Marise stepped out of the darkness, wisps crowding her vision as she emerged into a crowded lane. She stumbled, retreated back underneath an awning. She blinked several times, fighting the loss of her night vision. The sun burned brightly overhead, a blue sky stared down in defiance of the clouds creeping toward the city. Long shadows stretched across the pavement. She put out a hand to steady herself, breathing in. Trash crowded the corners of the alley.
No, this wasn’t right. She’d been square in the middle of the Dregs.
Even through her muddled thoughts, she recognized the neons even with them turned off. She stood between the Theatre and the Pleasure district. She focused and saw Na Creidmhigh, with all its towering waterfalls, off in the distance.
She had ended up on the periphery of the Upper District.
Head swirling, she stepped back. She couldn’t have gotten here on her own. She’d—
She spun to grab her bag, but found it missing. Screaming in frustration, she turned to see several people looking at her. The moment she locked eyes on them, they averted their gaze and continued on their journey. She heard something stir in the darkness behind her, just beyond the sun’s eager reach. She took a step from it, narrowing her eyes so she could see. A figure slinked forward, its form insubstantial in the darkness.
She bolted from the shadow. Her feet pounded against the cobblestones as she sprinted, breath coming out in heavy rasps. She darted down the streets, not paying attention to where she was headed. She bounced off of people, forced herself forward even as her muscles ached. She ran down a set of stairs, almost plummeted to the ground but caught herself. Her legs finally gave out and she collapsed against an old brownstone. She tried to catch her breath, draping an arm across her leg as she leaned back against the building.
She yelped, retreated back into the middle of the street. She searched the shade that had been behind her but found nothing there. Her brow furrowed and she looked around, noticed all the eyes on her. People had clustered together in small groups to watch her, whispers darting between them. She remembered how she looked, the blood on her clothes, the way they barely clung to her body. She pulled into herself, then she saw the Officers rapidly approaching. Two of them, in their blue suits, the metal bits on the hands. She locked eyes with them. They picked up their approach.
She bolted once more, despite the burning in her chest. She’d just escaped that Officer and now she had made a spectacle of herself. As she darted down the thoroughfare, her thoughts played out what would happen if she was locked in a cell by herself. Much less what would happen when night arrived.
The darkness would come.
She turned down a street and came across a couple of restaurants and a tattoo parlor. Beauty Through Pain was etched in the glass so that when the sunlight hit it, it cast the letters into the waiting area. Trying to recall the image, Marise shot a glance over her shoulder but didn’t see the Officers yet.
She may have lost her materials, the image with them, but she had captured the image twice now. She could do it again. And she needed to make sure that she never lost it again. And, with the Officers out for her, she wouldn’t be looked at twice since she was a patron. The faster they started, the quicker she’d be out of suspicion. Of course, it would also rely on the artist being discreet. If all that failed, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to pull off the same trick that had gotten her away from Officer Edmonds.
“Fuck it,” she said and entered the parlor. She was assaulted with loud music, sharp and distorted amidst the usual smooth jazz around the city. There was something about it that attracted her, the driving beat, the high-pitched notes in rapid succession. Buzzing came from one of the many open doors. She crossed the tile floor, leaned up against the countertop and hit the bell, announcing they had a customer waiting.
After a couple more hits, she watched as a nervous looking beanpole of a man appeared from behind a closed door. “Seriously? None of those fuckers could get up here?” He approached with the air of being too important to be bothered with front desk work. He was wearing a partially unbuttoned white shirt, sleeves rolled up past his elbows, no vest or tie. The sides of his head were shaved, but he had long wavy black hair that had been pulled back tight against his skull. He fell into a chair, pulling out a cigarette as he said with as little emotion as possible, “Welcome to BTP. My name’s Chester. What can we do for you?”
“I’ve got a design I’d like to get tattooed.”
“Grand. I can I see it?”
Marise bit her lip, checked the windows. Still no Officers. “Can I draw it for you?”
He made a tsk sound and searched for a piece of paper. He snatched up a ballpoint pen and laid a half-sheet in front of her. She snatched up the pen, did her best approximation of what she’d found in the abandoned building. But, it just wasn’t right. She shoved the page away in disgust.
Chester looked at it, pulled out his own tool and began to expand on it, breathing life into the image, fleshing it out in a way that Marise had only been able to grasp this time. She stared at it, amazed, perturbed that he had been able to pull it out of thin air when she’d been fighting so hard to make it. There was still something wrong with it, but she managed, “How’d you do—”
“You could’ve just said you wanted Pryor’s symbol.”
“What?” she was confused, unsure of what he was saying.
“We do this pagan shit all the time. Pryor’s symbol has been showing up a bit more lately,” he mused, “but it’s one of those things that’s in fashion.” He turned from her, starting to pull out the requisite paperwork. He continued, “He’s the forgotten god of the arts. Every few weeks we’ll get some counter-culture wannabe in here, tattooing it on his skin. No offense.”
Marise’s mind reeled, remembering the temple, the pulpit and all the destroyed art. Then there was that . . . darkness, complimenting her symbol.
Chester plopped down a form. “That’ll be $120 for the hour.”
She caught herself, trying to figure out how to tell him that this was something she needed, a necessity, not just a cosmetic upgrade. But she had no way of paying for it. The door opened to her right and she went rigid. Chester caught the movement and leaned forward. Marise followed his gaze, trepidation filling the entirety of her being. An older gentleman stood in the doorway, white hair combed smoothly back. He approached the front counter, already rolling up his sleeves in anticipation. “Go on, Eddie.” Chester waved him on. “Looking forward to seeing the finished product,” he commented, then eased back into his chair, eyeing Marise. “You in some trouble?”
Marise smiled, weighing what she should say. She reached down in her pockets, fumbling at the empty—she felt a crumple of bills and something else. She pulled out the money, stained with dark ink but unmistakably a roll of twenties and then the neatly folded over picture she’d extracted, and lost, in the faux temple.
As she touched the money, the ink was more viscous than she had expected and clung to her fingers. She hurriedly wiped it off on her clothes in disgust, then handed the money over. She had no idea how she got it, but her thoughts instantly tripped back to the dark monster she’d dreamed about. Did it have something to do with this? Hands shaking, she unfolded the picture and laid it in front of Chester. “I’d like that, please,” she whispered.
Chester studied it, held up his image to it and whispered, “Well, that’s a different take.” He eyed her, an unspoken worry settling on his face. His cigarette had burned down in his hand, unsmoked, but still a pristine pillar of ash. He said, “Where would you like this?”
She pulled up her sleeves, placing her elbow on the table, the back of her hand facing Chester. “On my hands.”