In my first novella, The Caregiver, we follow Interpol agent Scarlett Lang through what would be the most important mission in her career so far: pose as caregiver for London’s biggest drug-lord, Armand Sayer. This vignette is about the day she was assigned the mission, days before the story on the book starts. Enjoy!
It was morning. A cold, gray London morning to be precise. I was crossing Lambeth Bridge to meet Ferdinand at the Albert Embankment. I remember how I had studied every possible map before coming here, anxious to start working in the field again…
Then I was sent to an office, filling forms and filing papers.
Fuck yeah, the Interpol agent life!
I pushed my gloved hands further into the pockets of my leather jacket, feeling the gun concealed inside, praying it wouldn’t turn into an ice cube. Thing is, I grew up in Miami, spent summers in the Caribbean or Southern Spain. Nothing as cold as this. Nothing.
I got off the bridge and turned right on Albert Embankment, down the steps, and soon enough Ferdinand’s smile came to sight. Always bright, always inviting. I often found myself dodging it as if it were throwing daggers at me.
“Scarlett.” He kissed my cheek and offered his arm to me.
“Fer.” I nodded. “I’m freezing.”
“Oh come on! You’ve been living here for how long?”
“The two most boring years of my fucking life.”
He sighed. “Let’s walk.”
So we did. I walked on his left, thinking that maybe, if things got funny, I could just push him into the water and make a run for it.
“Did anyone follow you here?” He was eyeing me out of the corner of his eye.
“You said you needed to talk to me. I don’t have all day. I have papers to file.”
“Moretti asked me to call you.”
“Moretti? He sees me every day at the office. Barking orders and making me brew his coffee.”
“Have you been in contact with Cisneros lately?”
I waited until a man jogged past us to answer that, taking my time.
They often tell you not to stay friends with your ex-boyfriends. But Ferdinand was my colleague and his ranking was higher than mine so, yeah, I was stuck with this one.
“Every time they use a sniper to kill some drug dealer I pray it wasn’t you. Then I dig up the details and see your name all over it.”
He didn’t mean that literally, of course. I knew how to do my job. In and out, quick, nothing that could be traced back to me. Then I was back to kicking the copy machine and dragging my boots on the rug, just so I could give someone a nice jolt.
“You gonna turn me in?”
“You know I won’t.”
“Are you hungry?”
“Let’s go grab a bite.” There it was again, the smile under those gleaming brown eyes. Ugh.
He liked the pub on the corner of Tinworth Street, so we went there and, to my dismay, sat at one of the tables outside.
“Tell me when my nose falls off because I won’t be able to.”
“I don’t want anyone eavesdropping on us.”
A waiter gave us the menus and I asked for a cup of coffee. Really hot coffee.
“It’ll ruin your appetite.” Ferdinand said, matter-of-factly.
“Better for me, maybe I’ll lose some weight. I should, really, I can’t carry a gun between my thighs since they rub together. There are some agents that have this huge thigh gap. One could stick an Uzi between their legs.”
He chuckled. He knew it was true. Fer never bullshitted me. I was no femme fatale, no eye candy. That’s how I liked it, though. I was a Plain Jane. I’d blend in without any difficulty.
And I wasn’t asked to fuck anyone either.
The waiter brought me a steaming cup of coffee. I took off my gloves and held it as if it was a baby chick, feeling the relief of warmth in my hands, at last. I inhaled its aroma and forgot where I was while Ferdinand ordered food for both.
“I was talking to Romulus,” he brought me back as soon as the waiter was out of sight, “we’re giving you another chance.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
“I’m being serious, Scarlett. We’ve decided to give you the Sayer mission.”
Oh. My. Fucking. God.
I had to set the cup back on the table gently. “You’re not kidding?”
“I’m not kidding. He was attacked, a single gunman surprised him as he was leaving a restaurant with his wife. Two shots to his left leg, another one to his right arm. He’s house-bound, recovering, and his sister is looking for a caregiver. It’s not just because you actually went to nursing school. She’s looking for someone that can act as a bodyguard in case anything unusual happens.”
“Aaaaand?” Something in the way he drawled on the last sentence made me think there was more to it.
“She wants someone that wouldn’t cause too much of a stir, if you know what I mean.”
Ha ha! Being the Plain Jane does pay.
“When do I start?”
“You’ll meet with his sister, Helga, tomorrow at Cisneros’s place. He’s recommending you. They’re friends.”
I picked up the coffee cup again even though I didn’t think I needed it anymore. I was going to the field again, and with no one else but Armand Sayer, London’s number-one drug lord.
“Oh,” I breathed, trying to suppress the giddy smile from my face.
“Now, Scarlett, I must warn you–”
“Here we go.” I rolled my eyes. Fer was always lecturing me. “That I better not fuck it up this time?”
“I haven’t fucked anything up. The Gibraltar mission was a fail because Cisneros couldn’t stand his ground. That deal went sour the moment we stepped out of that plane.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Neither do I.” I sipped the hot liquid, wishing now it was whiskey or something set aflame.
“What about the wife?”
“Rumor is she left. He’s alone.” He was looking at me from under his eyebrows.
“Who do you take me for?”
“You keep yourself safe, you hear me?”
His bare hand reached out for mine over the table. I set mine in his and let him squeeze it.
“I will.” I grinned, letting some of my excitement out.
Then the waiter brought our food and I tried to indulge on the flood of emotions going through my system. It had been too long since my last mission and, truth be told, there was no other place I felt more like myself than out there with my gun or my rifle aiming at a nice head, and then watching it blow up.
We wrestled for the bill and I let him win, or he’d never let it go.
“I’ll send you the details later.” He waited for me to put on my gloves, “please, be careful.”
“I always am.” His sly smile told how little he believed that. Really, who did he take me for? “Love turns people so bloody soft.”
He hugged me tight. I wrapped my arms around him, not too tight, and held still until he released me.
“Don’t fuck it.” He pointed a finger at me and gave me a peck on the lips before turning to cross the street.
How could I fuck what could be the most important mission in my entire career?, I thought as I threaded my way in opposite direction, towards Spring Gardens.
My first evening in Sayer’s mansion passed quietly and without much trouble. Helga came back with his meds, repeated what seemed like a hundred times that his physician, Dr. Hart, had ordered to keep him in bed at all times, and showed me how he liked his tea made, for whenever George wasn’t available. Of course, Mr. Sayer didn’t comply with staying bed-ridden, so I let him be and went to sleep early.
On my second day, I met George, or should I say, I saw George’s frown float around the house without proffering more than a “Top of the morning” and an about-face. The man, with long arms and skinny fingers, wouldn’t talk or even look at me. At one point I tried to step in his way so he would have to at least stop one second and acknowledge my presence. However, it didn’t work. Nothing did. By nightfall, I had given up for the day, and when Helga came by and asked me if I had met him, I told her we had gotten acquainted quite well. If he didn’t want anything to do with me, I wouldn’t push him.
Late on the third day, Helga brought a list of errands for me, which Mr. Sayer dismissed the moment she was out the door. Finding myself without work in my new workplace, I retired to my room and went through my clothes, uniforms and the few things I had brought… for the hundredth time. This was going to be harder than I thought.
It was around ten in the evening, as I wandered around the house, when I saw that the lights in the office were lit. I walked towards it, drawn like a moth, and found Mr. Sayer sitting behind his desk, talking on the phone. As soon as he saw me, I tried to make my escape.
He saw me. I froze, but then decided that, since he had called my name, I couldn’t ignore him, so I turned around. He hung up the phone and beckoned me into the room.
“You shouldn’t be walking around the house this late, Mr. Sayer.”
“What other lies did my sister tell you? What else did she instruct you to prohibit me?”
“Pretty much everything that isn’t staying in bed the whole day.”
He chuckled, finding it amusing somehow, while I stood behind an elegant leather chair, my hands clutching the seams.
He walked around the desk. “As much as I love my sister, I can’t let her do this to me. She’s always been very possessive, but this has gone too far,” he leaned back on the edge of the desk, his arms crossed over his chest. “That’s why I asked her to find someone other than George that could take care of me. So I could get her off my back.”
“Whose instructions should I follow, then?”
“When Helga is around, act as if you’re following hers. But really, all I need is someone to be around so she stops harassing me about being ill and sleeping all day. You can do whatever you want, really. I have things to do and I must get back to them as soon as possible.”
“Good to know that you do. Now, would you be nice enough to bring me some tea? I know I shouldn’t be asking you this, but George is out and won’t be back until early morning.”
“Yes, sir. I’ll be right back.”
I ran quickly down the stairs to the first floor and made the tea as Helga had instructed me. I took a lot of care on how I placed everything on the tray so it would all stay put through the flights of stairs back to Sayer’s office.
He waved for me to come in the moment I reached the door, all the while keeping an animated conversation with someone on the other side of the phone.
“Call me if you make arrangements for next Thursday, Max. See you then.”
“No wonder your sister is so worried about you. Making plans already?” I commented as soon as he hung up.
“You brought only one cup.”
“The tea is for you, Mr. Sayer.”
“Don’t you like tea? It’s very soothing. Helps me sleep when I’m stressed.”
“As a matter of fact, I do like tea.”
“Then,” he rummaged inside one of his desk’s drawers and took out another cup, “have it with me. It may be the first of many. How do you like this place so far?”
“It’s a beautiful house. I like it very much,” I felt so at ease as he poured tea into both cups and slid one towards me, that I was starting to talk to him like I would to a friend. I straightened my back in an effort to straighten my demeanor.
“Are you keeping the job? You know you can walk out whenever you want if you don’t like it.”
“I’ve been here for only three days. So far so good.”
“I do hope you stay. This house feels so empty sometimes it makes me want to get out running like a mad man. Sit down. You don’t want to drink your tea standing up.”
“Yes, Mr. Sayer.”
A noise came from the floor below, startling us both.
“It’s too early for George to be back.” Another noise and Mr. Sayer left his seat and went to the window. “Drunk kids in the street.”
He walked away from the window and back to the desk when another noise, this time louder and closer, was heard. We left the office together – I tiptoed while he tried to step very slowly so his shoes wouldn’t make a sound – and searched for the source.
We kept looking down from the third floor to the second but saw nothing, then I went into one of the bedrooms and saw a shadow by the window. Mr. Sayer tried to pull me back but I didn’t yield. I pulled a 22 mm gun from my pocket and quietly sidestepped close to the wall towards the window.
The silhouette of a man came to view and I pointed my gun at it, ready to confront whoever was outside the window and crawling around the walls of the house. I could feel my own heavy breathing, as if the whole room was beating along with my heart, as if it knew that my finger was tightening its grip on the trigger, little by little.
“Don’t shoot the glass, it’s bulletproof,” Sayer whispered to my ear.
I released the trigger but kept my aim on the window. There was silence for a moment and no sign of the shadow or whatever it was that made the noises. When I turned around, Sayer was right behind me, his whole body stiff, his hands in tight fists.
“The drunken kids, I believe,” I commented sarcastically as I lowered my gun.
“Where did you get that gun?”
Then came a bang on one of the back doors, and I rushed into my room, pulled my luggage from under the bed and took out another gun, my handy 9 mm. When I came out of the room, Sayer was emerging from the library with a 40 mm and was shocked to see me holding a different gun to my side.
The noise rang out again, and all shock was left behind as I hastened down the stairs. He stayed behind. Not that I cared. I had to check on whatever was happening before he did.
I strode across the hall into the kitchen and saw another silhouette through the glass on the back door. It froze, as if it was looking at me, before turning to run away. I shot once and the bullet bounced right off it, hitting a wall, a lamp.
“Fuck!” I ducked until it stopped. The whole house was bulletproof.
I opened the door and sped through the grass into the backyard while the silhouette fled in zigzags, dodging my bullets. Then a second silhouette appeared out of nowhere and I could see the shiny metal gun glinting under the lampposts’ light. Before I could shoot, he was dead on the floor. I instinctively looked up and saw Sayer shutting a window on the second floor. This was my cue to go after the other one, the one that had stopped to see the fall of his companion.
I ran towards him and managed to close the distance between us before he realized I was on him. With his eyes still on the corpse, he pointed another shiny gun at me and squeezed the trigger once, missing me by inches. Not that he cared, because he was still standing in the same spot when I got dangerously near.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” He didn’t answer, so I pressed my gun to his temple. “Answer me!”
He dropped the gun and took off the black mask that covered his face. His white skin stood out against the black of his suit. He was a young man, probably in his twenties. His nose tip was red, and tears were rolling down his cheeks.
“I’m new to this.”
“Who sent you?”
“I can’t tell.”
“For fuck’s sake, just answer the fucking question!”
“I can’t! They’ll kill my family.”
I chuckled. “They must be dead by now, and you’ll also be dead if you don’t answer me.”
We both heard the limping steps of Sayer as he slowly approached us.
“Scarlett, go back inside!”
“I’ve got it Mr. Sayer,” I turned to face him, “don’t worry,” but was startled as he shot the guy before I could. The kid had picked up his gun and was about to shoot me without my notice.
“Get in!” Sayer roared, grabbing me by the arm and pulling me back into the house.
His face was flushed, his brows were furrowed, and his eyes didn’t meet mine until we were in a study on the first floor. He pushed me into a chair, took my gun, placed it with his own on the table, and pulled out his mobile.
“George, we have two dead squirrels in the backyard,” he said before hanging up and turning back to me. “Who are you?”
His enraged eyes were gazing into mine and I could feel the trembling creeping up from my feet, through my legs and my body, down my arms and hands.
He took his gun back from the table, cocked it and pointed it to my head.
“My name is Scarlett Lang.”
“Who sent you?”
“I was recommended by Rafael Cisneros when your sister went to him searching for a caregiver.” I gulped before proceeding. “My grandfather owns the shooting range Cisneros uses to train his men.”
“Cisneros? You know Cisneros?”
“Yes. Adrian Lang is his name. My grandfather’s, I mean.”
The barrel of his gun cut through the thickness of the air between us, dispersing and redistributing it around the room, as he pulled it away from me.
“Helga,” he said to himself. “She means good, but in her effort she has exposed me. There is no doubt someone sent those kids because she’s being followed.”
My mouth felt dry and my heart was racing so fast I thought it would drill its way out of my chest.
“She knows that you handle guns, doesn’t she?”
“It was one of the requirements for hiring me, so that I could help protect you. After the attack on you and your family, she’s worried you’ll suffer another one.”
“That’s why I stayed here, to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Now tell me, are you even a real nurse?”
“Yes, sir, I am.”
“Well,” his face relaxed, and my trembling vanished. “Those two were young and inexperienced. It won’t help much to see what the security cameras recorded. We stopped them on time,” he said as he looked round, then turned to me, “and our tea must’ve gone cold. If you ask me,” he gave me my gun back, “it’s time for bed,” and limped out of the room.
“You can keep the job, Scarlett,” his voice floated back through the hallway. “Couldn’t have found a better match for this myself.”
Scarlett Lang always dreamt of becoming an Interpol agent. When her hard work pays off and she’s given the chance to work as an undercover agent with London’s biggest drug lord, Armand Sayer, she can’t help being ecstatic about it.
She’s employed by Armand’s sister (to aid in his recovery from a gun attack) as both caregiver and bodyguard. Her resourcefulness in both areas helps her win much more than Armand’s trust, to the dismay of both his right-hand man and her ex-boyfriend / colleague.
As she makes her way into the business she swore to help tear down, she’s faced with the dilemma of choosing between being loyal to her profession or her heart. And we all know it can’t be both.
“Do you know what you’re here for?” The woman with the English accent and stern eyes was peering at me, trying hard not to squint but failing.
“I am here to care for Mr. Sayer,” my accent was half-English, half-American, which made her wince every time I spoke.
I was standing in front of her with my hands behind my back to hide the nervous trembling that threatened to take over my whole body. My nurse uniform was wrinkle-free and my hair was neatly tied in a ponytail, thanks in part to a condescending taxi driver, at whom I barked – after he winked at me – “Addison Road. And you’ll be sorry if my uniform doesn’t make it unruffled!”
“You are young.” She stirred in her seat. “Why would you want to live inside this house, caring for an old man like Mr. Sayer, twenty-four hours a day?”
She would have said ‘young and pretty’ if that was the case. No, this isn’t about self-esteem issues. She just wanted it to be that way. She wasn’t going for ‘pretty’. She wanted someone that would be serious about her work whilst causing the least disturbance in the family. Simply put, she didn’t want Mr. Sayer falling for his caregiver.
“Caring for others is my calling, and I’ll be glad to do it twenty-four hours a day for the rest of my life.” That line would’ve made me puke in a normal situation, but this was rehearsed, of course. I thought it was a waste of time, but she didn’t give a shit about what I thought. It was her little play for the man in the adjacent room.
“Very well,” the woman eyed my resume, holding it with both hands close to her eyes, “it would be nice to have someone full of life in this house for a change.”
She cleared her throat, “Armand will have the last word.”
The trembling in my hands moved to my legs when she stood up and nodded for me to follow her into Mr. Sayer’s room.
There is a typical odor in the rooms of the sick, as if death came to visit them from time to time and left its stench in its wake. However, Mr. Sayer’s room was so full of flowers that it wouldn’t smell like death even if The Reaper himself were among us.
It was dark inside, there was only light enough to see one’s way around the bed. Mr. Sayer was sitting on the bed, and the moment he tried to reach one of the curtains to open it, the woman interfered.
“No, Armand, I’ll do it for you,” she opened it only enough for us to be able to see each other’s faces, “you shouldn’t move.”
“For fuck’s sake, woman! I can move, I’m not paralyzed.”
“But you shouldn’t, Armand. And don’t talk like that, there is someone here to meet you.”
He raised himself with his hands and turned to me. I can’t deny how scared I was to have him look at me from head to toe, as if measuring me up before opening his mouth to speak.
“And you are…?” he drawled.
“Her name is Scarlett, she’ll be your new caregiver.”
“Oh,” he cocked an eyebrow towards me with a sarcastic smile, “welcome.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Now, now, Armand, you must rest. I have to go fetch your meds and run some errands. Will you start today, Scarlett?”
“Yes, I’m ready to start today.”
“Good. Let me show you to your room. Follow me.”
We went into the next room, but even as she showed me around and explained things to me, I didn’t see anything. My mind was running so fast I couldn’t concentrate. My attention snapped back abruptly when she asked me if I was all right.
“Excited to be here, that is all.”
She closed the door to what would be my private bathroom.
“You can stay here while I’m out. Today is George’s free day – he’s the butler – so if you need anything, go ahead and help yourself.”
Butler? I think he’d be insulted if he heard her call him ‘the butler.’
“You can call me Helga,” the stern façade had melted away and was giving way to a friendlier one, one that smiled before shutting the door behind her.
Alone at last, I gave a quick look around the room before going back to Mr. Sayer’s.
When I stepped into his room I noticed he had rolled to one side and pulled the blanket up to his ears.
“Is she gone?” he asked from his hiding place.
“Yes, sir, she’s gone.”
He pushed the blanket off, kicked it to the feet of the bed, and sat on the edge.
“But, Mr. Sayer, you shouldn’t be up…” I went to him but he stopped me, holding out his hand.
“What did she tell you?”
“What were the instructions she gave you?”
“That you needed twenty-four-hour care because of your condition.”
“And what is this condition of mine?”
“You were shot thrice during a violent assault.”
“I was shot twice in my left leg and once in my right arm, yes. However,” he paused before proceeding, “that was over a month ago. I’m fine, I don’t need to rest so much, I should be out there having a stroll, for god’s sake! And these curtains…”
Before he was finished I was on my toes opening all the curtains and letting the room flood with light. He breathed in deeply, as if to smell the aroma of pure sunlight for the first time.
“What was your name again?”
“Scarlett, sir. And I must tell you I’m more forgiving than your wife.”
“She’s not my wife, she’s my sister.”
“Oh,” I breathed, letting some fake amusement slip through my parted lips. I already knew all about him, long before I applied for this job.
“I need to make some phone calls, if you’ll excuse me.” He got on his feet, stretched his back, and started for the door with a very noticeable limp. “Also,” he stopped at the threshold, “can you do something about the flowers? I’m neither sick nor dead.”
“I’ll do something about them.”
“You can burn them for all I care…” he turned away, then back to me, “just don’t get rid of all of them at the same time. Helga will notice and you’ve seen how she is.”
“Yes, sir, I’ll be disposing of them one at a time.”
He turned to exit but paused again. “Burning them isn’t practical either. The neighbors will notice…”
“It’s OK, Mr. Sayer. I’ll take care of everything.”
He nodded, grinned, and left the room.
I was left on my own in a room filled with so much sunlight and flowers it looked more like a garden than a bedroom. As I picked out some of the smaller arrangements to be thrown out, I started pondering about Mr. Sayer – hair completely gray, in his late sixties, tall, handsome – and I wondered if there were business cards in his office that read: