Lee knew it was gonna be a rough day from the moment that Leona called him into her office. It only got worse when she explained the assignment.
“What is this, Kindergarten Cop?” he demands incredulously.
Leona looks at him over her glasses and her enormous messy desk, and she raises one perfect eyebrow. “You’re kinda small for a Schwarzenegger.”
“You’re kidding,” he says, sick certainty starting to set in. “Leona. You’re screwing with me.”
“Nope,” says Leona, snapping her gum. “I got a rule about that.”
“Leona, come on!”
“Lee!” she retorts. Her mouth sets in that stubborn-ass line that never means anything good for him. “It’s a paying gig, asshole; one you’re lucky you’re getting after that shit you pulled with the Arrowpoint job. I could have fired you. I should have fired you. You have any idea how much that little joyride cost me?”
Lee slouches down in the chair, letting his knees spread even wider. “I saved the guy’s life, didn’t I?” he mutters, and then he raises his voice again. “You’re putting me on a candy-ass assignment because you’re mad at me. Hell of a way to run a business.”
“I’m putting you on a small-time assignment because I can’t trust you, fuckwad,” she says pleasantly. “Prove you can listen to a client and not cock everything up, and I’ll think about where we go from here.”
“I’m not taking this crap,” he says. “I’m not a babysitter.”
“If you try to quit, you will be,” Leona says, and he knows it’s a promise. “The only reason you’re getting this much of a chance is because your brother asked real nice--” She wiggles her eyebrows lasciviously.
“Stop it.” He tries not to entertain the mental images that start cruelly stomping on his brainstem.
“--and I’m a softy for family, which I guess you technically are. But I swear to fuck, dillhole, if you give me any more lip about this assignment, or you destroy anything else while you're on the job, I’m gonna can your ass, add up all the property damage and medical bills I’ve had to pay in three months because of you, and then hire billboards to tell every agency and private client on the eastern seaboard what a colossal fucking liability you are.”
The thing about Leona is that she means it. She would absolutely do that.
Lee can’t lose this job. Private contracting is just about the only option he’s got left for his skill set after being drummed out of the Marines and the first month of policy academy due to “problems with authority,” and Leona’s right -- no matter how strong his skills are, no other agency within 500 miles will want to take him on if they know about the epic level of property damage he’s caused.
Lee has rent and a car payment to make. He can’t afford to piss off his sister-in-law.
“Take the shitting case while I’m still being nice,” Leona finishes, and he snatches the paper off her desk and lurches out of his chair. “Good,” she says. “And get a damn smartphone like a member of this century, one of these days; I’m sick of murdering trees for you.” Lee walks out, and hears her yell behind him, “And be at dinner tonight, six P.M. sharp, with a salad!”
Sitting at her desk outside Leona’s office, the secretary glances up, habitual gleam of disapproval in her eyes as she hands over the rest of the file.
“What?” Lee demands.
Alma tuts at him, unflappable as ever, and goes back to her sudoku.
Lee hates family.
Lee doesn’t actually know what Tyler Bhatnagar looks like--aside from Indian, he’s guessing from the surname--because this is the crappiest dossier he’s ever received on a client. Clearly, whoever compiled it didn’t get Leona’s foul-mouthed “every client is a serious client” lecture.
Lee studies what little information he’s got while he sits in the pick-up lane outside Harwood Elementary School, the driver’s seat ratcheted all the way back and his feet propped up on the hot dashboard. Tyler Bhatnagar, 28 years old, lives in apartment 15 at 1819 Beecher Street in south Miami -- a kindergarten teacher whose coworker is so convinced that someone is trying to kill him (a claim that the cops laughed right out of the precinct, Lee sees in Alma’s footnote) that she contacted a private security contractor.
Lee rolls the fuck out of his eyes and tips his sunglasses down over his eyes. The interior of the car is boiling hot in the afternoon sun. The air conditioning hasn’t worked for four months, and, absent the funds for the pricey fix, Lee has gotten very used to wearing tank tops and driving around with all the windows rolled down. He has also gotten very used to sweating like a stuck pig. September in Florida with no A/C is no joke. It’s hot as hell and there are kids shrieking with laughter somewhere nearby, but he didn’t make it through two years in the Marines without picking up advanced skills in dozing wherever and whenever possible.
Unfortunately, he also picked up advanced skills in startling like hell when someone sneaked up on him while he was sleeping.
The loud rap on his window is like a firecracker going off just beside his ear. Lee jerks awake, whacking his foot on the windshield, and turns so fast that he almost hits his nose off the window. There’s a short Latina woman standing between his car and the chain link fence that cordons off the soccer field. She has her arms crossed over her chest. “Sir,” she says, muffled by the glass but distinctly unfriendly.
Lee’s mouth feels fuzzy and dry; he glances at the dashboard clock to see that he’s been asleep for a half an hour, and then he looks back at her again and rolls his window down.
“Sir, can I ask what you’re doing parked in the kindergarten kiss and ride when I know you’re not here to pick up any of the students?”
He glances up and down the line, where there are one or two other cars parked. “How can you know that?”
Her face goes harder. “I’m the kindergarten teacher.”
“... Right,” says Lee, knowing it probably sounds rude and not caring. Leona didn’t say he had to be polite. “You must be Marilyn. Or something.”
“Sir, I’m going to need you t--”
“I’m Lee,” he says shortly, scrubbing a hand over his face. “From the agency. Leona sent me.”
“--Oh!” she says, rocking back on her heels. Her whole face shifts brightly. Christ, she looks about 12 years old. “Oh, thank God! Come on, come in.” She opens his door, fast enough that he’s still actually leaning against it and almost takes a header onto the pavement.
She doesn’t wait for him to collect himself -- just grabs his arm and tows him along toward the school building. She has so much energy, and Lee’s so startled, that he lets her do it. “I’m Marisol Machado. Tyler’s inside; I don’t know how much longer I could have convinced him to let me do all the pick-ups and drop-offs with the kids.”
“Am I allowed to be around the little angels?” Lee asks, sensing a possible out and dragging his feet up the front steps. “ ‘Cause I can wait. Out here.”
“I just sent the last one home with her mom; they’re all gone for the day,” Machado assures him, hauling him into an office where a bored-looking woman is on the phone. “Tammy, this is Lee, he’s with me.” She scrawls something illegible in the register, then bustles him back out into the hall and leads him into the sparkliest room he’s ever seen in his life.
There’s more glitter and tiny furniture in this space than Lee knew existed in the entire world; the walls are plastered with absurdist art, clearly rendered by children’s hands. One entire wall is devoted to what seems to be a list of the kids’ favorite foods. There is a coat tree covered in an assortment of incredibly weird hats.
The man standing in the middle of it all is South Asian, tall, and improbably skinny, like a spider in skinny jeans and a cardigan. A hipster spider. “Seriously, I don’t know how Olivia does--” he starts, and then he fully turns around and his smile takes a quizzical tilt as he sees Lee, “--it but I swear there was more glitter in her hair than on her card. Hi.”
“Tyler!” says Machado, and Lee is actually a little bit discomfited by her tiny, tiny strength as she drags him along. She presents him. What is this, show and tell? “This is Lee.”
“Hi!” says Bhatnagar, and he leans over to offer a hand. Lee shakes it and comes away with sparkly gold flecks. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Sure,” says Lee briskly, wiping his hand on his jeans. “You wanna get out of here, or...?” He thumbs at the door.
Bhatnagar stares at him with something approaching horror. “Oh,” he says. “Wow. That is just -- an offer, but. Marisol, you know how I feel about set--”
“No,” she says suddenly. “Tyler, no, this is Lee.” She squeezes his shoulder hard, and Lee tells his instinct to elbow her in the face that she’s not a combatant and that would be deeply unprofessional. “From RMX, the agency, the one I told you about.”
Bhatnagar’s mouth drops open. “Oh my God. You were serious? I don’t need a bodyguard.”
Lee wants to say ‘thank you,’ except now it’s seeming like he got brought here under false pretenses and he’s annoyed.
“Yes, you do,” insists Machado, laying a hand on Bhatnagar’s forearm. She’s apparently a touchy one all around, this Marisol. She looks at Lee with big pleading eyes. “He does!”
“Marisol,” says Bhatnagar, like he’s being gentle, “it was just some weird letters and an accident; an elderly gentleman fell asleep at the wheel for a second or some kid had been playing too much Grand Theft Auto. No one is trying to hurt me.”
Hallelujah. “Excuse me,” says Lee, and when they both turn to look at him like they’ve suddenly remembered he’s there, he folds his arms. “Hi. Is anyone paying my retainer, or can I get the hell outta dodge?”
“No, no,” says Bhatnagar in a clear precursor to telling him he can leave, while Marisol says, “Yes!”
“Marisol, I can’t--”
“But I can,” says Machado. They’re ignoring Lee again. Great. “Look, you know that my grandmother left me that money to use in whatever way will make me happy, and what could make me happier than the peace of mind of knowing that my friends are safe?”
Lee’s got to give it to Machado -- this is emotional blackmail at its finest.
Bhatnagar looks distressed. “I can’t let you use Nana’s money!”
“Yes, you can,” she tells him firmly. “Besides, I went to college with the owner’s daughter. I got a discount!”
Leona strikes again, thinks Lee sourly. Fantastic. Now he’s the bargain basement bodyguard.
“Mari,” says Bhatnagar, laughing uncomfortably, “this is really weird.”
“Tyler, I saw the whole thing -- that driver aimed right at you!”
“Why would someone do that?” Lee asks Bhatnagar, point blank, and he gets exactly the reaction he’d hoped for.
“Tyler,” she says, “indulge me. Just for a couple days. And then I’ll leave it completely alone and never bring it up again.” She’s breaking Bhatnagar down; Lee can see it in his face. He thinks she could probably have a second career with the CIA if she wanted it. He perches on the nearest tiny desk and waits. “Please,” Machado finishes.
Bhatnagar glances at Lee, who raises his eyebrows at him. “Okay,” Bhatnagar says, and Machado hops and then quickly hugs him. “Just for a few days, til you see that nobody's trying to hit me with a car, okay?”
“Okay, okay,” she says, smiling, and she flees the room way too fast for Lee’s liking, leaving the two of them alone in awkward silence.
“So -- how does this work?” asks Bhatnagar.
“Generally, you go about your daily life and I’m your shadow,” Lee says with a shrug. “I’ll switch shifts with somebody from the agency every 12 hours. But all our clients negotiate what works for them.”
Bhatnagar nods slowly, like he’s taking it all in. He opens the long drawer in the teacher’s desk at the front of the classroom and starts rummaging around in it. “What do you usually tell people?”
When Lee doesn’t immediately answer due to what-the-fuck, Bhatnagar glances across the room, hands paused in rummaging through his desk. “Like -- what do they introduce you as?”
“...Their bodyguard,” Lee says.
“Okay,” says Bhatnagar. “Cool.” He noisily digs through his desk, then stops again. “Could we … not?” He brightens. “You can be a friend of a friend, shadowing me to figure out if you want to be a teacher!”
“I do not want to be a teacher,” says Lee.
“Yeah...” says Bhatnagar, and then he lapses into silence, which makes Lee feel like kind of an asshole.
He manages to hold out for about five minutes before he jerks his head at the hat tree by the door and says, “So. What’s with all the hats, Mr. Bhatnagar?”
“They’re sharing hats,” Bhatnagar explains lightly. “And please call me Tyler.” Off Lee’s blank look, he crosses to the hat tree and selects a specimen that looks like it came straight out of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “Here, sit down.”
Lee looks at him for a long moment, and then he draws back the tiny chair and sits down in it. The furniture is so small that there’s no way his legs would fit under the desk; he shoves his knees up against the front edge of it instead, and he stoically stares at the whiteboard as Bhatnagar puts the hat on his head.
“Now it’s your turn to share, and everyone else has to respectfully listen to what you have to say,” Tyler says. He stands back. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m feeling condescended to,” says Lee, and Tyler laughs.
“You look cute, though.” Over his shoulder, as he heads back to his desk: “That’s what counts, right?”
Lee blinks after him.
Tyler shuts his open desk drawer and grabs a backpack out from under his desk. “Okay,” he says, slinging it on over his shoulders. “So, now...?”
Lee lifts off the ridiculous hat. “Where would you normally go?”
“I'd bike to Whole Foods,” Bhatnagar says promptly, and Lee sighs on the inside.
Of all the potential outcomes that Lee could have predicted for his day when he woke up this morning, fighting off a hit squad in the jams and jellies aisle at Whole Foods would have been at the very bottom of the list.
And yet, here he is.
The first attacker took him by surprise, because even with his incredible sense of professional paranoia while on-duty, Lee wasn’t expecting a middle-aged woman to make a run at his client with a shopping cart. By the time he tackled her and cracked his elbow into the nose of a seriously jacked guy wearing a green employee apron, though, he had a pretty good idea of what was going on.
“Down!” he snaps at Bhatnagar, who freezes like a deer in the headlights for a split second and then takes off running down the aisle toward the meat counter. “What -- Tyler!”
The woman comes back at Lee again and he uses the shopping basket to block her from pointing a handgun at him, then he throws the basket at her head. Lee had been annoyed at how much heavy shit Tyler'd been putting in the basket, but now all those fucking pickles make for a fantastic battering ram. The woman goes down as her partner comes back up, blood streaming from his nose. Lee kicks the fallen gun away; it flies down the aisle and wedges itself underneath one of the shelves.
These two are rank amateurs, Lee can tell already, but that doesn’t make them any less threatening to a boy scout of a kindergarten teacher who doesn’t follow orders.
The guy in the apron and the big walrus mustache feints left before taking a wild swing. Lee blocks the punch against his forearm. The force of even that throws him back hard against the shelf, which sways and then starts raining jars of jam and jelly and peanut butter. Amid the shrapnel, Lee lands one across the guy’s jaw, and Christ, his hand -- it’s like hitting a brick wall. He swears sharply, then, as he hears shouts from behind him, he fights dirty: stomp to the instep, knee to the groin, wait a half a second for him to keel over, knee to the face. Walrus Mustache folds like a house of cards and Lee turns around.
Tyler staggers backward into a display of mixed nuts, sending canisters flying in every direction. A third attacker wearing a hairnet and the white butcher uniform is bearing down on him, holding a ludicrously-sized cleaver that had to have come from behind the meat counter.
Lee doesn’t think; he grabs a jar of strawberry preserves off the shelf and rifles it. The heavy jar pegs the guy in the back of the knee so hard that his leg goes out from under him and he hits the deck with a scream. Lee takes two running steps, slides out of the aisle across the strawberry jam slick, and stomps the attacker's wrist til he shrieks again and drops the cleaver.
Lee looks from side to side, searching for a way to hold the guy long enough that Lee doesn't have to worry about the client catching a cleaver to the back, and he spots something that will do in an elderly woman's shopping basket. He reaches over and pulls out her box of trash bags. "' 'Scuse me," he says to the woman's stunned face, and he whips out a bag and uses it to lash the groaning butcher's wrists to the deli counter's ticket machine. Then he goes to find Tyler.
Tyler stares up at him, half buried under cans of pistachios. It’s a long moment before he reaches up and takes Lee’s offered hand. His skin feels clammy.
“Are you okay?” Lee asks as he pulls him to his feet. He doesn’t seem to have any external injuries, but it’s safest to check.
“All I can think is ‘come with me if you want to jam,’ ” says Tyler, clearly on the edge of hysteria.
“Tyler,” Lee says, sharper, keeping a wary eye on their surroundings. Other Whole Foods shoppers are slowly beginning to pick themselves up. At least four people are on their cell phones, excitedly talking to what he assumes are 911 operators. Everyone is staring. No one else is making a move toward them, but there’s still time for that. “Did you get hurt?”
“No,” says Tyler; “nope, you … jammed him before anything could happen.”
“Good.” He takes Tyler’s elbow in hand, in a grip that brooks no argument, and starts briskly marching him toward the exit. Shoppers who witnessed the jam takedown wordlessly make way for them. “We’re leaving.”
“But -- damages,” Tyler protests, looking back at the sea of stunned faces and broken jars. “We need to wait to talk to the police.”
“Bullshit we do.” Lee puts his hand in the small of Tyler’s back and starts pushing him. They’re both leaving jammy footprints.
“You really think someone’s going to try to kill me again?” Tyler asks, dazed, and when Lee doesn’t answer, he says with dawning realization, “Wow. Someone tried to kill me. Someone is actually trying to kill me.”
“I noticed,” Lee grunts, and he shoves Tyler into the backseat of his car with orders to keep his head down, and drives away just as the first police car pulls into the opposite end of the parking lot.
“--nnot believe you destroyed the Coral Gables Whole Foods!” Leona is still shouting. Lee has his old flip phone tucked between his ear and his shoulder and he’s barreling east on the Dolphin Expressway, driving with one hand on the wheel and the other ready to catch his cell if he drops it again.
“It’s not destroyed,” he says, cutting her off before she can really get going again. “So somebody’s not gonna have free-range lingonberry jelly for their whole wheat toast tonight -- sue me!”
“I’m seriously thinking about it, asshole!”
“Watch the road, watch the road!” Tyler yelps fervently from the passenger seat, and Lee swings around the truck that’d been blocking him. The driver honks, but come on, he had plenty of space.
“Leona,” Lee says, sharp. “Per diem. We need a place to hole up, we can’t use the client’s cards, and I just paid rent.”
“Oh, now you’re worr -- ney?”
“What?” demands Lee.
“I -- ta make you -- er what’s going on and--”
His phone beeps with notice of a dropped call. He lowers it from his ear and stares at the screen -- big surprise, no service bars. He snaps it shut and throws it into the back seat.
“New plan,” says Lee, and he takes the next exit.
Tyler comes inside after Lee has swept the entire empty warehouse and pronounced it clear. “Your life is an episode of Burn Notice,” Tyler says, looking around as Lee glances out at the parking lot and then rolls the big door shut behind them. He leaves it open a crack. The air inside the old dusty building is stale and stifling, everything covered in a thick layer of dust.
“Your life, not mine,” Lee points out. He wheels on him. “We sit here, we wait for Leona to work her magic and call me back, and you--” He points at him. “You do exactly what I tell you. No running.”
“I panicked,” he says. He looks desperately out of his element, standing there in the cobwebbed warehouse in his old man sweater and oxford shoes.
“Next time, don’t panic; listen,” orders Lee. “Listen to Lee.”
“ ‘Lee,’ ” Tyler says morosely. “I don’t even know your last name.”
“Lee is my last name,” he says, checking the clip in his gun before shoving it back into the shoulder holster he’d retrieved from the trunk of his car. He tosses his jacket across the nearest empty crate. It’ll be hot with it on, but worth having an ace up his sleeve.
Perching on the edge of an old manufacturing table, Tyler shoots him an incredulous look. “Why would you introduce yourself by your last name?”
“When your parents pick your English name out of a hundred-year-old book, you don’t get fussy about your other options.”
Lee crosses to the door and peers through the crack he left open. There’s nothing out there but smooth water, empty parking lot, and a few scraggly palm trees. It’s quiet. It’s too quiet. “The Secret Garden.”
Tyler squints at him. “Colin?”
“My brother,” says Lee.
He suddenly smiles, enormous, and points directly at him. “Archibald.”
“Lee,” Lee corrects sharply, pointing back, but Tyler doesn’t seem dissuaded. Lee feels the corners of his mouth twitch and he bites the inside of his cheek to keep himself from smiling back.
The tilt to Tyler’s mouth takes a turn that makes Lee suspect that Tyler has started eyeing his bicep appreciatively, but then he suddenly frowns. “What happened to your hand?”
Lee glances down at the hand he’d used to point at him. It’s throbbing and his knuckles are split. “I punched a walrus,” he says.
“Sounds like something I’d read during story time.” He hops off the table and comes closer. “Can I?”
He says, "Yeah. Sure. Whatever."
Tyler’s hands are long-fingered and magically cool despite the heat. “I’ve patched up a lot of schoolyard injuries in my day,” he says, without lifting his head. “This is the point where I’d probably send you to the nurse.” He cradles Lee’s injured hand with care, gently pressing in with cool thumbs to see where Lee flinches away from the pressure. The pads of his fingertips slide across Lee's skin.
Lee watches their hands and Tyler’s intent face, and he thinks: Archie Lee, you're in some deep shit here.