“Let me guess,” Greg said, looking at the petite blonde girl who had just walked into his shop, “a butterfly on your lower back. Am I right?” He was tall, in his early thirties, slightly paunchy but with some muscle left over from his college football days. Like most tattoo shop owners, he was heavily illustrated. From the neck down, he was covered in intricate black and gray artwork, much of it drawn by his own hand.
“I told her you were a nice guy,” Ricky said. “Don’t make me a liar.” Ricky was Greg’s apprentice, and about ten years his junior. Greg’s tattoos were subdued and elegant, like poetry, but Ricky’s work was flamboyant and garish, like poetry shouted through a bullhorn. Ricky’s hair was just as showy, dyed neon colors and moussed into spikes, like electrocuted cotton candy.
Rachel let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “No butterflies,” she said. “And no dolphins or roses or other girly shit like that. I want a tree down my left side… I brought a photo… It was outside my window while I was growing up. Whenever my parents grounded me, which was a lot, I would just climb down the branches and go wherever I wanted. That tree was my freedom, you know?”
“Oh, you’re the tree girl!” Greg said, slapping his forehead. “I remember now. Yeah, Ricky emailed me your photo. I’ve been looking forward to doing this one. I worked up a design I think you’ll like.”
Rachel followed him across the shop to his large, black chair. Chewing her lip, she looked at the tray of needles and inks as if they could jump up and bite her. Gary put his hand on her shoulder and gently guided her into the chair. “It’s a, um, nice place you’ve got here,” she said.
“Thanks! We just redid the floors. Twice.” He stepped over to a metal shelf on the wall and produced a large piece of paper. It was a black illustration of a maple tree with long, thick limbs that twisted like snakes. “It might be hard to imagine from the stencil, but I’ll fill in the leaves with reds and oranges. When I’m done, it will look like fireworks. …If you aren’t sure about this, I can airbrush a temporary tattoo, and you can try it out for a few days.”
“No, no, I’m sure. That sounds wonderful. …Thank you.”
He cleaned her side with rubbing alcohol. As he poured the inks into a tray, she glanced at the artwork covering the walls. In between sample tattoos and photos of happy customers, there was a large, metal sign in a black frame.
- No drunks.
- No racists.
- No barbed wire armbands or tribal anything.
- No boyfriend/girlfriend names.
- No face or hand tattoos.
- NO WIZARDS!
The last rule had been added with marker in a large, angry scrawl. “I’m almost afraid to ask,” Rachel said. “Do you get a lot of fantasy geeks in here or something? Get sick of drawing Gandalf and Dumbledore?”
Greg shook his head and picked up the tattoo gun. “No, I’ll do a fantasy tattoo, if you want one. I just had to ban wizards…”
Last week, I had Ricky sand and stain the floors. Most people didn’t want to deal with the fresh stain smell, so business was a bit slow. I didn’t need his help with the shop, so I sent him outside to wash some rust stains off the parking lot.
I was wiping the dust off the counters when this old man walked in. He looked a bit like Charles Darwin – bald on top, with a fringe of gray hair, and a scraggly, white beard. He was wearing a long, black cloak, like something out of the middle ages, and a necklace with a huge, blue crystal wrapped in silver claws. Totally not the type we usually see around here.
I was just about to ask Darwin what he wanted when another customer pushed past him, practically knocking him over. Tall guy, three-piece suit, blonde hair slicked back like a TV preacher or used car salesman. Blonde guy shoved a wad of cash at me and said, “I was here first.”
I said to Darwin, “Have a seat and I’ll be right with you.” I hated being rude to the old man, but I had rent to pay, you know? He looked pretty angry, but he didn’t complain. He just sat down and rubbed the crystal on his necklace, muttering something under his breath.
I took the blonde guy back to my chair and introduced myself. He said his name was Wallace. When I asked what he wanted, he gave me a piece of paper with some foreign writing on it. “Another person trying to be different by getting a tattoo in a foreign language,” I thought. “Looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. Probably his girlfriend’s name in dwarf or something.”
I had to go back up front for more stencil transfer paper. Darwin was still mumbling into his necklace. As he rubbed the crystal, it seemed to shine with an inner glow. Probably a trick of the light. I said, “I’ll be with you in a few minutes,” but he just kept mumbling.
I went back to my chair and showed Wallace the transfer. He said, “Yes, that’s perfect. It has to go on my chest, right across the center of my heart.”
“Are you sure everything is correct?” I asked. “I heard this story about a girl who got these Chinese characters tattooed on her back. She thought they said ‘prayer’, ‘purity’, and ‘water’, but they actually said ‘please clean the restroom’…”
Wallace sneered and unbuttoned his shirt. “Yes, it’s exactly like the book.”
“I knew it!” I thought. His chest was already shaved, so the only prep work I had to do was cleaning the area and applying the transfer. I was about halfway through the letters when he started griping about the pain and asking for a break.
I walked back up front. Darwin was still rubbing his necklace, but now he was staring out the window. There were dark clouds on the horizon. A storm was rolling in. “Only a little while longer now,” he said to himself. “Only a little while longer.” Something about his voice made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I decided to get back to work before he saw me standing there. Wallace’s break had been long enough.
I finished the last letter on his tat and wiped away the blood. Before I could bandage it up, something odd happened. The letters were glowing. A sickly, yellow light shone from under his skin.
“Must be something wrong with your ink,” he said.
“Ink can’t do that,” I said. “But I think I know who did.” Now, I don’t believe in the supernatural. I don’t believe in anything. But what other explanation could there have been? I ran up front and found the old man still sitting, still muttering into his necklace.
“What the hell did you do?” I snapped.
Darwin jumped out of his chair. “Me? All I’ve been doing is sitting here! I’ve been waiting for you to come back so I could ask you for directions! I was looking for the fair grounds. I wanted to go to the Renaissance fair, but now it looks like it’ll start storming soon. Just a little while longer.” Looking over my shoulder, his eyes grew wide. “But we’ve got a bigger problem than a storm.”
Before I could turn, something like a cinder block slammed into my back. I crashed to the floor, the wind knocked out of me. When I managed to roll over, I saw my attacker. Somehow, Wallace’s skin had turned as gray as a granite statue. He had also grown to be about eight feet tall. The strange glow had spread across his whole body, but was brightest at the marks on his bare chest.
“My god,” the old man gasped. “He’s a golem!”
“A golem… They’re supposed to be stone or clay figures brought to life with magic, but he’s done the reverse! How is this possible?”
Wallace smiled darkly. “He was foolish enough to mark me with runes he didn’t understand,” he said. “And now, to keep my spell a secret, he must die!” Leaping forward, he threw a punch at my head. I barely managed to roll out of the way. His fist slammed into the floor like a brick into a windshield.
Just then, Ricky burst through the door. “What’s going on? What the hell is that thing?”
“Go to my truck!” I yelled. “Get something to remove engraving!” But Ricky just stood there, his head bouncing back and forth from the stone man to the hole in the floor. “Now!” Finally, he ran back outside.
Darwin grabbed a chair and hurled it at Wallace’s head. It clattered to the floor harmlessly, but it was still enough to make him mad. He climbed off of me and launched himself at the old man. I struggled to my feet and stumbled over to the counter. Fortunately, Ricky never bothers to put away my tools. The belt sander was still sitting behind the counter.
I grabbed the sander, but kept my arm behind my back. “Why don’t you come get the cash register, statue man?” I called out. “Your old clothes won’t really fit anymore, so you’ll need money for new pants. And a rock polisher. Maybe an umbrella to keep the bird shit off of you.” But he ignored my taunts. He raised his fists over his head, ready to crush the old man.
I switched on the belt sander and ran at him. I leaped at his waist in a football tackle. He was too heavy to knock to the ground, but I managed to push him away from Darwin. I held the sander on his chest. He didn’t make a sound. Whatever had turned him to stone had also made him immune to pain.
He yanked the sander from my hands and swatted me away like a fly. With a laugh, he crushed the sander into a ball. Grabbing the power cord, he swung the ball of metal over his head like a mace, sending it crashing down into Darwin’s skull. The old man collapsed in a heap.
“No!” It was Ricky. He ran into the room, a plastic bucket in his arms. He heaved the bucket at Wallace, showering him in hydrochloric acid. “Melt, you fucker!”
But nothing happened. That concentration wouldn’t dissolve stone, which is why I had given it to him to clean up the rust stains in the parking lot. “Oh Ricky, you idiot!” Wallace grabbed the couch and flung it across the room, slamming Ricky into the wall. I bolted to my chair, and the stone man chased after me.
I reached for the tattoo gun, which was still loaded with black ink. Laughing, Wallace spread his arms wide. “Is that your plan?” he said. “Really? You’re going to try to tattoo stone? Go right ahead!”
I shook my head. “No, I just wanted to get you close enough for me to do this.” With my other hand, I reached for the air brush, and covered his chest in black. It was only paint, but it was enough to blot out his tattoo.
Wallace stumbled back, clutching his heart. He tried to rub away the black, but it was too late. The glow faded, and the color returned to his skin. He shrunk to his former size, and his skin returned to flesh. Flesh that could be burned by acid.
He howled in agony, driven mad with pain. Using my chair like a battering ram, I knocked him to the ground. His head slammed against the floor. He was out cold.
Grabbing some work gloves, I pulled him to the sink and did my best to wash off the acid and paint, and then called the cops. While I waited for them to arrive, I did my fastest cover-up job ever. Instead of runes, his chest was now covered in the logo of the local police union. The cops would be pissed when they found out he wasn’t one of them, and if he thought about getting a new magic tattoo in prison, he would be too scared to bare his chest.
When the cops finally showed up, the old man’s body was gone. There wasn’t a drop of his blood, not a sign he had ever been there. He had just simply disappeared.
Greg put the finishing touches on Rachel’s maple tree, and gently bandaged her side. “Hey Ricky,” she called, “Greg says you almost got killed by a wizard!” She laughed in spite of the pain. “It was a great story. You should have heard it.”
Ricky walked back to the chair. “Yeah, he’s good at telling crazy stories.”
“He really is. I hardly even noticed the needle!”
Ricky walked Rachel back up front and took her payment, then saw her to the door. A moment later, the phone rang. “Greg, it’s Bigfoot. He wants you to touch up his back piece.”
“Oh, hell no. I’m not shaving that hairy bastard again.”