RUN, LEA, RUN
“Mr. Devere, there’s a lady out here who insists that she must see you, and that it’s urgent. I suggested that she make an appointment, but she says that that’s impossible, and that she’ll sit here patiently all week waiting, if she has to.”
Inside the spacious office, the head of Devere Enterprises gazed around the long central table at his son Junior, and his hit-men Wendell and Harry, and remarked to them privately, “Well, this could be interesting.” He depressed the button and told his secretary, “Send her in.”
None of the men could have expected the obviously shy, slightly-nervous-but-resigned, light-brown-haired young lady who appeared.
Devere motioned to the chair at the opposite end of the table. “Won’t you sit down, Miss…?”
“Thank you.” She seated herself somewhat wearily, but did not take the hint to identify herself.
“What can we do for you?” The burly, powerful-looking boss was direct.
“I need to discuss with you a very sensitive matter. First, are these your most trusted associates? Can we speak freely in front of them?”
“They are indeed. I have no secrets from any of them. Now, Miss, my time is valuable. Let’s get to the point.”
“Very well. I’ve come to beg for the life of my cousin.”
All four men were taken aback. They exchanged guarded looks. Evidently, they had anticipated business of a more routine nature from such a timid, unassuming woman.
Devere attempted subterfuge. “Miss, you must have us confused with….”
She waved away his effort. “Mr. Devere, my name is Leanora Overstreet.”
Each of the four men sat up just a little taller. For the first time, all of them studied her a bit less casually, and she met each man’s eyes intently in return.
“Buddy,” blurted Junior, earning Devere’s glare.
“Yes, Buddy,” she agreed sadly. “Poor sweet innocent Buddy, who’s never done anything to you, and won’t tell on you in any way, ever. He didn’t even tell me your secrets, only that you were after him.” She balefully regarded the bespectacled young man to Devere’s left. “You must be Junior.”
The indicated fellow nodded wordlessly, wide-eyed.
She turned her gaze to the two men to the boss’ right. “Which of you is Wendell?”
The dark-haired man raised a subtle finger.
“Then, you must be Harry,” she surmised to the man whose hair color matched her own.
He nodded briefly.
“Miss Overstreet…,” began Devere.
“Lea,” she requested.
He ignored it, and ominously stated, “You made a serious mistake in coming here.”
Almost blandly, she responded, “Because now you have to kill me, too, right?”
“That’s right,” he replied flatly.
She shocked all of them. “Go ahead.” She regarded Wendell and Harry as if she expected them to instantly draw their guns, and indeed, both made moves to reach inside of their jackets, hesitated, and looked to their boss.
“I beg your pardon?” Devere addressed her coolly.
“I don’t expect to be around much longer anyway. I have a very weak heart.”
They stared at her, dumbfounded.
Junior exclaimed, “And you decided to put your last efforts into sacrificing yourself for your cousin!”
“Something like that.”
“Oh that’s so sad!”
She interrupted smoothly, “Yes, Junior, Buddy mentioned that you were a kind, caring guy, and that you’d even befriended him once, when you didn’t realize who he was.”
“Yes, I liked him. Is Buddy his real name?” Junior wondered brightly.
“No.” She smiled sadly. “He never liked his given name. So he’s always gone by ‘Buddy’.”
“I don’t use my real first name, either.”
“Junior!!! That will be quite enough!!”
“Sorry, Dad.” Junior sank meekly into his seat.
Devere’s eyes traveled between Lea and Junior. “For all of the talk of Buddy’s being a nice, sweet guy, it wasn’t very nice, or sweet, of him to send his own cousin here to us, alone and defenseless.”
“It was my idea, and he argued against it, plenty,” Lea remarked.
“But clearly not sufficiently.”
“He did until I told him of my condition.”
“But then he agreed.”
“He didn’t so much agree that I should come here, as he finally stopped disagreeing. I made him understand that I wanted to do this for him.”
“Exactly what solution are you proposing?” Wendell spoke up for the first time.
“First of all, you only think that he knows your secrets. He really doesn’t. Apparently, you were using coded references, employing a code known only to you. He didn’t understand.”
“So, you suppose that we’ll just take your word for that, and simply let him go, just like that?” Harry interjected.
“Well, it would be nice, but I’m prepared with idea number two.”
“Let him work for you. For that matter, you could let us both work for you, for the short time that I have left. If you kill me right away, I won’t be able to give him your answer, now will I?”
Devere was steadily shaking his head. “That is quite out of the question. Neither of you would be capable of doing our kind of work.”
“Well, I’ll admit that neither of us could run around shooting people, but it seems to me that you’ve got that covered.” She glanced unemotionally at Wendell and Harry. “And somehow, I doubt that you’re the only two in that department, just the most prominent two. However, this is a big place. You must need lots of secretaries and file clerks and so on, just to keep everything running smoothly.”
“True, but we don’t tell them our…‘company secrets’.” Devere eyed her severely.
“At least some of them must know at least some of the secrets, for them to be able to do all of the work,” she insisted, undeterred. “Can’t you just assign Buddy to whatever level is appropriate for whatever he already overheard?”
Harry put in, “What would stop him from just deciding to run again?”
Lea blinked at him in near disbelief. “And render all of this risk that he and I are now taking for nothing?? And put him right back in the danger that he is in now, all over again??? Surely you don’t imagine that he enjoys the lifestyle that you-all have put him in, having to constantly look over his shoulder, being frightened all of the time. All that he wants from life is what most people want: to settle in somewhere: have a steady job and a home where he could stay put for a change. He would be so grateful to stop running that he’d be thrilled to work for you! What better incentive for loyalty could he have, than knowing where disloyalty would get him, …knowing that your men would…get him?” She cast an unappreciative glance at Wendell and Harry.
Devere supposed, “So, he’s just waiting somewhere for you to call him…or go to him…with our answer.” His raised eyebrows made it a question.
“He’s waiting for me to call him. I haven’t the energy to go to him. It has worn me out rather thoroughly, coming here to you. As you might imagine, he’s quite some distance from here.”
He studied her. “And if we say no? You’re not hoping to see him again in person, before it’s too late?”
“Even if I had the strength, I can’t take the chance of you following me.” She again regarded the two hit-men. “I won’t even call him if your answer is no. I won’t risk your tracing the call, and discovering his whereabouts.”
“So, as far as he’s concerned, you just…vanish?”
“If he doesn’t hear from me, he’s to assume that I…failed. We’ve already said our goodbyes,” she responded matter-of-factly.
The up-to-now pragmatic expressions of Wendell and Harry softened slightly.
Wendell couldn’t quite keep the wonder out of his voice as he commented, “You mean that Buddy is to assume that we killed you.”
She nodded tiredly. “Or that I dropped dead of heart failure at your feet. Or on the way here. Or in your waiting room.”
Devere shook his head again, but this time in greater frustration. “If your tender-hearted cousin worked for us, sooner or later he might overhear something else, maybe even the planning of another hit, perhaps even of someone in a similar situation to his right now.”
“Are you-all often so careless?” Lea dared. At his darkening expression, she shrank slightly. “Sorry,” she said softly.
With visible effort, he dropped his annoyance, and made his point. “Suppose that such a discussion made him uncomfortable. Would he be able to resist the temptation to run out and warn the victim?”
“Buddy’s sweet, but he’s not that noble. It might bother him, but he’d be too scared to interfere. Cowardice runs in the family. If I weren’t terminal, I’d’ve been too scared to come here like this. We’re not fools. We know how dangerous you are.” When the men sat broodingly, mulling it over silently, Lea went on, “I didn’t mean to insult you a moment ago, but I do think that I made a valid point: Buddy’s overhearing you in that Turkish bath was your fault; you risked discussing your private business in a public place. Don’t you think that you owe him a chance like I’m proposing?”
“We couldn’t see him through all of the steam,” Wendell murmured, seemingly thinking aloud, just a trace of regret in his voice. “We thought that no one else was in there.”
“I know. And he knows. But it changes nothing. Anyway, do you really think that he’d go to authorities and tell on you? If he were going to do so, he’d’ve long since done it by now. The truth is that he’s too scared to risk getting you even madder at him or more determined to kill him.”
“We can’t take the risk of assuming that,” Devere said sternly.
“Then you need him under your thumb. And he’s willing to be there.”
The boss looked at her quizzically. “What’s to stop us from giving you a yes, and then shooting him the moment that he walks through the door?” He observed her shrewdly and challengingly through narrowed eyes.
Junior Devere looked affronted, but Wendell and Harry raised their brows in unison at Devere’s perceptiveness.
Lea sagged. “We thought of that. If you say yes, you have to convince me that you sincerely mean to give him a chance, and I have to use my own judgment. Buddy trusts me to do so. And even if I turn out to be wrong, we still think that this is his best chance; otherwise, with or without my involvement, you’ll probably get him sooner or later anyway.”
Devere harrumphed, and nodded slightly. After a long moment of thought, he said, “We can give it a try, but we’ll be keeping him on a very short, tight leash, at least for a while. We’ll all be watching him very closely.” He glanced around, indicating his associates. “Won’t that make him uncomfortable?” He was obviously testing her.
She nodded resignedly. “We figured as much. Neither of us expected this to be easy, at least not at first. The mere sight of you four men sends him into an automatic panic; getting used to being constantly around you without bolting will be nerve-wracking for him, to say the least. But he has no choice.”
“Buddy has no choice,” Junior semi-echoed.
Devere launched a rueful glare, uncertain whether it was a deliberate pun, or just a misheard quote on Junior’s part. Then the boss leaned slightly forward, watching her intently. “All right. We can try it. But let there be one slip-up….”
“Also, you haven’t heard quite all of my conditions. You will call Overstreet from here, this phone.” Devere pointed.
She was shaking her head vigorously. “I can’t! You would be able to trace…!”
“Take it or leave it. Either way, we’re not letting you just walk out of here, in search of some other phone…or to escape. You’re under our collective thumb now, too. You’re a prisoner or you’re dead. This is not negotiable.”
He glanced at his two hit-men. Each pushed a hand under his jacket and regarded her sternly, his meaning clear.
Lea slumped. “All right.”
But despite her protest, she had evidently anticipated that demand as well, and she clearly knew that it took time to trace a call, even on a certainly-bugged phone. She dialed; the men faintly heard the click as the distant receiver was picked up; Lea blurted, “Yes, come at once!” and immediately hung up the phone.
Junior, Wendell, and Harry regarded her in varying degrees of amusement.
Irked, Devere commented simply, “Cute.”
“Wow,” Junior remarked. “You didn’t even say who you were, or make sure it was him, or tell him anything!”
“It was him,” she said simply, eyeing each man in turn.
“You had this planned well,” Wendell admitted.
Lea nodded her thanks. Then she let her head droop to the table, to rest on her folded arms.
“Are you quite all right?” Devere demanded, somewhat irritably.
“I’m just so very tired. This has been hard on me, too,” she mumbled.
He relented slightly. “You can lie down over there on that couch.”
“Thank you.” She dragged herself to her feet with effort.
Wendell moved to help her. He actually put an arm around her and guided her to the sofa. She weakly smiled her gratitude, and bonelessly collapsed onto it. Wendell finished easing her down, and then returned to his chair.
After an awkward moment, the senior Devere glanced over at her bleary gaze. “Any idea how soon Buddy will get here?”
“Pro’bly couple days,” she semi-slurred. “Took me four days, but then I had to go very slowly.”
He nodded. “Once he arrives, you’ll both stay here. We all have apartments right here in this building. So will the two of you. But yours will be locked from the outside.”
“I understand.” Lea closed her eyes and slept.
“Mr. Devere, there is a young man out here to see you. He says his name is Buddy Overstreet.”
“Send him in.”
Lea’s nearly panicked eyes fled amongst the four men, particularly onto Wendell’s and Harry’s jackets, inside of which she knew that their guns were kept. But when the door opened, she had eyes only for Buddy, and ran into his embrace. She clung to him, keeping her own back to the men, as if she could somehow shield him from their bullets.
Deathly pale, clearly terrified, but still at least somewhat dignified, Buddy gently slid her aside, and very deliberately greeted each man in the room.
“Mr. Devere, sir.”
“Hey, Junior.” His smile was faint but genuine.
“Hey, Buddy.” Devere-the-younger was sincerely friendly.
Buddy visibly steeled himself. “Hello, Harry.”
The addressed nodded pleasantly enough.
“Hi, kid,” Wendell greeted indulgently.
“What’ve you done?! You’ve shot her!!” came Buddy’s accusation days later, as he rushed into the room, the first thing in the morning.
“They’ve done nothing,” muttered Lea, semi-consciously. “Buddy, it’s a nosebleed.” Lea lay on the couch in the Devere main office once again.
Buddy observed Wendell’s and Harry’s rueful gazes, thunderstruck in his embarrassment. “I’m sorry. I…didn’t expect to suddenly see all that blood.”
She went on, “I admit that there’s a lot of it, and that it caught me by surprise, too. And anyway, what has a nosebleed got to do with a weak heart? Maybe they’re not even related. But in any case, our benefactors are innocent.”
Devere’s brows rose. “Now we’re your benefactors?”
“You’ve been very kind to us,” she said simply.
“Lately,” Buddy agreed conditionally.
“Lately,” Lea echoed dutifully.
“Still,” Buddy insisted, “you should be in a hospital.”
She regarded him sternly. “They can’t do anything for me, and you know it; we’ve been all through this. Besides,” she added, casting a glance at the Syndicate men, “they don’t want me to go anywhere anyway, remember?”
Buddy gave them a forlorn look in turn.
“Now, help me clean up, and let’s get to work.” Lea dragged herself laboriously from the sofa.
Buddy hastened to help her.
One morning when Buddy and Lea reported to the big office for the day’s work, they nearly collided with Wendell and Harry, who were on their hasty way out of it.
Startled, Buddy exclaimed, “Whoa, what’s the hurry?”
Both men fixed him with penetrating stares.
“See you a bit later, kid, uh?” Wendell stated quietly, firmly.
Something in his tone made his former intended-victim realize. “It’s…a hit, isn’t it? You’re going out to kill somebody.”
“Overstreet.” Devere commented softly from his usual place at the head of the long table, “The fewer questions like that, that you ask, the better you’ll sleep at night.”
Buddy swallowed hard.
Ineffectually trying to lighten the mood, Junior feebly quipped, “Hey Buddy, at least they’re going to kill somebody, not some Buddy.”
This time, Buddy said it even before Devere-the-senior could. “Junior!”
Attempting to salvage something out of his failure, Junior muttered, “And you could’ve said, ‘What’s the hurry, Harry?’”
Buddy, Lea, Devere, Wendell, and Harry all chorused, “Junior!!”
“Gee whiz!” he subsided dejectedly.
Inexplicably, at least to Buddy, Lea caught Wendell’s arm, and urged, “You be careful out there.” Then she studiously avoided Buddy’s bewildered stare.
Hours later, Buddy caught Lea alone in the filing room. “What’s up with you and Wendell?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” But she kept her back carefully toward him, continuing to slide documents in among others in one of the cabinet drawers.
“You know perfectly well what I mean. You told him to be careful.”
She shrugged. “He’s a nice guy.”
“Lea, that ‘nice guy’ is out there right now, intending to kill someone…in cold blood…if he hasn’t done it already.”
“Well, he’s…been nice to me.”
“So you like him.”
“Does he like you? In that way, I mean?”
Now she turned to face him. “I don’t know.” But her wishes on the subject were unmistakable. “Buddy, please don’t criticize; allow me what happiness I can have in the time that I have left. It’s not as if I can go out dancing at night, to meet someone.”
Buddy sagged, his face instantly registering profound guilt.
“I don’t mean to blame you for my being imprisoned here! And I don’t want you blaming yourself, either! I wouldn’t have the energy to go out running around at night, anyway. Just let me have a little joy, even if it’s only a fantasy.”
“I’m sorry. Of course. But look, about your health, I still wish that you’d gotten a second opinion. I’ve said that before.”
She nodded. “And now you sound like Mr. D.”
Buddy blinked. “Now you call him ‘Mr. D.’, too?”
“Sure, why not? The others do. We hear it every day.”
It was his turn to nod. “Just seems a little too chummy for my taste. Remember, this gang spent months chasing me, and trying to kill me. So to me, he’ll always just be ‘Mr. Devere.’ Nice and formal.” He folded his arms and leaned against another cabinet. “And now you say that he wants you to seek a second opinion, too? How? He won’t let you out of the building.”
“He has his own doctor, right here in the building. Under his thumb, like us. He wants me to see him.”
“And you’re resisting??”
“No, I guess not. What harm can it do? But speaking of harm, we’d better get finished in here, and get more work done today, or we’ll be the ones in harm’s way.”
Throughout ensuing weeks, Buddy saw more and more subtle instances of fleeting smiles, brief touches, and kind words between his cousin and the hit-man. So on another convenient occasion in the filing room, he admitted to her, “Yes, I think that the attraction is mutual.”
Lea whirled from the filing cabinet and leaned against it. “You really think so? So do I!” Her eyes had become a bit starry. “He’s handsome, don’t you think?”
Buddy looked rueful. “I don’t notice things like that about other men.”
“No, but you’re not blind.”
“Then, don’t you find Harry handsome, too?” Whether he was teasing or testing her, he hid it well.
“Yeah, but Wendell’s more my type.”
He shook his head slightly in amazement at this turn of events, and then changed the subject. “By the way, when do you get the results from Devere’s doctor’s second opinion?”
She turned back to the filing cabinet. “Tomorrow.”
“Not really. I expect the worst, so the only way that I can be surprised is if it’s good news. I can’t be disappointed.”
Buddy sagged. “Well, I’d like to get my hopes up, but I guess that that’s not a good idea.”
“No. It isn’t.”
Both were astonished, then, the very next day when they received the results: chronic fatigue syndrome, complicated by previously undiagnosed asthma. It was the asthma, apparently, that had caused the irregular-heartbeat misdiagnosis. Lea was going to live.
Almost immediately, however, after brief celebratory expressions, private conversations between the cousins became tense.
“Now you’re going to have a normal long life, and I’ve gotten you trapped here forever. This is all my fault,” Buddy mourned.
“I don’t feel trapped, at least not against my will. This is as good a place as any to live. I’m just glad that I can.”
“But you’re not free! You’re a prisoner.”
“Well, so are you.”
“Yes, but I’m to blame for my imprisonment, and for yours.”
“No, you’re not. What happened to you was just bad luck. And I chose to join you.”
“You chose under false information. You thought that you were terminal. Now you’re stuck.”
“Buddy, I’m happy enough here.”
“Yeah, because of Wendell.” His tone was noticeably resentful.
“That’s your real problem, isn’t it?” she challenged him. “You won’t forgive him and like him, even though he’s been nice to both of us since we came here.”
“Lea, you can’t become seriously involved with a hit-man!”
“Well, just what do you expect me to do? Can’t you just be glad for me??”
“Glad, for this?” He took her by the arms. “Lea, I’ll tell you what I expect, or at least hope. I want you to run. Like I did.”
“Run??? With chronic fatigue syndrome and asthma??”
“Run from Wendell!”
“I will not! And even if I did, he would be the least of the reason!”
It should have occurred to one or the other of them that Devere might have had the room bugged.
“Both of you, sit down,” Devere said severely the moment that the two reentered the main office, at the boss’ summons.
Buddy and Lea exchanged alarmed looks at his tone, and hastily complied. They were further unnerved to see the exceptionally grim faces of both hit-men, and even an uncharacteristically somber Junior as well.
Without preliminary, the boss challenged, “So, Overstreet, you want Lea to run?”
Both cousins gasped, but said nothing.
“Did you really think that we would not carefully monitor you, even when you were out of our sight? Especially when you were out of our sight!” he amended.
“Oh god,” muttered Buddy.
“Now, make sure that you two understand me, because I’m only going to explain this once. First, Overstreet, you are tremendously fortunate that you did not say, ‘I want us to run.’ You only urged her to run. If you had said ‘us’ instead, you would right now be taken out and shot.”
Buddy, deathly pale and perspiring, nodded faintly in submission. He couldn’t quite avoid a sideways glance at Wendell and Harry, and their cold return expressions made him shiver.
Devere continued, “Second, Lea, you are very lucky that you refused Overstreet’s suggestion. Had you agreed to it, you would be at once taken out and shot.”
She leaked silent tears, but gave no other response.
“In short, you two came as close today as you could come to losing your lives, without actually doing so.”
Both Overstreets now hung their heads, gazing only into their laps.
“You both have a lot to think about. Anything to say? Any questions?”
“Nothing like this will ever happen again,” Buddy vowed, sorrowfully shaking his head.
“Glad to hear it. See to it that you remember that.”
Lea choked slightly on her tears. “Wendell, I’m so sorry! It must have embarrassed you terribly to hear us discussing you like that, and right in front of your associates yet! I hope that you can forgive me!”
“It was…mildly disconcerting, but I can handle it.”
Her eyes explored his searchingly. “And I hope that I haven’t ruined…. I mean, if there even was…. I mean….”
“We’re not going to discuss that here and now, Lea.”
Crushed by his lack of reassurance, she sagged mutely.
Buddy offered, “Wendell, I apologize to you, too, for the offensive things that I said about you. It…wasn’t personal. It’s just your profession that made me say those things.”
“Apology accepted.” But he gave Buddy no additional assurance, either.
Lea rallied to say, “And Harry, I’m sorry. I suspect that I offended you.”
“No,” he answered blandly. “You’re not my type, either.”
She blinked slightly in minor startlement, but subsided.
Hesitantly, Buddy asked, “Mr. Devere, sir, you said that we could ask questions….”
The boss made an inviting gesture.
“Well then, about your phrase, ‘taken out and shot,’ you wouldn’t have…shot us right here?”
He shook his head. “Too inconvenient to try to remove the bodies without being seen by someone with insufficient…clearance…for such a sight.”
“Will we…always be monitored? Will we never be able to have private conversations?”
“Perhaps eventually. But today’s events haven’t helped; they’ve definitely set you back in the trust department.”
“I understand. We…deserve that.”
“Any other questions?”
Buddy shook his head dismally.
The Overstreets hastened to depart the once again scary office.
Now back in the haven of the filing room, the cousins scarcely made eye contact, and maintained total silence for quite some time. Knowing that they undoubtedly had an audience, there was really little that they could say that would not jeopardize their situation further.
But finally, Lea’s sniffling became more pronounced; she turned toward her cousin, and requested, “Buddy, do you think you could just hold me?”
He complied, and she was instantly sobbing loudly on him. He held her for long moments before he said, “Lea, I’m so sorry! This is all my fault.”
“Will you stop saying that to me?”
“It was my…stupid remark that got us into trouble.”
“You won’t do it again.”
“No, I won’t.” After a pause, he asked, “Are you crying over our close call, or over Wendell?”
He sighed sadly for her, and continued to hold her.
It was weeks before Wendell and Harry, walking in one direction down a hall, happened to encounter Buddy and Lea, approaching from the opposite direction.
Buddy looked wary, and Lea shied from eye contact, but Wendell signaled for them to stop. Both Overstreets worked to banish dread from their expressions.
Casually, Wendell addressed Lea, “Join me for dinner tonight in Devere’s restaurant downstairs?”
Her eyes grew wide with wonder, and she nodded mutely.
Forcing a slight grin, Wendell told Buddy, “You’re not invited.”
“That’s…that’s okay. But Wendell, can we…talk sometime soon? Anywhere you like.”
“Sure.” He switched his gaze back to Lea. “See you at five.”
She stared after them as the two men proceeded on down the hall.
Throughout most of the dinner, Lea and Wendell only discussed reading and music and movies and hobbies, finding out what they had in common. Both were leery of troublesome topics, and, for that matter, of each other.
However, over dessert, Wendell leaned folded arms on the table, and said, “Look. I’ll be frank. I’m interested. But I promise you nothing. We can…slowly get to know each other better. But I won’t kid you. You’re first and foremost Mr. D.’s decision, and always will be. If someday he tells me to take you out and shoot you, that’s exactly what I’ll do. I may not like it, but I’m a professional.”
She nodded slightly, with eyes wide, but she was trembling.
Wendell reached out and put a hand on her arm as if to steady its shaking. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to spoil what has been a good evening. But I won’t hide the truth from you. My loyalty to Mr. D. will always come first. Now, can you accept that, and do you still want to try for a possible relationship?”
Lea had to struggle to find her voice. “Yes. But…may…I…ask…?”
“If you ever do…have to…take me out and shoot me, …please will you be merciful and quick???” Her voice broke at the end.
“Absolutely.” He spoke with conviction. “That’s what we always do. Harry and I, or any of the others. We’re practical about it, but we’re not cruel. Actually, Buddy could even have told you that, about the time that I caught him, and told him to be still, so that it would go easier on him, and so that I wouldn’t have to hurt him.”
She had dramatically paled.
“Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t intend to upset you. And, obviously, he got away that time. And other times. Your cousin is slick; I’ll give him that.”
She forced a faint smile. “And have you forgiven him for the things that he said?”
Her relief showed. “Oh good! I know that that’s why he wants to talk to you.”
“I’d feel the same way that he did, if I had an innocent cousin who might get involved with one of us.”
“Wow.” Lea was clearly impressed at that.
Wendell favored her with a half-smile.
“Also, is Harry angry with me? I didn’t mean to insult him.”
Wendell was shaking his head. “No. You didn’t.”
“I wondered, because he was so blunt when he said that I wasn’t his type either. He sounded a little bitter.”
“May I also ask…?”
“Go right ahead.”
“Are we…you and I…being monitored right now…by the others??”
He smiled at that, in humor. “No. No need to be. We don’t need a mechanical ‘bug’ while we’ve got a human ‘bug’: me.”
“Harry and I, and even Junior, are just extensions of Mr. D., in a way. I’ll answer his questions about tonight freely, but that doesn’t mean that I’ll mention things that would be of no consequence to him. So, you needn’t worry that I’ll quote your every word. But I’ll be able to assure him that you’re behaving yourself.”
“I’ll never do otherwise,” she whispered.
“I’m glad to hear that.” His eyes penetrated hers. “I would really prefer never to have to carry out an order against you.”
Wendell walked Lea back to the apartment that she shared with Buddy, who was waiting inside, already locked in for the night. In front of the still-closed door, he gently took her face between his hands and kissed her. The kiss slid into a hug, until Lea felt his cold, hard gun pressed into her ribs, at which she recoiled.
“Sorry,” Wendell told her, “but I’m never without it.”
Eyes wide, she flinched, but nodded.
Wendell unlocked the door, let her in, and then locked it behind her.
“Did your evening go well?” asked Buddy upon sight of her.
“Very well. He was kind to me. And we have some interests in common.”
“So everything went completely smoothly?” He sounded skeptical.
“Well, no. He had to give me a warning about his loyalties and priorities, but I wasn’t surprised. Uneasy, but not really surprised. Oh, and he forgives you! And Harry’s not mad at me.”
“I’m glad for those last two points. And, like you, I’m not truly surprised that he repeated his threats. A bit disappointed, maybe, but not surprised. I hope that he won’t do that on every date, though.” Then, her cousin’s look became awkward. “Did he try to kiss you?”
“He kissed me.”
“And I liked it, except…I spooked a little when I felt his gun.”
Buddy winced. “Well, I guess so! I’m sure it feels creepy to be up against the very gun that might kill you someday.”
“Uh, …yeah. Exactly.”
“You realize, we’re probably being monitored right now.”
“It doesn’t matter; we’re not saying anything wrong. And none of it should surprise them in the least. Anyway, Buddy, I’m beat. See you tomorrow. Goodnight.”
Wendell did not reiterate his warning and position on date after date, much to the cousins’ relief. He made no further mention of the danger at all, until the night that he proposed. Again unsurprised at the renewed ominous reference, and having long since accepted that peculiar condition, but knowing that she never intended betrayal and that thus his warning should be irrelevant, she made no protest regarding his low-keyed threat, and happily accepted his proposal.
It wasn’t until Lea was three months pregnant that the issue returned with a vengeance.
Buddy and Lea were summarily summoned, effectively nearly dragged, into Devere’s office. Both were planted somewhat-less-than-gently into chairs at that same far end of the table at which they’d first been seated when they’d been new at this company. Tellingly, Wendell, who had switched to sitting next to Lea ever since their engagement began, and on the somewhat rare occasion that the Overstreets even were included in any sort of meeting, was now back in his original seat next to Harry, at Devere’s right. All four men, yes even Junior, were subdued, positively grim.
Devere stated quietly and devastatingly, “It’s over. We know what you’ve done. You’ll both be taken out and shot.”
“What?!” Buddy instantly lost all color.
Lea produced a small shriek, and then silenced herself with her own hand.
“Are you actually going to deny it?” Devere barely suppressed disgust.
“I don’t know enough about what you’re talking about to specifically deny anything, but I deny that we’ve done something wrong, yes!” declared Buddy.
The boss sighed. “All right, I suppose that we can waste at least a little time going through the charade. We found the evidence in your desk, Overstreet.”
“What evidence?! What are you accusing us of??!”
“The evidence of your having telephoned the police and reported one of our most recent hits.”
Buddy was shaking his head in horror. “I didn’t! I swear!!”
Lea was crying steadily, and also gesturing negatively.
Wendell said sternly, “The detective’s phone number and the info on the guy we rubbed out were in your top center desk drawer. Harry and I found it.”
“I haven’t even opened that drawer for weeks! When was this supposed to have happened?!”
Devere replied, “The cop called me yesterday. Fortunately, he’s on our payroll, and only phoned to warn me that we have an internal problem.”
Harry put in, “We searched your desk this morning.”
“I’m telling you, I haven’t even been into that drawer lately; I use it to keep important papers that can’t be thrown out, but that I don’t need on a regular basis! The drawer is too shallow for more practical supplies; I use a couple of deeper, lower drawers for them!”
“Lea uses the same desk,” Devere pointed out, his eyes spearing her in turn.
She was still shaking her head and sobbing. “I didn’t! I swear I didn’t do it!! Wendell, I wouldn’t do that to us!!”
Her hit-man husband was unmoved.
“Help me!!” she pleaded with him.
“I warned you,” he answered firmly. “I told you what would happen.”
“But I didn’t!!!” She purposefully slid from her chair to the floor onto her knees, and clasped her hands to him imploringly. “Wendell, please!! Don’t kill me; don’t kill our baby!!!” she begged.
He sighed. “I do wish that the child were already born. But that can’t be helped.”
“You are truly going to kill us: your family???”
“Yes,” Wendell said intently. “I am going to shoot you, and Harry is going to shoot Buddy. He and I discussed it; Harry doesn’t want the responsibility of shooting my wife in front of me. I will do that.”
“Oh gods!!!” She sank to the floor in a heap.
“Now wait a minute!” Buddy tried. “How could Lea and I have done such a thing?? How could we have even planned it??? You monitor us all the time!!!”
“Not all the time,” admitted Devere regretfully.
Wendell said, “Think, kid, we can’t monitor you while you walk down the halls, for instance. Admittedly, we haven’t gone out of our way to let you two know that there are lapses in our surveillance of you, but there are.”
In total desperation, Buddy leaped up and planted his hands on the table, leaning forward upon it. “Okay, take me!!! I’ll go with you willingly; I won’t try to get away; Lea will be your hostage here to insure that I obey you!! Neither of us did this, but fine!! I’ll lie and confess to something I didn’t do!!! But spare Lea and the baby!!!” Seeing Devere shaking his head, Buddy hurtled on, “This isn’t even what we’d do if we did betray you!! If we had intended betrayal, we’d’ve done it to save a life, not to merely report about someone whom you say was already dead!!! Risk our lives for the dead??? Why bother??? It’d be stupid!!! But I’ll still take the blame for us both!! I’ll go with Wendell and Harry! So, take me and spare Lea!!!”
Devere was still signaling no. “That will be quite impossible. Because, you see, according to our cop-informant, the voice that informed on us was a woman’s voice. Lea made the call.”
Her head rose from the floor in horror. “I didn’t!!! I didn’t!!!”
“Leanora,” asked Wendell coldly, uncharacteristically using her full first name, “was it you alone? If so, don’t drag Buddy down with you.”
She was crying so hard that she was difficult to understand. “I didn’t!!! But if I can save Buddy by lying and confessing, I’ll do it!! I’ll do for him what he was willing to do for me!! But can’t you at least wait until after I have the baby??!”
“So you both still maintain your innocence, do you?” demanded Devere. “Very well, then you both will pay the price. Get them out of here.” He addressed the last to the two hit-men.
“No, oh no!!!” Lea cried as Wendell walked to her and dragged her up from the floor. “Please, I’m afraid, Wendell!!!”
Harry pulled Buddy up out of his chair into which he’d reseated himself. Buddy gave Harry a frightened look, but his grief-stricken eyes were mostly on Lea.
“Not now, Junior!”
“Dad! You have to listen to me!”
Suddenly forcefully, Junior insisted, “No, now! Later will be too late!”
An aggravated boss retorted, “This had better be good! All right, what?”
“I think they didn’t do it! I have another suspect for you!”
Everyone turned to stare at Junior Devere. None had noticed until now how pale he’d become.
“What are you talking about?” Devere demanded in an ominous, low tone.
“Phyllis Haskett, from downstairs.”
“What about her?”
“She has a motive. It hit me when you said that the caller had been a woman.”
“That’s not all that’ll hit you, if you don’t get to the point!”
“I…this is embarrassing.” Junior squirmed.
“Well, …I…um…like her, but she wants nothing to do with me.” He looked devastated.
“So?!!” badgered Devere Senior.
Junior forced himself reluctantly out of his mournfulness, and went on, “She’s always liked Wendell, instead of me! But he never gave her a second look. So she resents Lea, because she married him, so Phyllis probably made the call and planted the evidence on the Overstreets, to get rid of Lea.” He seemed positively miserable. “I’m lonely, Dad!”
“Who cares?” Then Devere turned to the cousins, and quietly said, “Oh my.”
Wendell, stricken, eased Lea gently back down into the chair, and Harry did the same for Buddy.
“Let’s research this some more, before making a decision,” said Devere almost contritely.
Phyllis Haskett was guilty as charged. Wendell and Harry took her out and did a professional, guilt-free job on her, apparently oblivious to her pleas and screams.
But then, Wendell had to patch up things with his wife.
He and Harry walked into the tiny office that Buddy and Lea shared, the office where their desk with its incriminating evidence was located. Buddy had his back to them, as he was posting a reminder to himself onto the bulletin board. They said nothing at first, but he must’ve heard a slight sound, for he turned, saw them, gasped loudly, and fell back against the bulletin board.
“It’s okay; it’s okay.” Both hit-men extended reassuring, empty hands toward him.
Buddy worked to relax back against it, and to calm his rapid breathing, but he didn’t find his voice immediately.
Harry told him, “Phyllis Haskett was guilty; she confessed. Junior was right about the motive. She kept addressing her pleas to Wendell, and insisting that she loved him. It’s over.”
“She’s…dead?” Buddy managed.
“Thoroughly,” responded Wendell.
Buddy looked sick for a moment, but then got over it, undoubtedly because the woman had nearly caused the same thing to happen to him and his cousin.
“Where’s Lea? Where’s my wife?”
Buddy looked rueful. “She…was too upset to work. Devere…Mr. Devere gave her the day off. She’s in the apartment that she and I used to share before she married you.”
Wendell nodded shortly.
Harry posed, “Why didn’t you take the day off, too?”
“I…needed to work, to keep my mind off…things. I stayed with her and comforted her for a while, but she needed to be alone, and I needed to work, so….”
They nodded again.
“Kid, for what it’s worth, we’re sorry,” Wendell told him.
Buddy nodded absently.
They left, Harry to report to the boss, and Wendell to find his wife.
“Lea? Where are you?”
There was no reply, but there were soft sobs emanating from fairly nearby. A very brief search turned up Lea, sitting on the floor between bed and night-table, with her back against the wall and her knees drawn up against her chest.
“Honey,” Wendell said gently, “I’m so sorry.”
She stared up at him almost uncomprehendingly, her blue eyes blurred with tears.
He forced himself to go on, “I had told you that something like this could happen; you said that you understood….”
“But I basically ignored it!” she choked. “Because I knew I wasn’t going to betray! So I told myself it didn’t matter what would happen if I did, since I never would!”
“I see.” His voice was hushed.
“Anyway, I guess I still thought I was prepared for what I assumed was the impossible, but I didn’t realize how overwhelming the fear would be, or how cold and heartless you could look!”
“Aw, Honey!” He reached for her. “Let me help….”
“No, don’t touch me!!!” She recoiled.
Wendell sadly subsided.
“Don’t touch…us!” Her hand went to her abdomen.
“Lea. I love you as much as ever. I’m deeply sorry for what we put you through. And I’m thrilled that you were innocent, and that we found out in time.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And suppose that you hadn’t found out in time. Suppose that you had killed us, and that then you had found out. How much or how long would you have bothered to mourn?” she challenged him.
“For a very, very long time.”
Lea was unmoved. “But you still would have killed us.”
Wendell stood silently watching her for long moments, and then finally said, “I’ll leave you alone for a while. I expect that Mr. D. is waiting for me to report in. But then I’ll be back to see you later.”
She made no reply as he walked out of the apartment.
Wendell, true to his word, was back to see her a few hours later, but he found little difference in her mood.
“You were so cold!” she again accused him, in reference to what she now referred to as the “inquisition.”
“In front of Mr. D., yes. But I wouldn’t’ve been cold when the moment came. I would’ve taken it slowly. I would’ve held you, caressed your face, stroked your hair, tried to soothe you, talked to you gently, taken my time, not rushed you. And I absolutely guarantee that you wouldn’t’ve suffered in the least. I know what I’m doing; I’m a professional.”
“What about Buddy?”
“Harry would’ve taken care of Buddy.”
“‘Taken care of’,” she scoffed. “You make it sound so benevolent!”
“Well, I’m just trying to make it sound innocuous.”
“Which one of us would you have killed first?”
“Whichever way you had done it, you would’ve made one of us watch the other die!” she accused bitterly.
“Lea, what would you have me say?”
“That this will never happen again.”
“How can I promise that? You know what I am; you’ve known all along. You can’t expect me to change who I am.”
“And you can’t expect me not to be horrified by all of this.”
“What would you have me do? Leave you, divorce you, and ignore you, while still keeping you a prisoner here? And what about the baby? Will you even tell him that I’m his father?”
“Or her. That you’re her father.”
“All right, well?”
“I…don’t…know,” she told him stonily.
Wendell admitted to Buddy that he was at his wits’ end with Lea. “Harry and I have already patched things up with you. So why is Lea being so difficult?”
“Let me talk to her,” he offered.
“Thanks. I was hoping you’d say that.”
“But let’s not push her. Let her stay in my apartment until she’s ready to go back to you.”
Wendell looked reluctant. “I suppose.”
“She’s comfortable there; remember, it was her apartment for quite a while, too, before you two got together.”
“Yeah, okay. But Buddy, I’ve got a condition to put on this, too, or rather the boss does. Either I’m in there with you two, listening, or Mr. D. and all of us will be monitoring.”
Buddy let out a long sigh. “All right. Just you, then.”
At least this time, Lea was lying on what had formerly been her bed, instead of huddling on the floor. Buddy sat down on it beside her, while Wendell remained by the bedroom door.
Buddy began, “Lea, if someone had told you weeks ago that you and I were about to be set up as traitors, what would you have expected to happen?”
She stared at her cousin, clearly pondering the question, but offering no reply.
“Exactly what did happen, perhaps? Were we treated in any way differently from how you would’ve imagined?”
This time, she managed a small, “No.”
“Well then, why be mad at Wendell?”
“It’s just…it was so scary!”
“It’s…not so much that I’m mad at him, as that I’m afraid of him!”
From his peripheral vision, Buddy saw Wendell appear slightly wounded at that.
“I understand. Me, too. And I know it’ll take time for you to go back to him. But you will go back, won’t you? Eventually.”
A small nod was forthcoming, and the watching Wendell didn’t try to hide his relief.
Seeing that reaction, Lea said very softly, “Wendell, come ‘ere.”
As her husband approached, Buddy began to rise from the bed.
“No! You stay!” Lea gripped his arm.
So, Wendell switched direction and went to the other side of the bed and sat.
“Wendell,” she said gingerly, “those things that you said you would’ve done, those nice things, …before shooting me? To make it easier on me? Tell me again.”
He seemed pleased to do so. “I would’ve held you, caressed your face, stroked your hair, ….”
“Do them now,” she requested timidly. “Pretend this is it.”
Wendell looked startled, and Buddy looked shocked.
“No!” she hastened, “I don’t want to see your gun! Not that! I just mean, pretend otherwise. Do only the nice things.”
Buddy squirmed. “Why do you want me here??”
She produced a small smile. “So you can hold my hand. I’m sure they would’ve let you. I would’ve requested that they kill me first, so that you could be with me to hold my hand and make it easier. Please?”
“If it’ll help,” he agreed, and took her hand in his.
Adapting well to the odd request, Wendell leaned close and ever so tenderly stroked and caressed and soothed. Very gradually, a beatific smile formed on Lea’s lips, and very slowly, Wendell leaned down close and kissed them.
Moments later, Wendell glanced up at an exceedingly uncomfortable Buddy, and said, not unkindly, “Buddy, get out.”
It was the night of the city-wide blackout that Lea Overstreet Krimm went into labor. No elevators were working, and Lea was in no condition to stagger down twenty flights of stairs. Devere’s doctor did not respond to the intercom summons. Outside, sirens of all kinds screamed continuously in the night; with all of the lootings and shootings, fires and accidents, no ambulances were available to respond to an “ordinary,” non-disastrous need.
Buddy Overstreet twisted and sprained his ankle in the dark, whereupon he crawled the rest of the way to Wendell’s and Lea’s apartment, in his effort to help.
Junior Devere, in response to Lea’s shrieking, became hysterical and was soundly slapped by the ever-cool-and-collected Senior Devere, as the two of them plus Harry barreled into Wendell’s and Lea’s traumatized bedroom.
After eleven hours of Lea’s crying and screaming, and Wendell’s enumerated litany of creative ways in which he’d like to torture to death Devere’s nonresponsive doctor, and with Junior being repeatedly thrown out and then readmitted and ordered to “be a man,” a baby girl appeared.
Buddy was cleaning and hugging her when Lea emitted another piercing shriek, and a gasped, “Here we go again!”
“Sweetie, it’s just the afterbirth,” soothed her husband.
“Oh no, it’s not!” Lea shrilled.
A self-conscious Harry took one look and agreed with her.
Thus ensued more of the same chaos, until a second girl arrived.
Buddy lavished his same attention on this second one, with Junior having been told to hold the now-blanket-swaddled first baby, along with a sharp, “See if you can manage that much!” from his stern, cold-as-ice father.
Then the screaming recommenced, followed by an astonished third confirmation from Harry, plus an anguished, “Oh Wendell, I’m too exhausted; I can’t go through this agony again!!”
“Yes, you can! Yes, you can!! I have faith in you.”
“No, I can’t!!” she sobbed. “Please, just shoot me!!! Put me out of my misery!!” She pawed helplessly at his left side, where she knew that his gun was holstered.
Devere and Wendell exchanged utterly dumbfounded expressions, while a horrified Buddy, with the one free hand not holding a baby, lightly slapped his cousin, and whispered tersely, “Don’t you ever say a thing like that again, especially not to them!!!”
Automatically, Wendell blurted edgily, “I’ll thank you not to strike my wife!”
“She was my cousin long before she was your wife!” he shouted back recklessly, for once oblivious of his own potential danger in provoking a hit-man.
“Aw, god, I hope we all survive this, and I don’t just mean me and the babies!” shrilled Lea.
Two infant boys later, Lea finally produced the long-awaited afterbirth.
As things calmed and eased
somewhat, and with a baby each in the arms of Buddy, Junior, Senior, and Harry,
Wendell whispered lovingly to his wife, “Honey, we only planned the name Wendy
for a girl, and
Lea smiled sheepishly and admitted, “What do you think I was concentrating on, to try to distract myself, while I struggled? Wanda and Willis. I still want to name the babies after you, as we agreed: similar but not identical to avoid confusion.” She sent a nervous glance toward Mr. Devere as well as toward Wendell. “Ummm, about that really stupid thing I said….” She glanced apologetically at Buddy. “Thank you for not listening to me.” Now self-conscious, she could no longer meet Devere’s eyes, or even Wendell’s.
“That’s quite all right, my dear,” the boss replied, almost fondly. “We never do so, …without a reason.”
Wendell simply, wordlessly caressed her cheek.
Lea drew a slow, staggered breath. Her “Thanks” was barely audible in her embarrassment.
Six months later, Devere Senior had a surprising invitation for Lea. “We’ll be attending a statewide, senior-executives’ business-meeting,” he told her. “Fancy-schmaltzy-type get-together. We want you to dress up in your finest, and accompany us.” He indicated Wendell and Harry, as well as him.
It didn’t take an expert observer to notice a dejected Junior standing nearby and excluded.
The boss observed Lea’s glance toward his disappointed and disappointing progeny and added, “We need to make a good impression.” To him, that explained all.
“But, why me?” she ventured.
“You will confer an air of respectability to our entourage,” Devere answered matter-of-factly. “Dispel some of those nasty rumors regarding our supposed Syndicate-involvement.” He winked at her. “And of course, I know that we can count on your discretion, with your babies and cousin left here.”
Lea then wisely nodded.
“Come on, Junior,” Buddy cajoled, “we’ll baby-sit. It’ll be fun.”
The boss’ pathetic son brightened. “Yeah, it will! Okay!”
Devere Senior briefly nodded, and then shook his head somewhat dismally.
Lea was suitably impressed by the high-class, ritzy people in attendance, although she herself dazzled them in turn; she was witty and charming in a slightly rustic, innocent sort of way that the sophisticates clearly found utterly refreshing.
When he could do so privately, Wendell whispered proudly to his wife that she was noticeably the highlight of at least all of the people at their particular table, as well as of some others who had wandered by to mingle. He added, “Come on, let’s do some mingling of our own, and you can charm even more people.”
They walked hand in hand, and she whispered, “About what Mr. Devere said, about rumors: was he just teasing me? Do these people know?”
Wendell shrugged nonchalantly. “Some of them do. Some are into it more than we are. A lot of our business is legit. Safer that way.”
Those whom she met made Lea feel like the princess of the ball, and she reveled in the attention. She hadn’t been out of the building, away from Devere Enterprises, since she’d first gone there. That, combined with the splendor of the ambience, as well as of the crowd, created for her an evening of enchantment. In her stunning pale blue evening gown and with her long hair up in a bun, and everything about her and around her all a-glitter, and most especially on the arm of her prince charming, Lea moved as though she were living a dream.
In her happy haze as the evening wound down, she found it sweet and flattering that Wendell transferred her grasp to Mr. Devere, and murmured that she should walk out on his arm instead.
So she was completely unprepared when two gunmen abruptly blocked their path just outside of the front door. A quick glance over her and the boss’ shoulder revealed no sign of Wendell or Harry. She barely stifled a gasp as her dream turned suddenly to surreal nightmare.
Devere’s only response was to tighten his grip on her arm, and to address the offenders casually and calmly, though with an ominous, threatening undertone. He’s threatening them?? Lea’s mind screamed.
Instant gunfire shattered her thoughts, and she screamed aloud. The two assailants dropped, and her frantic glances right and left revealed Wendell and Harry, with guns drawn.
Devere’s limousine screeched in, right in front of them, and immediately her three male escorts were pushing her inside of it, and climbing in after her, guns still in hands.
Lea could not stop trembling, gasping, or sobbing. Wendell held her, and Devere and Harry quietly tolerated her completely predictable reaction.
When she could finally pose semi-coherent questions, she began, “You…you…knew???”
“It seemed likely, once we saw Lassiter and his men there,” Devere replied.
“Why…didn’t you warn me???”
“Because you would have panicked,” her husband told her. “We needed for you to act naturally, and not let on that we were prepared for them.”
Harry couldn’t resist asking her, “Weren’t you at all suspicious when Wendell put you on Mr. D.’s arm, and he and I disappeared?”
In a tiny voice, she confessed, “I just assumed that you two had gone to the bathroom.”
Harry’s brow quirked quizzically and humorously. “Together???”
“Sure,” she murmured, slightly discomfited by his amusement.
“Men don’t do that, Honey,” Wendell told her, trying not to smile.
Harry remarked to Devere, “Mr. L.’s not going to be pleased, now that we’ve rubbed out two of his men.”
Devere nodded. “He’ll be more determined next time.”
“We’ll be ready,” Wendell stated firmly.
“I think that I just have to cry for a while,” Lea sniffled.
Wendell cooperatively drew her head to his shoulder.
“You used my cousin as bait!” Buddy Overstreet bellowed at Wendell and Harry the next day, uncharacteristically heedless of any danger from the two of them.
“We did nothing of the kind!” Harry roared back at him.
Wendell tried for more diplomacy. “Look, kid, I understand that you’re upset….”
“You’re darn tootin’ I’m upset! You should’ve taken Lea out the back door with you!”
Harry observed him skeptically. “And then she would’ve held up Wendell and distracted him with innumerable questions, possibly screamed and alerted our assailants, and we could’ve lost the boss that way.”
“And I suppose that I should’ve then dragged her around front with me, to watch me open fire on our attackers?” Wendell posed dubiously. “As well as possibly put her in the line of fire if they’d shot back?”
“No no no!!! You could’ve left her by the back door!”
“For other possible assailants to grab her,” Harry suggested sarcastically. “We had no way of knowing for sure how many of Mr. L.’s goons there were, or where they all might be.”
Frustrated and desperate, Buddy shouted, “Well, then you could’ve left her inside the ballroom!”
“For another guy to grab and use as leverage against us,” pointed out Harry.
“Besides, leaving her inside until after the fireworks would’ve eliminated the chance of our quick getaway,” Wendell told him.
Buddy ran out of ideas, but still waved his arms helplessly. “How…how…why…?”
“Look, kid, these things happen. But we all got out of it all right. Believe me, the way that we handled it was the safest for all of us, including Lea.”
Dejectedly, Buddy scuffed his feet on the floor. “Did you know in advance that those…enemies…would be there??”
“No.” Wendell shook his head. “We have no way of knowing those things beforehand.”
“It’s not like we receive a guest list before each function,” responded Harry, trying at least a bit to minimize his sarcasm.
“Well, don’t take Lea anymore,” Buddy pleaded.
“That’s up to the boss,” Wendell reminded him firmly. “Besides, didn’t she tell you? She had a really good time up until the end.”
“Not worth the risk,” he mumbled sadly.
“All of life is risk,” Harry informed him sternly. “But, we took care of her, didn’t we?”
Buddy wandered away, shaking his head sadly. “All this because I went to a Turkish bath one day to relax.”
On one slow business day, Mr. Devere sat in the main office with two little one-year-old boys on his lap, while the rest of the adults marveled at the uncommon sight.
Junior remarked morosely, “I remember when you used to love me like that.”
Senior replied, “Yes, well that was when I still entertained the foolish notion that you would one day take over for me here, after I’m gone. But now I’ve placed my hopes in little Warren and Willis instead.”
Instantly, Wendell swelled with pride, and Lea faded in shock.
Unthinkingly, she blurted, “I don’t want my children raised to go into this business, let alone to run it.”
Wendell regarded her sharply. “Mr. D. is giving us the ultimate honor.”
Buddy gripped her arm. “Now do you see why I urged you, that day, to run??”
The instant that he saw the expressions on the faces of Devere, Wendell, and Harry, Buddy hastily amended, “And which I’ve never again urged at any time since, and never will!!”
The stern expressions gradually subsided.
Forcing cheerfulness, Mr. Devere said, “Don’t worry, my dear, the girls are all yours. You may even turn them into ballerinas, or something. We only want the boys.”
Pale as death, Lea pleaded, “Then, just don’t teach them to kill.”
Wendell’s swarthy features darkened further.
Devere lost his smile. “They have to be able to defend themselves. If we don’t teach them that, then they won’t last long.”
Lea studied the determined features of each mobster, including her husband, in turn, and then hung her head, and whispered, “Yes sir.”
The argument in Wendell’s and Lea’s apartment hours later was loud and nasty.
“Intimidating me into submission, as the three of you did, did not mean that I changed my mind!”
“How dare you disgrace me in front of the boss, and ruin my most shining professional moment?!”
“You want our children to be killers??!”
“I’m a killer!”
“Well then maybe you’d like to kill me!!”
“Keep on the way you’re going, and I’ll be ordered to!!!”
“Or maybe you’ll just want to!!!” Lea screamed in his face.
Wendell paused for a moment, his rage visibly growing as he stared at her. Then, he reached into his jacket, withdrew his gun, and took aim at her.
“Would you like to provoke me a bit more???” he dared her.
She forced her volume much lower. “In all the time we’ve known each other, you’ve never before pointed that at me.” Lea slowly backed away from Wendell.
He advanced just as slowly. “You’ve never given me so much of a reason until now.”
The door opened behind her, and Harry stepped into the room, his gun also drawn.
Lea whirled, saw, and screamed again, more shrilly.
“You were listening?” was Wendell’s nonaccusational question.
“It would’ve been hard not to hear; you two were so loud,” Harry replied. “It sounds to me like Lea needs a lesson in who’s in charge around here.”
“I was giving her one. Not that I object to your participation. It’ll make an even better impression on her.”
“I don’t know that ‘a lesson’ will be enough. I wonder if we can trust her in this business with the boys. Maternal instinct, and all that.”
“What are you suggesting?”
“That we should really shoot her.”
Lea folded helplessly to the floor between the men, and sobbed piteously. It was unfortunate for her that she hid her face and thus didn’t continue to maintain eye-contact with them; if she had, she might’ve caught the gestures and winks that passed between them. All that she knew instead was that she was rolled over to lie on her back, as the two squatted on either side of her, both guns aimed at her head.
Neither Wendell nor Harry had ever heard such pitiful crying or poignant begging. Harry would later tell Wendell that he’d had trouble keeping a straight face. Wendell would then admit that he’d had no such difficulty; his problem had been in banishing guilt from his expression, because he truly did love her.
Their ruse was interrupted abruptly, when two more people entered the room in response to the earlier racket. The first was Buddy Overstreet, who took one look at the scenario and promptly fainted. The second was Mr. Devere, who stared at the scene in perplexity.
Lea tugged timidly on Wendell’s sleeve, and at his look of inquiry, she implored, “Let…me…tell….”
He nodded for her to do the explaining.
Harry shrugged with a this-should-be-good expression.
Lea could barely talk, but she gazed up at the boss and managed haltingly, “Wendell…and I…had…an argument. Simply…an argument. Married people…do that.”
Devere was rueful. “I remember. Junior’s mother.” He shook his head. “It was why I had to kill her.”
Harry turned a guffaw into a quick cough, and Wendell looked sorry for Lea, as she covered her face with her hands and squealed in fright.
After a moment, Wendell nudged Lea to continue, but she peered at him through slightly-parted fingers and squeaked, “I’m doomed!”
She was so cute that he had to force himself not to smile and caress her.
Devere lightly prodded Buddy with the tip of his shoe, and inquired, “What’s with this one?”
“Fainted,” Wendell told him.
“Figures,” commented Devere. Then he continued, “Let me guess: Lea, this was about the two boys, right?”
She nodded meekly.
“All right, men: what was the worst thing she said?”
Wendell offered, “When she said that she hadn’t changed her mind just because we intimidated her.”
Harry shook his head vigorously. “No, the worst was when she dared you to shoot her!”
“I did not!” she whined, still hiding behind fingers.
Somehow, no one laughed. Wendell and Harry peeled her hands from her face.
“Well, Lea, do you intend to try to grab four babies and run?” Devere challenged her.
Her expression was too genuine to be faked. “That would be utterly ridiculous!!!”
Devere nodded, pleased so far. “Then, what do you propose as a solution here?”
Infinitely humbly, she implored, “Let the boys decide for themselves.”
Devere allowed himself to smile at her. “Which is all we could do in any event. That’s obviously what Junior did. We can’t force someone to take over, if he’s unwilling, or doesn’t have the necessary temperament.”
Lea lay gasping, and gazing back and forth between the two hit-men.
“Think she’s had enough?” Wendell inquired of Harry.
He feigned mild reluctance. “Yeah, I suppose she has.”
The two men holstered their guns.
Lea passed out cold.
She should have known that she’d never be able to keep anything from Wendell. Almost as soon as he returned to their apartment for the night, he noticed her distracted reticence. He pulled Lea from the kitchen, and sat her down on the sofa.
“I know that look,” he began. “Something’s got you preoccupied. Now what’s the matter?”
“Wendell, if….” She hesitated.
“Yeah?” he prompted.
“If I know something that….” Lea wouldn’t meet his eyes, and he instantly drew the wrong and dangerous conclusion.
“Something that you’re not supposed to know?” he demanded guardedly.
“No, no, nothing like that,” she assured him, and started again. “If I know something that I think that Mr. D. would just love to know….”
“Then you must tell him,” Wendell finished firmly.
“It’ll sure make me the bearer of bad news.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
“And it’ll get someone in trouble.”
His head rose, undaunted at the prospect. “We’ll handle it.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of. I don’t want to get anyone killed. But loyalty….”
“Yes, loyalty comes first. Now, this ‘someone’ who’ll get into trouble wouldn’t happen to be Buddy, would it?”
“Oh no! He’d never betray you guys! For one thing, he wouldn’t dare! And for another, he’s just not the sneaky type.”
“Then who is? Tell me about this first,” Wendell instructed.
He immediately took her to Mr. Devere.
“Frank Fullerton,” Lea told the boss, as Wendell and a hastily-summoned Harry sat by grimly. “I couldn’t imagine whom he was talking to on the phone. But I also couldn’t imagine any circumstances in which it would be right for him to tell anyone what he was telling. For him to be just discussing right out in the open a hit that Wendell and Harry had recently made! And on the phone like that! He didn’t see me or hear me; he had his back to me. I had gone to his office to turn in a report, but I stopped outside in the hall when I realized what he was saying.”
Devere’s eyes were coldly murderous as they met those of his two most trusted hit-men. “First thing in the morning. Take care of it. But find out who was on the other end of the phone first.”
“Will do, Mr. D.,” agreed Harry.
Later that evening, back in their apartment, Lea admitted to Wendell, “This is going to be hard on poor Buddy. I’m sure you’ve noticed that he and Frank have been playing checkers sometimes in the evenings.”
“He’ll have to get over it. Look, honey, I sympathize, but….”
“It’s just that Buddy doesn’t seem to fit in here as well as I do. Oh, he does his work well, but he’s still a little shy of you-all, and doesn’t make friends here easily.”
“Want my advice? Don’t tell your cousin about this until after it’s over.”
“Oh I wouldn’t! And I’ll never tell him that you and Harry have to get information out of Frank before you bump him off.”
Wendell couldn’t help chuckling. “You’re beginning to talk like us!”
She eyed him. “And I’ll also never ask you two how you’ll get the info out of him.”
“That’s my girl, squeamish to the last.”
She huffed at him.
The following evening, a woeful and perplexed Buddy Overstreet wandered restlessly in and out of the large rec room not far from the employee apartments. An uneasy Lea, well able to guess the nature of his difficulty, feigned ignorance, as a nearby Wendell and Harry pretended not to be listening.
“Something bothering you?”
“I can’t find Frank. We were supposed to play checkers tonight.”
“Umm, did you play last night?”
“Good.” Lea took a deep breath, and turned him to face her. “Because it was your last game.”
“Buddy, I’m so sorry. But Frank betrayed Mr. D.”
Buddy’s eyes rose past her and speared Wendell and Harry. “You didn’t!” he accused them.
They stared back silently, their expressions telling him all that he needed to know.
He lashed out, “And then you made my cousin be the one to tell me! That’s rather cowardly of you, isn’t it, you big brave killers?”
“Buddy, stop,” Lea insisted. “I was already involved. I’m the one that turned Frank in.”
“I’m the one that caught him, in his betrayal. I witnessed his incriminating phone call about a previous hit.”
“You turned someone in to be killed?? You??? After it almost happened to us a few times?? And Frank…!!”
“Look, I know he was your buddy, Buddy….” Lea looked momentarily confused at her own unintentional humor in the midst of a decidedly nonhumorous situation, as well as nonplussed that the two hit-men had to struggle to suppress grins at it. She shook her head and corrected herself, “I know he was your pal, Buddy, but you’ll find someone else to play checkers with.”
“Well…!” Buddy cast about for what to ask next, and how to react in his shock. “What did he do? Something like that Phyllis Haskett woman who tried to set us up that time??”
“No,” Wendell told him. “
Buddy was bewildered. “Why would a rival gang want to know about this gang’s hits???”
“That was just one detail that he was giving, the one that Lea heard,” Harry remarked. “He was reporting on all sorts of info about our organization.”
“You guys sure seem to have a lot of betrayers. Looks like a real morale problem. Maybe you should ask yourselves what you’re doing wrong.”
“No no no, all mobs keep tabs on each other like that. We can get everything from investment tips to law enforcement warnings that way.”
“So, …you guys try to enlist their underlings for info, in return???” Buddy was trying to understand.
“Sure. Everybody does.”
“What a corrupt business!”
Wendell stared as if he could hardly believe what he’d heard. “It’s the Syndicate, kid.” He tried not to laugh.
Buddy looked irked, but otherwise ignored that. “Well, what do guys like Frank get out of it? Why do they do it?? Why would they risk it???”
“Money, of course,” Wendell stated the obvious.
“He was on the take,” Harry educated the naïve fellow on the term.
Buddy looked rueful, but then turned on his cousin. “And you’ve bought into this lifestyle, hook, line, and sinker??? And now you’re the company snitch?!”
“Buddy!” Lea looked hurt. “I happened upon Frank by accident….”
“And you couldn’t just shut up about it?!!”
Wendell took an unpleasant step forward. “No. She couldn’t. And you’d better not, either, if you’re ever a witness.”
Automatically, Buddy appeared flustered, and backed down, both verbally and physically, as he backed into the nearest couch and sat, dropping his gaze. After a long while, he asked very softly, “Did you hurt him?”
“What?” Wendell demanded.
“Before you killed him. Did you hurt him?? For revenge, or to get details, or anything like that???”
Quickly, Lea turned her back, and Wendell and Harry regarded Buddy wordlessly. It was all the answer that he needed.
For days, Buddy kept to himself and avoided the three, so Lea and the two hit-men obligingly left him alone. But then one day in Mr. Devere’s office they cast about for ways to again bring the young man out of his shell. It was the boss himself who provided a suggestion: that they would all watch a movie together that evening. An unenthused Buddy obediently slunk into the room with the others, not because he had any interest in being there, but because it was the boss who had asked him. To wise Syndicate employees, the boss’ invitation was an order to be obeyed.
But it didn’t take long for all five to realize that it was a gangster movie. The boss and the hit-men were rueful, Lea was embarrassed, and Buddy was decidedly uncomfortable.
“Did you know that it was this kind of movie?” he asked plaintively.
“No,” said Devere. “An acquaintance only said that I’d relate to it.”
“Unfortunately, so do I.”
They each enjoyed or suffered to varying degrees through the excruciating parts, and after the end, an emotionally exhausted Buddy hastened to depart for his apartment. Lea sighed, the boss grinned lopsidedly, and Wendell and Harry exchanged shrugs, and said, “Maybe tomorrow.”
The next evening, Harry boldly approached Buddy and declared, “I feel like a game of checkers. Join me?”
A watching Lea held her breath as Buddy obviously weighed whether it was a command performance or a harmless invitation that he could get out of if he were tactful.
“Uh, yeah, okay,” was the answer for which he settled, and Harry pretended to be unaware of the extreme lack of enthusiasm.
After a bit, Lea and Wendell wandered exaggeratedly casually over to the pair, and Lea jauntily requested, “Mind if we…kibitz a bit?”
Buddy shrugged disinterestedly, and it was immediately clear why. Harry had king after king, and Buddy had lost most of his pieces.
Only minutes later, he gazed at Harry evenly. “You win, of course. You always win.” His glance took in Wendell who stood at Harry’s shoulder. “I never stand a chance.” With that, Buddy rose without another word and walked back in the direction of his apartment.
Lea rushed after him, and tried to block his path, but he looked down at her and stated, “With Frank, sometimes I won.”
Some days later, Wendell and Harry invited Lea and Buddy to ride with them on several harmless errands in a nearby town, to enjoy the springtime air, to admire the blooming flowers, and to hopefully lift the young man’s spirits.
It seemed to be working, until the final errand, in which they were to pick up an agent in the field at a specific establishment.
They were ten minutes ahead of schedule, and therefore early to make the pick-up. Harry had just commented that they might have to drive around the town streets for a few minutes until the employee emerged from his assignment.
However, one block too soon, Lea pointed. “Look, isn’t that Edgar right there???”
The hit-men glanced where she indicated, and then Harry almost shouted, “Driver, keep going! Around several blocks!”
“What is it; what’s wrong???” Lea cried out to Wendell.
“Did you see what building he was in? Well, let’s just say that that’s not where he was supposed to be.”
“If we let him know that we saw him there, or try to pick him up from there, he’ll run,” Harry informed her.
“So we’re giving him time to get back to where he knows he’s supposed to be, before we let him see that we’ve seen him,” concluded Wendell.
Lea gasped. “He’s another informant? A traitor like Frank?? That establishment belongs to an enemy???”
Buddy stared at her. “You’ve done it again.”
A thoroughly threatened and terrified Buddy made not a sound as the limousine accommodated the friendly and unsuspicious Edgar Wedgwood. He even managed not the slightest comment or expression as the limo drove out into the nearby desert. His expression only collapsed as Wendell and Harry dragged a screaming Edgar out of the car and several yards away from it. His hand only flattened against the window in despair as the hit-men pushed the victim prone. He only screamed on his own as Harry put a gun to Edgar’s head and pulled the trigger. Lea fought not to scream with him as Wendell and Harry pushed the corpse to roll into an abandoned well-shaft that the two Overstreets had not noticed until now, scarcely visible as it was from the road.
“Buddy! I guess I just stopped taking it personally for a while,” Lea confessed, anguished, clinging to him.
“You’re better off that way,” her cousin responded quietly, half-heartedly.
“Am I?” She didn’t sound so sure. Then she gasped slightly as the car door opened beside her.
Wendell and Harry climbed back inside and eyed the two who still clung to each other. Slowly, Lea and Buddy loosened their grip but Lea’s hand covered her mouth in horror as tears leaked around and among her splayed fingers.
She cried, “I’m torn between two very different worlds, Wendell; do you have any idea how painful this is for me??” as Buddy sagged beside her.
Wendell made no reply to that, and she dropped her eyes in restored timidity as he and Harry gazed back at her sternly.
Buddy couldn’t help asking the two hit-men, “Those times that we were in trouble with the boss: is that what you would’ve done to us???”
Wendell and Harry smiled slightly, undoubtedly thinking that the kid was asking something too obvious.
He stammered, “I…I mean….” His voice was breaking as he finished, “Just…roll us into a hole like that???” He choked back a sob on the word “hole.”
“Oh, that.” Now they understood.
“Yeah,” confirmed Wendell. “We have quite a collection down there by now.”
Harry was nodding.
Buddy was shaking his head in a mixture of horror and disgust. “Aren’t you afraid that the cops’ll catch on and find all that mess???”
Now both hit-men were grinning and shaking their heads confidently.
“I think you’ll find,” Wendell assured him, “that we, and even our kids, will die of old age long before anybody finds all of that. Look around! Basically, this is nowhere, and we’re right in the middle of it.”
“Well then, what’s a well-shaft doing out here all by itself in the middle of nowhere??”
Harry informed him, “This used to be a ‘ghost town,’ left over from the old West. But now, you can’t even find a tumble-weed, or for that matter two boards nailed together. An F4 tornado took the whole thing out decades ago.”
As Buddy still sat there sadly shaking his head, Wendell addressed Lea, “You’re awful quiet, honey. Are you feeling any better?”
His wife shrugged listlessly. Without looking up at him or Harry, she murmured, “Well, thanks for not…forcing information from him in front of us.”
“It wasn’t necessary,” Wendell answered flatly. At her affronted expression, he added somewhat hastily, “I’m glad it wasn’t necessary, …but it wasn’t.”
Harry clarified, “Edgar confessed all, willingly. He didn’t see any reason to make us any harder on him than we had to be.”
“Yeah, he absolutely babbled at us what he knew we’d want to know,” said Wendell.
Lea seemed to be struggling to explain, “I guess it’s one thing to know that you two shoot people, but it’s quite another to see you actually do it.”
“You could have looked away,” Wendell suggested gently.
“I…couldn’t. It felt impossible.”
“To me, too,” agreed Buddy.
“I understand,” offered Harry. “Like seeing the results of a car accident by the side of the road. You’re drawn to stare.”
“Yeah,” admitted Lea.
“Exactly,” chimed in Buddy.
For lack of anything else to say, Harry instructed, “Driver, let’s go home.”
During the ensuing weeks, Lea quickly returned to normal, but Buddy became more and more withdrawn. He avoided not only Wendell and Harry as much as possible, but even Lea, which troubled her greatly, which then annoyed the men. Finally when they felt that they’d had about enough of it, Wendell and Harry appeared in Buddy’s small office, and shut the door behind them.
Buddy looked up in some alarm. “What? What’s wrong?”
“You,” Harry responded rather flippantly.
“What did I do??”
When his two visitors stared back at him in incredulity, he drew the incorrect conclusion. “Am I in trouble???”
Before the younger fellow’s panic could rise, Wendell hastened to say, “Not in the way that you mean. But we do need to have a talk with you.”
Buddy eyed them warily as the two men seated themselves across the desk from him.
Wendell began, “You mentioned a morale problem around here. We think that you’re the morale problem.”
Buddy looked affronted.
“You avoid everyone. You hide yourself away either in here or in your apartment. You’re surly. I’d call that a problem. Wouldn’t you?”
Buddy lowered his gaze to his desk and left it there.
“Well?” he prompted.
“I don’t know what you want me to say.”
“We want you to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering you,” Harry interjected. “And don’t tell us that it’s just about Frank. You really didn’t know him all that well. You’d only just started socializing with him. You can’t go on this long over the loss of a casual acquaintance.”
Buddy sighed and fiddled with his pen.
“Come on, kid, spill it,” coaxed Wendell.
Buddy mumbled something.
“Speak up,” insisted Harry.
“I said I can’t tell you; you’ll get mad at me. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
Wendell withheld a sigh of his own. “Did you betray us, Mr. D., in any way?”
“No!” Buddy returned almost belligerently, finally raising his eyes to theirs.
“Okay. As long as it’s not that, you can tell us anything without getting into trouble. We need to get this resolved.”
“What if you get angry???”
“We’ll be lenient, tolerant.”
“This once,” Harry added significantly. “Now let’s have it.”
Though his gaze advertised his fear to trust, Buddy said softly but audibly, “I guess that I’m disappointed in Lea.”
Wendell sat up a little more rigidly, but he revealed no other reaction. “Go on,” he said evenly.
“When we first came here, we clung to each other. We were a unit, a partnership, a team. It was us against all you dangerous-types. We had only each other.”
“Until she married me,” Wendell surmised.
Buddy frowned in thought. “Okay, that bothered me at first, but Lea and I were still the only two vulnerable ones, your potential victims even then. Plus we shared the same values.”
“Like not killing,” offered Harry.
“Yeah, exactly. But now, after Frank and Edgar, I feel like I’ve lost my partner.”
Both hit-men appeared pensive.
Buddy corrected himself, “Or no, I guess not so much Edgar; that was almost an accident; Lea couldn’t’ve known the outcome when she just made a remark about, ‘Hey, isn’t that Edgar.’ But with Frank, what she did was premeditated; she knew he would be killed.”
“So now she’s our ‘accomplice’?” Harry was trying to submerge a smile.
“That’s right,” he confirmed flatly.
“And so where does that leave you?” Wendell led him.
“Alone. Lonely.” Buddy sagged. “She’s adapted and I haven’t. I feel abandoned. Left out. Isolated.”
Wendell sat up straighter. He speculated carefully, “It sounds more like you’re disappointed in yourself than disappointed in Lea. ‘She’s adapted and you haven’t.’ You even sound a little jealous: you feel ‘left out.’ Just because she adapted before you doesn’t mean that you never will.”
Buddy eyed him uneasily. “But in order to do that, I must become….”
“Evil?” Harry suggested. “Like us?”
“I…wasn’t going to put it that way.”
“But that was what you were thinking.”
Buddy cast about for words. “I...wasn’t raised that way. And neither was Lea.”
“And so now because Lea has changed, you feel alone, and lonely,” prompted Wendell.
“I don’t have any friends here. I do my work fine, but that’s all. And with Frank, as you pointed out, we were only just starting to really connect, …and now that’ll never happen. And so I figure, why bother? Who’ll you guys take away next?”
Wendell and Harry exchanged a look.
“Come on,” said Wendell, rising from his seat. “Let’s get out of here.”
Harry stood as well.
“Let’s go take a ride.”
“Where???” Panic entered his expression.
Wendell smiled. “We’re not taking you out into the middle of nowhere. You’ll be back. But come on with us. It’s nearly quitting time anyway.”
A very nervous Buddy obediently followed Wendell and Harry to their car.
This time, they didn’t bother with a chauffeur; Harry drove. The car was black, like all of the Syndicate’s cars, but it wasn’t a limousine; it was just a sedan.
Buddy asked anxiously, “Does Mr. Devere know that you’re taking me out like this??”
“Yeah. We discussed it with him before we even went to see you. We had a hunch what your problem was,” reported Wendell.
“Uh oh! Is he mad at me???”
Harry clarified, “He wants his organization to run smoothly.”
“Oh my! Is he saying anything to me like, ‘Cheer up or you’re dead’???”
They both laughed mildly. “Nothing that extreme.”
“Now, relax, will you? Enjoy the scenery.”
“It is a nice evening. And certainly, I don’t get out much. But where are you taking me??”
“It’s a surprise.”
Fortunately for Buddy’s nerves, the drive was brief. Fright gave way to bewilderment when he saw their destination. “You’ve brought me to a carnival???”
“Well, for one thing, I thought that I wasn’t allowed to go out among other people.”
“We’re with you,” Harry said as he parked the car.
“And you’ll behave yourself,” added Wendell.
“Well, yes, of course I will.”
“Come on, out. Let’s go.”
The three unlikely companions strolled leisurely amid the various booths and exhibits.
“The rides make me sick,” Buddy confessed.
“Why am I not surprised?” muttered Harry to Wendell, receiving a light dig in the ribs from his partner.
Buddy wisely but ruefully pretended not to hear or see.
Wendell spied something that intrigued him. “Here, kid, come here. Let’s try this.”
Buddy glanced dubiously at first, and then as he looked closer, his heart sank. “Oh no. I can’t do this!”
“Sure you can. Now watch; I’ll go first.” Wendell picked up the “toy gun” and took aim at the targets.
As he fired expertly and surely, Harry watched Buddy look on in desolation.
“So that’s why you two brought me here! I can’t shoot! Even like this! And I’ll be lousy at it, and you two’ll laugh at me!”
“We won’t laugh at you,” Harry told him.
Buddy’s doubt-filled gaze challenged Harry’s assertion.
Wendell, of course, had just won. “Let me have the little pink teddy bear,” he instructed the proprietor.
Now Buddy’s stare shifted to Wendell, and his eyes popped.
“For Lea,” Wendell told him, unperturbed. “Now, let’s win some more, for Wendy and Wanda. You go next.” He attempted to hand the “gun” to Buddy.
“Oh don’t make me do this! I’ll feel so silly doing this in front of you two! You’ll giggle at me, and dig each other in the ribs, and then probably pick on me later!”
“First,” Harry insisted with a straight face, “we don’t ‘giggle.’ Second….”
“Please don’t say that you won’t dig each other in the ribs; I saw that happen once already tonight.”
The two hit-men shared a slightly guilty look.
Wendell pushed the “gun” into Buddy’s hand. “Now look, they’re just little bulls’-eyes and little tin ducks. You’re not going to be hurting anything or anyone. Just little tin ducks. Now, come on.” He gently maneuvered Buddy into position, and showed him how to aim.
Buddy groaned and frowned, but he obeyed. And with Wendell’s tutelage, he actually won a second bear, though not as promptly and decisively as Wendell had.
Harry took a turn, and then they coaxed Buddy into taking a second turn. The three proceeded to almost exhaust the collection of bears.
Later, ambling back to the car, and somewhat overburdened, Buddy muttered, “Well, I guess if you two don’t feel silly wandering around with all these pink and blue and yellow bears in our arms, I shouldn’t feel silly shooting in front of you.”
“That’s the spirit.” Wendell’s voice was slightly muffled by synthetic fur.
Harry mumbled, “We’d considered taking you out to our shooting range, but we didn’t think you’d like it very much.”
“Thoughtful of you,” Buddy murmured dryly.
“Plus, we wouldn’t’ve gotten all these nice toys for the kids that way,” Harry added, turning his head to spit fur.
“But I still don’t get it,” Buddy complained. “Why teach me to shoot? I hope you don’t think that I’m going to be able to do your job.”
“Nope. We’re just being chummy.”
“But…you guys wouldn’t want me for a friend.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with you?” Harry asked bluntly.
Wendell put in, “Kid, you want friends that we won’t take out and shoot. Well, we’re not going to take out and shoot each other! And we’re utterly loyal to the boss, so he’s not going to have anyone else take us out.”
Harry opened the trunk. “Here, just dump them in the back.”
They did. Wendell then got back into the front with Harry, and Buddy resumed his place in the back seat.
During the ride home, Buddy pondered what they’d said to him, until he noticed the headlights boring through the back window. He began to realize that he’d been subliminally aware of them for some time.
“What’s that, kid?”
“Why are we being followed?”
“What!” Harry demanded sharply.
“It’s been back there for a long time, and I think it’s a black limo like some of your cars.”
Wendell uttered a word that slightly shocked Buddy, turned toward the rear, and pulled his gun. A real one.
“Oh god!” Buddy cried, and rolled to the floor.
A shot rang out, but not from Wendell. A tire blew, and the sedan careened as Harry fought for control. They wound up in a ditch.
“Out!” ordered Harry, as the limo braked in directly behind them.
All three burst from the sedan, and dashed for the heavy cover of the roadside greenery.
Buddy crouched as low as he could manage between the other two, as Wendell and Harry exchanged gunfire with the two men who had emerged from the limo.
“Mr. L.’s men; I’d bet on it,” commented Harry between shots.
“Still after us, ever since that party where they almost got the drop on us,” agreed Wendell.
“Just can’t forgive us for bumping off two of them that night.”
“They must’ve seen us at the carnival.”
“Must’ve gotten a lot of laughs, seeing us with all those bears.”
“How can you two carry on a conversation and shoot??” demanded an amazed and terrified Buddy from between them.
“Lots of practice, kid.” Just then Wendell emitted a muffled grunt. “I’m hit,” he said almost casually.
“What???” cried Buddy.
“Damn,” commented Harry.
“Blast it, he got me right in the shoulder. Arm’s numb. Can’t even hold the gun. Buddy come’ere.” Wendell’s functional – but inexpert – left arm grabbed Buddy by the shirt collar and dragged him to him. “Take my gun.”
“I can’t shoot left-handed, and my right’s useless. Take it.”
“I can’t do this!!!” He was shaking badly as his hand limply supported the weapon that Wendell had forced into it.
“Do it!” ordered Harry tensely. “You want to die here? Right beside us? There’re two of ‘em. I can’t get ‘em both.”
Wendell stared Buddy sternly in the eyes. “You can do this, kid. Little tin ducks.” His look told Buddy that he had confidence in him. “Tell yourself: just little tin ducks.”
Buddy’s first frantic shot went wild, but on his fourth, he got the one who had winged Wendell. And by that time, Harry had gotten the other one.
As the three struggled to calm – after Harry had verified that both enemies were dead – Wendell put a hand on Buddy’s back and declared, “You’ve just made two friends tonight…. Buddy.”
And Harry reached to shake his hand.
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