The X Factor by Sebnem E. Sanders

The X Factor

Notting Hill, London

Scarlett gazed at Frank, lying next to her in bed.  His tousled hair covered part of his face, eyelids framed by dark curly lashes fluttered in sleep. She stroked his hair. He opened his eyes and looked into hers.

“Good morning,” he said, yawned and stretched, and kissed her on the mouth.

Scarlet sighed and held his hand. “Why do you always disappear?”

“Because I’m a spy.”

“Liar, if you were, you wouldn’t tell me.”

“True, but it could be possible — the X-Factor.”

“There’s something spooky about you. I can’t put my finger on it, but you go away for a long time, never call, then you surface and ask me out.”

“I told you. My job requires me to travel.”

“Why don’t you call when you’re away?”

“What’s the point? I won’t be able to see you.”

“Is that what this is about? Spend the evening together, make love, and vanish afterwards. You never tell me you’re leaving town. Last time you were gone for three months.”

“I never know in advance. Once I get new contract, I must leave immediately. IT matters can’t wait.”

“Are you married, with a family in another country?”

“No. You already asked that.”

“Come here,” she said and wrapped her arms around him. “Promise to be with me on Valentine’s Day.”

“I’ll try.” He caressed her ivory skin, partly veiled by her flaming locks and held her chin. Looking into her green eyes, he crooned. “I love you, Scarlett.”

The Y Factor

Bullseye arrived at Fiumicino Airport and took a taxi to Via Veneto. He checked into the hotel, and looked out the window of his room, which faced the American Embassy. He changed into casual clothes and trainers, and went out for a long walk. After dining at Cafe de Paris, he returned to his room. He made a few calls to set up the meeting for the next day, before settling in for an early night.

Next morning, he drove a rented car to a small town outside Rome. The Alfa Romeo parked at a convenient spot, he took a racket bag out of the boot and headed for Giorgio’s shop. In fluent Italian, he spoke to the salesgirl. “Buongiorno, signorina, ho un appuntamento con Giorgio.”

The girl phoned the boss. “He’s waiting for you, sir. This way, please.” She led him up the stairs to her manager’s office.

Bullseye entered the room and shook hands with Giorgio. He sat in a pressed leather chair, its ornate legs akin to the paws of lions, chewing on a cigar. “Long time, no see. Come va?”

“Fine, thanks. Do you have the merchandise?”

“If you have the cash?”

“It’s all here,” Bullseye said, pointing to the bag.

“Va bene.” Giorgio rested his cigar in an ashtray on his desk, pulled himself up from the chair, and stepped across to the door, which he locked. Stepping back across the room, he approached a reproduction of Botticelli’s Venus, swung it away from the wall, and reached into the safe set in the wall cavity behind. After keying in the combination, he opened the door, took out a bulky parcel, and laid it on the table.

Bullseye unwrapped the package and examined the contents. He assembled the pieces, looked through the lens, and turned to Giorgio. “Untraceable?”

“Completely. Abandoned terrorist stuff, with the bullets.”

“Hope it justifies the price.”

“All good things come at a price.”

Bullseye dismantled the gun and wrapped the cloth around the pieces. He stacked the bundles of cash from his bag on the desk. Giorgio counted the money and locked the bundles of notes in the safe.

“Ci vediamo,” he said to Giorgio as they shook hands.

Bullseye drove back to the hotel. The racket bag placed safely in the wardrobe, he grabbed his camera and wandered passed designated places on the streets of Rome. Each night, he downloaded the photos taken onto his laptop and magnified them to highlight the details. Late at night, he assembled the gun, crept to the window, and peered through the lens.

The day of the grand reception at the American Embassy arrived. Sitting at the open window in his darkened room, he watched the approaching cars, checked number plates and focused on the guests. The slow procession at the gate made them the perfect, slow-moving targets. The limo he anticipated appeared and stopped behind a car, dropping off dignitaries in formal eveningwear. The Mercedes with the CD plates moved forward. The target stepped out, talking to the man accompanying him. They paused at the gate, for the security check. Bullseye aimed at the man’s head and fired the first shot. The target jolted, but before he collapsed to the ground, Bullseye fired another shot into his chest.

Hand steady and breath imperceptible, he closed the window, dismantled the gun, and placed it inside the racket bag. He picked up his holdall, left the room, took the lift to the lobby, and checked out at reception. In the underground car park, he dumped the bags in the boot of his Alfa and drove into the side street by the exit. In the rear-view mirror, he could see the flashing lights of police cars by the entrance of the embassy.

Lugano, only six-hundred and fifty kilometres away, he cruised the Alfa at a moderate speed of 80 km/h. Under the cover of darkness, Bullseye dropped the gun and the bullets in a convenient lake that lay just before the Swiss border. Flashing a fake passport at the border control, he drove into Switzerland and headed for Zurich airport. His vehicle left at the arranged agency, he boarded a flight to London, using his British identity papers.

The Love Factor

Notting Hill, London

Scarlett awoke on Valentine’s Day with a solitary question in her head. Will he or won’t he show up? Preoccupied with this thought throughout the day, she attempted to pass the time in the evening by watching the X-Factor on TV.

At 8:31pm the doorbell rang. Her heart leapt when she saw his smiling face through the peep hole. She opened the door and her eyes misted at the huge bouquet of red roses he held out to her. In his other hand, two bottles of Dom Perignon. Speechless, Scarlett took the flowers, as he stepped into her flat. The bottles and the bouquet placed onto the table, she embraced him and sobbed, burying her face in his chest.

“Hey, don’t cry. Look at me.”

“I … I’m over the moon, thank you for coming,” she said, gazing into his eyes.

They kissed. He reached for the champagne bottle and popped the cork. As the fizz rushed out, Scarlett squealed.  He poured the golden liquid into two flutes.

“Cheers, my Scarlett Valentine.”

As the bliss of each other’s company warmed their hearts, he extracted a small box from his pocket. He lifted the lid and held it to her. An emerald-cut solitaire gleamed at Scarlett. Her eyes widened as he took it out and slipped it on her finger. She admired the exquisite stone and lifted her eyes.

“Oh, my God, really?”

“Yes, really, my Valentine.”

“You mean it, seriously?”

“Seriously, one of these days we’ll go off together and settle down somewhere remote. I’m getting tired of travelling.”

The Fate Factor

Tired of his job, Bullseye wanted out, but wasn’t sure whether his past would follow him. The last contract he had accepted was his most profitable. Shooting prominent politicians was not everyone’s game. Great skill and experience was required to escape the scrutiny of the CIA, MI6, FSB, MOSSAD, and INTERPOL. Tempted to accept one last assignment, he viewed it as something that would bolster his retirement pot. Never having to worry where his next dollar would come from meant he could live carefree.

Doubts filled his mind. Could he? He had more money than he could possibly spend in a lifetime. In possession of countless identities equivalent to those of the residents of a small village, he could hop from country to country. Passports, language, appearance, and profession changed, he could cross many borders with ease. Though he made certain no trace of him was ever left behind, he did not take the worldwide intelligence agencies lightly.

He simply wanted a life with Scarlett, the woman who had stolen his heart. He no longer wished to lie to her, or be without her for long periods. He had already made her a promise and slipped a solitaire diamond on her finger during a Valentine’s Day rendezvous. He could take her to Toscana, but Italy was not safe, and the Adriatic, too risky. The Pacific was also eliminated as a threat as he could be easily exposed. His gut feeling indicated Central or South America. Costa Rica? He could buy protection there.

The trigger pulled, a bullet penetrated the victim’s skull, leaving their brains to spatter the air. Bullseye vacated his elevated position. He jumped into his car and drove to Switzerland from France, changing his passport at the border. Hire car ditched, he procured another once in the neutral country.

Taking refuge at a Swiss mountain resort, he called Scarlett on the mobile he’d given her. “Pack light, pick up your passport and meet me in Vienna in two days. Tickets, funds, and details will follow. Don’t try to call me until then. I love you.”

Disguised as an American tourist, wearing a baseball cap, a colourful t-shirt over jeans and a camera around his neck, he left the Swiss village and drove to the German border. In Munich, he changed the car again and entered Austria as a German Catholic priest. On the outskirts of Vienna, his contact met him with a different vehicle. At home, taking on the appearance of a middle-aged English Professor, he stepped into the lobby of Hotel Sacher, and headed for the Café.

In the opulent decor of the Café, Scarlett’s red hair blended into the colour of the fabric on the walls and upholstery. Forking the generous slice of Sachertorte in front of her, she raised her head and smiled when their eyes met. “Very appealing. Silver hair suits you, my love.”

He kissed her and sat down.

“Enjoy your cake and coffee. Then we’ll be leaving.”

“This is more delicious than Fortnum’s, but I couldn’t possibly finish it. Would you like a taste?”

He nodded and ordered a coffee to complement the dessert.

Scarlett knew not to ask questions. She had trained herself over the years. After sharing the rich chocolate cake, they left.

Bullseye drove them to Budapest, changing passports at the border and again at the departure point of the airport. They flew to Frankfurt, and onwards to Mexico City.

By the time they landed in San Jose, Costa Rica, Bullseye and Scarlett had used several identities and disguises. She arrived as a brunette with a stylish short cut. He portrayed a Scandinavian with corn-silk hair.

They drove to the Gulf of Papagayo on the Pacific coast. He had rented a luxury villa in the hills. Bullseye never invested in property or cars. He believed in cash, the majority of which he kept in bank vaults scattered across a dozen countries.

Surrounded by high walls, monitored by security cameras and full-time staff, the property would provide a safe haven. Scarlett was delighted with the panoramic views of the bay and the amenities of the house. Designed by a renowned architect and decorated with exclusive taste, the indoor living area and the grounds displayed an exquisite selection of furniture and fittings.

A week later, Bullseye took Scarlett to a hacienda where their wedding took place in a small church. She wore a white dress and his wedding present, an emerald pendant necklace that matched the colour of her eyes. Finally, her dreams had come true.

He sorted his business at the Bank, and showed her the contents of his safe in the vaults. Cash in hard currencies, gold bars, and several passports for both of them. Joint accounts and authorized signatures allowed Scarlett to access their assets in case of an emergency.

That evening, while sipping drinks on the viewing deck above the infinity pool, Scarlett gave him a mischievous look.

“So, I was right all the time. You are — were, a spy.”

“It’s best you know nothing.”

“Hmm, what’s your real name, Frank?”

“I’ve forgotten it. I have so many, call me anything you like.”

“You are my love.”

“You are my love, too.” He smiled and held her hand.

“Maybe I should call you by a different name every day.”

They hired a boat and sailed around the bay, enjoying fishing, water-skiing, or windsurfing. Life was good. Bullseye counted each day as a gift. The number of days they spent together had now surpassed the number of lives he had taken. Scarlett took photos, painted watercolour sketches of the exotic views and the colourful flowers in the area.

While celebrating their first wedding anniversary on the terrace, Bullseye strolled over to the edge with a champagne glass in his hand. He stopped to admire the view.

Scarlett watched him, her heart beating with the excitement of the news she would be giving him as a present. She stroked her belly.

A crimson sunset painted the sky, his silhouette ethereal against the colours. He turned and smiled to her, raising his glass.  A cool breeze ruffled his hair. He jolted and collapsed like an empty sack, the glass in his hand shattering on the tiles.

Scarlett rushed to him, dropped to her knees and hugged him as the blood oozing from his chest stained her white dress in patterns of haphazard batik. She sobbed and screamed in silence, rocking back and forth, her arms clenched around him.

She stared at the solitaire diamond on her finger and swore to remain solitaire.

This story first appeared in Ripples on the Pond.

Short Bio Sebnem E. Sanders is a native of Istanbul, Turkey. Currently she lives on the eastern shores of the Southern Aegean where she dreams and writes Flash Fiction and Flash Poesy, as well as longer works of fiction. Her flash stories have appeared in the Harper Collins Authonomy Blog, The Drabble, Sick Lit Magazine, Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Spelk Fiction, The Bosphorus Review of Books, Three Drops from the Cauldron, The Rye Whiskey Review, CarpeArte Journal, Yellow Mama Webzine, Punk Noir Magazine, Flash Fiction Offensive,  and The Cabinet of Heed, as well as two anthologies: Paws and Claws and One Million Project, Thriller Anthology. She has a completed manuscript, The Child of Heaven and two works in progress, The Child of Passion and The Lost Child.  Her collection of short and flash fiction stories, Ripples on the Pond, was published in December 2017. More information can be found at her website where she publishes some of her work:

https://sebnemsanders.wordpress.com/

Ripples on the Pond