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An altercation with a drunk couple at the Regent book sale could be the opportunity Merryn needs to deal with the Jackal in the conclusion of Invisible Ink by Lara M. Hewn.
The doors to the Regent Theatre’s 24-Hour Book Sale remained open long after the crowds had gone home to their snuggly, safe beds. And in through the doors drifted Dunedin’s lone wolves, odd ducks and a trickster teenager who was feeling most disgruntled at losing his superpowers to a girl with a violin.
Merryn faced the Jackal over the expanse of books, the phosphorescent ink covering her skin like a declaration of war — one moment it was barbed wire, the next moment jagged lightning bolts. It was clear to her who it wished to stay with, just as it was clear the Jackal had no intention of letting it go without a fight.
Not that it would be a fair one. She had all the ink, all the power. He had an ugly haircut and regrets. Merryn lifted her violin again. ‘‘Just one more,’’ she told the poor schmuck waiting in the wings for his time slot and he nodded helplessly. It felt appropriate to stick with Queen and she smiled sweetly as she began playing We Are The Champions, her eyes never leaving the Jackal’s.
He wove through the tables of second-hand books — romance, mystery, crime, aviation — until he stood before the stage. With deliberate movements he took a scruffy notebook from his back pocket and began reading, his lips forming silent words. The ink, which had been dancing across her skin in celebration, froze then tightened, and Merryn’s body convulsed suddenly, her bow screaming down the strings of the violin as the ink clawed at her, trying desperately to resist the command to return to its former owner.
The next musician saw his opportunity, sidling on stage and starting to play while she was bent double in pain. She was being torn apart and the last thing she’d ever hear would be Bridge Over Troubled Water on the recorder. It was too much
In desperation she threw out a wave of green ink, knocking the Jackal sideways into a drunk couple who were dancing like no-one should be watching.
The woman’s shriek filled the theatre.
‘‘That guy stood on my foot,’’ she wailed, clinging to her boyfriend like a broken marionette.
‘‘Which guy?’’ he asked, the protective veins in his neck popping.
She pointed at the Jackal. ‘‘Him.’’
The Jackal began reciting again and the pain hit Merryn anew. He was so focused on summoning the ink that he failed to sense the danger behind him, letting out a surprised yelp when the boyfriend gripped his shoulder and spun him around.
‘‘You stepped on my girlfriend’s foot,’’ the man said. ‘‘You need to say sorry.’’
‘‘Sorry,’’ the Jackal said, going straight back to the notebook.
Sorry not sorry, Merryn thought, and the boyfriend obviously agreed, snatching it out of the Jackal’s hands and holding it out of reach.
‘‘What’s that you’ve got? Looks like a good read.’’
Merryn slowly straightened up as the ink relaxed its death grip. She could see that the Jackal was struggling to keep his temper. He held out his hand impatiently. ‘‘It’s just an old book of mine. From home.’’
‘‘You brought a book to a book sale!’’ The man turned to his mates. ‘‘That’s like taking your girlfriend to a strip club.’’
His friends joined him in celebrating his excellent joke.
But the Jackal was all out of laughs. ‘‘Yeah, no need to take her when she’s already working there, hey. Now, can I have my book back, please.’’ He shoved his hand out again.
‘‘What did you say about my girlfriend?’’ the man demanded. ‘‘You want your book back? Go get it loser.’’ And he tossed it backwards over his head.
The Jackal tried to push past him in pursuit but the boyfriend stood his ground. The message was clear — if the young punk wanted his notebook back he’d have to go through him first. Merryn could see the Jackal coming to some kind of decision but didn’t wait around to find out what it was.
Gripping her violin, she bolted.
Up the aisle, up the stairs, through the foyer, and out into the deserted Octagon. Gone were the boozy crowds shrouded in clouds of vape smoke. At this time it was silent and eerie. She hesitated. Which way? Down — past the Otago Daily Times offices to the railway station — or up? She chose up, sprinting past the florist, the Athenaeum Library, the Irish bar. She heard a male voice shouting and pushed herself harder, crossing the main street and tearing up past the art gallery.
He caught up with her by the steps to St Paul’s Cathedral and they faced each other, both puffing in the frosty morning air. The ink shifted into bands of red, green, yellow and blue. Unnaturally, impossibly bright.
‘‘Stop!’’ Merryn held up her hand as he came closer and he flinched, waiting for a blow. When it didn’t come he slowly opened his eyes and assessed her.
‘‘I was stupid, wasn’t I?’’
She nodded. ‘‘You were.’’
‘‘But you look like a nice chick. You wouldn’t steal something that belongs to someone else, would you?’’
She thought about this for a moment. There was that one time with the nail polish at Farmers, but she’d only been 13 then. This was different.
‘‘Technically speaking, you gave it to me, whatever it is. Do you even know?’’
‘‘Not exactly. If I had the notebook I could tell you more.’’ He clenched his fists. ‘‘If I had that, I could take the power back and you wouldn’t be able to stop me.’’
‘‘But you don’t, so you can’t.’’
He deflated. ‘‘No.’’
They were at a stalemate then, unless she was willing to use the ink on him or he was ready to concede defeat.
‘‘So what’s your story?’’ Merryn asked. ‘‘How did it come to you?’’
‘‘Let’s just say I inherited it.’’ The Jackal smirked, rubbing his hands together and blowing on them for warmth.
The ink tightened on her skin and she felt echoes of dirty deeds and betrayal.
Now he squinted and started muttering at her. He appeared to be reciting again but this time the ink stayed calm. No threat there.
‘‘You can’t remember the words, can you,’’ she said, not mocking him, just observing.
He swore and kicked one of the steps leading up to the cathedral. ‘‘I knew I should have practised. I skimmed it. Pretty dull stuff.’’
He tried a new approach.
‘‘You know that pain you feel now? It’s only going to get worse.’’
The ink stroked her in denial.
‘‘What pain?’’ The ink felt warm at times, especially when it moved, but it wasn’t unpleasant. The only pain she’d felt had been caused by him trying to take it against its will and she couldn’t blame it for protecting itself.
‘‘The pain . . . like your skin’s being sliced?’’ He made some sawing motions on his arm then let them drop. ‘‘You mean you don’t feel it?’’
‘‘What does that mean?’’ He seemed bewildered.
‘‘I’d say it means it doesn’t want to come back to you.’’
He surprised her then with a sudden grab, his fingers digging into her upper arms as he spoke a few words, willing the ink out of her.
A line emerged from Merryn’s chest stretching up to the centre of his forehead and she saw his jubilation at that first touch.
He believed he was winning.
But he wasn’t controlling the ink and neither was she.
The neon colours merged and reformed and merged again across his face.
And then it returned to her.
He staggered, looking around. ‘‘Who the what?’’
Merryn took a step back, holding her violin protectively in front of her.
‘‘You’ve had too much to drink, mate,’’ she said firmly. ‘‘It’s time to go home.’’
He rubbed his face, looked at the back of his hands and frowned. ‘‘Yeah, I feel weird. I better . . .’’ he indicated a direction with his thumb. ‘‘Catch you later.’’
He shuffled off and Merryn breathed out in relief. Her arms were exhausted from playing but she couldn’t help raising them to admire the latest pattern — starbursts in multicoloured explosions.
‘‘When the time comes that you want to leave me, I won’t try and keep you,’’ she promised her branded skin and it glowed in response.
Though would the ink offer her the same freedom, she wondered, remembering how it had gripped to her with such determination. What was this thing she had invited on to her body?
She needed to know.
The ink protested gently as she started back to the theatre. ‘‘Now, now,’’ she reassured it. ‘‘All my stuff is there. And we can’t risk letting anyone else get hold of that notebook, can we?’’
She felt its opposition subside, replaced by a hum of anticipation.
Could the ink sense a lie? She hoped not.
- Lara M. Hewn is a Dunedin freelance writer. Invisible Ink features in Beyond the City Limits, an anthology featuring short stories with a Dunedin setting.