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Bonus Story

Maurice Forrester

 

Dark alleys and rundown neighborhoods define the baliwick of the ubiquitous tattoo parlor. Who would have thought that potential patrons of Live Free Tatttos could be even stranger than even the proprietor of such a shop could imagine. Presented here for your reading pleasure is Live Free Tattoos, intended to broaden your horizons and stretch your brain.

Maurice Forrester is a software developer living in central New York. Recent publications include stories in Daily Science Fiction, The First Line, and the themed anthologies Unrealpolitik and Fantastic Trains.

 

  

 

Live Free Tattoos

by Maurice Forrester

 

     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 appointment?”

     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 Moran?"

     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 spare.

     "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 accommodations?"

     "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 me?"

     "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 show tonight."

     "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 tomorrow."

     “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 the door.

     "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 to him.

     "Not funny."

     "Oh, it's no joke. Skip is a ghost."

     "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 recommend."

     "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 said.

     "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 dwell.”

     "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 the skin."

     "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 it?"

     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."

     "Try!"

     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. Now."

     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 Viking legends.

     "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 skin?"

     It was amazing how many people wanted to get tattooed where they were dealing with some sort of rash. It never worked well.

     "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 channel.”

     “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.

     A 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 process?

     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 tattooed.”

     “There’s no such thing as ghosts. That was a trick.”

     “You know what you saw. Any ideas on how to proceed from here?”

     “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 heard."

 

###

 

     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 money.

     "A hand poke tattoo? Have you ever done one? I mean as a professional."

     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 habits.

     “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."

     A 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 tat?"

     "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 way."

     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 do this."

     "Why is it so important for me to do it? Why not try someone else?"

     "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 important."

     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. He 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 collection.

     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 asked.

     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 tattooist."

     "No, it's not like that. It's just … he has very sensitive skin. But the tattoo is important to him. Look here."

     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 on."

     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 night.

     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 have any."

     "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 talked.

     "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 methods."

     "Such as?"

     "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 poke it?"

     "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 inside.

     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 the thread?

     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 short.

     "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 work."

     "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."

     "Uh huh."

     "It must be done under a full moon."

 

The End

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