him looking at me from time to time, and I knew he was just watching for the right time, the right circumstances. I could feel him promising himself it’d be slow.
It was something of a race though; I was waiting for the time I’d have to kill him. His pain and guilt over Josephine’s death were never going to go away. I promised myself I’d make it quick.
We worked together for two more years. Much more often than I worked with any other asset. That’s kind of the nature of technical exploitation though. It’s not like swallow or leg breaker work. Much more constant, much longer term. It also meant he had a better idea of just what we were doing and who we really were.
Still, we barely talked at all. Only about the job underway, the steps that needed to be done.
He got to the point that we trusted him to drive the van, make the brush passes, and service dead drops. He cleaned up, almost too much. Over time it was harder and harder to tell the “leveraged asset” from the trained professionals.
It was his idea to start a small electronics repair store in a nasty section of town – and it was perfect. Rumor on the street was that the shop was a front for organized crime. That worked for us. Nobody wants to look too hard at a shop they think works for a syndicate.
That hate never went away, never diminished – he was invariably professional, almost icily so, but the subtext was all too clear: Go ahead, drop your guard. See what happens. It made me a better agent, a better decision maker, that certainty of consequences for any momentary lapse of attention.
I ended up handing him off to my replacement when I was promoted to the deputy chief position at CUMULOUS GREEN. I’ll admit I breathed a sigh of relief. The relief from stress was almost indescribable. I could finally let my guard down, relax without the risk of being murdered by my own asset.
Go ahead, drop your guard. See what happens.
Cancer. That’s what happens.
Cervical and uterine cancer.
You know those degrading, uncomfortable pap smears women have to get? Do it. Really. My survival chances were good because we caught it really early. To someone like me the answer was pretty damn obvious. Pull out all the plumbing. All of it. Never planned on kids anyway, and why fucking keep ovaries if you don’t have a uterus?
Almost a year after trading over to GREEN, I had the operation then went home from the hospital. I should have contacted mom, or Pogo. They’d have come and stayed with me. I don’t have any idea why I didn’t. I lied and told the hospital staff that I had someone to take care of me. I cheated and snuck off in a taxi rather than stay in the hospital one more damn day.
Took way more pain pills than I should have and went to sleep. When I woke up, Trace was sitting in an easy chair he’d pulled over next to my bed.
He was staring at me, expressionless as a sphinx.
I vaguely remembered locking my guns in the safe before I left for the surgery. Too bleary to remember to get one out when I came home.
On a normal day, I might be able to take him. He was a lot bigger than me, but I’d had lots of formal training in combat, he’d had none. Certainly not a sure thing given the hundred pound of difference in our sizes, but a good fighting chance.
But not now, not like this.
“Good morning Trace.”
“You look like shit.”
“I feel like shit.”
He studied me for a second. “You saddled us with an idiot.”
I winced as I pulled myself to a sitting position. “He just doesn’t have experience yet.”
“He’s had a damn year. He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t learn. He’s gonna get people killed for no fucking reason. He puts a full team on a dead drop. Like nobody would notice that. Looks like a goddamned Easter Parade. Doesn’t trust us to do what we do.”
“I’ll talk to the boss. No point in using throwaways if you just pile on agents to watch over them.”
He nodded thoughtfully. “Get us a real pro. Somebody good. Not some by-the-book asshole.”
We sat in silence for a long minute. Until the silence grew too loud for me.
“I was surprised to see you.”
“I figured you might be. Took me a while to find your place. And the right time to talk.”
“I thought maybe you might be here for something else.”
“Can’t say I didn’t think about it. Watched you sleep for the last couple hours thinking about it.”
“Fireplace poker.” He pointed at the decorative wrought iron fireplace set next to my gas fireplace.
“Have to make it messy.”
“Makes sense. Looks more like a break in. At least it’s a classic.”
“You were just doing your job though. Getting the asset straightened out.”
I couldn’t look him in the eye. Damn meds. “Yeah. That.”
It didn’t fool him at all. A look of absolute horror crossed his face.
“Jesus.” It was a prayer, rather than a blasphemy.
I didn’t say anything; just struggled not to fall apart under the pain and the meds. At least that’s what I was blaming.
He leaned forward, gripping the chair arms. “Why?”
I shook my head and looked away. I didn’t dare answer that. Damn painkillers had me too off balance.
“But you’d still kill me if I took a drink.”
“In a fucking heartbeat.” Anger gave me strength to snarl.
“What do you think Josephine would want? You think Josephine would want you to die that way? Rot away slowly? Or would she want it to be quick?”
He sat back in the chair, his face grayed and drawn.
“Jesus.” Definitely a prayer. “You made me hate you.”
“It worked, didn’t it?”
There wasn’t much to be said to that, and he didn’t bother. We lapsed into an oddly comfortable silence. He even helped me get to the bathroom and back to bed before he left.
I thought about calling it in – my home location was blown to an asset. But I knew it wasn’t a risk. He’d had a chance and not taken it. And now he understood. More than I ever wanted him to.
He looked in on me almost every day as I healed. Shaking his head in disbelief every time he left. We talked a little, mostly about nothing. But mostly we sat and stared into the gas fire, just being together in our own worlds.
I talked to the director about the guy who’d replaced me – he’d never gotten comfortable working with the kinds of assets RED ran, so it was pretty easy to convince him to move on to a more conventional assignment. A more flexible agent replaced him.
An unsigned, unstamped dime store “Thank You” card showed up in my mailbox a few days later.
Trace became something of a trustee – he’d figured out who we were, or gotten close enough anyway. Proved himself over and over, eventually he was let in completely.
He never really stopped coming by. We’d never talked about it, never discussed the next time he’d come over. It just sort of happened.
It was a couple more years before our relationship went further. It certainly wasn’t “fated,” the love of his life was dead and I’d never even thought that way.
But we understood each other thoroughly, and in our world that goes a lot further than looks or charm. The physical aspects were pleasant enough, but just having someone to be with now and then, someone who wouldn’t judge, is far more important. And while he never judged me, he was often my conscience.
He told me he expected me to hold to my promise to kill him if he ever drank again.
I assured him I would.
Because I do the things that have to be done.
Things nobody else is willing to do.
So nearly two decades later, we sat in the box seat together, Trace’s hand resting gently on my arm. Waiting for Maria.
Maria Hawthorne, Deputy Director at the FBI.
I smiled blandly when when she arrived. Her Bureau-assigned protective detail took up positions outside the door to the box, directly across from two of my Dobermans. A dozen more of mine were positioned discreetly around the building. Not too discreetly, I wanted Maria to know.
We’d both opted for fairly standard versions of the black dress; hers a hair longer than mine, but then she’s quite a bit taller.
Her escort, Michael, led her in and seated her next to me, then sat on the other side of her. A slight breach of convention, I know, but necessary. He said something quietly to her, then she turned toward me.
“You’ve got my detail a little concerned, they’re wondering why you have so many people here.”
“Because this is odd, Maria, and my people don’t like odd unless we’re the ones doing it. You could have made an office call. We’ve worked together before.”
“This has to be completely off the books Donna.”
Now she had my complete interest.
“Why is that?”
“Because I’ve lost four agents and can’t do anything about it officially. Four agents; I can’t let that go. There has to be a penalty. And people have to know it.”
“Why me? You have to have other contacts who are a little less complicated to work with.”
“Because you have the ability. And you have a vested interest. You remember Morton Gallagher?” I felt my jaw tighten as she continued. “A couple years ago, a hooker and a known drug addict with mile long rap sheets were murdered in and near a hotel room that was rented in his name with a supposedly stolen credit card. The money trail stopped cold, but I’m pretty sure you paid for their burial. I’m certain they were your people.”
“Even if they were, I believe the unfortunate Mr. Gallagher passed away. Something about a drug and alcohol overdose in a hot tub.”
“We looked into that too. There’s no proof of anything, but the security camera system glitched at the hotel he was found at for about an hour near the estimated time of death. One of your people I presume.”
“Believe me, if it was, it’d be Nobody you would ever want to find.” If Spooky found out the FBI was looking for her, odds were she’d be rifling though Hawthorne’s office and home in less than a week, and there’d be little I could do to stop her. Even if I wanted to.
Maria grimaced slightly as her curiosity fought with common sense. “I’m not asking you to hand them over.”
“So what are you asking?”
“The network he was involved in is a private concern. Anything to anyone, specializing in technologies on the prohibited list. Dual-use chemical, biological, nuclear, guidance systems.”
She paused, uncertain how to proceed. She hated being uncertain, I could tell.
“So. Our brothers in the three letter agencies found one of their main nodes. Instead of cutting off an arm, you could kill their operations in this hemisphere for quite a while.”
That’s what we’d been looking for before the unfortunate Tommy-Amber incident.
“So cut a deal with local law enforcement and roll them up.”
“That’s what we were trying to do when my people got kidnapped and murdered. Local law enforcement is involved. And DOJ has told me not to make waves.”
“Where is it?”
“Tri-border region. Argentina, technically, if anyone cared.”
The Tri-border of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay was complicated at best – international accusations of terrorism, drug running and other crimes were almost too numerous to track, while the local officials claimed everything was blown out of proportion.
“What are we talking about here?”
“An isolated two-acre compound, three buildings, maybe 25 mercenaries, 12 of their company men. Some working girls, maybe six or so.”
I winced internally for the hookers. Just more girls who’d run out of options, didn’t have choices. Doing what they had to do. Like Amber. Like me. Kindred souls.
“If you want a lesson, you want witnesses. So the girls live.”
She nodded, relieved, I think, to salvage a piece of her soul. Michael handed her a small envelope to give to me. I passed it over to Trace without really looking at it. Tuxedo jackets have pockets, and my clutch, like hers, was filled with that last little bit of firepower nobody ever wanted to use.
“Everything we know about the organization and the facility is on the data stick. Along with details of everything we know about why I’m being told to stand down.”
“Somebody above you dirty?”
“We don’t think so. Not this time. Stupid, yes. Dirty, no. The stand-down came out of the State Department. They’re trying to broker some reciprocal law-enforcement information sharing thing.” She shook her head, lamenting the idiocy of bureaucrats. “Another useless deal. They just don’t trust us down there.”
“We earned a little bit of that over the years.”
She grimaced slightly at that. FBI types all want to be heroes and don’t like to see themselves as bad guys. I’m a bit more honest with myself; I prefer to think of myself as a bad guy who works for the right side. Makes it much easier to make the tough decisions. To do the things that have to be done. She didn’t deny my comment though. She’s realistic enough know that this is how the world works.
The US is a more than a bit “radioactive” in South America. Memories of Yankee Imperialism, some of it not as long ago as we’d like to believe, give them a pretty dark lens to view our “help” with. Besides, the reality is that even when we act with the best of intentions, we’re too big, too powerful, and too damn close for comfort. Even cooperating with us on sensible issues – like stopping chemical weapons from being traded in their own back yards - is looked on as bowing to the US.
Maria seemed to decide to accept reality for what it was. “Be that as it may, this needs dealt with. If this doesn’t get a reaction, it will be open season on every FBI agent, DEA liaison, NGO worker and Embassy staff person out here. Yours too.”
I considered objecting that mine had teeth, but she already knew that. It was why she was here. It made sense.
After all, I was the one that did the things that had to be done.
It took six weeks to set everything up. The electronic dossier Maria had provided was extremely thorough and clearly identified the one government official who needed to be convinced of the error of his ways.
Argentina hadn’t had the smoothest relationship with the U.S., and at least one official was using that as an excuse to cover his lack of cooperation and to benefit from pay-outs by the organization. Using that, it didn’t take long for Spooky to hunt him down and identify his vulnerabilities.
She came into my office but left the door open, I noted she had a light grey jacket and skirt suit this time.
Some of my people believe she wears the same style suits as me in a low key effort to piss me off. I know what it really means even if she’s never said as much. In my mind, the day she put on one of those suits was the day she was informing me that she’d gone from being a gifted amateur and useful tool to a professional I could trust to do the hard jobs, to think on her own, and respond rather than react.
The suit didn’t bother me, but Candy, my secretary, walked in behind her and leaned easily against the doorframe with her arms crossed across her chest, an almost mocking smile on her lips.
Completely unlike her. She’s always, inevitably, professional to the point of rigidity.
Candy looked oddly feral. Hungry. Things I normally associate with Spooky. I hope it isn’t contagious.
The Nobody Girl put a file on the desk in front of me and moved to one side, so Candy could watch. “Comisario Mayor Matias Acosta. He’s the one who passed the information on the FBI agents, their whereabouts. From what we picked up on the bugs I planted, I don’t think he knew they were going to be killed. Once they were, though, he blocked every real attempt to look into it. Probably to hide his own involvement.”
“You question him?”
“Not yet. He has pretty good close security; they aren’t good enough, but I didn’t want to clue anyone in by making a mess. Probably better to do everything all at once.” She let a tiny hint of a smile through, glancing back at Candy. “He’s scheduled to do inspections in the Tri-Border region in three weeks. He likes to play away from home, always hits the bars after work, looking for a girl for the night. And he has a weakness for pretty black girls.”
Candy’s smile broadened voraciously. She’d loved Amber and Tommy and she obviously wanted a bit of revenge.
Normally, I’d have waved her off because of her personal involvement, but Candy was always professional. She’d been one of the best Swallows we’d ever had before we brought her in; her ability to lure a man or woman into bed was remarkable. Besides, if anyone can detach their personal feelings from their work, it’s a Swallow.
She’d even taught Spooky some of the tricks of the trade; how to catch someone’s attention without looking like you were trying to. How to get picked up in bar by the right guy so you could get into his house. Spooky occasionally used those tricks as entry options on some of her missions; ways to get into a house or a building, but she’d never be a great Swallow, not like Candy. Spooky just had trouble connecting with people.
“I assume the two of you have worked out some kind of plan.” I gestured to forestall any response. “Just give me a timetable and broad brush details.”
Candy straightened up. “It’s in the packet.”