Jeff Coleman carefully pulled the stencil off my arm. I studied it, and even though I was looking at it upside down, it was spectacular.
The Japanese koi swam in a curve around my biceps; ocean waves and lotus flowers danced around it. I’d told Jeff I wanted the fish to be gold and white, the flowers yellow, red, and pink, and the waves different shades of blue and purple.
It was half a sleeve, enough to cover up the tiny scars from the windshield glass. Jeff had tried to talk me into a full sleeve, but I needed more time to think about what I wanted.
Jeff’s hesitation made me pause. He was nervous about this. He hadn’t cracked a joke since he came to the shop, didn’t call me “Kavanaugh” once.
I made him come to The Painted Lady because, honestly, I wasn’t quite sure just how clean his shop was. I knew how clean mine was. He acted all put out at first when I said he could do my ink, only on my turf. But he was strangely quiet when he arrived with his case, explaining that he needed his own machine.
“It’s great,” I said, meaning it.
It wasn’t flash, either. He’d designed it. He hadn’t wanted to, but when I pointed out the brilliance of his Day of the Dead tattoo, he finally acquiesced.
“You know,” I said, “you could start doing custom designs.”
He snorted, then rolled his eyes. “I’m going to leave that to you, Kavanaugh. The drunks need a place to go at two a.m. I’m happy to provide that.”
The machine started whirring, and just before he touched it to my skin, he added, “And don’t tell anybody about this, all right? I don’t need that kind of reputation.”
I grinned. “Your secret is safe with me, Coleman.” Then I closed my eyes, feeling the first sting of the needle before it mellowed into the familiar and welcome pain.
The envelope arrived two days later. Bitsy handed it to me when I got in. I shoved it under my armpit as I went into the staff room. Dropping my messenger bag on a chair and taking a sip of my to-go coffee, I plucked it out from under my arm and saw there wasn’t a return address and the postmark was smudged so I couldn’t see where it had been mailed from.
It was one of those big yellow envelopes with the Bubble Wrap inside. I ripped it open and took out a sheet of paper.
“Luck didn’t have anything to do with it,” it read.
It was signed “Rusty.”
I peered into the darkness of the envelope, wondering what the note meant. Something was stuck in the bottom of the envelope, so I turned it upside down and shook it once.
A fifty-dollar casino chip dropped onto the table.