Potent Desire #5 by Teresa Wolf

4

Isabella

I’ve drifted in and out of a sleep state ever since I spoke with Oswald. My body is exhausted. But it won’t allow me to sleep, out of fear of what might happen if I do doze off. This time, Benjamin Winters is sitting beside the door, when my eyes open weakly. The dim shades of early evening are creeping into the bedroom. Benjamin’s reading a novel, from the spine I can see it’s Douglas Adams, but I can’t make out the title.

Benjamin’s been a part of the Braddock household for as long as I can remember. If I hadn’t known as much as I do about the three families, I would have assumed Benjamin was kin, rather than consigliere to Oswald. Is that even the right term anymore? Consigliere. My father traded traditional Italian titles for a modern style a long time ago. A right-hand man, that’s what Benjamin would be labeled now, as unoriginal as it sounds.

He doesn’t notice me right away, but an unstoppable cough catches his attention. Benjamin looks up from the book, dashing me the charming smile of someone more sympathetic to my situation than he ought to be. I can’t help but feel this will turn into one of Oswald’s games. I stay on guard, not defensive, because I’m too weak to fight, but mentally I need to stay strong.

“Miss Romani,” Benjamin says. He closes the book, setting it down on the floor beside his chair. “Or do you prefer Missus Braddock?”

My face scrunches up at the question. I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Not with everything that’s happened since the wedding. Missus Braddock does have a nice ring to it though. I guess I’m not much of a Romani, having been settled in Hannibal forever.

We really have disgraced our namesake.

Benjamin’s mention of my new name; Braddock, makes me think of him. Of Maddox. The man, who I know is doing all he can to find and save me from this torment.

A brief, yet heartwarming memory of Maddox’s reassuring smile sparks in my mind. Maybe it’s my fear of being trapped in this place that has me thinking about him constantly. Or maybe, it’s because I’d have missed him anyway, even if I’d managed to run away and get out without harm.

The more I dwell on it, the more I hope it’s the latter.

“Isabella, please,” I reply. Not wanting to make a decision like this on the spot.

“Isabella it is,” Benjamin says. “How are you feeling?”

“My head’s killing me. I’m a little nauseous. I’m sca…” I cut myself off before I say scared. If he’s here to intimidate me, I don’t want to fuel his fire.

“You don’t have to be scared,” Benjamin waves a hand. He leans back in his chair, rolling up the sleeves of his blue fleece sweater. “Between you and me, Oswald’s all bark and no bite on this one. I just hope Maddox doesn’t do something… silly.”

“Silly?”

“Men do strange things when the ones they love are in danger,” Benjamin chuckles.

The ones they love. My cheeks start burning, and they’re probably red as a lobster by now. So, he really does love me then? Not just for show and power? I suppose I knew it already, but hearing someone else say it solidifies the truth.

“I’d know. But let’s not talk about that. Would you like aspirin for your head? Toast for your nausea? They told me to keep an eye on you, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make things more pleasant,” Benjamin continues.

“No, it’ll pass. I think. I hope,” I reply adjusting my position in the bed with a few labored movements, until I’m sitting up and facing Benjamin properly. “I guess you’ve known Maddox a long time then. So, you’re a good judge of his character, I mean.”

“I’ve been around since before his birth. I got drawn into all this,” Benjamin waggled his hand towards the door. He meant the mafia and the life of crime in general, I gathered. “Through his mother, funnily enough. That’s not really right. We were friends once upon a time. She introduced me to Oswald and well, the rest, as they say, is history.”

“Is that right?” I felt a cheeky grin growing on my face. If Benjamin wanted to make this easier, why not do so by finding out more about the man I was married to? The man, I hoped was trying to save me. “Has Maddox always been like this? So… intense?”

“Yes and no.” Benjamin averted his eyes. “Once upon a time, Maddox was a boy. Just an average little guy, running around and playing with Action Man dolls, or whatever they played with back then. But Oswald, he’s got a way of corrupting people. Even the best.”

Benjamin sounded grim. “Oswald taught him how to shoot a gun at thirteen, and made him use it at sixteen. That’s when Maddox changed, and not for the better. However, when he speaks about you, Isabella, well, I see that little boy in the backyard again. Running so carelessly and free. If I had to hazard a guess, I might even say happy.”

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. It’s no one’s responsibility to be the source of happiness for another. And I know I shouldn’t feel bad for what I’ve done, especially trying to run off to find a better world than the one I live in.

But I do. Looking at Benjamin, I see his sorrow. He's practically sweating it out. Benjamin knows something I don’t, and it’s bothering me. Will asking bring answers I can’t stand to hear? Probably. But I don’t think that’s going to stop me.

“Then, why do you sound so worried?” I ask.

“As I said, men do foolish things for those they love. Especially our kind of men.”

Benjamin's getting uncomfortable with the hard topic. I can tell by his tensed-up posture, and his eyes, which are scanning the room awkwardly, trying to avoid mine. I don’t know if this is some game or trickery from Oswald Braddock or not, but in case it’s not, I don’t want to keep Benjamin strung out.

“How about you tell me some more about Maddox then?” I say. This is the best insight I’ll probably ever get. Maddox isn’t the type to share, at least without being pressed, so why not learn through a third party?

“What is it you’d like to know?” Benjamin asks, sitting forward in his chair. Eager to spill all the secrets of Maddox’s youth.

“How about we start at the very beginning?”

So, Benjamin does. From wetting the bed after watching Stephen King’s It to orchestrating his own play of Hamlet. Or rather the to be, or not to be scene from Hamlet. How he beat up bullies in the schoolyard who were trying to hurt his little brother and how he fought with the principal for siding with the little shit who punched Aaron. One thing I did pick up on, in every one of Benjamin’s stories, was that Maddox’s actions were selfless. Meant to entertain, or to help serve some greater cause.

Benjamin never passed the threshold of Maddox’s sixteenth birthday. That was the year it all changed and he became enmeshed in the very fabric of the life he now leads. He spoke of tragic circumstances that changed Maddox from a free spirit into the mafia’s monster. An oppressive father, in his most tender years, was all it took to change his foundation.

“He’s a good kid, Isabella,” Benjamin says, once he’s done telling stories of Maddox. And though, I don’t forget the fact that I’m a prisoner in Oswald’s home, these tales have helped me through the nightmare, somewhat. “And he’s a good man. I know this isn’t what you want…”

Isn’t it?

“But he’ll forever be there for you. That much I’m damned sure of,” Benjamin finishes. We share a smile.

By the time Benjamin’s done, there’s barely any light left in the room at all. He flicks a switch above his head, before getting up to draw the curtains closed. But now that we’ve gotten through the easy part, it’s time for one more question.

The hard question.

One that Benjamin can’t know the answer to, but probably has some insight to give.

“What’s going to happen tonight, Benjamin?” it leaves my lips reluctantly.

“Nothing good, I think.” Benjamin’s head drops forward. He lets out a long sigh. “We can only pray that the outcome is in your favor.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Let’s not dwell on the what if’s; let’s just try to stay positive. It’s the only way to get through whatever happens.”

And as if those words are some mystical command, all hell erupts around us. The first sign of it is a loud bang that echoes and reverberates through the expanse of Oswald’s property, followed by what seems to be a thousand more.

Benjamin drops to the ground, inspiring me to roll off the bed, as well. I wince in pain. My ribs hurt from the accident, and my head only thumps harder.

“Christ, it sounds like World War Three out there.” Benjamin turns to me.

“What’s going on?” I whisper. My breathing is shaky and rapid.

“The cavalry’s arrived,” he says.

The sound of multiple sets of tires screeching is audible between a brief pause of silence.

“Let’s give them hell,” I hear someone shout from outside the bedroom. Others are cheering excitedly. All ready to serve and die at their master’s side.

“We need to get you out of here. This room faces the street,” says Benjamin, starting a slow leopard crawl across the ground. I follow closely behind him.

Once more, reports from various weapons sound out. Some are single; pistols are my guess. Other steady streams of open fire ring out in short bursts. Some sort of machine gun, I presume. As soon as we reach the door, Benjamin’s worries come to fruition. A number of shots crash through the bedroom window, tearing through the bed.

I scream, ducking my head lower, and covering it with my hands.

That son of a bitch put me in this room to die. Oswald wanted the random spray through the window to hit me. The realization of my situation sets in deeper. I know Maddox is out there somewhere, fighting to save me, but what if I’m not meant to be saved? What if all I am is collateral damage in the grand scheme of this war, and this is my fate?

During another short pause in the gunfire, Benjamin gets up on his heels. He keeps his back pressed against the wall, making himself as small a target as possible. With an open door, he drops to his belly again and starts the leopard crawling all over.

We don’t speak. We just move. The house is alive with footsteps, men barking orders, some cheering, and of course, death. Those unlucky enough to be standing in front of the windows meet an untimely fate in the wildfire.

Eventually, the shooting starts again, and this time it doesn’t ease up. A constant stream of thunderous firing, on and on. My ears are ringing so loudly I almost can’t hear anything else. When we reach our destination, I have to focus on Benjamin’s lips to discern what he’s saying.

“We’re safe here,” I make out.

But we both soon realize that Benjamin is very mistaken.

The room is empty, apart from a large table running down the middle. It’s old, a dark brown wood, with a chair at the head, one at the foot, and two in the middle on each side. I don’t have much time to inspect it, however, as Oswald Braddock is sitting at the head of the table.

“Ah, Isabella, you made it.” he’s got a cigar in one hand, while the other lingers beneath the tabletop.

“If you’d please take a seat,” Oswald says, removing the hidden hand and exposing a pistol. Heckler and Koch – P30. The very same I learned to shoot with years ago.

How fitting it would be, to die from the only gun I’d ever fired.

“Oswald, what are you doing?” Benjamin says, getting up from his prone position. His hands are stretched out in front of him pleadingly, as he approaches Oswald.

“While you two were sharing stories of the good old days, I’ve been taking over this empire,” Oswald replies, pressing the end of the cigar between his teeth.

“This is madness. Maddox has thousands under his command. The Harrisons, the Slaters, the Romanis… they’ll all stand and fight for their King,” Benjamin says.

I get up, Oswald keeps the P30 fixed on me as I walk to my seat.

“Larry Slater was reduced to rubble a long time ago, and Quincy Harrison has never been a threat. You and the boy have called me a joke for years, taking land and growing my own little kingdom. Well, who’s laughing now? Huh?” Oswald takes the gun off me.

A breath of fresh air fills my lungs.

“Maddox won’t ease up,” Benjamin protests. “Not until Isabella’s safe.”

“Then he’ll die. A glorious death of fire and lead,” Oswald speaks through the side of his mouth, keeping the cigar clutched between his teeth. “Just like you.”

“What?” Is all Benjamin can get out.

Oswald doesn’t speak, just shifts the P30 to Benjamin’s belly with a turn of his wrist. He pulls the trigger with conviction. The distance Benjamin walked, put him only a few feet out from Oswald, making him a damned easy target.

“No,” I scream, jumping up from my chair. The gun is quickly trained back on me.

“Sit down, girl,” Oswald says, looking down at Benjamin, who is fighting to draw in oxygen.

“We’ve got a lot to discuss.” Oswald gets up, cautiously stepping over Benjamin, and walks to the door. He shuts it with a firm slap.

“A lot to discuss, indeed.”