Buck was walking down the lane from school after football practice. He was just about to turn the corner on the street which led to his neighborhood when he noticed Jules quickly dart around a corner behind an old building.
His brow furrowed. What could she be doing? He also had noticed that she was taking a backpack with her, but not the one she normally took to school.
Curiosity seized him and he walked over and made his way down the alley between the two buildings. The red brick walls were riddled with old graffiti and posters advertising businesses he'd never heard of.
He slowed his steps and tiptoed closer, silently, steadily, cat-like. Just like Mister Skint always used to say, in his southern accented voice. Yes, m'lad and you're my cat, me-ow.
Buck saw a weird thin stream of - was it smoke? Floating around the corner that was towards the back of the building.
His eyes widened and his stomach twisted. Is she…. No way!
Jules was frequently doing something rebellious, or against Connie's will, but this was extreme, even for her. He wondered if he should just not check this out at all. Maybe it wasn't Jules, maybe his eyes were tricking him… or something. But no. He had to find out. He walked up, took a deep breath, then jumped around the corner.
A scream escaped from Jules as she tumbled back from where she was sitting. She hit an old metal garbage can and it fell to the pavement with a crash and something dropped from her hand. Once she realized it was just Buck, she put her hand over her heart and sighed with relief.
"Oh, it's just you Buck. I thought you were, um, somebody else." she looked for the item she had dropped in her panic, but Buck grabbed it before she could.
He held the object in his hand. A vape pen.
Jules stood up without a look of remorse.
Buck's eyebrows shot up in alarm. His suspicions were confirmed. He swallowed hard. " Um, Jules? Where did you get this?"
"From Vance." she answered matter-of-factly, "You want to try it?"
"Then I'll take that thank you very much." She reached for the pen, but Buck pulled it away and held it out of her reach.
"You're hanging out with Vance again?"
"Jules! Don't you know by now -"
Jules held up her hand, cutting him off. "Don't get preachy with me!" She snapped. "I've got enough of that at home."
Buck hated it when she got this way. He glared at her. "Why are you doing this?"
"I'm just trying to have a little fun, Buck."
"Fun?! This isn't it, Jules, this isn't right!"
She huffed. "When did you become such a goody-two-shoes?"
He was caught off his guard by this. "I - don't change the - " He sighed exasperatedly, "I'm not."
"Hm, couldn't tell," Jules sniffed.
"But that doesn't mean I don't have any common sense, or I don't know what's good for me!" He was growing increasingly agitated by her nonchalance.
"Why are you acting like this, Buck?"
"Because I care about you, and I don't want you to get addicted!"
"Who says I'm going to get addicted?! It's not like I'm on crack or heroin or anything, it's just vape."
"But it might not stop there! Trust me, Jules, I've seen addictions destroy people's lives, it's a slippery slope. I don't want that to happen to you!"
"Whatever, if you don't want to vape, that's your decision, just don't judge me and let me do what I think is good for me, alright?!" She was starting to get shrill at this point.
Buck could see that he wasn't going to get anywhere with her. He was in shock that Jules didn't show the least bit of guilt for what she was doing, and that bothered him. Even though it did, he didn't let his face show it.
He looked at her with an impassive expression. "Fine," he dropped the vaping pen. "It's your life." he turned around and started walking away.
Jules quickly reached out and grabbed his arm and spun him around. "Listen up, Buck. Please don't tell anyone about this, ok?"
Buck closed his eyes and sighed. "Alright," he whispered. He turned on his heel and walked away, seemingly calm. But inwardly he was a storm of questions and uncertainty. He didn't know what he should do. Well, he did know. He had to tell someone, but surely there had to be another way.
He sighed as he headed home. Just as things seemed to be looking up, he was confronted with another dilemma, and this one was arguably more serious than the other ones he and Jules had been involved in. Jules's wellbeing, her relationship with Connie, and their friendship, was at stake now.
Jason walked down the stairs leading out of his office. "Ok, we'll be closing in about an hour, so you might want to wrap up your work, Richard."
"Sure thing Jason."
"By the way, how is it coming along?" He leaned against the counter.
Richard scooted his chair back and stretched. "Well, to get it to the original way it was set up, it'll probably take…" he calculated mentally, "7-10 business days?"
Jason smiled ruefully. "You can be sure I'm paying you for this."
Maxwell smiled. "Much appreciated, but you don't have to."
"Are you kidding? For the size of this project, I'll definitely pay you."
At that moment Jason's phone rang.
"Oh, just a sec, this is Connie." He picked up the phone, "What's up Connie?"
"Hey Jason, can you come to Whit's End, like right now??" she asked urgently.
"What's going on?" He queried.
"Well, we kind of had a shipment mistake."
Jason's eyes narrowed. "What kind of shipment mistake?"
"Well, the shipment arrived and we got three times the amount of ice cream we ordered! And it's chaos! We need help moving it all!" Connie was near panicking at this point.
"Okay okay Connie, I'm coming!"
"Just hurry Jason!"
He hung up, "An emergency came up at Whit's End Richard, I'll be back in half an hour or so."
Maxwell held a thumbs up. "Alright. I'll just come to a stopping point, and then I'll call you."
"Sure thing." Jason hurriedly exited through the front door, pulling his car keys out of his back pocket.
Richard sat in the solitude of the shop, still working on the computers. It was dark outside by this time, and it was almost eerie how quiet everything was. No one was in the shop, not even Jillian. He might have noticed it, but he was so engrossed in his work, he paid no attention. That's probably why he didn't hear a man come in by the conveniently unlocked side door until he walked up directly behind him.
Richard turned around in his swivel chair to face the man. He had a powerful build and towered over him.
He put his elbow on the armrest, propped his head against his hand, and half-smiled. "Well, how are you this fine evening? Can I interest you in an antique claw foot couch? Or half a wagon wheel?" He said jokingly.
"I don't have time to play games." The man's voice was gravelly, and he spoke with a new york accent, "I wanna know where Mitchell is."
Uh oh. Richard shrugged. "Don't know who you're talking about."
"I know you do. Now where is he?" The man growled.
Richard stood up and eyed him incredulously. "I see no reason why I should tell you."
"I'll give you a reason." he growled.
Swift as lightning, the brute punched Maxwell in the solar plexus, knocking the wind out of him. Richard gasped and took a step back, before he could react, the man delivered a hard blow across his jaw. Maxwell stumbled back, the thug shoved him hard, he staggered and hit his head against the counter. Blood trickled down the side of his head.
"Point taken." Richard muttered sarcastically.
"You have anything you wanna tell me NOW?" Mr. New-York-accent asked.
The young man looked thoughtful, like he was considering his options. "Hmmmm - nope."
The man's face flushed red behind his ski mask. He reached and grabbed Maxwell by the neck in a vice grip. He forced him up. "I'll give you one more chance," he snarled, "Where. Is. Mitchell?"
Richard looked him in the eyes, deadpan, refusing to speak. Brownlow and Blackgaard had broken him before, and he had vowed to himself that he wouldn't let it happen again. He could start to feel the grip tighten on his throat. He tried to struggle, but to no avail. It would only take a matter of seconds and the man would crush his windpipe. Then he would be in serious danger.
"STOP!" A woman with curly blonde hair stood in the front doorway. She held a small handgun pointed at him.
The masked man looked at her and stood as if frozen.
"Drop him!" She commanded.
The man released the grip on Maxwell's neck, and dashed away, slamming the side door behind him.
Richard collapsed to the floor, gasping for air. Blood ran down his face and into his eyes as he sat up unsteadily, and leaned up against the front counter for support. He let out a low groan under his breath and wiped some of the blood away with his hand.
The woman looked as though she was about to chase the brute down, when she saw Richard's injury, and with a look of alarm, dashed over to help. She holstered her gun and knelt beside him. "Are you alright?"
"I-I'm ok." He said shakily. "Just a little banged up." His head burned and the wound stung like crazy.
"You're bleeding really bad. I have a first aid kit in my car, I'll go get it." The woman hopped lightly up, ran out, and came back.
She knelt beside him again, rummaged around for a moment, and got out the snowy-white gauze. She gently pressed it against his forehead to slow the bleeding.
Richard looked at her. "What's your name?" He asked weakly.
"I'm Blair Duncan." she smiled. "What's yours?"
"Richard Maxwell." He replied.
"Nice to meet you."
"You too, though I wish the circumstances were better."
She stifled a laugh and smiled sympathetically. "So do I."
Blair applied more pressure to his cut. He winced and inhaled sharply.
"Sorry!" She apologized.
"It's ok, You do what you have to." he paused, "I've not seen you before, do you live here?"
"I've only come here a couple of days ago, my work transferred me here for a while."
They sat there as she treated his wound. She gently held his hand and pressed her thumb against his wrist. "Your pulse is normal." she muttered to herself. She studied him for a moment and ran through her mental checklist. "And you show no sign of a concussion."
Blair got out more gauze and some medical tape. "The bleeding has slowed down a little, but you'll probably need stitches. I'll tape this gauze down until we can get you to a hospital or clinic." She explained.
"Thanks for your help. Are you a doctor, or a nurse or something?" Richard asked.
"It's no problem. And no, the medical field is an interest of mine, but it's not my profession."
"What is your profession?"
"I'm - well - it's complicated. My work requires me to know all sorts of things. I do computers, programming, photography, data analysis…"
"You work with computers? That's my profession!" Richard started to sit up, gasped, and clutched his side.
Blair eased him back. "Maybe we should call an ambulance." She said concernedly, reaching for her phone.
"No, no it's ok. I just sat up too quickly, the guy beat me up pretty good."
She frowned. "Why did he do that?"
"He wanted information."
"A friend." Richard answered reservedly. He didn't think he should tell her everything.
"Did you know who he was?"
"No, I'd never seen him before."
Blair fixed the medical tape over the gauze on his laceration. "There you go. I'll take you to the hospital and they'll get you good as new."
"Thank you for your concern, but I don't think I'll need a doctor."
"I think we should check just the same. That cut looks like it needs stitches. And that man was holding you by the neck, you could have been seriously hurt. I don't want to leave anything to chance."
Richard nodded. "Okay then." He got up slowly and rather unsteadily. His chest ached every time he inhaled.
Blair's car keys jingled as she pulled them out of her pocket. "Do you need help?"
"I - I'll be fine." He didn't want to admit how much he was hurting. A sharp stab of pain racked his jaw every time he spoke.
An hour later, after he had been checked up by Dr. Graham, and gotten several stitches, was discharged. He walked into the waiting room, the fluorescent lights made dull reflections on the white tiled floors.
There were only a few people there, sitting and reading magazines, looking at their phones, or pacing around nervously.
Blair, who was sitting in a chair, looked up from her phone and stood up. She smiled. "How's the patient?'
"Nine stitches, some bruises, but other than that, I'm clear."
"Oh good." she paused and rolled her eyes, "Well, not good, but it's better than it could be."
"True." he smiled, "Thanks for everything Blair, I'm grateful."
She shrugged modestly. "Don't mention it."
"You didn't have to stay this whole time, I'm sure there were a lot of things you'd rather do tonight than this."
"I didn't have any plans tonight, and even if I did, I couldn't just drop you off at the curb. Do you need a ride home?"
"No, I'll call a friend." he picked up his phone and dialed his number, "Jason? Hey, I know this sounds weird, but I'm at the emergency room, can you pick me up?...Yeah, it's hard to explain, but I have a feeling that we've gotten into something big here."
Work was wrapping up at Whit's End. The only people who were there were Connie, Eugene, Buck, Morrie, Suzu and Whit. They still had a few more things left yet to put away, but they were getting close.
As they were working, Connie pulled Eugene aside for a moment. "Have you noticed how quiet Buck has been this evening?"
Eugene looked at her. "Isn't Buck normally pretty quiet?"
Connie shook her head. "Well, this time it seems different. Something's weighing him down, don't you see how sad he looks?"
Eugene studied Buck for a moment as he worked. "Well, now that you mention it, he does seem a little downcast."
"Well…. Don't you think you should ask him what might be the problem?"
"I think he'll initiate conversation if he wants to tell me something."
Connie cast an annoyed look at him. "Do you really think he will?"
He sighed. "No, I'm not sure. I can never tell with him. It's not like the quadratic formula, it's completely unpredictable!"
She nodded understandingly. "Well, that's the way most teenagers are. You just have to take it as it comes."
"Yes, I suppose." Eugene answered uncertainly.
"Well then, we should test it out, go ask him!" Connie gently shoved him towards Buck.
"I mean you, now go ask him!"
"Very well, very well." Eugene muttered.
Eugene walked as casually as he could up to Buck.
"Hello Buck!" he said with forced enthusiasm.
Buck looked up, snapping out of his thoughts. "Oh, uh hey Eugene."
"So, how are you feeling this evening?"
"Really? To borrow the colloquialism, I'm reading the subtext in that phrase."
"Er, you seem a little down."
Buck glanced away. "Oh. I'm okay, just a little tired, that's all."
"Are you sure?"
He nodded his head a little too quickly. "Yeah, I'm alright."
Eugene nodded back. "Very well, but I'm always here if you need anything."
Buck smiled sadly. "I know. Thanks Eugene."
A short while later, the bell above the front door jingled and Jason and Richard walked in.
"We're back!" Jason shouted.
"Greetings, Misters Whitaker and Maxwell!" Eugene called from the back.
Richard grinned. "Hey, Eugene." he called back.
Whit walked up to them. "Jason told me what happened. Are you alright?" he asked in a low voice.
"Yeah. A little sore, but I'll be fine. And I'll explain everything later."
Whit looked at them understandingly.
Connie ran up to him. "Hey guys!" She eyed his stitches. "Richard, are you alright?! How did that happen?"
"I'm fine Connie. I um, accidentally hit my head." Which is true. I had no intention of hitting my head. He didn't want to concern Connie or scare the kids.
Later that evening….
Buck tossed and turned in bed, unable to sleep. He could shake the relentless guilt that gnawed at him. He vacillated between wanting to tell Eugene and Katrina everything, and not saying a word to anyone.
It was true that it was Jules' life, but he also felt some responsibility as her friend. He knew that in time, it would only lead to more, and he didn't know what sort of connections Vance had! He had seen it happen way too many times, addictions destroying lives. Buck didn't want to admit it, but he felt afraid. Afraid for Jules. Afraid for Connie. Afraid for himself, that he might lose a friend, and have Eugene and Katrina angry with him for not telling them right away.
Wait, that much was not true, Eugene and Katrina were not like that. They were reasonable and understanding, and they welcomed it when Buck did the right thing, even if it was late in coming. From this Buck drew some comfort. He knew, however, that this was no excuse to wait.
A thought almost audibly pierced his conscience. Go.
Buck sat up abruptly. All of a sudden he felt fully awake.
He nodded his head in assent to the voice in his head. He knew what he had to do. Almost without realizing it, Buck started to get out of bed. He silently padded down the steps, down to the living room where Eugene and Katrina were sitting together on the couch, holding hands and reading books.
Buck got down to the bottom of the stairs and cleared his throat.
Katrina looked up. "Buck, are you alright?"
He looked down and scuffed his foot on the carpet. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything." He said shyly.
Eugene smiled. "Not at all! Why don't you have a seat?"
Katrina patted the open space on the couch next to her.
Buck walked to them and sat down. He swallowed hard. "Eugene, Katrina, there's something I need to tell you…I-It's about Jules."
"That was weird huh?" Jason commented late that evening before he went to bed.
"Yes…." Whit answered quietly.
"What do you think we should do, Dad?"
"You could check the security footage in the shop. You do have a camera in the front room of the shop, right?"
"Yeah, I do. And that's a good idea. I'll take a look at it tomorrow with Richard." He started up the stairs.
"And one more thing." Whit called after him.
Jason stopped short. "Yeah?"
Jason smiled. "Always. Love you Dad."
"I love you too, son."
That night at the Whitaker house, Whit sat down in the living room, deep in thought. The glow of the lamp dimly illuminated the room. Everyone had already gone to bed, and the house was quiet. His gaze wandered to the bookshelf he was sitting beside. The first title his eye fell upon was The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis. It was his favorite book in The Chronicles of Narnia series. The final battle of good against evil, and good triumphing in the end, even if it looked like they wouldn't. His favorite part of the book was when the Pevensies, the Professor, and Polly, were in Aslan's Country. It never failed to fill him with a deep longing, almost an aching, for Heaven. There were so many people there he deeply missed. Jenny. Jerry. Fiona. Charlotte. Tom.
His thoughts drifted to Applesauce, and the key to the computer room that was tucked away in the other copy of The Last Battle on the shelf of his office. It was amazing how long ago that was, but he remembered it all like it was yesterday. That was one of the most incredible and difficult adventures he'd been in, and he had to wonder if they were on the brink of another. A lot had happened that seemed to be pointing in that direction. Whit knew that whatever was going on, he needed to pray. He bowed his head and folded his hands.
"Lord, you know what the future holds. You hold us all in your hands. I ask that you would guide us and protect us. Give us wisdom and strength to face what lies ahead. In your precious name, amen."