Lucky_Ladybug (insaneladybug) wrote in 100songs,

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The Rockford Files - Ginger Townsend & Lou Trevino - #7 - I Survived You

Title: I'm Better Now, Despite You
Fandom: The Rockford Files (specifically, The Queen of Peru episode)
Characters: Ginger Townsend, Lou Trevino; OCs
Prompt: Table 3, Prompt #7 - I Survived You
Word Count: 8,118
Rating: K+/PG
Warnings/Spoilers: The fourth Cynthia story, so it heavily references the others.
Summary: Ginger and Lou are finally called to the London branch to meet with their former departmental head. But why?

By Lucky_Ladybug

It was strange to be back in London again, after so long. Or more to the point, it was strange to be at the London office of Fragmented Triangle after several years of not ever being sent there.

Lou gripped his briefcase, eyeing the reception area with unease. “I wonder why they wanted us this time,” he said, half-under his breath yet expecting Ginger to hear.

Ginger grunted. “It’s supposed to be a simple meeting with the departmental head we worked under when we were here last.” He looked around as well, noting with annoyance the absence of the receptionist.

“Yeah, I got that part.” Lou shifted his weight. “But doesn’t it seem weird to you that they suddenly want to see us when it seemed like they pretty much washed their hands of us before? I kind of figured that the London branch was disgusted at the knowledge they’d had international jewel thieves working for them for years, even though the L.A. branch didn’t seem to care about our pasts.”

Finally giving up on the receptionist coming back, Ginger simply headed for the elevator. “That was what we thought, but we never knew it to be true,” he pointed out. “It could easily enough be a complete coincidence that we were never sent here before now.”

Nervous and uneasy, Lou trailed after Ginger and followed him into the elevator when it opened. “I know that, but I’m not sure I believe that’s it.”

Ginger pressed the button for their old floor and let the doors close. “We’ll know soon enough.”

Lou turned to look at him with a start. “Ginger . . . you’re not gonna actually ask Mr. Benson about it, are you?!”

“Not in so many words. I was merely going to make the casual observation that it’s the first time we’ve been called here on business since beginning our work with the Los Angeles branch and see what he has to say in reply. Of course, that’s only if he doesn’t broach the subject himself.”

“I guess he might,” Lou said slowly. “He was never one to mince words. He’s a lot less permissive than Mr. Stanley. On the other hand, we never had to go on creepy and dangerous missions for the company under Mr. Benson.”

“Mr. Stanley is unorthodox in that regard. Most departmental heads would not send two of their graphics designers into such bizarre situations.”

Lou shifted his weight. There was something else that had definitely been on his mind ever since he had received the news that they were going to London. They both knew who worked at the London branch. But Ginger had not brought the subject up at all, so Lou had thought perhaps it was prudent to stay quiet about it. If Ginger wanted to discuss it, he would.

Ginger watched the doors like a hawk. When they opened, he stepped out and into the familiar corridor. If he felt any smidgen of nostalgia for their first office together, he gave no indication of it. Instead he walked in complete determination to Mr. Benson’s office door.

Again Lou followed, glancing at the walls in both fascination and anxiety. “They’ve changed a lot of stuff,” he remarked.

“What would you expect, after this many years have gone by?” Ginger said over his shoulder. “I would find it far more concerning if nothing had changed.”

“I guess it fits Mr. Benson too,” Lou mused. “He always liked to move forward with the times.”

“One thing is still the same,” Ginger announced. “His office is still in the same location.” He knocked on the door and then stepped back to wait.

“Maybe he’s not in,” Lou worried. “We couldn’t call up and find out if he was ready to see us.”

“He’s in,” Ginger replied in that far-away, vague voice, and Lou knew he had either heard the slightest sound or felt the smallest vibration through the floor that gave him that complete assurance. That was one of his other talents that made him almost cat-like at times.

Sure enough, the door opened. “Mr. Townsend. Mr. Trevino.” Mr. Benson looked to each in turn. Even with the light overhead reflecting off his glasses and concealing his eyes, he seemed pleased. “You’re here on time. Good.” He stepped out of the doorway while holding the object open. “Come in please.”

“Thank you, Sir,” Ginger said smoothly as he crossed the threshold.

“Yeah, thanks,” Lou echoed, unable to quell the wariness he still carried over this meeting.

Mr. Benson shut the door behind them. “It’s gratifying to see that in this ever-changing world, your partnership endures. You were always two of my best designers and you always did your best work together.”

“And now you want to utilize some of our ‘best work’ once more?” Ginger asked.

“In a manner of speaking. Gentlemen, be seated.” Mr. Benson gestured to the visitors’ chairs while crossing back to his desk and the soft leather chair behind it.

Lou quickly took a seat across from the desk. Ginger sat next to him, placing his briefcase on the empty chair next to him as he said, “We both find it interesting that we’ve been sent for after all this time. Not once has the London office required our services since we began work for the Los Angeles branch of the company.”

“You’ve also never been to our flagship branch in Domino City, Oregon, as I recall,” Mr. Benson replied without skipping a beat.

Lou blinked in surprise. “Well, yeah, I guess that’s technically true, but . . .”

“We never worked for the flagship branch, while we gave our services here for many years,” Ginger supplied.

“And now you want an explanation. Alright, I’ll give you one.” Mr. Benson sat down, lacing his fingers in front of him on his desk. “I won’t deny that I was furious when I learned what the two of you had been doing during much of the time you were working here. I couldn’t abide that going on right under my nose.”

“We don’t blame you in the least,” Ginger said. “We were bloody idiotic and bloody cheeky to carry on in our illegal activities while working for you.”

“And you still have very little respect for when you are and when you are not in the right company to be free with your language,” Mr. Benson said.

“Hey, that’s not true,” Lou protested. “Ginger watches himself when he thinks it’s necessary. He doesn’t talk like that around clients or kids.”

Mr. Benson shot him a cool look before turning back to Ginger and continuing, “When I heard the Los Angeles branch wanted the two of you to get out of prison early and work for them, I strenuously voiced my objections. It went right to the top in Domino City. The company president himself overturned my objections and allowed the Los Angeles branch to offer you your second chance. Ever since then, I have been monitoring your progress from here.”

“To see if we would fail?” Ginger supplied.

“Partially,” Mr. Benson admitted. “But also to see if you would succeed. And quite frankly, I am impressed. You were both highly coveted at the Los Angeles branch, so much so that they petitioned for your early release from prison. Whether or not it was deserved, I can’t deny that it was fruitful for the company. And in the end, that is really the most important thing.” He got up from the desk. “I think it’s time that you started coming here on business trips. There are certainly things you could teach some of our newer designers.”

Ginger gave a cool nod, even as Lou gawked in surprise. “And when do you want us to start these training exercises?”

“While you’re here this time,” Mr. Benson answered. “There’s no time like the present, as they say. I’ve already arranged for the designers to meet tonight in one of the conference rooms for a seminar.”

“And you already told them we would be hosting, I take it,” Ginger said.

“I was sure I could get you to agree,” Mr. Benson nodded.

Ginger looked to Lou, who shrugged in his surprise and awkwardness over the situation. “You likely will,” Ginger said. “But we would like to discuss the matter in private first.”

“I expected that.” Mr. Benson headed for the door. “You may use my office. You have fifteen minutes.”

Lou made a face as soon as he was gone. “Wow. Was he this stingy and commanding before and I just don’t remember?”

“He was largely this way,” Ginger replied. “But I think he’s treating us even more rigidly now because of our status as ex-convicts.”

Lou sighed. “Well, I’m game for it if you are. But what the heck do we even teach them on the spur of the moment?!”

“We’ll need to find out in which areas they are deficient and focus there,” Ginger said, “unless they each need help in a different area. Then we would have to simply start at the beginning.” He clicked open his briefcase to look through the materials he had brought with him.

“Should I call Mr. Benson back in then and tell him we’ll do it?” Lou asked.

“Yes,” Ginger said. “But mention we need to know exactly what he wants us to speak about. And we will need time to retrieve relevant files for the demonstration. I doubt we’ll have time to make new ones.”

Lou nodded. “Okay.” He got up and opened the door. “Mr. Benson?” He looked to their former boss at the water cooler. “We’re in.”

“Good.” Mr. Benson gave a brusque yet pleased nod. He came over to Lou, water cup in hand. “Of course you will need to know the topic for your seminar tonight.”

“Yeah, we will,” Lou said, “and time to put it together.”

“I’ve tried to gather everyone together who is struggling with a particular aspect of graphics design,” Mr. Benson said as he walked past Lou into the office. “Each seminar will be on one of these problem areas and everyone in need of attendance will be at their specific conference.”

Ginger looked up from the briefcase. “Just how long are you planning we’ll be staying? We have work back in Los Angeles.”

“These seminars will run through the weekend,” Mr. Benson said. “If you return on Monday, that will be alright, won’t it?”

“Yes,” Ginger said coolly. “Although we would have liked to have had more advance notice for all of this.”

“A good employee should be able to pull something worthwhile together in a limited amount of time,” Mr. Benson informed him. “Consider this another test of your skills, this time with me in charge of the audition.”

Ginger shut the briefcase with a snap and stood. “And exactly what are we auditioning for?” he demanded. “Do you want us back?”

Lou started in shock. In wide-eyed amazement he looked from Ginger to Mr. Benson, who met Ginger’s piercing gaze without flinching or batting an eye.

“If you can teach our new designers the same skills as you have, we won’t need you back,” Mr. Benson flatly told him. “Once I saw how the Los Angeles branch has flourished with you to guide it, the board and I began strongly considering requesting your transfer back to London as soon as you are allowed to move away. But it might be just as beneficial, or moreso, to us for you to simply imbue our current staff with your knowledge.”

“And are we supposed to teach your new designers perfect camaraderie as well?” Ginger shot back. “That can rarely be taught; it simply happens over time. And you said yourself that that is part of the reason why Lou and I perform so exceptionally.”

“I am aware of that,” Mr. Benson nodded. “But I’m sure that they can and will develop it for the good of the company.” Without giving either of them the chance to reply, he went back to his desk and sat down. “Here is the schedule for this weekend’s seminars, including the topics for each.” He handed the folder to Lou. “I will see you both tonight.”

“Yes, you will.” Ginger headed for the door, his overcoat sweeping past the desk and the visitors’ chairs.

Shaking himself out of his daze, Lou followed. At the door he turned back and said, “Hey, you should know that people can’t just make friendships to help a company or for any other reason. Friendships grow over time; you can’t artificially create them or force them to happen. If you put pressure like that on your designers, you’ll only make everything worse!”

“Good day, Mr. Trevino,” Mr. Benson retorted.

Ginger stepped into the hall and looked back, his expression both questioning and final. Still stunned and somewhat annoyed, Lou finally stepped out as well and pulled the door shut behind him. “What the heck is he thinking?!” he exclaimed to Ginger.

“There is nothing we can do about what he thinks,” Ginger said. He walked briskly towards the elevator, eager to leave and return to their hotel room to plan the evening’s seminar in peace.

“I know, but that’s just nuts if he thinks he can make the designers form friendships that will be anything like ours!” Lou exclaimed. “And what if he really does decide the only solution is for us to come back?”

Ginger pressed the elevator button and stepped back. “We have the right to refuse. So does Mr. Stanley.”

Lou bit his lip. “Would you refuse, though?” he asked quietly. “I know you’ve wanted to move back here.”

Ginger fell silent. He waited until the elevator arrived and they were both on it, alone, before he spoke again. “Perhaps the real question is whether either of us would want to have Mr. Benson as our employer again. He is rigid and focused on logic, yet he is illogical in the matter of feelings. But we wouldn’t have to go on dangerous assignments. Mr. Stanley is more relaxed and open-minded, but fond of sending us into disaster.”

“Well, he’s tried not to lately,” Lou said slowly. “Our business trips seem to get weird in any case, though.”

“Which is another point,” Ginger nodded. “Would that stop if we were once again based in Europe?”

Lou rubbed the back of his neck. “I think another question we have to ask is if we’d be able to deal with working at the same company branch as Cynthia.” He spoke quietly, knowing Ginger didn’t want to talk about her yet feeling it was unavoidable now.

The tension in the small space was felt immediately. “Yes, that is another question.” The elevator stopped and Ginger strode out, heading for the doors.

Lou chased after him. “Ginger, I’m sorry,” he said, sadness lacing his voice. “I didn’t want to bring her up. But she still works here as far as I know.”

“It is an issue that we would have to face sooner or later in any discussion about moving here,” Ginger said matter-of-factly. He paused at the front doors. “The truth is that if we are to leave Los Angeles, I would rather move to New York.”

Lou stopped walking and stared at him. “You’ve always said you wanted to come back here,” he said in amazement.

“Yes, because it’s familiar to me. But I have no loved ones here anymore. In New York, you could be around your parents.” Ginger gripped the door as he pushed it open. “That would be more important to me than being in the land of my childhood.”

Lou processed that and started to smile, deeply moved. “So we’re decided then?”

“As far as I’m concerned.” Ginger stepped onto the sidewalk outside the building. “I do not want to move back here anymore. I do not want Mr. Benson as our employer again. And I do not want to work in the same building as Cynthia.”

No sooner had he finished speaking than a gunshot went off several yards away from them and a terrified Cynthia practically flew around the corner and up the stairs into Ginger’s arms. “He’s after me!” she cried. “Oh please, Ginger. Help me!”

Stunned beyond belief, Ginger stared at her and then in the direction of the shot. “Are you sure?” he snapped.

A second shot went off just as Lou moved to haul open the heavy door again. It went through the glass right next to him and he jumped back with a start.

“Yes!” Cynthia wailed. “Ginger . . . !”

Ginger threw open the other door and stormed inside, half-dragging Cynthia with him. Alarmed and badly shaken, Lou followed them into the lobby.

Ginger didn’t skip a beat in between letting go of Cynthia, storming across the room, and picking up the phone to dial the police. By the time he was assured a car was on its way, the shots had stopped. Apparently the shooter didn’t want to follow Cynthia into the building.

“Thank you,” Cynthia said quietly. She had composed herself by now and seemed to be fully aware of the awkwardness of their situation. Instead of meeting Ginger’s gaze, she gripped her purse and looked away.

Ginger folded his arms and leaned against the receptionist’s desk. “What is this?” he demanded. “You’re being sniped at for some bizarre reason. What could you have possibly done to anger someone so much?”

“Did you betray or use anyone else lately?” Lou muttered under his breath. When Cynthia flinched, he knew she’d heard.

Ginger decided to make it clear that he had heard as well. “Speaking of using people, you ran right to me and showed no surprise that I was there. Were you expecting I’d be there?”

“Hey, yeah,” Lou realized. “You probably heard Mr. Benson was sending for us!”

“No,” Cynthia insisted. “Mr. Benson rarely tells anyone what he’s going to do, unless they’re on the board. I was panicked, I saw Ginger, and I just ran to him. I assumed he was here on business, but I honestly didn’t care at the moment. I just wanted his help!”

“I didn’t do anything you couldn’t have done yourself,” Ginger snapped. “And you haven’t told us why you are suddenly someone’s prize target.”

“I don’t know!” Cynthia threw up her hands and began pacing the floor. “I suppose I must have seen something important, but I can’t imagine what it was. Alternately, maybe someone just mistook me for someone else.”

“It’s also possible that Lou’s on to something,” Ginger said, pushing away from the desk. “You seem to think I’m good for it any time it’s suddenly convenient for you to have me around. If you treated someone else like that as well, they might not be as calm about it as I’ve been.”

That brought a frown. “I wouldn’t exactly say you were calm about it at all,” Cynthia retorted. “You were very angry when I showed up on your doorstep.”

“I had a right to be!” Ginger snarled, his eyes flashing. “I was willing to be used just once, when we thought your husband might actually be in danger. But I wasn’t going to put up with you pond-hopping to our house and thinking I’d help you out of a bloody foolish argument with him!”

“Especially when you just keep on insisting that Ginger is a crummy person and you’re scared of him,” Lou said in disgust. “See, Ginger realized that you know he’s a good guy, no matter how much you say it’s some amazing revelation to you. If you didn’t know it, you wouldn’t keep bothering him and think he’ll actually do something about your problems.”

That reached her. She turned away, but not before Ginger caught the guilt flickering in her eyes. “I am afraid of Ginger,” she said. “But of course you’re right; I know he’s a good person. I never would have turned to him in the past if I hadn’t known that. Today, however, I honestly wasn’t expecting to see him. I just ran to him because I knew him. I would have run to anyone from the company, had they appeared at the door.”

“And for all you know, maybe one or more of them is behind this,” Ginger frowned.

“They wouldn’t have any reason to kill me!” Cynthia said in dismay. “They’re not violent by nature!”

Lou bristled at that. “You know, I wonder what you’ll think if you find out you trusted them and they didn’t deserve your trust. Just because someone’s got a violent streak doesn’t mean they’ll ever hurt you. And just because they seem peaceful doesn’t mean they won’t.”

“Alright.” Ginger stepped forward, getting between Lou and Cynthia. While touched as always by Lou’s spirited defenses of him, it was getting them nowhere. “The police are going to be here any moment and you can tell all of this to them. But for now, just tell us when this started.”

“Two weeks ago,” Cynthia quietly admitted. “It started with telephone calls. They were always very crude and very sickening, asking me what I was doing or what I was wearing and telling me I should start planning my burial shroud or making out my will. Then the brake line was cut on my car. I only caught it because I dropped my keys and I saw the fluid leaking out when I bent to retrieve them. This is the first time I’ve actually been sniped at, but Bill thought something like this might happen eventually.”

“Then whatever happened to start this was most likely right before they started terrorizing you. They wouldn’t let a lot of time go by before commencing their war on you.” Ginger looked at her hard. “You will have to start wracking your mind for what it could have been.”

“I have been!” Cynthia exclaimed. “Nothing is coming to me. It has to be something I don’t know I know!”

“Well, keep trying,” Ginger said gruffly. “Here are the police now. They will prod you about it as well.”

“Ginger . . .” Cynthia touched his arm, causing him to flinch and Lou to regard her in disgust. “Are you going to stay?”

“We will make our statements,” Ginger replied, “but the police are better equipped to handle this matter than we are. You will be in good hands with them.”

Cynthia frowned and moved away. “If it was Lou in danger, you would never just leave it up to the police. You would want to be involved yourself.”

“Because Lou is my family and he has never spurned me,” Ginger said coolly.

“You know, it says in the Bible that if you only love those who love you, you don’t have a reward since that doesn’t take any effort.”

Lou’s jaw dropped. Ginger’s eyes flashed. He had had more than enough. “Don’t you dare try to guilt me into this!” he snarled. “That was always the entire problem—I loved you and you didn’t love me! I was never good enough for you, even when I gave my all to see you safe! Now you have the gall to ask for my help when you don’t appreciate the lengths to which I have gone to when I give it?!” As the door opened and the police officers came in, he lowered his voice and added darkly, “I wonder what it would say in the Bible about those who don’t love those who love them and hypocritically try to place all the blame on them because they don’t want them around unless they can milk them for all they’re worth.”

Cynthia had no chance to reply. But Lou had a very bad feeling that once again, she had worked her way back into Ginger’s life through her callous and selfish behavior.

They were delayed for some time making their statements to the police and informing Mr. Benson of what had happened. By the time Ginger and Lou returned to their hotel room to desperately plan for a seminar that was now only two hours away, Ginger was most thoroughly not in the mood to deal with it.

Lou watched him sadly over the top of his laptop. “Come on, Ginger,” he pleaded. “We’ve gotta do this when Mr. Benson threw it on us. And I need some help here on figuring it out.”

Ginger stopped pacing and looked to him. “I gathered the files I thought would be the most helpful,” he said. “I’ll plan out exactly what to say when we’re there. It sounds so bloody stiff to write out every word beforehand.”

“Ginger . . .” Lou got up and walked over to him. “You don’t really believe what Cynthia said, do you?”

“No,” Ginger grunted. “But I do still care about her and I don’t want her killed by some mad sniper. I can’t decide whether to leave it to the police or to get involved myself.”

Lou laid his hands on Ginger’s shoulders. “You don’t owe her anything,” he said firmly. “She showed she doesn’t want your friendship unless she has an immediate need for you to do something for her.”

“Yes. She doesn’t love me. She probably never did. But does that mean I should walk away from this problem?” Ginger gripped his arms.

“The police will handle it just fine,” Lou insisted.

Ginger looked to him. “It’s odd,” he remarked. “In the past you seemed more of the mind to convince me to help, or at least, you wanted me to be aware that I would want to.”

“In the past it was her husband in danger and she didn’t want to call the police,” Lou said. “And now I don’t need to make sure you know you have enough of a heart to want to help. You know that much.” He hesitated. “I’ll support you in whatever you decide.”

Ginger frowned. “I have no right to put you in danger. We’re in trouble enough without adding to it unnecessarily.”

“It’s okay with me if you decide against getting involved,” Lou insisted. “But Ginger? Don’t decide not to just because of me.”

Ginger gave a weary sigh and walked over to the table where he had set up his laptop. “What if someone such as that twit what always insulted you suddenly came out of the woodwork and wanted your help? Would you give it?”

Lou blew out his breath. “I don’t know,” he admitted. He sank into his chair before continuing, “I guess it would depend on the circumstances and if he had the police involved too and that kind of thing.” He rubbed his forehead. “I honestly wouldn’t want to help him if he had the police there. It wouldn’t seem necessary. But maybe I only feel like that because I don’t want to associate with him and don’t want him thinking he’s got an excuse to come around using me like Cynthia does to you. If it was you in trouble, I sure as heck would get involved whether the police were investigating or not.”

“And that is the dilemma,” Ginger grunted, propping himself up on an elbow. “Do we have some close-knit clique that no one else can get aboard?”

“That’s not it at all,” Lou said firmly. “Sure, we have a friendship that no one else has, but like I told you, every friendship is different. And we shouldn’t have to feel like we have to help people who are just using us over and over, especially if the police are already involved. Yeah, it says in the Bible that we should love our enemies and pray for them and turn the other cheek and all that, but I’m pretty sure it also says somewhere that we shouldn’t just be doormats or let people use us. That’s an unhealthy relationship. We can’t even function right if we go in for that.”

“You’re right, of course,” Ginger acknowledged. “I know and believe that as well.”

“Not to mention that in this case, Mr. Benson’s got us committed with work for the whole weekend,” Lou groaned, looking back to the half-finished PowerPoint presentation on his laptop.

“And I am very tempted to tell him to shove it,” Ginger growled. “He had no right to force this on us without giving us fair warning. His excuse was bloody preposterous. I doubt that anyone in the Los Angeles branch would sustain his reasoning.”

“No kidding.” Lou maximized the document with the notes he had hurriedly typed out for that night’s presentation.

Knowing that he really did need to do more for his part of it, Ginger turned back to his laptop as well. “We have helped strangers in trouble when they have crossed paths with us,” he remarked.

“Usually because we get pulled into it and because there isn’t anybody else to help out,” Lou said.

“Point.” Ginger typed for a moment, crafting descriptions of each of the files he had selected.

“Ginger . . .” Lou leaned back and looked over at his friend. “Are you worried about helping because you really think we could do something the police can’t . . . or because you’re worried about being a good friend?”

Ginger scowled. “I don’t owe her anything. We are not friends anymore.”

“I know that,” Lou said kindly. “But maybe you don’t want her to have any reason to think that you really are as low as she’s thought you are?”

“Maybe I don’t,” Ginger frowned. “I don’t care what most people think of me, but when it comes to someone who meant a great deal to me, yes, I still care. If I give in to those feelings, though, I’m just allowing myself to be manipulated and used, and she will think all the more that she can come to me whenever she wants to.”

“And she’s really crummy to pull that kind of a card on you,” Lou said in disgust. “You have every right to refuse to give in when she really does have other people to turn to. She doesn’t need you. I don’t get why she would even try to get you to help her, unless she just has some sick fetish about keeping you under her little finger.”

“I’ve given up trying to understand her mindset. But I will admit that it seems this is tied up with her feelings towards me. No matter how much she says she knows I’m a good person, she obviously is still disgusted and repulsed by me. She wants me to feel guilt. And I shouldn’t have to; I didn’t do anything wrong!” Ginger slammed his hand on the desk.

“You sure didn’t, where she’s concerned.” Lou got up, angry at how Cynthia was still hurting Ginger all these years later.

“I did what I felt was right in every situation involving her. I protected her as a child, allowed her to interview me about the company, went with you to find her husband, and refused to let her use me when she wasn’t strong enough to deal with her husband’s assessment of her and wanted to see how she would feel coming around me instead. And I don’t want her to use me again now. Wait.” Ginger turned around to face Lou. “When she interviewed me, it was to find out how the Los Angeles branch was faring with us aboard, wasn’t it?”

“Something like that,” Lou agreed.

“And that was the type of information Mr. Benson was relying on. What if she was reporting directly to him?” Ginger’s eyes flashed as he considered this new possibility. “What if she was more closely involved with him than we thought? What if . . .”

“Mr. Benson got us out here because she wanted us involved in this mess of hers?” Lou finished in shock.

“I know it doesn’t sound logical,” Ginger growled. “Mr. Benson is not driven by emotion at all, or so it seems. And maybe there’s another explanation for this, if there is a connection. In any case, isn’t it an odd coincidence that the exact weekend he chooses for these seminars is right in the middle of Cynthia being stalked by some bloody madman?”

“Yeah, it is.” Lou stormed to the door. “He had to know about it! And I think we should go back over there and confront him before we do any more work for this mess he got us into.”

“I agree.” Ginger got up and brought his laptop with him. “But we should take these in case we still have to put on a show tonight.”

Scowling, Lou came back over and collected his laptop as well.

Mr. Benson was still in his office when they returned to the company building. “Well, Gentlemen, have you completed your first assignment?” he greeted, just as though they hadn’t met an hour previous with the news of Cynthia’s sniper.

“No, we have not,” Ginger said flatly. “It occurred to us both that it’s rather odd how you summoned us here during this difficult time in Cynthia’s life.”

“Do you really believe that would matter to me?” Mr. Benson retorted.

“Yes, if it was also part of our test,” Ginger said. “Perhaps you decided to see what we would put our minds to—Cynthia’s problem or your seminars.”

Lou looked to Ginger with a start. “That would be really cold,” he exclaimed.

“But effective,” Mr. Benson smoothly answered. “It’s the ultimate determination of how you perform under pressure. I know all about your falling out with that woman when you were children, Mr. Townsend. And I know that she has re-entered your life several times, once on my orders and twice more on her own. Each time, she had been less and less welcome by you.”

“Because she was using him!” Lou spat. “And because he’s tried to move on from the past and she keeps dragging him back!”

Ginger held up a hand to silence Lou. “How did you know anything of our past?” he demanded. “Did she tell you?”

“Yes, when I first assigned her to go to Los Angeles and find out how that company branch was doing,” Mr. Benson answered. “She came to me and pleaded for a different assignment and cited her problems with you. But personal problems are no reason to forfeit a given order in the workplace. I refused to revoke her assignment.”

“You’re all heart,” Lou snarled. “So you’re the one who really opened up this nightmare for Ginger all over again! If it hadn’t been for you, Cynthia probably never would have seen him again and she wouldn’t have decided to keep on seeing him again!”

Mr. Benson shrugged, unaffected. “It was a test of Mr. Townsend and you, as well as his former friend. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it?”

“We’re bloody well not coming to work for this branch again, even when we can move away from Los Angeles,” Ginger shot back. “And now what we’d like to know is, did you just take advantage of a situation that was already in progress or did you set it up on purpose as the last phase of Cynthia’s test as well as ours?”

Lou stared. “You think maybe Mr. Benson is behind the stalking and the attempts on Cynthia’s life?!”

“Of course, if he is, he never meant for her to be physically harmed,” Ginger said coolly. “He just wanted to see how she would react under such pressure. He wanted to see if she would put the company first.”

Mr. Benson leaned back. “And if I possibly was responsible, even for that reason, I would be a fool to tell you. I will not confess to or deny such a charge.”

“And by not denying it, you only make yourself look more guilty,” Ginger growled. “As deeply as Cynthia hurt me, she doesn’t deserve this sort of psychological warfare from her employer. She has always been thoughtless and shallow in her cruelty. This sort of attack would be very deliberately and coldly done.”

A knock on the door brought all of them to attention. “Come in,” Mr. Benson called.

The door opened and Cynthia stood there, folders gathered in her arms. Her skin was sheet-white. “Mr. Benson,” she gasped. “Ginger . . .”

“How much did you overhear of that, my dear?” Mr. Benson asked, completely unruffled.

Lou nearly choked. “My dear?!”

Cynthia shook her head. “He doesn’t mean anything by it,” she said weakly. “Just as you didn’t mean anything by frightening me half to death the last couple of weeks?!” She stared at Mr. Benson with shaken, accusing eyes.

“If I was behind it, yes, I wouldn’t have meant anything by it other than to test your determination to stick with your work in spite of it,” Mr. Benson replied, his tone still smooth and cool. “But as I told your former friend and his friend, I will not make any such admission.”

“The only reason not to is if you actually were doing it!” Cynthia cried. With that she spun around, fleeing towards the elevators. One folder fell from her grasp as she ran, but she didn’t stop to pick it up.

“Excitable woman.” Mr. Benson looked to Ginger and Lou. “Now, about those seminars . . .”

Ginger fixed him with a cold look. “Your designers are guiltless and shouldn’t be punished because we can’t stand the sight of you. We will handle your seminars for their sakes, but then we are leaving.”

Lou gave a firm nod. “And as long as you have anything to do with this department, we’re not coming back.”

“Rather gallant of you, considering neither of you can stand her,” Mr. Benson mused.

“It’s not specifically about Cynthia,” Ginger retorted. “It’s about you using people. Actually, the two of you make a bloody good pair. You used us by getting us out here to train your designers without even telling us first, and even worse, by deliberately setting us up to run into Cynthia. You used Cynthia by terrorizing her for the last fortnight and making her think someone was out to get her. I am going to recommend that you be given a psychiatric evaluation before you continue in your current position any longer.”

“And I’ll second it!” Lou exclaimed. “You’re not fit to run any department when you do it like this!”

“Of course that is how you in your unenlightened states would react,” Mr. Benson replied. “The board felt the same as you. I am ahead of my time.”

“You’re starting to sound like a mad scientist creep and her students,” Lou said in disgust.

Ginger spun around to head for the door, not about to linger any more when it was now clear what kind of person they were dealing with. Lou looked back at Mr. Benson, not sure if it was safe to turn their backs on him. But he merely watched Ginger heading for the door and made no move to stop him. Lou finally scooted out with him.

“Oh man,” he gasped as the door closed behind them. “What the heck?!”

“What I’m wondering is why the board didn’t do something when he first started talking like this,” Ginger growled. He gripped his briefcase on the walk to the elevator.

“Maybe they didn’t believe he’d really go through with it?” Lou suggested.

“Perhaps,” Ginger grunted. “We need to inform them of what he’s done and see that he gets a psychiatric evaluation, just as I vowed.” He paused, noticing the fallen folder on the floor. Without a word, he bent and picked it up.

“Are you going to give that back to Cynthia?” Lou wondered.

“I suppose, if I run into her.” Ginger frowned at it. “I don’t particularly want to go out of my way to find her. She will surely realize she dropped something and come back for it.”

Lou reached and pressed the elevator button, since Ginger’s hands were full. “It’s too bad she couldn’t realize that she’s been using you like Mr. Benson was using her,” he said angrily.

“The problem is, she does realize and she does it anyway.” Ginger stepped into the elevator when it opened. “She’s admitted it more than once.”

“That’s true.” Lou followed him in and hit the ground floor button. “I guess what I really mean is, it’d be great if she realizes how awful it feels now and that would cause her to stop doing it.”

“I won’t hold my breath.” Ginger glowered at the wall, not facing Lou.

Lou had to sigh, sadly. “Yeah. I won’t either.”

It gave him a slight start when the elevator doors opened on the ground floor and Cynthia was standing there, pressing the button. Ginger did not react. Instead he stepped out, still silent, and thrust the folder at her.

“. . . Thank you,” she said in some surprise as she took it.

Ginger gave a curt nod. “Your problems should stop now,” he said. “We will see that Mr. Benson is taken in for psychiatric evaluation before we leave London.”

“I knew I could count on you, Ginger,” Cynthia declared.

“We weren’t specifically trying to solve your problem,” Ginger said flatly. “Mr. Benson was causing us problems as well. Then it occurred to me that he just might be at the heart of your torment. Since we were already questioning him about our problems, I decided to also inquire about yours.”

“Well, it means a lot anyway,” Cynthia said.

“I’m sure,” Ginger grunted. “Just as it will until the next time you need me for something.”

She averted her gaze, instead looking down at the folders in her arms. “. . . You were right about someone in the company doing this to me. I didn’t want to believe it.”

“And I’m sorry it had to be that way,” Ginger replied. “I only wish that your experience with being truly used and betrayed would cause you to wake up to a knowledge of your own actions.”

“I realize that I’ve used you, Ginger,” Cynthia said. “And I know I shouldn’t.”

“Yet you continue to do so anyway. Well, I will try to make it easier for you to stop.” He looked at her, hard. “It’s true that we were both maneuvered into this meeting by Mr. Benson, but that doesn’t change your hurtful and unkind behavior after it happened. You have no right to treat me that way and insinuate that I do not care about you, particularly after I have repeatedly tried to help you. You ran away from me 40 years ago, when all I wanted was to keep you safe. Now I will walk away from you.” And with that he went past, his overcoat brushing against her skirt as he walked.

Lou hurried after him, relief as well as pride swelling in his heart. Ginger had made the right decision; he would be alright.

Behind them he could feel Cynthia’s gaze following their movements, but she made no attempt to call after or chase Ginger. Lou said a silent prayer that she would not. Perhaps now, at last, Ginger would be free of the shackles of the past that Cynthia had snapped on him when she had first re-entered his life. And perhaps, Lou reflected, Cynthia could also learn to be free of hers.

The rest of the evening was a whirlwind. After Ginger and Lou contacted the other board members and the police, they still had to put the finishing touches on the seminar for that evening. Mr. Benson hadn’t exaggerated about getting the word out to all the designers; the room was packed. The new designers seemed to enjoy hearing from two of the company’s most experienced designers and several came up to personally thank them for their time. By the time they returned to their hotel room late that night, Lou was in a bit of a daze.

“I’m glad we didn’t just decide to fly back home and not go through with the seminars,” he said to Ginger. “You were right about those designers not deserving to get punished for Mr. Benson’s crummy attitude.”

Ginger nodded, setting his laptop on the table. “We still have the rest of the weekend to plan.”

“I know, but maybe we can get some sleep first?” Lou flopped down on the nearest bed, unable to stop the large yawn from coming forth.

“I would like that.” Ginger removed his overcoat and started to unbutton his suit coat.

“Meanwhile, Mr. Benson’s spending the night getting evaluated.” Lou shuddered. “I doubt he’s gonna be free any time soon.”

“One would hope.”

“I wonder what made him tip off the deep end like that,” Lou frowned.

“I doubt we will ever know,” Ginger answered. “Nor do I particularly want to know. I only hope that he can receive the help he needs.”

“Yeah.” Lou looked disturbed. “He finally admitted being behind everything that happened to Cynthia, even the cut brake line and the sniping. He hired some guy to do that. And the board admitted that he’d talked about doing stuff like that to test employee loyalty.” He shook his head. “None of them believed he was serious. Of course, who could?!”

“No one without a dark and suspicious mind,” Ginger grunted. “I have heard rumors about the company president in Domino City arranging tests to determine employee reaction, but it was never anything like this. The rumors were always that it was harmless annoyances.”

“And how about him personally overturning Mr. Benson’s objections to us joining the L.A. branch?” Now Lou looked bowled over. “I never knew about any of that.”

“Nor I.” Ginger paused, staring off into the distance. “It would seem he believes in second chances.”

“You used to wonder if the company was actually crooked, to hire us back,” Lou said. “Do you not think that anymore?”

“I don’t know,” Ginger admitted. “I still wonder why the president would be so keen on letting us back in. All I can say is that if it is crooked, they are very good at hiding it. And one would think that after we have been working for them this long, they would have approached us about participating in some crooked deal before now.”

“That’s true,” Lou agreed. “I hope. I sure don’t want to think the place is crooked.”

Ginger nodded. “It would be bloody inconvenient, beginning a search for new jobs now. And we would never find anything as good.” He fell silent as he continued to undress.

“Ginger . . .” Lou looked over at him. “You did good out there, with Cynthia. I’m glad.”

“So am I,” Ginger mused. He pulled off his tie. “I don’t know that I believe I’ve seen the last of her, but I feel more at peace and more decisive concerning her than I have ever since she came back into my life.”

“And that’s great,” Lou said sincerely. He propped himself up on an elbow. “She had no right to keep making you feel so miserable. It seems like she’s really messed up. I’ve got the feeling that part of her still likes you, but it’s probably more the memories that she likes, like you said. And the other part doesn’t want to still like you because she just can’t stand that you get so protective you’re violent sometimes. So she keeps trying to vilify you to justify it to herself.”

“You are behaving like a psychologist again,” Ginger said flatly.

“I know, but that’s how it looks to me.” Lou sighed.

“And perhaps you’re right.” Now Ginger was undoing the buttons on his shirt cuffs. “But she won’t be able to bully me again. I will not allow it. And I’m actually looking forward to going home to Mr. Stanley as our employer.”

“No kidding,” Lou declared. “That sounds great to me too.” He slumped farther into the pillows.

Ginger regarded Lou with gentle amusement. “Are you going to go to sleep like that?”

“Nah.” Lou yawned again. “But you get ready first, Buddy. You’re almost undressed anyway.”

Ginger did so. But when he emerged from the bathroom moments later, having slipped into his pajamas and brushed his teeth, he wasn’t particularly surprised to discover that Lou was indeed already asleep. He shook his head, still amused, and crawled under the covers of the other bed. Lou would rouse up again before long. Ginger wouldn’t disturb him in the meantime.

He would just drift off to sleep, grateful as always that he had a real friend.
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