The Ink Chase Serial appears below, after Buck Pickens
by Jack Fay
“Everything changed the day Daddy left us and went off with Tillie Dugan, the one that worked down to the Purina Feed Store. Grampa took us in right quick, and that’s when Mama’s bitterness began spilling out, never stoppin’ ‘til we put her in the ground. Pretty soon after, Mary went away too. Topeka some say, but I say Californy.
“That little sister of mine loved them movie stars. Her bedroom walls’re filled with pitchers of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, and who all else I do not know. On the stand next to her bed is a record player. It works, too. On her pillow is a teddy bear with a red ribbon ‘round its neck. Everything’s been there since the day she left.
“It’s Mary I come back for onc’t a year, always on the day she left. I shouldda knew she’d leave. No future around here for a girl. Broke my heart when she left. But she’ll be back, I know she will. She’ll see me workin’ this old field, just like I was workin’ it the day she went away. In this broke down mind o’ mine, I know she’ll be back. I can see it happenin’, see her gettin’ outta one of them big cars. Cute as a butter bean she’ll be, and next to her will be a passel o’ kids. Behind her will be a young man holdin’ his hat in front of him, not knowin’ what to say.”
Buck went back to kicking the blunted tip of a rusted spade into hard red dirt. A faded blue bandanna tied loosely around his neck was dripping with sweat and his trucker’s shirt was soaked down the back. Denim jeans were stuck to his legs, all the way down to cracked rubber boots. For a man pushing fifty, Buck was in good shape. Wrestling furniture into and out of trucks for most of his adult life had kept his stomach flat and his arms corded like heavy rope.
He was digging a furrow that didn’t need to be dug. There’d be no planting in the furrow and no harvesting from it. The field had not been farmed since the day Buck packed his clothes in a cardboard suitcase and walked to Kansas City.
The sun was sliding to the horizon when Buck put the spade aside. He did not want to quit but it was time. He slung the handle of the spade onto his shoulder and walked toward the barn and the house. A hulk of rusted metal that used to be a John Deere tilted sadly among weeds on one side of the barn. On the other side and forward of the barn was the house where Buck had been raised. The Pickens house had once been handsome; two stories high, four columns in front and on each side a red brick chimney that rose from the ground to the peak of the roof. Buck remembered summer days when sparkles of sun bounced from the house’s white siding, and on days when wind sent the weather vane in a spin that never seemed to stop. But now the house was faded, silent and needy of rescue. The stones of the front steps had broken apart, the shutters were hanging crookedly from windows and the siding was split and rotten. Like last year, and every one of the twenty years preceding, Buck promised he’d come back and patch things up. But he never did.
Inside the barn, Buck hung the spade on two nails that had been driven into a supporting beam. After squeezing sweat from the bandanna, he draped it over the top of the spade. He slipped off the rubber boots and replaced them with Acme ropers. After swinging the barn doors closed, he tied them shut with baling wire. He washed his hands and face with rainwater from a trough made of galvanized metal.
Buck’s ten-year-old Ford 150 was waiting for him at the side of the dirt driveway. He had left plenty of room for a large car to park next to it, so that Mary and her children and her husband would have room to get out and greet him. But on this day, the large car would not pull up. Next year it will, Buck prayed.
Ten yards behind the barn was a waist-high wrought iron fence with a rusted gate. Buck’s eyes were focused on the gate as he rolled sleeves down to his wrists and pushed buttons into place. The land sloped down, so Buck planted a boot heel into the ground with each step. At the rusted gate he paused as if waiting to be invited inside. He pushed the gate forward and paid no attention to hinges that protested angrily.
Buck was not a religious man, but he bowed his head and templed his hands in front of his chest before entering. A toppled headstone lay on the hard scrabble in front of him. He stared at it for a long while before saying, “Mama, it’s time for me to leave. But don’t you fret, I’ll be back to visit next year.”
A second headstone, tilting back, lay to the right. Buck stopped before it and dropped to one knee. He kissed the headstone with his fingers and closed his eyes while a choke rose from deep in his throat. “I love you, little darlin’,” he said. On the face of the headstone were the words, “Here Lies Mary Pickens, Beloved Sister of Buck.”
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Jack Fay former Special Agent, Army CID; security director for a major oil company; university adjunct; and author of 10 non-fiction books in law enforcement and security management. He currently resides in Atlanta where he owns and operates a company that sells online courses to private investigators and security managers.
The Ink Chase
A Serial in eight parts
I led Harlow before the witch.
“Here’s your man. Now the spell please.”
Harlow’s mouth was agape as he stared before him. “It’s you!”
“You two know each other,” I asked, looking from one to the other. They seemed so completely immersed in each other; they’d completely forgotten me. I was in a hurry; I didn’t want to spend a minute there longer than necessary, away from my Diane, in the company of these two shambles of humanity.
“It is you that freed me?” Harlow, in a trance, his arms spread before him, shuffled toward the burlesque queen of the underworld.
“Stay!” she thrust out a shriveled, decayed, bleached hand at him. She swung a wand in the air—a luminescent wisp of blue gleam trailed it – other than the spectacle, no real damage was done. I guessed it was just a moody habit. “Look what you did to me,” she waved her long knurled fingers in a wide arc about her, in a general reference to her blanched persona.
“I tried my best to help you—but I wasn’t ready—now I believe I am. I have spent years finding a cure for you, I think I might have it.”
“If it be so—I must allow you a chance then…to exonerate yourself.”
“Exonerate—I saved you! Has this dark, watery grave robbed your mind of all memory, and things wholesome?”
They could have sorted matters between themselves till the cows came home. But Diane would be getting worried. “Excuse me,” I said, “but could I have my prescription. I am done here. I really should be—”
“Silence,” the witch shrieked, “impudent man! I have no further use for you. Perish now!” she thrust her wand at me and the blue spill began to advance menacingly on the wood-planked floor toward me.
“Stop,” Harlow shouted, jumping in front of me, covering me with outstretched arms. “Or strike me down as well.”
“Argh,” the witch snarled, and the bubble vanished.
“You gave me your word—you, madam, are a liar and a slave to the evil ways,” I said, as Harlow gripped my arm and stood beside me. “Clearly, no man will be impressed with your winsome ways,” I added.
“Who said I want to win someone over, you namby-pamby!”
I jabbed a thumb in Harlow’s direction. “Clearly, under all that carefully cultivated austere visage and mournful countenance, even a blind fool can see there is a little lurking affection you conceal for this man. With your powers, your dark magic, you have little use for his immature remedies!”
“You fool,” she tore open her blouse to reveal a frosty, silvery bosom, “see what his silly brews did to me? I feel faint, my skin tingles and burns, my heart pounds, I fear I may be turned to dust if I expose to the sun. I do not fear sunlight just because it lights up a miserable world—I am confined to this black, watery world because of the balms he’s rubbed on me!”
“It’s not my salves dear,” Harlow replied, in a lover’s plaintive, groveling tone, leaving me quite shaken. “It’s what the scorching sun did to you—remember, they tied you to a stake out in the burning desert for days, before I risked my life and slashed down the ropes that bound you and brought you to my home? Have you forgotten how I nursed you back to health? Your condition is all in the mind. I think…I think you might have developed Phengophobia—a fear of the sunlight because of that terrible ordeal. Give me some time. I can help you, in the mind as well as the body with these…” he said, digging into his satchel and holding out divers bottles and jars of ointments and potions he’d perfected on the islands. “Please, let the Guv go.”
“That is quite out of the question. He is a man of the law; he will soon have his screaming and leaping ruffians hunting me down. I have earned this peace,” she surveyed her realm, “ and I intend to keep it.”
“I give you my word—I have no truck with you or your floating phantoms,” I said. “You need fear nothing from me.” You couldn’t chain a shadow to a wall, could you? There were no bars of stout steel that could mew a mist in a cage.
She shook her head, unmoved with my defense.
“You need to let him go, for your sake.” Harlow spoke up after some thought. “There is an apprentice I need. A convict, whom I patiently trained, without whose help I cannot mix these recipes. He’s also up for parole. The governor needs to go and free him as well, for me to help you. You may do as you like with him once you’re cured.”
“Is your alchemy superior to my magic? What good is your glop where my sorcery has been thwarted?”
“You confess it hasn’t worked. So I am your only and last resort. Please, Chedipe, release the Guv.”
“Who is this prisoner,” she deigned to ask.
“Scrota Deek,” I repeated in disbelief. Who didn’t know him? He was the most notorious prisoner on the isles—a miscreant, a radical, and a suspected sympathizer of the freedom fighters. To free him would be high treason.
To be continued