By Its Cover

The second entry from Parts of the Whole, this story features Tom Statford’s mother in her… natural element. I had a lot of fun writing these stories, and it is rather nice to be able to give a little bit of background on supporting castmembers. If you want to know more, pick up the first two books of the Statford Chronicles. You’ll be glad you did.


“No, I specifically said the other blue for the bathroom.”
Avaline Statford had been on the phone for at least the past hour. I had heard she was the best; so far I had seen very little to back up her fearsome reputation. Of the last twenty minutes, she had been discussing at least thirty-three shades of blue, with color samples being sent to her other cellular phone. At first she had shown me the colors, which all looked the same to me. However, she stopped after I shrugged her away for the second time. Perhaps she would have taken things more seriously if she had known why I was there.
“No, I said that blue…” she said, her voice barely rising even with the noise of the jet engines. “Yes, that one, Tommy. Now if you’ll please send another picture of that?”
This was the head of a black-ops organization, one so secret it was only known as The Agency? It was insulting to think that she was some kind of legend when all I saw was a ridiculous old woman. She had her son sending pictures of a paint swatch while on a mission for the government. How could anyone take her seriously? It was no wonder I had been sent. She was totally incompetent; she had to have something on someone to have lasted as long as she had. It was the only possible explanation as she rejected another swatch.
She had been talking on a government-issued satellite phone for three hours, communicating with her son, which made me feel sorry for him. Anyone having to deal with her inanities this long would have been driven mad. Before that, she had been having heated conversations with a plumber, two electricians and a warehouse worker looking for some kind of fixture for a bathtub. We had been in the air for over four hours and she had not slowed down this obsession with a bathroom.
Someone wanted her out of the way; it had something to do with budget cuts. I didn’t care. I knew I’d need some kind of vacation after this job. I had been given the mission to make her a casualty by whatever means necessary, and I had been paid an obscene amount of money to make it happen.
Of course, after all this nattering about matte versus satin finishes, I would have done the job for free.
“Oh dear, that just won’t do at all,” she sighed. “I’ll call you back in a few minutes, Tommy. I have to work now.” I couldn’t understand why she’d stop with her idiocy right then, which was when the dropmaster came into the compartment.
I thought nothing of it as the dropmaster briefed us on what we were supposed to be doing. I knew the mission front and back, having been in on the planning. Drop into a South American jungle, grab some intelligence, cause a distraction by destruction, extract from a point five kilometers distant. I could do it by myself, and had often enough. Looking at her, I felt only contempt. I was easily fifteen years her junior, and obviously in much better shape. I couldn’t figure out why she had insisted on coming along on this particular mission, but it only made my job that much simpler. She was in overall charge of the mission, but I would make sure only one of us came back. I’m sure her son would probably be relieved.
The light stayed red as the dropmaster maneuvered us to the hatch, and would go green the moment we we over the dropzone, which gave me a few extra moments to study this example of bureaucrat who thought she was an operative. Utterly unprofessional, she had her weapons hanging from her by lanyards rather than strapped to her body as was standard protocol. Her head was bare, her hair pulled back into a simple ponytail, while I wore my helmet, protecting my skull from injury like any sane smart operative. The streaks of grey were all too evident with her, and I was smugly sure that I’d be waiting on her to catch up after tiring herself out with looking for her weapons that were ripped off in the jump and fell to earth. The only thing she did halfway decently was her face painting, and even that was almost haphazard in its application. I towered over her by nearly a foot, and my sense of superiority deepened. This slight woman was what my employer feared? This wispy relic?
I listened to the pre-drop brief with only half an ear as I did one last equipment check. My Sig-Sauer silenced pistol was in its holster, the hammer down and the securing strap keeping it right were it was supposed to stay on my hip. The MP-5 submachinegun was likewise strapped to my chest, with extra magazines for both weapons in the cargo pockets of my pants. A radio was in an arm pocket, along with an extra set of batteries. In two of my other pockets were three pounds of Semtex explosive and detonators, in separate pockets, obviously. The parachute had been packed by me, so I knew it had been done properly.
For the mission, I was called Eagle, as usual, while she had assigned herself the codename Spirit. An idiotic codename. She could have called herself Duchess for all I cared; she was not going to make it back alive. While the self-proclaimed Spirit submitted to an equipment check by the dropmaster, I stood apart from it. Perhaps she needed some kind of reassurance that everything would work, as she had no confidence in her own abilities and gear. I knew mine was perfect, and I was anxious to be off. Five million wouldn’t spend itself.
With a pull on the egress handle, the hatch opened, revealing the blackest night sky I had ever seen. We were far from civilization, which suited me fine. I had toppled governments before in broad daylight; intelligence gathering, property damage and a bullet in the head for some daffy old bitch would be simplicity. Wind whipped through the fuselage of the jet, sending her uncovered hair moving and probably destroying her hearing for the moment. Granted, I couldn’t hear as well, but at least my head was protected.
The light went from red to green, and with a nod, she jumped into the dark. It was so sudden I was shocked and nearly stumbled as I made my way through the hatch. I paused only half a second before throwing myself into the sky, arcing my body as I had been taught back in Ranger school. Somewhere below me were my targets, and neither of them knew they were targets, which was just the way I liked it.
I angled myself towards the earth, wanting to get a bit of extra speed so I would ground before she did. If I could handle her before the mission started, I wouldn’t have to concern myself that she would get in the way. I had a perfect operating record, and I wasn’t about to let this dried up has-been relic ruin it for me. The wind whipped at my face, my eyes squinted even with the goggles, as the altimeter on my wrist dimly counted down the distance to the ground. I couldn’t see her, but as the ground was nothing but an inky blackness below me, I knew she would be invisible to me even if she had deployed her chute.  It was of no concern; she would be dead before the night was out.
Flattening my body, I spread my arms out, slowing down slightly while trying to find a good place to land. It was difficult in the dark, but I would have plenty of time to pick a spot. At the proper time and appropriate altitude, I pulled the chute. There was a sound of nylon cord flying out of my pack, and I was jerked vertically. I floated downward, watching carefully for anything that would be cause for alarm. Seeing nothing, I made a perfect landing in a small clearing.
As I pulled my chute to me so I could bury it and begin the three-kilometer run to the camp, I mused that the old woman had gotten lucky. Of course, maybe I had been fortunate and she had forgotten to open her parachute and splatter on the ground. It would have saved me so much trouble.
With the black fabric stashed under a tree’s roots, there was little else to do except begin the trek to the camp. I had my sidearm out and cocked, in case I met anyone on the way there. There were no friendlies in this jungle, and that worked just fine for me.
The pace I set for myself wasn’t too hurried, but I didn’t dawdle, either. The trees were alive with animals, which helped to mask the sound of my passage. There was no moon that night, so I was nearly invisible as I made my way through the foliage. I was a shadow, silent and deadly, as I kept my steps as light as possible. There was absolutely no way I would be detected, especially by the backwoods drug dealers that liked to call this hellhole home.
Several minutes of running brought me within sight of the objective. I holstered the pistol and brought out a monocular to better scope out the area. The brush covered me as I barely breathed, looking carefully through the eyepiece for anyone or anything that might give me an idea of what I was up against. Thankfully, that idiot had apparently died of her own stupidity, and she wouldn’t get in my way. There were four guards that I could see, walking in predictable patterns, their cigarettes winking in the dark. Complete amateurs.
The entire camp wasn’t more than two hundred meters square, with a large fifty-meter by thirty-five-meter building in the center. That was the processing plant for the cocaine, according to the satellite shots. The small building that radiated a chugging sound was the generator, and it was vaguely connected to the processing building. A couple of bunkhouses were in the perimeter, and like the rest of the structures, they were simple corrugated steel constructions, the slanted roofs made of the same material. There were halogen lights on each of the eight buildings, and I knew which one was where the ammunition was kept. That would be my target for distraction; the drug factory wasn’t good enough for destruction.
The guards were carrying AK-74s, which didn’t worry me. The weapons were worthless after a certain range, and I was well outside it. Two stopped to talk to each other, trading jokes I could hear even from my spot a hundred meters away. Total and pure amateur night with these idiots. Were I in the mood, I could have double-tapped them both just by the noise they made.
I turned my gaze to the target of the mission: the only hut that had a radio mast stuck to the top. It was little more than a closet, but I knew there had to be enough information in there I could back to the analysts to make them happy. Of course, they would soil themselves if they were ever in the field, and were worse than useless in the long run. They never took a stand, always using the words “possible” and “probable”. So afraid of making mistakes and being called out for being wrong. Idiots.
The monocular caught some movement to my right, and I swung in that direction. The two guards who had been talking were looking in my direction, or near to it. Impossible that they saw me, so I ignored them and took a moment to zoom in on the radio shack. This would be too easy.
Of course, that’s what I thought until I felt the tiny pins in the right side of my neck and the fifty-thousand volts rushing through my body. Every nerve was on fire, and I couldn’t do anything, even scream. I dropped the monocular into the undergrowth and fell to my left side, unable to even curl up because of the voltage running through me.
The pain was fire through me, even after the taser stopped. I pulled in a breath to try and get my bearings and was rewarded with another jolt. I couldn’t stop myself from crying out; it was too intense. As I lay there, unable to move or even to think clearly, I saw a shape stand above me, black boots and digital camouflage breaking up the outline of the figure. When it knelt, I could see the face covered in paint, but the teeth were white as he smiled. He said something in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand through my shocked state. As he knelt, I felt someone else take my hands and feet and tie them expertly, which meant not one but at least two of these backwoods fools had sneaked up on me. Of course, who was the most foolish? If I had had a real partner instead of that old dried-up bitch, I wouldn’t have been in the mess I was in.
That all stopped mattering after the figure in front of me raised the butt of his weapon and brought it down, bringing darkness with it.
I woke up to two men in camouflage uniforms arguing in front of me, while my body screamed in pain. My shirt was off, as were my pants, and I felt cold steel underneath me. My wrists and ankles were secured with wire, blood dripping from where the metal had dug into my flesh. There were tears running down my cheeks, and I had no idea how long I had been there and even less of an idea why I was crying. They couldn’t have broken me; I had never broken, even in training. Of course, I had never been caught before, but that was beside the point.
The men arguing seemed to be gesturing wildly, pointing at the only door in the room, and as my eyes focused, I saw that there where two other men in the room, guarding that door and armed with assault rifles. There were no windows, just a couple of tables with various pieces of metal that might have been tools for extracting teeth or bullets or just causing torture. I noticed an old cassette recorder, and it was still taping.
I finally started being able to hear what the men were saying, and what I heard wasn’t encouraging. One wanted to send someone out to check for other commandos, the other said there couldn’t be any others as the heat-sensing cameras would have seen someone else out there. He pointed at me, saying there was only one stupid gringo out there, and I was it. Not even a ghost could get in undetected, he laughed.
Then what was that I heard out there? the first asked.
Probably the generator backfiring, the second said dismissively. I’ll even go out and show you, then we can kill this spy.
The first wasn’t fully convinced, but seemed to go along with it. I knew I was going to die, all because I had been stuck with that old woman. That stupid damned old woman! It was all her fault!
As my two captors made for the door, there was a splintering crash as it swung open, smashing into the guard to my left. His weapon fired out of reflex, the bullets blasting holes in the ceiling. The second guard was turning to look at the cause for the wood and steel door slamming open and got both barrels of a shotgun erasing the top of his skull.
The roar from the shotgun in the enclosed hut pounded my ears. I pulled against the wires holding my wrists, wondering how a rescue team had been deployed so quickly. I couldn’t have been gone long enough for a search-and-rescue mission to be planned, let alone launched. However, I wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. I would get paid either way.
That’s when I saw her.
The woman calling herself Spirit was covered in some kind of muck from head to toe, her hair matted with still-wet mud. Branches and leaves fell from her clothing as she tossed the empty weapon to one of my captors. As the one on the left caught it, she drew her pistol and shot both men in the head, the bullets going right between the eyes from what I could see. The one who held the empty shotgun stood just long enough for her to pull it out of his hands before he fell.
She holstered her gun and began searching my two dead captors. There was some movement from the door as the only other guard left alive in that little hut began to stir. He pushed the door away from him, and I watched as she pulled a knife and flung it casually, without looking, into his throat.
She found what she was looking for and began to release me from the rack. “Nice to see you again, dear. Now would you get some clothes on so we can leave? That’s a good boy.” Spirit retrieved the knife and cleaned off the blood before putting the blade into its sheath.
My throat didn’t work for a moment as I worked to get circulation back into my hands. “You’re alive?”
My left leg came free after a moment, then she began work on the right one. “Yes, I am, and a good thing, too. There are another twenty of these punks coming in a few minutes, so we have to move quickly.”
There I was, being rescued by the woman I was supposed to kill. With her head down, I could bring a fist down into the back of her neck. Even in my weakened state, I could cause enough damage to her so I could follow up with a killing blow. It would be so easy.
“Dear, I know you’re debating, but I would at least wait until I had gotten you out to safety before trying it.” She looked up and smiled, and I saw the knife in her hand. It had somehow come out of its sheath and was a whisker away from my crotch. “I’d also recommend you make sure you’re ready for the consequences. Are we clear?” I nodded dumbly. “Good. Now that you’re free, go ahead and at least get some pants on. Five klicks is a long way in the dark, and even longer naked.” Spirit stepped away and picked up two of the rifles, a few magazines and a belt of grenades.
I was stunned as I stripped one of the bodies of their clothes. She knew? How did she know? The pants were ill-fitting, but serviceable, and the boots at least covered my feet. I would worry about blisters later. I put on the camouflage shirt, buttoning it while my mind raced. If she knew, then why did she come back? Why would she save someone who was planning on killing her? It made no sense. Was she planning on killing me herself? What was she going to do?
She answered my question by tossing me one of the assault rifles. “I’m not going to kill you, dear, unless you try to kill me.” Spirit loaded a fresh magazine and checked the bolt on the rifle. “Let’s go. I found what we were supposed to get.” Without another word, she sprinted out of the hut. I hurried to follow.
She heard the truck engine before I did, and gave me a very disapproving look. I felt like a child as she shook her head. “I told you to hurry, now we have to deal with these idiots.” She took cover behind one of the many fallen logs that surrounded the perimeter of the camp, and I dove with her. Bullets followed us, gouging out holes in the wood. I checked my weapon, the AK a bit unfamiliar to me as I jammed it the first time I tried to pull back the cocking mechanism. “Take a deep breath and relax, dear. We’ll be just fine.” I did as she said and unjammed my weapon. “Now, three three-shot bursts, sixty meters, ten-and-two-and-ten. On my mark.” She exhaled heavily and raised just enough out of cover with her own rifle. I followed suit, over the top of the log and fired as she told me, three bullets to my ten o’clock, then three more to my two o’clock, then back again, sighting out to sixty meters. There were cries downrange, and at least two targets went down. A tremendous volley of fire answered ours, the bullets smacking deeply into our cover, chipping it away bit by bit.
I was about to ask her what we were going to do, as we had to be outnumbered ten to one at the minimum, when she took the rifle out of my hands and said, “Be a sweetie and hold this. Thank you!”
It was her satellite phone.
“Are you serious?” I was completely blown away. Why did I need to hold her phone?
She raised up and fired single shots from the AK, the casings landing on me. There were at least twenty shell casings that spat out of that gun, and she came back down into cover. The return fire was still substantial, but not as much as it was.
“Oh, I think that made them mad.” The phone rang with a standard tone. She looked crossly at the buzzing phone in my hands and snatched it up. “Yes?” A few more bursts came our way. She shoved the empty AK into my hand and motioned for a reload while she gripped up the one she had taken from me. “No, I said blue, and I mean blue. My son gave you the exact shade to use, and you will use it.” I inserted the magazine and pulled back the cocking lever. “Listen, I’m in the middle of some very intense negotiations,” she said as she raised up and fired the AK one-handed in several bursts, “and I really have no time to deal with this.” Another pair of bursts, another cry from downrange. “Now, you can either do exactly what I say, or I can come in person and negotiate.” She burned the rest of the magazine, probably to keep the enemies from trying to rush us. “Your choice.” When she dropped the empty AK, I handed her the full one. She nodded and mouthed her thanks as she fired again. “I’m so glad we can come to an understanding.”
I was putting another magazine in as she spoke more with someone who had to be her tile-man. She never missed a beat as she cradled the phone to her shoulder and began to fire in short bursts. It was amazing. She was amazing.
And then she handed me a small box with a blinking red button.
“What?” I asked.
She squeezed off two more bursts. To the phone, she said, “I know you weren’t trying to be a bother, sweetie. Just make sure they’re the right color blue, and everything will be just fine.” To me, she said “Going fully automatic. I start firing, count three and blow it.” I nodded. Back to the phone. “Just a moment, please.”
She dropped the phone to the ground and began to fire. I looked out over the log, counted to three and hit the detonator. She hadn’t led me wrong so far, and from the results, she had been quite busy.
There was a string of huge explosions, first from the processing building, blowing the walls off and  probably a few tens of millions of product into smoke, with the wooden supports and tables becoming so much flaming shrapnel. A gout of flame went in all directions, setting five men on fire and sending the rest tumbling.
Then the other explosives she set went off in the armory. One thing about these drug makers, they had excellent weaponry, and it showed from the amount of ordnance that shattered the steel walls, the metal destroying everything and everyone within fifty meters. There was another firestorm, consuming anything and anyone that was left with no rancor, and no mercy. The both of us took cover as a mass of metal, bodies and fire went right over our heads. There were two more explosions, these most likely the trucks they had used to drive to the camp.
We let the conflagration die down before surveying the damage. There was nothing left: no building, no vehicle, there was nothing that still stood. As we stood there, I heard her say into her phone, “Perhaps you didn’t hear me. I said the fittings have to be chrome.” She listened some more, and I just sat on the log. “No, not brass. Chrome. It will look terrible with brass!” To me, she said, “I already had the extraction point moved, dear boy. It shouldn’t be long.”
I nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” I hesitated for a moment, then added, “Actually, Mrs. Statford, brass is supposed to look better with the blue you were looking at earlier.”
Aveline Statford raised an eyebrow and said with a smile, “Well, well, Mr. Renton,” she said. “How would you like a job?”

~ by Walker on January 24, 2013.

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