If I’d dropped the gun two minutes before they’d walked in, none of this would’ve happened.
But I could never say no to Derrick. For a scrawny little dickhead, the dude had excellent ideas, and they always seemed to match what I needed to work on at the time. When my shading was looking forced, he came in with the Booze Phantom design that snaked up his calf. When my color could use some practice, he came in asking for the shrunken head on his right shoulder. The dude was my coked-out bad-smelling crust punk muse, and I had to follow him.
This time around, it was this weird image he’d seen in a dream. It was a skeleton rising out of its tomb and holding up his hand with the sun turning into a burning pentagram and balancing on its bony palm, like it was coming to greet the satanic day. He wanted it in the style of an old Dance Macabre-type woodcut, and I’d been worried about my crosshatching and tight line work.
The piece turned out beautifully. Cheri, done with the day’s pig-sticking, had come out to watch. I’d just pulled back from Derrick’s bicep, and I was about to utter the old “All right, take a look,” when the two guys brought in their dying friend.
It was fucking freezing outside, that bladed edge cold, so when they yanked open the shop door we all felt it and looked up even before the bell rang. Three of them piled in at once, guys one and three holding up number two. All of them in suits, number two’s soaked red by the ribs, his skin pale and his eyes half-closed.
“Holy fuck,” mumbled Derrick, his eyes going huge over his shoulder.
“You gotta help us,” cried guy one. Really cried it. He was big, square-headed, with a face like a shoe, dragging his buddy like he didn’t realize the dude was so heavy.
“Get him the Hell out of here, man!” I shouted, not sure what I was seeing other than unwanted company.
“He needs a doctor,” pleaded guy one.
“He sure does,” says Cheri, standing up to her full five-foot-two. “Too bad none of us are doctors.”
“Harry, door,” said number one. Number three dropped his side of two, letting the pale shlub droop like melting gum, and ran to the door, locking it scanning the sidewalk through the window.
“Hell no,” I shouted, but it was too late. Number one was dragging his friend at us at a frantic pace. Derrick barely had time to hop out of the chair before this guy tossed his dying pall into it like a sack of laundry. Number two definitely looked on his way out—his skin was white, waxy, and coated with sweat; his cheeks sagged; and blood squished around inside of his designer clothes. He reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, where they go to the Doldrums.
“What the shit are you doing!” shrieked Cheri. “Absolutely not! You need to—”
“Shut the fuck up, you dumb fuckin’ cooze!” bellowed number one like a truck.
“Hey!” snapped Derrick, grabbing the big guy’s shoulder as Cheri retreated tearfully into her black bangs. “You can’t talk to her like that, asshole!”
Number one spun and fist like a head whipped across Derrick’s face, sending him sideways and slumped onto the floor. Before I knew it, I was running around him, spraying his arm down with soapy water and toweling it off. Can’t be harming cool ink like that when it’s so fresh.
“Get up here and fix him up!” roared number one as I bandaged Derrick’s new piece.
“What the fuck do you think this is?” I yell back at him, because we’re all yelling at this point.
Number one glanced around the room. I watched confusion fill his eyes. He glanced at our hazmat barrel, the one we use for all the bloody paper towels and needles, but then his eyes flew to the art on the walls.
“I think it’s a tattoo parlor, Gregory,” said number three, Harry I guess.
“Yeah, I’m GETTING THAT, Harry,” snarled number one, Gregory apparently. He screwed up his mouth, snorted, and looked at me. “Okay. This can work. You guys deal with blood and flesh and all that shit. You can fix him.”
“You’re outta your fucking mind,” I tell him, pointing a finger at him, but I’d barely finished my thought before his hand rose in front of him, and it wasn’t a finger but a big fucking revolver that he pointed at me. His thumb slowly pulled back the hammer, making that clicking noise which shuts everyone up.
“Fix my brother, or the next hole in your head won’t be a fucking piercing,” he said.
Time stopped, and I wondered whether I’d shit my pants or throw up first. But then Cheri came stomping back into the room with her big orange first aid kit, the one I made fun of her for spending sixty bucks on. She knelt down next to the dying guy and popped it open, fiddling with the stuff inside. Then she looked up at us expectantly and we looked back at her stupidly.
“What are you waiting for, you cumstains?” she screamed. “Get his fucking shirt open!”
Harry and Gregory snapped into action, ripping their friend’s bloody shirt open and revealing a nickel-sized hole in his flesh, with only a little blood dribbling out of it (I guess the rest was in his suit). She pulled a pair of long metal tweezers out of the kit, aimed them like she was playing Operation, and then plunged them into the wound. The guy in the chair tensed and made a gurgling noise, his back arching.
“Hold him down,” mumbled Cheri.
“Jesus, what are you doing to him?” cried out Gregory, tears spilling out of his wide eyes as he pressed his brother’s shoulder back into the chair.
“Saving his life,” grunted Cheri. “Talk to him.”
“Fucking talk to him. He’s in pain. Take care of him, for Christ’s sake.”
“It’s–it’s okay, Kenny,” said Gregory, his eyes focusing on his convulsing brother. “It’s okay, dude. Just hold still. I know it hurts, I know. It’ll be over soon.”
Cheri pulled hard, and a blood-soaked black ball came popping out of the hole. The guy in the chair went limp. She dropped it, where it clattered on the floor next to Derrick’s prone form.
Everyone held their breath as we watched her clean and suture the wound. When it was done, she stood and clapped her hands. “All I can do.”
“Thank you,” said Harry and Gregory, the two big mooks looking like little kids.
“Don’t thank me yet,” she said. “For all we know, his intestine’s punctured and he’ll die of septic shock in fifteen minutes. But that should stop the bleeding. Now, if you’ll excuse me.” She picked up the first aid kit and took it back into the bathroom. The gush and throaty hacks of puking soon followed.
Which left me sitting there, feeling far less hardcore than I normally did, with two huge mobsters (because come on, what else were they going to me?) staring at their milk-skinned dying brother in my chair. Blood everywhere, Derrick groaning on the floor, the wind howling outside the shop door.
“So, this your place?” asked Harry, glancing at me. Now, with a little room to think, I could see the three were obviously related–same square head, same hard brow. Harry was obviously the dumb brother, probably the youngest.
“No, I just work here,” I said.
“You’re not Stan?” he said, pointing to the door, obviously referencing the sign out front.
“Nope, I’m Chaze,” I say.
“Right. So, listen, guys, now that your, uh, brother is patched up, maybe–”
“He’s gonna fucking die,” said Gregory in a flat voice, like he was talking to himself as much as us.
“You don’t know that,” I say.
“Sure I do.” He sneered, as though the words tasted bad. “Look at him. I’ve seen a dozen guys who look like he does now. They all died.” He stared a moment longer, and then started yanking up his sleeve. “Do me.”
“What?” I asked.
“Tattoo me,” he said. “I want a tattoo of his name, down my arm. I want to remember this forever. That he died a warrior, with us around him.”
“Now wait a second, guys,” I say, “I already did you a favor, but this is my business we’re talking about here.”
“Jesus, here,” snapped Gregory, and pulled a wallet from his jacket pocket. He tossed it down on my table, making the ink bottle rattle. From where I sat, I could see the strata of green bills inside of it. Had to be a grand, at least.
“I…usually we make a stencil.”
“No time,” he said, holding out his bare forearm. “Just write it. I trust you.” He looked up at Harry. “What about you, Harry? You in?”
Harry glanced at me, then at Gregory, panic in his eyes…and then his face set solidly. “I want mine on my fucking neck.”
“There we go!” shouted Gregory with a scary maniac’s laugh. “Fuck yeah, Harry! Kenny would’ve loved that!”
So I went for it, totally freehand. I did script down Gregory’s arm, him wincing the whole time, and then the side of Harry’s neck beneath his left ear (Harry may have been the dumb brother, but he was the tough one too–didn’t even blink). It was my first freehand tattoo, and I’d never inked someone while they stood up before, but I just went for it. Cheri came out and joined us, watching me work in silence. The whole time, Kenny’s chest rose and fell in the chair, broken by the occasional disgusting cough.
When I was done with Harry’s neck, Gregory pointed to his comatose brother. “Now do him.”
“What? No!” I said. “He can’t consent to it. Goes against everything I stand for.”
“He’s gonna die, Chaz,” said Gregory. It was weird but kind of cool, hearing him say my name like I was part of the crew. “Just give him a quick one. Our names, down his arm.”
“Just our initials,” said Harry. When Gregory glared at him, he put up his hands. “No offense, Greg. Both names is a whole lot of letters, is all. Keep it simple.”
“No, that’s smart,” said Gregory. “Okay, just our initials. On his chest, over his heart.”
On the one hand, it was blasphemy, tattooing a man without him knowing…but on the other, I could see the butt of Gregory’s gun sticking out of the waistline of his pants. Besides, how could tonight get any more fucked up?
Even through my gloves, I could feel how cool Kenny’s skin was as I shaved his chest. Once I wiped the hair away, I dipped the tip of my gun and began a big flourishing ‘G’ over Kenny’s heart.
“Jesus, that fuckin’ hurts.”
My eyes snapped up. Kenny was staring down at me from under sagging lids, his upper lip curled at the corner.
“Kenny?” cried Gregory. He flew over to his brother, grabbing him by the shoulders. “Kenny, holy shit, is that you?”
“Course it’s me,” slurred the man in the chair. “Greggy, what’m I doing here? What the Hell happened?”
“Eric Gustamo shot you, bro,” laughed Greg as Harry burst into tears. “We thought you were fucking dead.”
“Nah,” said Kenny, and then he nodded at me. “And this? What the fuck is this?”
“Chaz here is giving you a tattoo,” laughed Greg through sobs. “His lady patched you up. Harry and I, we got your names, and we wanted you to have one too, so…”
“For real?” He glanced down at his chest, then let his head fall back with a wheeze. “Oh man, guys, Ma is gonna fucking kill us.”
The night ended with me bandaging up the three guys and a car coming to get them. Gregory ended up leaving us three large, a grand for each tattoo. Three days later, a massive flower arrangement and a deli platter arrived at the shop, with no return address listed. We called Derrick in and ate like kings. The cops never even came by to question us.
I’d mostly forgotten about the night nine months later, as I was closing up and getting ready to go home. It was the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and everyone was out of town except me, so I was beginning to plan out whether I’d spend the night drunk on the couch or maybe his a bar or two.
I tugged the padlock on the security gate, made sure it had caught, and turned around to face a black town car with a man in a suit standing in front of it. The guy looked perfectly normal, except for a long scar stretching from the one corner of his mouth back to his neck.
“You Chaz?” he asked.
The ride was silent, the scarred man playing a phone game while a small fat friend drove us. Tunnel traffic was murder, which gave me enough time to piece together what was going on, why I was sitting on this fine leather backseat, where I was going. Eventually, the car turned off the Garden State Parkway, and after passing a few strip malls we made our way into the soft darkness of the country outside of the suburbs.
The car came to a halt at a break in the trees along one side of the road. An iron gate stood between two grey stone pillars. The guy with the scar got out and spoke into some sort of intercom panel set in one pillar. He paused, and then the gates opened on their own, like the place was haunted.
The manor house at the end of the wooded driveway was huge and modern, its front decorated with white pillars and gold finish. A fountain with Winged Victory at the center stood out front. The scarred guy opened my door for me, and lead me up marble steps through a huge wooden door flanked by two other guys, big dudes who nodded to me. One of them peeled off the door and walked behind me, so that I had nowhere to go.
The inside of the house was equally lavish, done in crisp white and warm wood. Our little train walked up a winding staircase and down several hallways, until we reached a set of double doors with yet another dude out front. In the background, I could faintly hear thumping bass. My escort nodded to the door man, who led us inside.
“Holy shit, there he is!” yelled Gregory as I walked in.
The den was packed with suited guys in their twenties, all clean-cut if a little cheap-looking, every one of them rocking the same spiky gelled hairdo. Bottles of scotch and wine covered every surface, and thick lines of smoke rose from cigars resting in marble ashtrays. Gangsta rap blared, and against one wall a flatscreen showed a UFC fight.
Gregory surged forward and shook my hand hard. Not covered in blood and terror-sweat, he was actually a good-looking guy, though that psychotic edge still sparkled in his eyes. Behind him, Harry raised a glass and pointed at his neck tattoo. Next to him loomed Kenny, terrifying now that he wasn’t half-dead; I’d assumed Gregory was the eldest, but it was obvious looking at Kenny’s size and reserved smile that he was first, and Gregory second. Made sense, the middle child being the craziest.
“Chaz, good to see you, man!” he cried. “How you been? Sorry about bringing you out here on such short notice! You weren’t midway through a tat, were you? I told Rick to let you finish.”
You mean with NO notice, I wanted to say, but figured I’d keep my mouth shut. “It’s fine, I was locking up. What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was regaling the boys–” He motioned to the room full of suits. “–with the story of how we met. They’ve been loving Harry’s tat, envying it, but we can’t find anyone good. Wade over there went to some place on St. Mark’s, got a terrible tattoo. Wade, where was that?”
“Wicked Art,” he said. “Guy named Hetto did it.”
“I know him, he’s a hack,” I said without thinking, and the room bust into raucous laughter.
“So anyway,” says Gregory, quieting the room, “I’m like, Why can’t we find anyone like Chaz? And then I’m thinking, Wait a second–what’s Chaz doing? So I figured, if you weren’t busy, since I have all the boys together…”
He motioned to one corner of the room. On a gorgeous wooden desk was an immaculate tattooing set-up–ink, Vaseline, mirrors, trays, a new desktop computer, a stencil printer, and a brand new TTS tattoo machine, ready for use. The whole thing must’ve cost twice as much as anything I’d ever used in my life. It wasn’t perfect–these guys obviously didn’t know anything about the products they were buying–but it was extensive, expensive, and pretty.
“What do you think?” asked Gregory. “You interested?”He clapped a hand on my shoulder. ” Obviously, you’d be compensated for your services.”
His hand weighed a ton. My mouth went dry. In that beautiful professional arrangement on that desk, I saw my future. I saw stacks of bills, enough money to open my own shop, hire Cheri away from Stan. I saw a parade of Madonnas, Italian and Irish flags, women of Sicily, Tony Montanas, baby’s handprints, phrases like ‘MY WAY’ and ‘NO REGRETS’ and ‘ONLY GOD CAN JUDGE ME’ in elaborate flowery script, all the cliche shit that Derrick would never bring in. I saw a new career as an artist-on-call for the organization that had brought me out here, and probably wasn’t going to take ‘No’ for an options.
I rolled up my sleeves and asked, “Who’s first?”