Ink by Jonathan Maberry: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQOctober 29, 2020
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“Will it hurt?”
Patty Cakes paused, the tattoo needle in her hand, looking at the man who lay facedown on the table. He was as white and hairless as a worm.
She could have lied to him, but she never did that.
“Yes,” she said.
The man took a long time before he said, “Good.”
Welcome to Pine Deep
There are towns like Pine Deep.
But not many.
Luckily, not many.
Monk Addison rolled off the iron bridge and slowed to a stop on the two-lane blacktop. He sat idling in front of a sign that was mounted fifty feet inside the town limits. His car was a twenty-year-old piece of shit that growled like a sick dog. A Chevy something-or-other with reflector tape on one of the taillights, duct tape holding the seats together, and an ashtray filled with butts. The CD player worked, though, and Tom Waits was growling at him about chasing the devil through the corn-fields.
Monk studied the billboard on the right-hand side of the road. It told two stories, one old, one a little less old. Neither new, and he read something into that.
The old sign was an advertisement for the Pine Deep Haunted Hayride—biggest on the East Coast, it claimed. There was some art, but it was so faded that it was impossible to tell what it showed. Looked like shadows in a glaucoma sufferer’s eyes.
It was the new sign that made Monk stop and look.
Someone had gone to some effort to paste a big white banner across the billboard’s face. Glued it down flat, no bubbles or wrinkles. And then used spray paint to write two words. Elaborate, in a mix of old English and cartoon; 3-D, with lots of color. Like one of the better graffiti taggers in New York. The message was just two words.
The message was obscure and it was clear.
Go home . . . because this isn’t it.
The sign was stained from rain and snow, scraped by stuff blown by wind; torn a bit here and there, maybe by birds looking for something to line a nest. Monk didn’t think anything torn from that sign would ever make it to a nest, though. The smarter birds would have dropped the paper before wrapping it around their eggs. The dimmer ones might have gotten all the way home with it, then their mate would have balked and kicked it away.
“Go home,” said Monk.
There was a U-Haul hitched to the back of his car. Everything he owned was in it.
He slapped his pockets for his smokes, didn’t find them, and remembered he was four days into his hundredth attempt to quit. Cigarettes were a bad habit, and he’d picked it up for the same reasons cops did. Monk spent hours, sometimes days, sitting in cars watching closed houses or apartments for the right person to come through the door. For cops it was someone they wanted to arrest. For Monk it was someone who’d already been arrested, charged, and who’d skipped out on his court appearance. The bail bondsmen who hired Monk to find those people paid him well, but the waiting was a bitch. Smoking gave his hands and mouth something to do. But he needed to stop killing himself one death stick at a time. All that said, he decided to find a store and buy a carton. He wasn’t that far down the shitter that he was going to dig an ashy butt from the tray. Give that a day or two in this place.
“Well, fuck me,” he said and put the car into gear, pulled onto the road, and drove toward the sunset. Behind him, across the river on the Jersey side, it was already getting dark. There were moody clouds bullying their way into the sky.
He drove along the blacktop.
He drove to Pine Deep.
He drove home.
There were hundreds of black birds on the power lines along Route A-32.
Most were crows. Some starlings and grackles. A few were so thin and threadbare that it was impossible to tell what they were. Maybe they didn’t even know. It was that kind of town.
Only a few of those birds were old enough to remember what happened the night Pine Deep burned. All of the birds—the black ones, the nightbirds—knew it, though. It was the lore of their kind.
The birds sat there in the fading light of the first of October, rustling their feathers, gossiping the way birds do, watching the old car with the trailer drive past. They stopped whispering and watched with black-within-black eyes.
They knew trouble when they saw it.
One by one the nightbirds fell like suicides from the cables, plummeting until they flapped their wings, and then flew along the road behind him. The bruised clouds in the east reached for them with fingers of rain, but they outflew it.
The car and the nightbirds followed the long road as it snaked and turned, rose and fell, rolling like a black promise through the endless fields of corn and pumpkins, of apples and garlic. Farmhouses, remote as ships on the ocean, stood amid oceans of green that rippled in the freshening storm breeze. Farm roads cut off north and south, seemingly at random. Every signpost was pocked with bullet holes, old and new. Every now and then the car passed a house or barn that was nothing more than a blackened shell overgrown with creeper vines. There were several houses being built, but the green wood bones looked naked and vulnerable.
Four miles from town the car passed a man who leaned a shoulder against a fence, his face shadowed by the visor of a ballcap embroidered with Pine Deep Scarecrows. He wore layers of filthy clothes—sports coats and fishing vests and tropical shirts and flannel shirts and windbreakers. There was no scheme to the clothes except they all had pockets. Lots of pockets. A fanny pack sagged around his narrow waist, and the pockets of old cargo pants bulged with things he’d picked out of garbage cans and gutters and elsewhere. No one in town knew his name. They called him Mr. Pockets. He watched the car pass with eyes older than the trees, and a smile whose lips seemed to ripple and writhe. He spoke a single word as his eyes watched the car roll away.
Night was falling hard, and as the clouds devoured the sun, the car rolled on.
Patty Cakes remembered the man. The customer.
Remembered him coming in. Stripping off his shirt.
She remembered his skin. Like a mushroom. Cool to the touch and spongy. He smelled like yeast from a bakery Dumpster.
She could not remember his face, though.
He paid in cash, so no credit card receipt.
She half-ass remembered his name. Owen something. The last name was a blur, if he’d said it at all.
What she remembered most—what she remembered with an odd clarity—was his touch. It wasn’t deliberate, she was pretty sure. He hadn’t tried to cop a feel or accidentally brush against her breast, the way some guys did. He hadn’t laid his hand casually over the wrong part of the armrest in hope of the backs of his fingers brushing her crotch. That was an old trick, but he hadn’t done that, either.
What he did was so casual, so accidental.
It was after she took off the black pearl latex gloves she wore when sinking ink. She’d given him a punch card. Five sessions and a sixth free. The tips of his fingers just ran along the back of her hand as he took the card. Easy, no pause, nothing forced. Just that touch. Then he was gone, taking his name and his face with him. Taking the blowfly with him. The newest member of a swarm, he’d said, though there were only two others on his skin. Looking real, like it was crawling on his back. Her stuff always looked real.
That touch was real.
She hadn’t imagined it.
Had he meant to do that? Patty wondered. Had he? Or was it her being weird about being in a new place? New store. New town and state.
Patty stood looking out of her storefront window. Not knowing. She held her left hand—the one he’d touched—in her right, massaging the point of contact with a thumb that went around and around and around.
Will it hurt?
That was what he asked. She’d told him it would. It didn’t hurt that much. Not to most people, but if you said it did then they were usually happy it wasn’t as bad as they thought. They felt braver, stronger. That strength made them feel validated for having chosen to get a tattoo in the first place.
Will it hurt?
“Yes,” she said aloud, as if answering that question again now. Good.
That’s what he said, and then he didn’t say anything at all until the blowfly was done. He was a cadaver in the chair, one of those people who go so far into their heads during the process that they might as well be dead. Patty preferred new customers to be chattier, because it gave her insight that might affect the kind of colors she used, or to inspire remarks that might bring them back. With a good conversationalist in the chair she could double the job in one sitting, or get them back as regulars and build some sleeves, or get them to buy the chest pieces or full-back work. Good money but also jobs that would allow Patty’s artistry to shine. Jobs that would make her fully alive.
Not this man, though. He asked the one question and then said, “Good.” Nothing else. Not a word.
She was quick with him, but only as quick as art allowed. After the blowfly was done, she gave him a printed aftercare sheet to which was stapled a 10 percent-off coupon for any new purchase.
He said nothing. But he’d sniffed the paper like a dog sniffing a patch of ground he wanted to roll in; then he folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. He left without saying a word. That word, though, echoed in the empty shop after he was gone.
“Good,” Patty said, repeating it, trying for the same weight and inflection. Getting too close. The word tasted wrong in her mouth. Like someone else’s spit.
The first time Monk tried to call Patty, while he was still in New York, it had gone straight to voicemail.
The second time, while he was way out in some part of Jersey that seemed to be nothing but strip malls, there was no signal. One flickering bar that simply refused to push through his call. Or didn’t give a fuck. He wondered how the hell people who owned, worked in, or shopped at all those stores got through the day without Wi-Fi. He realized that he was being way too twenty-first century about that, and it soured him.
He called a third time as he was cruising along through farm country on the east side of the Delaware, while motoring between fields of corn that seemed endless. The corn was hypnotizing. Every mile seemed identical to the last. It was like being in one of those old Twilight Zone stories about being caught in a time loop, driving forever with no chance of ever getting where you needed to be. He was positive he was passing the same fence posts and the same damn scarecrow over and over again.
He called Patty again. Fourth time? Fifth? It rang three times and then she picked up.
“Monk . . . ?” said Patty Cakes in a voice filled with sleep. It was early evening on a long workday.
“Hey, there,” said Monk, slowing to a stop on the shoulder for fear of driving out of cell range. “I’m here.”
“Here . . . ?”
“Here. In town. Or almost. Still way the hell out in farm country, but I’ll be there soon.”
There was a pause. A little too long, even for someone who just woke up. “In town . . . ? You’re here in Brooklyn?”
“Huh? No,” he said, “I’m in Pine Deep.”
Another pause. Then, in a voice that was more dreamy than sleepy, Patty said, “Oh. Sure. Good. See you.”
And the line went dead.
Monk stared at the phone as if the screen display would provide an explanation. Or translation. Or something. He frowned, not liking that conversation one little bit. Patty was going through some shit—that’s why she left New York. This place was supposed to be a dial-it-down move; zero stress in rural America. But she sounded out of it. Or high. He put the pedal down.
The speed was posted at thirty-five. He didn’t give much of a fuck about that.
The big cop in the shiny black-and-white cruiser was tucked behind a billboard advertising the Pinelands Fringe Festival. He sipped a Diet Dr Pepper and felt the day get older one dying molecule at a time. There had been five cars in two hours. All of them local, none of them breaking any laws he cared about.
Then he saw the old Chevy blow past. The cop didn’t have a radar gun pointed out the window, but it didn’t matter. Guy had to be doing sixty in a thirty-five zone.
The cop reached out a hand and got as far as the switch for the lights and siren, but stopped there. It wasn’t the car that stopped him, or the profile of the big man behind the wheel. He hadn’t seen either before.
No, it was the birds that made him pause. In the air, fifty or sixty feet above the car, a flock of nightbirds followed that car. More birds leapt from trees and joined in. All of them dark. No pigeons or finches. He wasn’t even sure they were crows. He knew those birds. Had for a long time. Birds like those anyway.
This was, after all, Pine Deep.
The cop leaned back and let the car go. Thunder rumbled off to the east. Very close. Maybe already on this side of the river. There had been a lot of clouds lately, a lot of rain. The early October crops were getting fat, but there was a weird feel to things. People seemed a little jumpy. The nights were colder than they should have been. Lots of roadkill on the highway. The cop didn’t like any of that because it reminded him of another autumn back when he was a kid. That started with storms and nightbirds, too.
There was a sudden bang of thunder accompanied by a supernova of lightning. The cop winced and covered his eyes; the cruiser shuddered.
“Jesus Christ,” he hissed and then fought to blink his retinas clear. The storm seemed to have suddenly leapt across the river and now crouched over the farm fields, its underbelly heavy with ugly udders filled with rain. The next bursts of thunder were loud, but not as shocking, as if the storm—having got-ten his full attention—was settling down to business. The cop saw lightning reflected on the curved leaves of the corn, making them look like polished porcelain, and when the lightning flashed they looked cracked and ready to break. The cop ran the pad of his thumb along the red-gold stubble on his chin. A habit he had that he didn’t know he had.
Then his radio squawked.
“Base to four,” said the voice of the dispatcher, Gertie. “Base to four, over.”
The cop picked up the handset. “Four to base. Go ahead.”
“Mike, honey,” said Gertie, “are you off dinner yet?”
This was a small town and they weren’t all that formal.
“Copy that. Skipped dinner. I’m watching by the Fringe billboard on A-32. What’ve you got?”
“A 10-54 out on Barkers Farm Road.”
Officer Mike Sweeney smiled. That ten-code was for “livestock on road.”
“Walking or hit?” he asked.
“Hit. Tourist car plowed into a cow.”
“I think so.”
He smiled up at clouds. “Then,” he said, “it’s a 10-52.”
“Oh,” said Gertie. “Right. But there was the cow thing, too.”
“Is the cow dead?”
“No. Messed up, though,” she said. “I’ve got some EMTs inbound. For the people, I mean.”
Gertie was a nice-enough person—though Mike was aware that he was the only one who thought so—but she was not cut out for police dispatch. She gave Mike the make, model, and color of the car, and the name of the tourist who’d called in.
“Gertie . . . ?” said Mike.
“You don’t really need to use the ten-codes. You can just tell me a car hit a cow.”
“Trying to be professional,” she said defensively. “Crow likes us to act like real police.”
“We are real police, Gertie. But we can talk plain . . . and trust me when I say that Crow doesn’t give much of a damn about how we ‘act.’”
There was a silence. Not exactly sullen or stony, and— he was sure— not all that contemplative. Gertie was Gertie. More of a fixture than a part of the team.
He heard her clear her throat. “You going out there?” Her voice was a little stiff.
“On it,” Mike said and ended the call.
The old car pulling the U-Haul was gone and the road was empty. The locals would have read the sky; the tourists wouldn’t be flocking in too heavily midweek. Mike started the engine and pulled away from the curb, did a U-turn. Rain be-gan splatting on his windshield. He turned on the wipers and his light-bar, kept the siren off, and went in the opposite direction.
He thought about that old car, though. There was something about it that he did not like. No, sir, not one little bit.
Dianna Agbala selected a deck of tarot cards from the scores lined up like books on her kitchen shelf. She waited for that flash of coldness that told her it was the right deck for the moment, and slid it out and set it on the table.
Her tummy was warm with two cups of coffee and for now, at least, the sky was dark with storm clouds visible through her kitchen windows. She was on the evening shift at the store and adjusted her day accordingly. Sia and Dua Lipa had gotten her through dinner, but now she was shifting her energy and asked Echo to play “Aud Guray” by Deva Premal. Soothing, elegant, miles deep.
The cats were already settled down. They were intuitive and knew when she was going quiet, going inward. Toby Oscar was stretched in a patch of sunlight, and Zoey lay on the top of the fridge. She liked to survey the world like an imperious senior lama.
Dianna’s sensitivity varied in its manifestations. Nothing was ever a lock, and even with all of her experience there were surprises and mysteries everywhere she looked. Being confident in her world was not the same as knowing the complete shape and size of it. No one did, and anyone who said otherwise was running a con game on the tourists.
The music was already doing its work, tugging her gently away from concerns of the moment—the need to check Facebook and Instagram, the desire to check emails to see if her mother or—more dangerously—her ex had written. Her mood softened as she sat down at the table and picked up the boxed cards. Her touch had responded to the traditional Rider-Waite deck. It was so familiar that it made her smile. This was the deck she’d learned on, which was not at all uncommon for people like her. Rider-Waite was first published in 1910 and was a classic. Pamela Colman Smith’s paintings were enduring clas-sics that had been painted using instructions by the mystic A. E. Waite. They looked simple, almost primitive, but there was so much subtlety in terms of hidden symbolism that the cards were highly valued more than a century later. Dianna had worn out at least five decks over the years, and one antique set was in a shadow box on her bedroom wall. The store where Dianna worked even sold sets of coasters with the images of the Magus, Empress, Emperor, and Fool on them.
She settled herself in her chair and took some long, cleansing breaths. Not trying for any deep level of tranquility, but instead a soft and receptive state. When the calm gathered around her like a comfortable bathrobe, Dianna opened the box and slid the cards into her hands. They were so old now, so worn from thousands of readings. Because customers often picked trendier or newer-looking decks, these cards slept for long periods of time. Even during this morning ritual they were not the deck that spoke to her very often.
While she shuffled she disconnected as much of her consciousness as possible, letting noninvolvement permit the right cards to find her and match her need. Then she dealt three cards facedown and set the others aside. Those three represented the past, present, and future. She had no specific question in mind on mornings like this, but the town had been on her mind a lot lately. The Fringe neighborhood was growing very fast and it was very much her kind of crowd—artistic, a bit wild, com-plex, outside of normal definitions. The first Pinelands Fringe Festival was coming up soon and there was a bit of friction with the longtime locals. They didn’t want the festival, despite all the money it would bring with it. There was some validity to their pushback. The Trouble had happened during a Halloween festival, and since then the “events” in Pine Deep tended to be apple festivals that lasted an afternoon, and Santa arriving on a fire truck on Black Friday. Dianna had enough locals as clients to know that they thought having another big festival was asking for trouble. Tempting fate. Invoking the wrong kind of spirits in a town known to have troubling energy going back centuries.
So it was the town that formed the basis of her three-card reading, even if unintentionally. Dianna never swam against the current in her readings.
She turned over the first card. The Ten of Swords.
The image showed a man lying facedown with ten swords stabbed into his back. Dianna stiffened, reading both the traditional meaning of that card but also experiencing a sharp stab of instinctive awareness. And the old line from Shakespeare flickered through her thoughts.
By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.
Clients often thought that the Devil or Death cards were the worst or direst, but for Dianna the Ten of Swords was far worse. But it was also maddeningly nonspecific. The people in town should be on the lookout for betrayal, painful endings, loss, wounds, and crisis. Some unforeseeable pain was on the horizon, something that could not be avoided. A pain that would cut deeply, leaving some of her neighbors feeling like they had been stabbed ten times over, and completely leveled out emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.
Her heart stopped for a frozen moment when she saw that card.
It was an ugly card to get at the start of a new day.
It was an ugly card to have, ever.
She almost stopped to reshuffle. Almost. But Dianna took a breath and plunged ahead.
“What is the outcome of this?” she murmured.
She turned over the second card.
She chewed her lip. The Magician was not inherently a bad card, but its meaning was conditional on the other cards. Sometimes it was an empowered and uplifting card. However, if something bad was coming to Pine Deep, or was already there, then the cause of it was whomever the Magician card referred to. Because the card was part of the Major Arcana, unlike the Ten of Swords, it represented an actual individual person. Minor Arcana cards—those of the swords, cups, wands, and pentacles—represented situations that would happen to someone. Major Arcana cards represented the people or individual that created those situations.
Most often, and in most decks, the Magician was male. The image on the card was a man in white robes with a red sash holding a sword aloft while a snake coiled around his waist. The infinity symbol hovered over his head, showing that he operated outside of time and space. The snake and the symbols in front of him meant he was able to use anything to create anything. The Magician wielded real power. He turned energy into matter and took matter and converted it to energy. He saw the essence in all things and could use it to do what he wanted with it. Good or ill.
When accompanying the Ten of Swords, the Magician card spoke of a pernicious intent that chilled Dianna to her core.
The desire to end the reading was very strong, but her need to know was stronger still. She had to know what the implications were of such a person being present and doing such things.
“What is to come of this?” she asked and heard the tremble in her voice.
Dianna licked her lips and steeled herself before turning the last card. There were plenty of cards in both higher and lower Arcana that could change the meaning of this reading.
The one she turned, though, was not one of those.
The picture was that of a building crumbling as lightning struck it. Flames erupted from its window and two people leapt for safety but were too far from the ground. The fall would kill them.
The Tower. Another of the higher Arcana cards.
The card of total destruction.
She recoiled from it. Depending on when it appeared in a reading, the Tower could represent physical structures being destroyed. Dianna knew of a psychic who’d had that card appear in every reading leading up to when the planes hit the Twin Towers. But it could also represent so much more. It could represent systems. It could represent people. Lives. The Tower represented the greater body of anything—physical or metaphorical. The Tower represented the dismantling of those systems or structures.
She pushed her chair back from the table. A sound made her turn and she saw that both of her cats were now standing together, trembling with fear, their hair raised and stiff along their spines. Toby Oscar made a sick mewling noise. Zoey bared her teeth and hissed.
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