Walt had seen all types come into Live Free, the
tattoo shop he’d operated for about a decade. He’d
tattooed the young and the old. He’d done the first
tattoo for many clients, and he’d done tattoos where he
had to go to some unfortunate places to find a patch of
bare skin. Still, the gray-haired man wearing a clerical
collar was a surprise. It wasn’t that he was clergy
-- Walt had
tattooed clergy before -- it was the man’s sense of
purpose. He walked straight to the counter, never
glancing at the art and photos decorating the walls.
It had been a long day, and Walt was ready to go home.
After spending all that time with people, it was a
pleasure to be alone for awhile. But there was a chance
this guy could be a paying customer. "I was just getting
ready to lock up," Walt said, pushing a business card
across the counter. “Did you want to make an
Walt was wearing a shop t-shirt. Newcomers tended to
stare at the tattoos that made their way from his
fingers up his arms to emerge again at the neck, but
this guy looked straight into the eyes. "I won't take
much of your time tonight. I'm Father Uriah. You're Walt
Walt nodded. He put the priest at about 60, but in good
shape for his age. What he could see of the man’s skin
looked like quality canvas -- clear, healthy, and not
too much hair. He wasn’t talking like a customer,
though. Walt figured the guy was going to hit him up for
a contribution to something. Like he had the scratch to
"I have a client who would like a tattoo, and he would
like you to do it." The man had a deep, powerful voice
that reminded Walt of long-ago Sunday church services.
"You've got the number there," Walt said. "Have him give
me a call to set up an appointment."
"It's not quite that simple."
Of course not. Why would anyone walking in at closing
time have a simple request? "I won't do anything that
would jeopardize my license. No minors. I won't do
anyone who can't provide informed consent."
"No, no. It's nothing like that. It's just that my
client requires some special accommodations."
Walt looked toward the front of the shop and the door,
which opened directly to the sidewalk. Clients had
arrived in wheelchairs and on scooters before -- they
only needed someone to help with the door. "What sort of
"Let's call it a kind of social disorder. He'd like to
meet you after hours. When the shop is closed, and
there’s no chance of walk-in traffic."
"I work a lot of hours, and I like being able to go home
at the end of the day."
"We're prepared to offer double your usual rate."
Walt hesitated. The shop was facing new competition, and
he was behind on his child support. Some extra money
would come in handy, but something about this priest
seemed a little off. "Your client couldn't even call
"He has some trouble communicating over the phone."
"And why do you call him a client? Don’t you call them
parishioners or something like that?"
"I'm more of a freelance priest. I don't have a church.
I work with people individually."
Walt shook his head. That was a new one and made him
more skeptical of the guy. On the other hand, he was
offering to go well above the usual rate. “Double?”
“We could go a little higher if it’s done soon.”
"What sort of tattoo is he looking for?"
"A simple red heart on his chest. Nothing complicated."
"Does he have tattoos? Some people think a chest tattoo
hurts more than other places."
"No other tattoos, but he is prepared to accept the
pain. He's experienced worse."
Walt hoped this wasn’t going to be one of those guys who
talked about how tough they were before wimping out
halfway through a session. He hated to see his work go
unfinished. "I'd have to see the skin,” he said. “Make
sure there aren't any issues that might be a problem. I
have to talk to the client to make sure they're not
drunk or high."
"Understood." Father Uriah pulled a few bills from his
wallet and passed them over. "Would that be sufficient
for a deposit?"
"Yeah.” It was more than sufficient. “Can he come in
tomorrow night? Closing time?"
"We'll be here," the priest said and held out his hand.
"Make sure he brings ID."
"Stick around for a bit after closing," Walt said.
Kella raised a pierced eyebrow. "I got plans. Going to a
"Just for a few minutes. I got a guy coming in, and I
want you to get a look at him. Let me know if he raises
any red flags."
Kella had started working at Live Free a few
years ago. She was the junior tattooist in terms of
experience, but she had gone to art school and
apprenticed with some of the best in the business. The
work of her artistic mentors decorated her arms -- a
carp swimming up one and ivy creeping down the other.
Walt wondered how long it would be before she set up her
own shop and left him alone here.
"Want me to be able to describe the suspect if you turn
up murdered?" she said.
"I'll be dead, so it won't matter to me. He sounds
weird, but I haven’t actually met him yet. He sent his
priest to make arrangements. Or so the priest says.”
Kella nodded. “Interesting. Sounds like I’d want to get
a look at this guy even if he doesn’t kill you.”
The day went by slowly, and Walt found himself checking
the clock. They had a few people come in for a quick
tattoo done from the flash art that attracted newcomers.
A couple of regulars stopped by to talk about the custom
work they would get next -- once they got some money. A
few people shopping for artists stopped by to look at
the portfolios both tattooists kept on the counter.
Walt’s ran to multiple binders while Kella had just one.
They took turns, one tattooing in the back while the
other handled the front counter.
Walt had been tattooing for about fifteen years and had
built a local reputation for his old-school, American
traditional work. Kella favored a more realistic style,
and was starting to attract some national attention. A
framed profile of her from one of the major magazines
was a new addition to the shop wall, and she was now
posting videos of her work online.
When it came time to lock up, Father Uriah was at the
door carrying an old-fashioned black leather bag. He was
alone. Walt introduced him to Kella, and the priest
said, "My client insists on no one else being present.
There are some issues with anxiety."
“Since this client needs special accommodations, I
thought I’d have my partner give her opinion.”
The priest shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Walt turned to Kella and said, "It's okay. I'll see you
“If you’re sure?” she said.
“It’s fine.” He would have liked Kella’s input, but it
wasn’t worth losing a paying customer.
Father Uriah watched her leave, and told Walt to lock
"What about your client?"
"He's already here." The priest headed to the back room
where they did the tattooing.
Walt had wondered if this might be the case. "So it's
you, but you didn't want to own up to wanting a tattoo?
It's cool. A lot of older people come in for work."
"No, it's not me. Walt Moran, let me introduce you to
Skip Leonard." The priest motioned toward the space next
"Oh, it's no joke. Skip is a ghost."
"We've brought ID just as you asked." Uriah handed over
a sheet of paper.
"A death certificate?"
"It seemed most appropriate in this case."
Walt couldn't decide if the priest was playing a
practical joke or if he was mentally ill. Better to
humor him just in case the guy was dangerous. "Okay.
Nice to meet you, Skip. But here's the thing. If I can't
see you, I can't very well tattoo you. And then there's
the problem of you not having any skin. You know,
because you're dead."
"Ghosts are covered in what we call “ectoplasm.” It’s
what gave rise to the popular image of a ghost appearing
like someone under a sheet. It can be seen with some
effort. I can help in that regard."
The priest certainly sounded like he believed what he
was saying. Walt reached into his pocket for his cell
phone in case he had to call 911, but this was sounding
more and more like a prank pulled off by one of his
colleagues. But would one of his colleagues cough up all
that money just for a laugh? "I'm afraid tattooing
ectoplasm is a little outside my area of expertise.
There are a few other artists in the area I'd love to
"No!" The priest held up his hands in an apology after
the outburst. "It has to be you. There are reasons."
This had gone on long enough. "Look, I don't know what
your problem is and I'm not going to judge, but you have
to know that there is no one else here."
Father Uriah began pulling candles out of his bag and
set them up on the floor "Give me just a moment," he
"You can't light candles in here. My lease says no
smoking." On reflection, it was probably the least
important of the reasons why this shouldn't be going on,
but it was the first thing to pop into Walt's head.
"Now we make a circle." Uriah pulled out a thick piece
of chalk and drew right on the vinyl flooring. “There’s
a bit of work involved in giving Skip the substance you
need for your part.”
"Aw, man. I'm going to have to clean that up. You really
need to go."
“We light the candles and the incense.”
Walt began fanning the air near the smoke detector.
“Come on, man.”
"Oh, spirit. We sense your presence. We ask that you
walk among us so that we might ease your suffering. Come
into this world from that in-between place where you
"Stop it," Walt said. The priest didn’t react. He kept
up his prayer until Walt said, "Oh, shit."
Inside the circle a hazy form, human shaped, began to
appear. The priest pulled a knife from his bag and used
it to cut a line through the chalk.
"I grant you permission to leave the circle." Sweat was
beaded on Uriah's forehead. "I can help him stay visible
for only a short time. It requires a great deal of
concentration. You must work quickly."
The shape stepped through the circle and approached
Walt. It wasn't solid, Walt could see through it to
Uriah, but there was a definite presence in the air
before him. He reached out and felt cold where the thing
was. The scent of sandalwood was in the air.
"How are you doing this?" Walt looked around for some
sort of projector.
"It's no trick," Uriah said. "This is Skip. Sinclair
Leonard, but he'd much prefer you use Skip."
"What do I do?"
"Tattoo him. A red heart on his chest where his heart
would be. He'd like the name Mary, too."
"I discourage people from using personal names.
Relationships, even names, can change. Better an image
that represents..." Walt let himself trail off, unsure
if his standard spiel applied in this case.
"I don't think he'll be starting any new relationships."
"I can't apply a stencil. I can't do anything to prepare
"Do it freehand. I saw your portfolio online. You're
good at this."
Walt put on his gloves and prepared his tools. His hands
were steady, but he was shaking inside. "Can he sit?" he
asked as he sanitized the table.
"Better you do it standing to be true to his form."
Walt couldn’t believe he was going to try this. But if
it was a ghost, he was facing his greatest challenge as
an artist. How could he turn that down? If it wasn’t a
ghost, he might look ridiculous but at least he got
paid. "Does he want the name inside the heart or around
Uriah looked at the shade who seemed to shrug.
"Whichever you think best."
"I can do a ribbon across the heart with the name on the
ribbon. It's a traditional, Sailor Jerry, kind of look.
Like on that poster." Walt motioned toward one of the
sheets of vintage flash that decorated the walls.
"Fine." Uriah seemed to be getting tired.
Walt moved the tattoo gun to where he thought the chest
was. "I can't feel anything. There's no skin to tattoo."
Walt tried. The tattoo gun buzzed, and he placed it at
the spot where the chest should be. He started with the
ribbon, but the ink didn’t stay in place. It fell
through the shape in front of him and splattered to the
floor. He would have to clean up the black drops of ink
on top of the rest of the priest’s mess.
"I can't. There's nothing to tattoo. I can't tattoo
something that doesn't exist."
Father Uriah sighed. He blew out the candles, scuffed
the chalk circle, and the ghost faded away. "There must
be some way."
Walt looked at his shop. Chalk dust, candle wax, and ink
were on the floor. And for what? Whatever he’d seen in
front of him was gone, and the fear that this was some
sort of prank returned. "I don't know what your game is,
but I don't like to play the fool. Get out of here.
Uriah nodded. "Here's the rest of what we owe you. Give
it some thought, and I'll be back. There must be some
way to do it."
Walt took the money, watched the priest leave, and got
to work cleaning the shop. It had to have been a trick.
Some kind of projector, probably hidden in that
old-fashioned black bag. Well, Uriah and whoever put him
up to this had their fun. The priest wouldn’t be back,
but Walt figured there would be an embarrassing video up
on the web by morning. Why else would someone have gone
to all this trouble?
"How did it go with that shy dude last night?" Kella’s
sketches were laid out on the counter as she prepared
for a client who was getting a large back-piece based on
"I couldn't do it," Walt said. He was trying to decide
if what had happened was real or just a bad dream. The
priest had been there, that much was true, but the rest?
He wasn't sure.
"What happened? He chicken out? Something wrong with his
It was amazing how many people wanted to get tattooed
where they were dealing with some sort of rash. It never
"Yeah,” Walt said. “Kind of a skin problem. Hey, you put
tattoo videos up online. Are there a lot of those?"
“Sure. There’s lots of all kinds of videos. Thinking
about joining the twenty-first century?”
Kella kept pushing Walt to do more with his online
presence and the extensive photo collection of his work.
The shop had a website, but he rarely updated it. “Do
people make money with those videos?”
“Not me. But I guess some people do if they have a big
enough audience. Stunts, pranks, that sort of thing
always gets viewers. For you, it would be about
advertising the shop. I can help you set up a video
“Yeah, maybe I need to do that.”
Kella's client arrived, and they disappeared into the
back room. Walt took the front of the shop, but there
was little traffic. No embarrassing video had turned up
yet, but Kella was right. There were a lot of prank
videos online. Walt used the time to think.
video showing his attempt to tattoo a ghost was the most
likely explanation. It would be done by someone who
could afford to shell out some cash to get a good video
for a large audience. That person would want to do some
editing to make it more impressive, which is why it
hadn’t shown up yet. Sooner or later, it would.
But suppose there was a ghost, he asked himself.
Just as an intellectual exercise because ghosts don’t
really exist. He couldn't use the machine to tattoo it
because there was no skin. The ink had just fallen to
the floor. But people had been tattooing long before the
tattoo machine was invented. Could he use a gentler
Kella left after her long session was done. Walt was
about to lock up after his last appointment of the day
when Father Uriah arrived. “You didn’t have enough fun
at my expense?” Walt said.
“This isn’t a game. I’m serious about getting Skip
“There’s no such thing as ghosts. That was a trick.”
“You know what you saw. Any ideas on how to proceed from
“I’m not saying that was a ghost,” Walt said. "But I did
have a thought on the problem of tattooing insubstantial
skin. The art would have to be simpler and I wouldn't
use color, but it might work.”
"Anything," the priest said. "Skip is desperate."
"I could try a hand poke approach. There's no machine. I
just use a needle and ink. It's actually gentler on the
skin, so I'm thinking it might be gentle enough to work
on the … what did you call it?"
"Ectoplasm. We'll try anything."
"Why is this so important?"
"That is Skip's story to tell, not mine. Perhaps his
voice will be able to reach you after the work begins.
It's not an easy thing for a ghost to make itself
They agreed on the evening and additional payment. Walt
mentioned the appointment to Kella without going into
specifics about who he would be seeing. He felt like an
idiot for trying this again, but he really needed the
"A hand poke tattoo? Have you ever done one? I mean as a
lot of kids tried the hand poke method without knowing
what they were doing. A few of those kids eventually
grew up to be professionals and regretted the look of
their early attempts. Walt had been one of those kids
and, as a pro, had covered up plenty of amateur tattoos.
He had to lower his jeans to show Kella the tiny heart
he had done on a small patch of what had been bare skin
on his upper left thigh. "First one I’ve done since I
was a teenager. I didn't have much space, but I didn't
want to go into this without having tried it on myself."
The heart was done in dots rather than line work. There
was a sheen of ointment on it, and the skin was a bit
inflamed. Walt knew it was far from his best work, but
it wasn’t bad all things considered.
"It looks good. I don’t need to see any more." She
motioned for him to pull his pants back up.
"I did it freehand, too. No stencil. I wanted to make
sure I could get it done right."
"Can I watch?"
Walt thought about Father Uriah's reaction the first
time. "No," he said. "It's for that guy with the social
disorder. I couldn't use the machine on him. This is
gentler and should work. But he's not going to do it if
anyone else is around."
"What's this guy's problem, anyway?"
"He's … not all there."
"At least take some pictures of the finished work. I
want to see how it comes out."
"I always do," Walt said.
Father Uriah arrived at the appointed time and got right
to work setting up his circle of chalk and candles. Walt
prepared his equipment. He wasn't sure if a sterile
environment was important when tattooing a ghost, but he
saw no reason to change what had become deeply ingrained
“Let me bless the tools this time,” Uriah said. “Maybe
it will help.”
With the blessing now added to the other preparations,
Skip appeared. Uriah cut a break in the chalk, gave him
permission to leave the circle, and Walt began. "I can't
feel the resistance to the needle," he said. "It may
take me a couple of tries to get this right. If I can do
it at all."
Uriah nodded. As before, there appeared to be a great
deal of effort involved in keeping Skip as visible as he
was. "That's fine," he said. "Do what you can."
The first poke was much too deep, and the ink dripped to
the floor. Walt tried again and then a third time. By
the end, he was barely touching the ectoplasm and for a
moment he thought it would work. The ink hung in mid-air
for a second before dripping to the floor.
"I'm sorry," Walt said. "It's not working."
faint, breathy voice spoke. "One heart is all I need,"
it said. "A token so I can leave this place."
"Is that Skip?"
"Yes," Uriah said. "That's Skip. Speak quickly now;
there isn't much time. If Skip can’t move on to where he
wants to go, he may end up trapped in between this
existence and the next. It’s getting harder and harder
to help him."
"What’s so important?" Walt said. "Why do you need the
"She got one for me. I never got one for her."
"So you need a matching tattoo. I don't know if it’s
possible, but I can do more research. Maybe I can find a
He wasn't sure if Skip heard that last statement or not.
The ghostly presence faded away as he was speaking.
Uriah heard, though. "I'll check back with you in a few
days," the priest said. "I have confidence that you can
"Why is it so important for me to do it? Why not try
"You did the tattoo for his partner years ago. He needs
that connection to link his tattoo to hers. It may sound
meaningless to you, but those sorts of relationships are
Walt had done hundreds of tattoos of hearts over his
career. Early on, he had gotten into the habit of taking
a picture of each finished piece.
used film for years, until another artist convinced him
to switch to digital. More recently, Kella helped him
take better pictures with just his phone. All told,
there were several thousand tattoo photos in his
When Kella arrived in the shop the next morning, he had
been up all night looking through those photos for
tattoos of hearts. "How did the hand poke go?" she
Walt shook his head. "It's not going to work for this
guy. I need to find something else."
"Like what? And what's so special about this guy anyway?
It sounds like he needs a dermatologist more than a
"No, it's not like that. It's just … he has very
sensitive skin. But the tattoo is important to him. Look
He swiveled the monitor for Kella to see the picture. It
was a red heart with lines above and below to make it
appear to be beating. Across the heart, in a swirling
font was the name Skip. The skin was red, indicating
he'd taken the picture right away. He'd done it early in
his career, well before he had his own shop, and now he
could see flaws.
"Not bad," Kella said. "But what's the significance?"
"I did this for his wife. Maybe girlfriend. She died,
and he wants something to remember her."
"It's a good story, but I never heard of someone whose
skin was so hard to work with. Is he really old?"
"I guess. It's kind of hard to tell."
Kella showed him the progress she'd made on the
back-piece she had been working on the previous day. "A
couple more sessions and we'll finish it up. I'm giving
him a few weeks for the skin to recover before we move
It was nice work. The scene featured a ship amid
crashing waves. Kella was doing a fine job of capturing
the spirit of what her client wanted on his back.
Walt was discouraged, but he had a busy day and didn't
think much more about Skip until that evening. As he was
locking up, he looked for Father Uriah but the priest
was nowhere in sight. Perhaps he would return another
On his way home, he thought about the work that Kella
had been doing. She'd put many hours into researching
the right look for the piece. Thinking about her pouring
over the reference works she'd accumulated gave him
another idea. He wasn't quite ready to give up on Skip.
Maybe he could still give him the heart that he needed.
"I've been thinking about it," Walt said. "And I've been
going about this all wrong."
"Go on." Father Uriah had arrived just at closing time a
few days after the failed hand poke tattoo. This time,
he added a thermos to his supplies and insisted they sip
a bitter tea while they spoke.
"Tattoos are a way of marking the skin, but Skip doesn't
"Just the ectoplasm, which takes some effort to summon."
"And the reason he wants this mark is to connect with
the lover he failed."
"Yes." Uriah was laying out his supplies while they
"You said that symbolism is important here. She got a
tattoo of a heart with his name, so he wants the same
thing. I did her tattoo, so he wants me to do his."
"Of course. What's your point?"
"Before the electric tattoo machine, there was the hand
poke method which we already tried. But there were other
"Cutting, which won’t work with Skip. But there was also
needle and thread. You sew an ink stained thread through
the skin and then pull it out leaving the ink behind.
It’s an old Inuit method of tattooing."
"And you think you can sew ectoplasm when you couldn't
"I think Skip is trying to stitch his life back
together. Maybe that symbolism works better than a
tattoo gun or tapping a needle."
"Hmm. You may be onto something. Beings like Skip, who
can’t communicate or live life as we do, depend on
symbols. Stitching his life, or maybe his death, back
together is a powerful image. You have the needle,
thread, and ink?"
Walt passed them to Uriah so he could say a blessing.
When the items were returned, Walt asked, "Do you know a
lot of beings like Skip?"
Uriah shrugged. "I minister to the needy. You’ve
finished your tea?"
Walt looked at the cup and was surprised to see that he
had. Whatever it was, it left him with a warm feeling
Skip was summoned and once more permitted to leave the
circle. When the ghost approached, Walt thought he noted
a sort of resignation to the form. It seemed to slump a
bit more. "We'll get this done," he said. "It might not
be as elaborate as I could do with the machine, but
we'll get the heart on you."
He wasn't as confident as he sounded. There was nothing
to touch, just a cold presence. Was that enough to hold
As he ran the needle through the ectoplasm for the first
time, Walt began to tell his story. "I know what you're
going through. At least a little bit. I was married
once, and I didn't do right by her. Never really managed
to forgive myself for that."
The thread wavered but held its position. The red
outline of the heart was beginning to form. Uriah
struggled to maintain the physical presence of the ghost
as Walt worked.
"We have a little girl. I haven't seen her in years.
Didn't figure I was entitled to see her after the way I
treated her mother, and I doubt she'd want to see me
now. I try to make my payments, but it’s hard."
Walt changed thread to work on the name. He thought he
could do it as one continuous line, but he had
additional thread if he needed it. At least the name was
"Mary is my daughter's name, too. A nice name. It never
goes out of fashion."
When the work was done and the thread removed, there was
an outline of a red heart with the name written across
it floating in the space between the tattooist and the
priest. "One picture," Walt said. "For my portfolio."
As he took the picture, Skip faded away.
"I'm going to take a couple of days off," Walt said.
"You never take time off." Kella had been disappointed
that there was no picture of the threaded tattoo. The
image on Walt's phone was blank and he blamed that on
his poor photography skills, but he wondered if maybe
you just couldn't take a picture of a ghost.
"Yeah," he said. "I need to see if I can go make things
right with somebody. Might take a few days. Might not
work out at all. But I want to try."
Father Uriah returned to the shop as Walt was locking up
the night before leaving to see his daughter. "Skip is
gone," the priest said. "To where, I do not know. But at
least he was able to leave this place. You did good
"I hope so. I need to try to do some more good work now.
I'll be back in a week or so."
"That's good timing," Uriah said. "I have another client
who wants a tattoo, but there's a small complication."
"It must be done under a full moon."