Last Chance Tattoo Modern Noir Short Fiction By K.P. Taylor

Last Chance Tattoo: Modern Noir Short Fiction By K.P. Taylor

K.P. Taylor, author of “Last Chance Tattoo”, has previously published short fiction in Identity Theory, Maudlin House, and others.

Tommy stood at the window of Last Chance Tattoo sipping coffee and gazing out at the gloom. The day had promised rain, then threatened snow, but by midafternoon had finally settled on a bitter sleet. On the other side of the shopping plaza, grim-faced oldsters shambled in and out of the Dollar Store buying dented cans of soup and last-minute stocking stuffers. Dani the bartender stood outside the Uptown Grille huffing great plumes of cigarette smoke into the air while gusts of ice swirled around her legs. No one gets a tattoo on a day like today, thought Tommy, a day that felt like one long, miserable morning followed abruptly by midnight.

A black limousine pulled into the lot. A stolid man in a dark overcoat and a bowler hat got out of the back and ambled like a penguin toward the Uptown Grille. The stranger stopped and spoke to Dani, who nodded and pointed out Tommy’s shop. The man tipped his hat and crossed the lot, holding his briefcase up as a buttress to the wind. Tommy took a seat at his desk and picked up a sketch pad.

On the other side of the shopping plaza, grim-faced oldsters shambled in and out of the Dollar Store buying dented cans of soup and last-minute stocking stuffers.

The silver bell on the door chimed as the man entered the shop.

Tommy drew the stem of a rose.

The man cleared his throat.

Tommy added some thorns.

“Excuse me, sir,” the man said finally.

“Oh,” Tommy replied with affected disinterest, “I didn’t see you there.”

“Are you Mr. Stillwell?”

“Mr. Stillwell’s my father. Call me Tommy.”

“As you wish, Tommy.”

“And you are?”

“James. Courier.”

“Jim Courier, like the tennis player?”

“No. The name is James, and I am a courier.”

“Oh.” Tommy added a petal to the rose. “What are you looking at getting today, James?”

“I am here on behalf of my employer.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“I am a courier. I move a thing from point A to point B. Sometimes that thing is information. What we discuss today must remain strictly between the two of us. Understood?”

“Of course. But why all the cloak and dagger?”

“The people I represent include government officials, captains of industry, philanthropists… Their privacy is of paramount importance.”

“I’ll keep my mouth shut.” Tommy raised his right hand. “Scout’s honor.”

“Good,” James replied. “Just a solid black tattoo–no shading, no stippling, no colors, and no larger than a silver dollar.”

“Seems pretty straightforward.”

“There are two considerations which may complicate things: location and application. The location is the small of the back, in the center of the lumbar curve.”

“Sooo…,” Tommy said, pursing his lips, “a tramp stamp.”

“Pardon me?”

“A tramp stamp. That’s what they call a tattoo in that area.”

“Will that be a problem?”

“Not for me, but most folks end up regretting the placement. It’s painful, the skin is thin, close to the bone with a bunch of nerves…” Tommy cleared his throat. “Also, it’s a bit…”

“Passé?” James suggested.

Tommy nodded. “If these people are as important as you say, they’ll want to change the location.”

“No,” James replied firmly. “The tattoo must be applied between the second and fourth lumbar vertebrae. The placement is non-negotiable.”

Tommy shrugged. “You’re the boss. I’ll tattoo their eyelids if the price is right. You said there was another challenge? Application?”

“The tattoo cannot be done with a machine. It must be applied in the traditional method.”

“Stick and poke?” Tommy leaned back in his chair. “Takes time, and if the design is bad, it ends up looking like a prison tattoo.”

“You will have two hours.” James opened his briefcase and handed Tommy a sheet of paper.

“I’ve done a few of these before,” Tommy said, studying the simple cross shape with a teardrop at its head.

“The ankh. Commit the design to memory–it must be tattooed freehand.”

“No stencil?”

“If ancient Egyptians were able to chisel that into stone without a stencil, it cannot be that difficult for a professional to apply it under the skin, correct?”

“I guess not.”

“Also, this will be performed off-site. We will provide the ink and apparatus.”

“As long as everything’s sterilized. I don’t want you beating down my door when they get cellulitis. I take a fifty percent deposit,” Tommy said, eager to swing the balance of the negotiation back in his favor.

“My client is offering ten thousand dollars. Payment in full, up front.”

Tommy arched his eyebrows. “I could do an entire back piece for that price. Hell, I’ll throw in sleeves too.”

“They are not paying for the tattoo. They are paying for your discretion.”

Tommy nodded. It was not unusual to tattoo people on the side, and he’d had his share of shady clients before, but this felt different. The money, though…

“You must decide now whether you wish to proceed. If you are not interested, we have–”

“I’m interested.”

“A car will be sent for you tonight. 8 p.m. sharp. Do not bring anything with you.”

“Right,” Tommy said, “no machines.”

“No nothing. No machines, no phone, no watch. If you have any piercings, take them out. Nothing metal. Just you and a steady hand. One last thing–violet or brown?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Which would you prefer, violet or brown?”


James removed a bulky manila envelope from his briefcase and slid it over to Tommy then snapped the briefcase shut and left.

It was a prank; it had to be. Tommy opened the envelope. Five one-hundred stacks of twenty-dollar bills bound with purple cash straps. Not purple, violet. Tommy now understood what James had been asking–which denominations he wanted for his payment.


The limousine waited outside the shop, its exhaust panting white smoke into the black night. As Tommy approached, the driver’s window lowered, and a middle-aged man with a round face and small, furtive eyes scowled at him.

“Tommy?” the man asked.


“You’re late, Tommy. You were supposed to be here at 8 p.m. It’s already 8:05.”

“I’m sorry. Appointments ran a little long,” Tommy lied as he opened the passenger door.

“So, where to, Tommy?”

Tommy stammered, “I–I have no idea.”

“I’m just messing with you.” The driver chuckled. “You easily rattled, Tommy?”

“I don’t get nervous–it’s not good for the lines.”

“That’s good. Make yourself at home. There’s bottled water in the mini fridge. Stronger stuff too.”

“Yeah…that’s not too good for the lines either.”

“Ah, right. I’m Bill, by the way. Courier.”

“I met your brother Jim.”

“I’d love to chat, Tommy, but to preserve our mutual interests I’m going to raise the privacy screen now. There’s a button on the center console if you need me for anything.”

Definitely a mole, Tommy thought. I hope he can see the road with those tiny eyes.


The limo’s passenger windows were so heavily tinted that it was almost impossible to see outside, and Tommy had no watch or phone with him to give him an idea of how long they had been traveling. The car had stopped once, and he could just make out the creak of a gate swinging open before they continued on their way. He opened the mini fridge, more out of curiosity than thirst. Top shelf whiskeys from Ireland and Scotland with names that were impossible to pronounce. He settled on a bottle of Perrier. He took a swig from the tiny green bottle just as the privacy screen lowered.

“We’re here. We’re at The Lodge.”

Tommy opened the car door and took a long look at The Lodge. Shadowed by tall pines, it was a windowless slab of a building that lacked any ornamentation besides the flickering torches in braziers on either side of the entryway. James emerged from The Lodge wearing a scarlet blazer with brass buttons, stone-colored breeches, and black leather boots. He looked as if he had just dismounted from a 19th-century fox hunt.

Not a penguin. A honey badger, Tommy’s inner voice asserted. Outwardly respectable, but with a feral cruelty just below the surface. “Nice getup,” Tommy scoffed.

“I am the seneschal tonight,” James explained, as if Tommy would have any idea what that meant. “We have set up a trolley for you with all the accoutrements and a traditional bamboo rod. Watch your head.”

Tommy ducked. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dimness of The Lodge’s interior. They stood in a cavernous antechamber. The only source of light was an ornate chandelier with squat red candles. Tapestries hung from the walls, and the stone floor led to a single black door at the rear of the room.

Tommy squinted. “Not great lighting in here.”

“I believe you will find everything beyond the black door to your satisfaction. I will leave you now–the client is waiting.”

The next room was empty except for the supply trolley, an adjustable swivel stool, and a tattoo bed. Two massive surgical lights, hanging from the ceiling on flexible arms, spotlighted the client’s body. He lay prone on the table with his face buried in the recessed cradle cushion.

The client was obviously geriatric. The ridges of his spine strung up the chalky, slack skin like tiny tent poles. No tattoos, Tommy noted. A virgin. Tattoo virgins could be challenging; they often shuddered or cried out or, worse, tapped out–leaving an unfinished tattoo. Nothing to it but to do it, Tommy thought as he donned his gloves and prepped the area. He dipped the tip of the bamboo rod into the bowl of black ink and pierced the man’s flesh. The man flinched as the ink spread like a spiderweb through his papery skin. A few more jabs with similar results. It seemed that this tattoo would be composed entirely of blowouts. Tommy persisted and punted out the ankh while the man squirmed on the table. Almost two hours later, he put down the bamboo rod and shook out the tension from his wrist. Not his finest work, but at least he had laid the black in solid.

“All done,” Tommy announced, wiping away blood and excess ink for the final time.

“Thank you,” the man mumbled, as though Tommy had finally put him out of his misery.


“Alright?” Bill asked as Tommy climbed back into the limo.

“Right as rain.”

“You weren’t kidding–you really don’t get rattled. First time they picked me up I figured I’d get a pistol in the ribs or some piano wire ’round my neck. I guess I have a vivid imagination, but I did owe a lot of money to some very bad people. The same pressure that creates the diamond cracks the egg. I’ve always been a bit of an egg.”

“You’ve worked for these people a while?” Tommy asked, now that the moratorium on small talk appeared to have been lifted.

“Couple years. Before I got this gig, the most interesting thing that happened to me was getting hit in the face by a flying fish. Aruba, on my honeymoon. On one of those open-air booze cruises. Smack! Right in the kisser.” Bill rubbed his cheek as if it still smarted. “Flying fish. They don’t even fly–they just leap and then glide. Same thing with flying squirrels–”

Tommy interjected, “What does your wife think about all this?”

“No idea. She left a long time ago. Not because of this… There were other things. Now it’s just me. Better that way. How about you? You got someone special?”

Tommy shook his head. “I’ve always been a bit of a loner.”

“Right. Better that way.”

They drove in silence for the rest of the trip.

“This is your stop. Last Chance Tattoo, huh?”

“Yep. You thinking of getting some ink?”

“Not me–can’t stand needles.”

“You must have at least thought about a tattoo. Everyone does. One out of three people in the US have tattoos nowadays.”

“One out of three? Not bad odds. But I’m ink free–and plan to stay that way. I definitely wouldn’t go to a place called Last Chance Tattoo!”

“When I opened the shop,” Tommy explained, “I thought it was my last chance at making real money.”

“Well, stick with these folks and you’ll have real money.”

“How do I stick with these folks, exactly?”

“That’s the thing. They’ll stick with you–if they’re happy with your work and you keep your mouth shut.”

“I understand.” Tommy mimed locking his mouth and throwing away the key.

“When they need you, they’ll give you a call. You can never be sure when it’ll be. But I have a hunch–sometime in the spring. And they’ll offer a lot more money.”


Tommy spent the next week squaring off debts and making small repairs around the shop. He installed a flat-screen television above the flash sheet display racks; eventually he’d have a USB with photographs of his best work running on a loop, but for now the TV was tuned to a cable news channel. The chatter of the talking heads helped him feel less lonely.

New Year’s Eve arrived, and Tommy celebrated by drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels on his own and watching the ball drop on TV. He scrolled through his contacts and tried his ex-girlfriend Robyn, but the call went straight to voicemail. Nights like this he missed Robyn. Christopher Robyn, he had called her, because of her endearing habit of imagining people as animals.

“You’re so lucky you can draw,” she had told him. “If I was an artist, I’d be drawing all the time.”

“What would you draw?”

“People. But I’d draw them as animals. Don’t you ever look at a person and think he’s a walrus, or she’s a hyena, or he’s a marmot?”

“Not really, but then I’m not entirely sure what a marmot looks like. How about me? What animal would I be?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” Robyn replied. “You’d be a fish.”

Robyn wasn’t very good at her game, Tommy had thought, because he looked nothing like a fish. He had picked up her curious habit of zoomorphism, though, and it remained with him even after their breakup.


Tommy stood outside the shop rubbing his hands together. He marveled at the protracted bitterness of winter, how it still felt chilly and damp here on the first day of spring. Mounds of filthy grey snow flecked with black dirt and pocked with cigarette ends still dotted the parking lot. The limo pulled up, and the driver’s window lowered.

“You’re early, Tommy. You were supposed to be here at 8 p.m. It’s only 7:56.”

“Uh, I’m sorry?”

Bill broke into a grin. “I’m just messing with you, Tommy.”

Tommy climbed into the limo. There was a fat manila envelope resting on the opposite seat.

“Good to see you again, kid. That’s yours.”

“Looks like you were right, Bill.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You told me you had a hunch they’d call in spring.”

“I must be clairvoyant or something, right?”

“Or something. How’d you know?”

“I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you.” Bill chuckled as he raised the privacy screen.

Tommy reached for the envelope. He untied the binding and peeked inside. Brown bill straps this time, and four of them. Twenty thousand dollars! Tommy realized that this was the first time in more than a decade that he would be solvent. Free of debt. It was an odd feeling, as though an invisible yet oppressive burden had lifted.


James opened the limo door and ushered Tommy into The Lodge.

“I see you’re the sensei again tonight.”

Seneschal, Tommy,” James corrected as they crossed through the antechamber.

Like a dentist who always noticed people’s teeth, Tommy couldn’t help scrutinizing people’s ink. This new client had all the classics: faded Chinese characters on his left shoulder, a blown-out tribal band circling his right forearm, veritas in gothic script at the nape of his neck, and–Tommy suppressed a snicker–someone had “grandfathered” his left arm.

Tommy had apprenticed to a master tattoo artist who had advised him to never do lions. “Lions are tough,” she had warned him, “especially head-on. They take on almost human proportions, so instead of looking like the king of the jungle, they end up resembling someone’s sleepy old grandfather. Don’t go around grandfathering people,” she had stressed repeatedly.

This lion was a real doozy. Cross-eyed, with a long, mournful face and a mane swept back like a mullet. Tommy suddenly didn’t feel too guilty about adding a tramp stamp to this guy’s list of offenses.

The man’s flesh was tough, unyielding. Tommy had seen this before in some clients­–previously muscular bodies packed firmly with middle-aged flab. Using the bamboo rod would require a very firm hand. Tommy pierced the skin with a quick thrust.

“Oi!” the man cried out in an English accent. “What’s with the heavy hand?”

“Traditional bamboo rod,” Tommy explained. “Tough to get the ink in.”

“Get it together, mate,” the man growled. “I’m not a bleedin’ pincushion.” He was only half correct; he was bleeding.

Despite the discouraging start, the Englishman sat like a rock, and Tommy completed the tattoo in just over an hour. He admired his handiwork. Who knew, maybe in ten years it might be considered ironically cool?

James met Tommy in the entrance hall. “I trust everything went well?”

Tommy gave a thumbs up. “One thing before I go,” he said. “Your equipment, lighting, everything is top-notch. The ink, though… It seems a little thin–makes it harder to pack in the black. I thought it was just the old guy’s skin last time, but I had the same problem tonight. I’d check with your supplier and see if they can get you Ever Black. It’s what I use in the shop.”

“We will certainly take that under advisement.”


“Any place to get a bite around here?” Bill asked, scanning the bank of stores in the plaza. “Uptown Grille?”

“The only things I’ve ever seen them grill are cheese sandwiches. But they have beer on tap.”

“I could go for a frosty mug. How ’bout you?”

The two men slid into a corner booth and ordered a couple of beers and a basket of fries. They circled around the subject of their mutual employment until Tommy leaned in closer. “How much do you actually know about these people, Bill?”

“The only thing I need to know–they pay well.”

“Something about the whole thing weirds me out.”

Bill snorted. “They’re harmless, really. Just a bunch of secret society kooks who enjoy playing dress-up.” Bill took a swig of his beer. “You can walk away anytime. Me, I don’t have that luxury. I’m in a hole…financially speaking.”

Tommy frowned. “You’ve been working for these people longer than I have. You shouldn’t have any money problems.”

“My money problem isn’t solved by more money. In fact, that only makes it worse. See, I have a gambling problem. It’s an addiction, really. More money just means higher stakes, bigger bets, and lower lows. Every day you crawl deeper and deeper into that hole because it feels safe and there is something tremendously comforting about chance. Think of that trip to Aruba. What was the chance of that fish hitting me in the face? A million to one? According to the law of infinite probability, one day you’ll open your tumble dryer and find that the clothes have all fallen together in a perfectly orderly pile. Folded by the hand of fate. I’ve always convinced myself that I can ride out my bad luck. My wife…she wasn’t prepared to ride with me. I don’t blame her. She once asked me, ‘If you could flip a coin and if it landed on heads you’d win 10 million dollars but if it landed on tails you’d drop down dead, would you take that chance?’ ‘Sure,’ I told her. ‘Either way, I wouldn’t be going to work tomorrow.’” Bill gestured to the waiter for another beer.

“You have a pen on you?” Tommy asked as he grabbed a napkin.

“Don’t lose it,” Bill said, handing over a heavy gold pen. “It’s a Visconti.”

Tommy scribbled the ankh on the napkin. “Have you seen this symbol before?”

“Looks a little like a cross–with a balloon at the top.”

“An ancient Egyptian symbol. I didn’t think much of it until I looked it up. The ankh represents eternal life. Our employer has been marking people with this sign.”

“Marking how?”

“Tattooed,” Tommy replied. “By me.”

Bill nodded thoughtfully. “The Mormons have their underwear, and the Masons have their handshakes. These folks have this. Is it weird? Yeah. But it’s a weird that pays the bills.”

“There’s this feeling I can’t shake… Maybe it’s nothing, but it feels like something’s off.”

“You sound like me when I need to pick out my Lotto numbers. I start looking at the digits on license plates, counting the birds on a telephone wire. Everything has meaning. Nothing has meaning. My mind is full of odds and probabilities.”

“Isn’t there someone you can see? About your problem?”

“Aw, I’m touched, Tommy. Really, I am. I’ll be fine. I’m up for a promotion at work. I’ll be okay.” Bill downed his beer and wiped his mouth. “Snake eyes,” he said.


“You asked me what tattoo I’d get. Snake eyes. A pair of dice with a single pip up. Usually, it’s a losing roll, and I feel like I’ve been rolling snake eyes my whole life.” Bill got up to leave. “I’ll be seeing you, Tommy.”


“They never say. But I’ll bet my bottom dollar it’ll be in the summer.”

Tommy remained at the Uptown Grille after Bill left. He had that inertia that came after a few drinks. When the bar closed at 3 a.m., Tommy almost forgot the manila envelope at the table. All that money, and he’d given it as much consideration as a balled-up napkin.


Tommy woke up on the Last Chance Tattoo sofa. He was startled to hear voices in the shop but then realized he’d left the TV on all night.

Breaking news out of New York today: British pop star Garry Lydon was discovered dead in his hotel room in Chelsea this morning. Lydon was best known for his hit “Luv Is a Three-Letter Word.” The cause of death is not yet known, but Lydon had been open about his struggles with drug addiction, which began when he was just a teenager. Fans, friends, and fellow artists took to social media to express their shock and grief.

Tommy sat with his mouth agape. Something in the video montage had caught his eye. He opened his laptop and searched for images of Garry Lydon. He spotted it almost immediately. There, on Lydon’s left arm, was a tattoo of a lion. Not a lion, the lion. From last night. There was no mistaking the boss-eyed beast’s long face and swept-back mane. Lydon’s body had been discovered this morning, which meant that less than twelve hours separated his death from his session with Tommy. “One hell of a coincidence,” he whispered to himself.

Tommy thought about the first mystery man he had tattooed. He searched for deaths reported just after his first visit to The Lodge. Amid the glut of drunk driving fatalities typical of the festive season, the only noteworthy death was that of Senator William Wetherbee. Tommy clicked on the obituary in the Sunday Sentinel. Wetherbee was 88 years old but looked closer to a hundred. A dour man with a downturned mouth and hair as white and fine as corn silk, he had passed in his sleep a few days before Christmas.

Tommy massaged his temples; a thundercloud of a migraine had formed just behind his eyes. The date checked out, and Wetherbee could be a match for the old man. No, Tommy told himself, he was letting his imagination get the better of him. Self-sabotage. The usual tactic from the Tommy Stillwell playbook–just as soon as he was onto a good thing, he’d do his best to ruin it. He closed his laptop and turned off the TV. Still, he couldn’t shake the image of that lion.


Summer arrived like a steam train, hot and gusty. Clavicle tattoos were all the rage leading up to skin-baring season, and Tommy had tattooed countless feathers, roses, and cursive phrases in that area. So many affirmations of “This too shall pass” and “Stay Strong” that Tommy couldn’t help but feel buoyed with positivity.

It wasn’t all good news, though. Power outages plagued the city–too many air conditioners burdening the aging power grid. The Dollar Store and the Uptown Grille shared an ancient diesel generator that kicked on anytime the power went out. Which it did now. Tommy could hear the dull thrumming of the generator rising from the other side of the plaza. He locked up and walked over to the Uptown Grille.

The bartender grinned. “What’ll it be, Tommy? The usual?” Dani was an elephant–long nose and excellent memory.


“I was surprised to see your friend here,” Dani said, sliding the draft over to Tommy.

“My friend?”

Dani cocked her head toward the corner booth.

Tommy strolled over. “Fancy meeting you here…”

“What can I say?” Bill replied. “I had a hankering for some gourmet French fries.”

“A few beers too, I reckon.” Tommy had detected a subtle slur in Bill’s response.

Bill held up two fingers in a Churchill “V for Victory” sign.

“Two?” Tommy asked.

Bill nodded. “It’s always two, isn’t it, Tommy? The first one and the last one. Everything in between doesn’t count. Take a seat. Join me.”

Tommy sat down and took a slug of his beer. “Nothing like a beer on a hot day.”

“James has been trying to reach you. It’s June 21st. The summer solstice.”

“Okay.” Tommy shrugged. “You said we’d meet again in the summer.”

“I thought you’d have figured it out by now. When did we first meet?”

“A few days before Christmas. December…”

“… twenty-first.”

“Yeah, that sounds right.”

“December 21st is the winter solstice. We met again on March 20th–the vernal equinox.”

“And today is the summer solstice…”

“Exactly. Every time you’re called to The Lodge, it’s on a day of astrological significance.”

“Astrological significance,” Tommy muttered. “Remember what I told you about the ankh?”

Bill nodded.

“I think the people that were tattooed with it have been turning up dead.”

Bill’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve seen stuff like this before. A fella gets a tattoo of a broken mirror or an upside-down cross, and suddenly his entire world turns to shit. Wife cheats on him, he gets laid off, house burns down in a fire… One of these guys was super old, though, and the other was a drug addict, so I don’t know, maybe it is just a strange coincidence.”

Bill patted a small leather briefcase on the seat next to him. “Sixty thousand.”

Tommy stammered, “That…that’s…a lot.” He remembered an anecdote he’d read about Princess Diana–how she’d wanted to back out of her wedding to Prince Charles at the last moment and her sisters had joked, “It’s too late to chicken out now–your face is already on the tea towels.”

“I can see the gears grinding in your head.” Bill smirked. “Smoke’s practically coming out of your ears. You can do a lot with that sort of money. I’d probably disappear. Head on down to Mexico and set up a tiki hut on the beach or buy a schooner and take people out fishing. There are no flying fish in Mexico, right?”

Tommy took another slug of beer.

“We should probably get going,” Bill said.

Tommy nodded. His face was already on the tea towels.


“Make yourself comfortable, Tommy.” James gestured to a brocade-covered settee in the antechamber. “The client will be here momentarily.” Tommy slumped down on the sofa and discovered that it was as hard and unyielding as a church pew. James reappeared about twenty minutes later. “We are ready for you now, Tommy.”

The body on the table was as pink and hairless as a deli ham. Tommy snapped on the blue disposable gloves.

“Go easy–it’s my first time,” the canvas joked in a familiar voice.

Tommy paused. “Bill?”

Bill raised his head. “I told you I was up for a promotion.”

“Christ, Bill,” Tommy hissed. “After everything I told you?”

Bill waved away Tommy’s admonishment. “You worry too much. Remember what I told you. If you could flip a coin and win 10 million dollars if it came up heads but drop dead if it came up tails, would you take that chance? I’m here for the same reason you’re here. We can’t help ourselves. Birds of a feather, right? An addict recognizes an addict.”

Tommy frowned. “I’m not–” But there was no point trying to lie to Bill, especially now. Tommy was an addict, an alcoholic who had started his own business because he couldn’t hold down a steady job. “Last Chance Tattoo” was so named not because it was his last chance at making real money but because it was his last chance at staying sober and going straight. It hadn’t exactly worked. His addiction was the reason he knew that alcohol was no good for the lines, and the countless times he’d tattooed while half in the bag had almost tanked his business. It was the reason that Dani at the Uptown Grille greeted him like an old friend and offered him his usual. It was the reason Robyn had left him. Her number had gone straight to voicemail because his had been blocked. “You’d be a fish,” she had told him. Not because he looked like a fish, but because he drank like one. It had been a cutting joke, and Tommy had finally arrived at the punch line.

“It’s a horrible thing,” Bill muttered bitterly, “when we first recognize ourselves. Our true selves. Look at me. Most of my life I thought I was a rat. Turns out, I’m a pig. Those Chinese restaurants when we were kids–they had those paper placemats, remember? The ones with the zodiac signs? Here you are, Billy, born in 1972. That makes you a rat. I was happy, too, being a rat. Only, decades later, I discovered that the Chinese zodiac follows the lunar calendar, and since I was born near the beginning of the year, I wasn’t a rat after all. I was a pig.”

“Bill, I don’t see how this is…relevant.”

“I guess it’s not.” Bill sighed. “You ever wonder why they chose you, kid? It’s not because you’re the best artist in your state. Hell, Tommy, I hate to break it to you, but you’re not even the best artist in your zip code. It’s because you’re like me. Disposable.”

“It’s not too late,” Tommy said. “You can still leave.”

“I’m fine,” Bill insisted. “I just hate needles.”


Tommy had lined half the tattoo, and Bill had not moved at all; in fact, Tommy wasn’t sure he was even breathing. He paused and listened closely. He could just make out the soft whistle of air entering and exiting Bill’s nose. Bill slept through the rest of the tattoo. When Tommy left, he shut the door gently so as not to wake him.

Tommy stumbled out of the lodge, keeled over, and retched violently. He was surprised–he never vomited. The very cells of his body had always seemed too ravenous to risk surrendering even a single molecule of alcohol. He stumbled toward the car. It was unlikely that Bill had awakened and composed himself in time to drive him back to the shop. Tommy didn’t care; he opened the door and slumped inside. He was surprised when the car’s tires crunched over the gravel and lurched into the night.

The privacy screen lowered. “We are disappointed, Tommy.”

Tommy recognized the cold voice and noticed the white glove on the steering wheel. “I guess I’m carpooling with you tonight, Jim.”

“I can tolerate a smart mouth if it comes with smart ears. But you, Tommy, did not listen. You were supposed to tattoo the ankh. Not whatever that was.”

“I gave the client what he wanted. Snake Eyes. Dice. That ankh is bad luck.”

“Bad luck?” James laughed.

“The people who’ve been getting the ankh have been turning up dead.”

“So, you thought you would save your friend? How noble of you, Tommy, but you condemned Bill to death with the first pass of the needle. You see, Tommy, it is not the ankh–it is the ink. It contains a bio-toxin derived from jellyfish venom. If you had followed the rules, you would have provided enough toxin that Bill would have died peacefully within a few hours. But you went off-piste. You used far less ink on his tattoo than you would have on the ankh. Far less ink means far less toxin. Enough to kill him, certainly, but not quickly or cleanly.”

“Oh my god. What have I done?” Tommy dry-heaved a few times before he was able to speak again. “Oh my god. Why? Why Bill? Why me? Why any of this?”

“There are mysteries, rites, and laws which govern our fellowship, Tommy. Just know that you were a small part of something much larger and grander than you could ever comprehend. Everyone you tattooed knew how their membership in our organization would end. Even Bill.”

“But the police–someone–will see the tattoos. They’ll put two and two together. I’ll go to jail for murder.”

“What tattoos?” James asked flatly, not even turning his head. “The pigments in our ‘ink’ start to dissolve within a few hours. We gave you a time limit for a reason.”

Tommy remembered how dismissive James had been when he’d advised him to purchase Ever Black.

“I suppose you are wondering what we are going to do with you, Tommy,” James guessed correctly. “I am too. You have made a fine mess of things, and you cannot be trusted to keep your mouth shut. Nobody can. It was one of our founding members who said that three people can keep a secret only if two of them are dead. Still…that seems a bit unfair. You were merely an independent contractor and not a member of our fellowship at the time of your insubordination. I have some good news, though. A position has just become available.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“I am quite serious. You have until the next traffic light to decide.”

The green light in the distance rushed toward him, and Tommy knew one thing. Whatever happened tonight, he wouldn’t be going back to work tomorrow.


If you’ve enjoyed “Last Chance Tattoo”, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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