by Karen Payton-Holt
picture by ftourini
A chilled breeze picked up and a bank of dry autumn leaves pirouetted across the street. Goosebumps tightened over my bare flesh. It felt exhilarating. Denim shorts hugging my body barely covered the cheeks of my backside. The cropped top revealed acres of toned stomach which flexed with the smooth hip-rolling action of my stride.
Beth laughed. “You must be frozen.” She pulled her sweater sleeves down over hands which she tucked under her arms.
“Man-up, Beth,” I said lightly, adjusting the grip on the document folder brushing my thigh. We were only a ten minute walk from the car.
My body declared to the world that I was a survivor. Tattoo ink stained the skin of my arms, my midriff, and my thighs. One arm was almost entirely covered and the other was catching up fast. Each tattoo depicted a gift given to me by my father, usually just before he climbed into my bed and said ‘all daddies touch their little girls there’.
The first tattoo which I inked for myself remained my favorite. An ash-gray, fluffy bear entangled in barbed wire. I was proud of that one. Daddy hadn’t touched me in five years. Not since I buried the steel needle of the compass from my geometry set in the hand he rested on my desk when he loomed over me. Now, with my rebellion emblazoned across my skin, he couldn’t even look at me without seeing what he did. Yeah, I’m a survivor.
The early evening shoppers flowing along High Street looked jaded. Most of them, laden with carrier bags bearing store names that declared them as penny pinchers or frivolous, were heading home.
“If I’m going to land this job, I have to let the guy see the merchandise.”
Beth snorted. “You’re applying to be a tattooist, not a stripper. And anyway, that’s what the portfolio is for.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “This ‘Aiden Hawkes’ guy is a looker, you never know.”
“Oh, shut up,” Beth muttered. “Like you can tell that from a cheesy grin on a flyer.” She, more than anyone, knew I operated a strictly hands off policy. Well, my skin did. It crawled whenever a guy touched it. Talk about ‘eighteen and never been kissed’.
Sucking in my stomach and hitching a hip, I pulled the black and white flyer out from where I’d wedged it in my pocket. Scanning the street, I met the eyes of a middle-aged guy. The tight leer smeared on his face made my stomach roll over. “Piss off, grandad.”
I grinned as he scuttled away, a ruddy flush creeping up his neck
Beth snatched the paper from my fingers. “Eve, stop arsing around. I want to go out tonight. Now where’s this tattoo parlor?”
Following the faux hand-drawn map, we located the back street and made our way along the sidewalk, looking out for number forty eight. Autumn nights came in fast, and the street lights emitted a neon reddish glow as they warmed up.
“C’mon, it’s late. The place will still be there tomorrow.” Beth tugged on my arm.
“He said tonight. You go home if you want.”
“As if. I’m your wingman, remember.” Her grimace made me laugh.
“There,” I said, relieved to end her suffering and my own guilt.
“Thank The Lord.”
The shop window had faded streaks of whitewash arcing over it. Cupping my hands and peering into the dimly lit interior, I made out posters dotted around mostly bare walls and a desk with a telephone. “It looks a bit crappy.”
“Let’s leave it then.” Beth swung around. She certainly seemed in a hurry to leave.
“Hold on. I’ve come this far. I’ve bumped into this guy three times. It’s got to be fate.”
“Some fate, Eve. He flyer-bombed the shopping mall, then he hit you again a week later on High Street.”
I waved the flyer under her nose. “But this one came through my door.”
Beth glared. “Well, get in there so we can go home.”
I gave her a sloppy salute. “Aye aye, skipper.”
Shouldering my way through the door, I pinned a confident half-smile on my face. The smell of fresh paint was overpowering. The fluorescent strip above the counter picked out navy strands in the sleek, black bob of the girl who turned to greet me.
“Evelyne Blake? Right?” Her smile didn’t reach her eyes.
I suddenly wanted to back out of the door, but Beth, her cheeks red with the chill of the whistling breeze, had followed me inside, blocking my retreat.
Of course you are. The pierced lips, nose, and too many earrings to count at a glance were not a surprise either.
The door in the back wall opened, and the definitely non-stereotypical figure I found strangely familiar entered the room. The tailored black pants and white shirt he wore hugged a muscular frame. His ice grey eyes were eerily blank for a second, but then he smiled, his perfect teeth and dramatic bone structure having a devastating effect on my breathing.
A slim-fingered, well-manicured hand waved, taking in the shop interior. “Just moved in. It looks uninspiring, I know. I’m Aiden Hawkes.” He shook my hand. “Come through to the business end and show me what you’ve got.”
My cheeks burned as his eyes took a tour over the tattoos on my body. His eyebrow arched as he added softly, “In your portfolio.”
My dry throat croaked as I breathed in. Feeling foolish, I darted a ‘help me’ look at Beth and then strode forward. Confidence. That’s what I need right now. I lifted my chin, brushing aside the chestnut bangs which hung artfully into my eyes, and smiled.
Walking past Aiden resembled an Alice Through the Looking Glass experience. The bland, featureless room I left behind made the cluttered kaleidoscope of color in this room a shock to the system.
The muted gold-tones on the walls created a back drop to an array of framed tattoo designs etched onto sheets of canvas and stretched over wooden frames. Before I could take a closer look, Aiden said, “Evelyne, take a seat.”
I stared at the intricate design of a serpent coiled around a newborn baby before dragging my attention away.
Aiden plucked my portfolio from my slack grasp and sat down.
Surprised, I turned to inspect the bronze, leather treatment couch, noticing a matching kneeling-chair with a chin rest, and two regular chairs. The trolleys, laid out with the organized chaos of tattoo guns and adapters, wrapped disposable needles, ink cartridges, antiseptics, and the rest, were not dissimilar to the kit I had gathered in my bedroom.
I remained standing as Aiden leafed through my portfolio with discouraging speed. His attention shifted to my face. He nodded towards my decorated body and said, “Are any of those your own handiwork?”
I blushed, the flesh in my nape tightening at the intent look in his cold eyes.
“You know, I’ll need to think this over. I’m not sure this…” I flapped a hand, indicating the well used inking tools. “is for me, after all.”
“That’s a shame, you’re very talented. The destroyed childhood toys are powerful pieces.” He flipped the page to a hobby horse, it’s painted features melting. “Have you got this one?”
I swallowed and nodded.
“Look Evelyne, you’re just what I’m looking for. Take a few minutes to think things over, okay?”
“Okay. Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say.
Pulling aside a thin leather curtain, Aiden disappeared through a door I had not noticed before.
I swayed on trembling legs. Cold seeped into my bones. Perhaps the chill outside got to me, after all. The cork floor-tiles moved like quicksand beneath my heels and, suddenly, standing still felt impossible. I circled the room.
The hum of an air conditioner registered as an annoyance. The beige walls of the windowless space began to close in. I wasn’t going to change my mind, but just walking out went against the grain. I searched the couch and chair for my folder. Shit, he must have it. Okay. He won’t be long.
Studying the tattoo display on the wall, I ran my finger over an intricately colored humming bird design. The parchment felt stiff and the network of crinkles had a familiar quality. Leaning in closer, I inhaled sharply as I noticed pinprick holes. Fine hairs caught the light.
Jerking back, I shot a glance down at the porcelain doll drawn on my upper arm, the crack carved into her face resembling a red blade of lightning. As sweat broke out over my body, I heard the scuff of shoes, and pain scythed through my head. My neck muscles screamed as my skull jolted with the blow. I fell, but I never felt my body hit the floor.
Consciousness returned as nausea swilling in my stomach. A tight band across my chest restricted my breathing. I heard a low humming noise. Someone singing. Opening my eyes shot colors and pain through my head as a halogen lamp glared down from above. Dentist? Was the tattoo parlor a dream? The bile churning in my gut reflected a feeling of dread.
“You’re awake,” a conversational voice said.
My neck muscles cramped as I rolled my head on a padded cushion. Aiden. His smile was genuine, gleeful.
“I am glad. I always like the artist to know which pieces are my favorites.”
My heart jolted as his hand ran down my bare stomach, drifted over my hip and framed my thigh. I was naked.
His finger tapped on the outer side of my thigh. “This one is genius. A Jack-in-the-box which holds a skeleton. I like your darkness. The first time I saw this, I knew I had to have it.”
The first time? My throat croaked. “First time?”
Warm breath fanned my hair as he leaned in and whispered, “In the mall. A walking canvas of such beauty.”
My naive comments to Beth rose to choke me. Not fate then.
Aiden watched my face. “Ah… you get it now. I followed you home. The flyer through your door was not fate.” His hand stroked up my thigh and over my belly.
“I’ll take the job. Please.” Tears ran down my cheeks, wetting the hair at my temples. My instinct to swipe them away was foiled by leather bonds secured around my wrists, the strap tying them together passing underneath my backside.
Aiden clucked his tongue and disappeared from my vision. Straining my neck, my eyes aching in their sockets, I could see the muscles in his back rippling beneath his spotless white shirt. A rhythmic scraping of steel being sharpened on leather filled the room. I heard a keening whimper and realized it was inside my head.
“Please. God, no, no, no…” No, no, no.
I didn’t need to see the flash of light on the blade to know what was happening. Blinking to clear my vision, I scoured the room. Leather bit into my wrists and ankles as my muscles jerked, running, even though I couldn’t move.
The tattoos on the walls, the hairs… I knew what they were. My skin, stretched over wooden frames, would soon join the display.
He clamped his hand over my face, smothering my scream. The grip bruised my flesh. I heard my cheekbones creaking. The recently stropped blade felt warm as it sliced through my skin.
Beth. She’ll tell someone. Blood filled my mouth as I bit my tongue, my body shuddering.
“Keep still or you’ll ruin your work.” The knife in front of my face dripped blood onto my chest. The inkblots in my head grew larger. His words echoed down a dark tunnel. “I hoped your friend had some examples of your work. But no. Her skin was bare.”
Karen is an aspiring author and compulsive writer. She lives in England with her family, and when she’s not at work, she can usually be found under her laptop. Karen writes novels, and is hard at work on her ‘Fire and Ice’ series of five post-apocalyptic vampire novels in the horror/dark fantasy genre.