Written for a Flash Felon Crime challenge (2016). A tattoo had to be part of the story.
Ushi No Toki Mairi
There were witnesses the evening Dom’s first tattoo was stolen. Startled gasps and the mounting buzz of conversation from the audience alerted him to its theft. He followed their collective gaze and looked down at his arm in time to witness it happen.
Below his rolled shirtsleeve, the design unwound like pulled thread. Thin skeins rose an inch above the sinew of his forearm. There, they fractured into a swarm of black specks and scattered.
Start to finish, it disappeared in just under a minute.
The guitar slipped through Dom’s lax grip, slid off the curve of his thigh, and hit the stage with a discordant twang.
The noise startled him back to awareness and he ended the jam session abruptly to hurry home. Alone on the couch, he studied the Taylor acoustic for damage and wracked his brain for a possible explanation.
The guitar was an antique, manufactured in 2025. It was more than just an instrument, it was a treasure. As his tattoo had been.
He checked his forearm again in hopes he’d experienced a sort of waking nightmare. The tattoo hadn’t been some machine-applied, Insta-ink piece of shit. It had been designed, drawn, and handcrafted by the last of the Masters.
It was not a dream. It was gone.
Dom cut the engine of his vintage Harley and plugged the bike in to charge. He crossed the small lot to a row of storefronts where one window display scrolled a loop of available tattoo styles. He recognized one of his Polka Trash designs from the early days of his apprenticeship. At the door, Dom pushed the call button and waited.
“Sumi Skin,” a voice intoned.
He was buzzed into a brightly lit room. Animated posters depicted skin art both classic and modern. Booths bristled with hi-tech tattooing robotics.
“Dominic, good to see you!” The owner was a wiry man in his late fifties. They shook hands and traded casual pleasantries before the man asked, “So, you slumming or shopping?”
“Neither, Larry. I’ve got a question. The software on these.” Dominic thrust his chin toward the nearest booth where a woman reclined in the chair, her skirt hiked up to bare one thigh. A maze of criss-crossing robotic arms zipped across her skin. “I know it can recall a piece of art if the canvas defaults on payments, but have you ever heard of a classic being repossessed?”
Larry shook his head. “No way. The nanotechnology was still young back then. It only embedded the Master’s signature and time stamp. Hand-stitched ink precedes the recall coding.”
“What about art theft? Any classics reported stolen?”
“Can’t happen. Same rules apply. Thieves can use hacked recall programs to steal ink, but only on the machine tats. Once the government got their greedy fingers in the pot, everything changed. One day it was the Board of Health inspecting operations, the next, you had to buy your machines from government-approved contractors.”
Dom ignored the curiosity in his old colleague’s eyes. He was there for answers, not to give explanations. “Hey, speaking of Masters, you seen Old Shuko lately?”
“About four months ago when I heard the diagnosis, I stopped in see him. You?”
“I’ve been busy. He still at home?”
“Yeah. Relatives are keeping him comfortable for now.”
“Maybe I’ll stop in.”
“You should. He trained you. You were close. He’d want to see you.”
The second tattoo, also one of Old Shoku’s, disappeared while Dom was en route to visit the retired artist. Dom noticed the movement in his peripheral and a glance in the rearview proved his fears true.
Dom slapped a hand to his neck in an attempt to prevent its disappearance. The ink flew from his palm, en masse, when he lifted it a minute later. Smudged but still recognizable, the raven’s wings seemed to flap as the wind caught the ink and pulled it out the window.
Dom slammed his palm against the steering wheel three times before he regained control. He pulled to the shoulder, ran a hand over the leather grip of the oiled, wood wheel and exhaled slowly. Beating on one of his classic cars wouldn’t solve the problem. Seeing Old Shoku might.
He pulled back onto the road and continued toward his Master’s house.
Once inside Shoku’s foyer, he hesitated. He recognized the woman who’d answered the door. Dom had slept with a lot of women—it was the nature of the music business—but this one was recent and had left an impression. She was exotic, a fusion of Asian and Haitian as he recalled. He remembered her brandied voice murmuring strange but alluring words into his ear.
She was more than simply beautiful; she was arresting. High cheekbones were sculpted into the perfect oval of her face. The only makeup she wore, black eyeliner on her upper lid, accentuated the natural, feline slant of her eyes.
“What are you doing here?” He felt off balance. Unsettled. He didn’t like it.
“I’m here to take care of my grandfather.” She gestured for him to follow her. The house was so quiet as they passed through it, a clock in the hallway sounded like a metronome.
“Old Shoku is your grandfather?” He clenched his jaw. He needed to shut up, stop asking questions, and let her explain herself. He was surprised to see her again, yet she seemed completely unfazed by his presence – almost as if she’d expected him.
She didn’t answer. Instead, she led him into the living room. From behind the bar, she gestured for him to sit. No sooner had he done so, a smoke gray cat appeared and jumped up to sit next to him.
When Shoku’s granddaughter rejoined him in the cozy sitting area, she handed him a scotch, neat, and sipped from her own. A Siamese jumped into her lap and she stroked one hand across its back. It blinked at him with slow concentration. He didn’t speak. Instead, he waited, resolved to appear collected.
“You’re not seeing my grandfather today or any other day. He’s sick. Too sick to be bothered by you.”
“Do you know who I am?” He blurted the cliché, chagrined he’d resorted to it even as it left his mouth. She had gotten under his skin the night they’d slept together. She was getting under it now. Not cool.
“I know who you think you are. You think I slept with you because you’re a musician. A star.” The last bit rode from her mouth with slow derision. She smiled as another cat leapt up onto his couch to study him.
“You think you have history with my grandfather because you tattooed a little, years ago, before you realized you were too lazy and greedy to be an honorable artist.” Her lips pursed into a moue of contempt as she slowly crossed her long legs. “You think you have some claim to his time because you apprenticed under him. Because he trusted you once.”
She took a sip of scotch. Over the rim of the glass, she studied his reaction. When he struggled to formulate a response, she continued to bat at him in a smooth, modulated voice. “You think because you have a modicum of talent and good looks, you deserve the best. Your antique guitars. Your rooftop apartment. Your classic cars.” A slow smile curled her lips. “Women like me.”
He sat forward on the couch. “What are you talking about?”
The hall clock resonated through the house. She continued to regard him without blinking. “The other night when we were together, did I come?”
Dom shook his head at the unexpected question. “What?”
“You couldn’t say, could you? Because you don’t care. People are just vehicles—” she waved one hand in a lazy circle “—transportation to get you where you want to be. You can’t be bothered to give. You’re only concerned with what you can take.”
“You want to know if I know who you are?” She leaned forward and purred her response. “I know. You’re a thief. You think you deserved a Master’s art, so you stole it.”
Dom’s mouth was dry. The mouthful of scotch he gulped went down the wrong pipe. It stung his throat and his eyes watered in commiseration.
“You’re crazy.” He coughed and cleared his throat. “You can’t steal a tattoo. Old Shoku gave them to me because he wanted to.”
Two black cats appeared out of nowhere to slink toward him in perfect synchronicity. He flinched with surprised unease.
“My grandfather gave them to you because you fooled him,” she answered. “Made a fool of him — a man who lived for honor.
He wasted time training you, grooming you to take over his life’s work and, finally, hand you his legacy. You made him believe he had a mosuko. A pitit gason.” At Dom’s blank look, she curled her lip and translated to English. “A son.”
She tsked to the black cats and they leapt to sit on either side of her. “But once you got what you wanted—those three tattoos — you lost interest. You took off and never looked back. Never contacted him again. Like the women you sleep with. Like everyone you use and discard.”
Dom felt cornered. Unsteady. Off-balance and out-of-control. No one got the upper hand with him. “You dug your nails into me,” Dom growled. “You loved it!”
Her head fell back and her teeth flashed as laughter gurgled from the well of her throat. Anger reddened his cheeks and he surged to his feet. She met his flashing eyes with calm and implacable derision.
“Of course that’s what stuck with you, unubore otoko.” No trace of laughter remained in her tone. She raised her hands and wiggled her sharp, manicured nails. “Hai, I scratched you. But not from pleasure. You think you fucked me, but I fucked you, vòlè. I embedded nanocode beneath your skin. Nanocode I started writing when I was sixteen—the year you shamed my grandfather.”
He took a step toward her, his arm raised, but something in her eyes—and the eyes of the cats—stopped him.
“The code was to retrieve what you stole.” She dropped her hands and smirked as she leaned back and stretched her arms along the back of the couch. “The skin I took was to punish you for carelessly discarding a position many would treasure. I used it to cook up a little fusion for you — a bit of Japanese ushi no toki mairi seasoned with some Haitian vodou.”
She snapped her fingers and a slow tickle grew between his shoulder blades where the last of Old Shoku’s masterpieces lay.
“It’s fitting you chose a rat for your last tattoo.” Her eyes thinned to slits.
Dom’s head grew light and the ceiling stretched high above him. The last thing he tried to do before he hit the floor was plead his innocence, but he couldn’t seem to make his mouth work. All he managed was a squeak.
The cats closed in.
- mosuko – Japanese for ‘son’.
- pitit gason – Haitan Creole for ‘son’.
- unubore otoko – Japanese for ‘conceited man’.
- Hai – Japanese for ‘yes’ (formal).
- vòlè – Haitan Creole for ‘thief’.
- ushi no toki mairi – Literal: “ox-hour shrine-visit” refers to a prescribed method of laying a curse upon a target that is traditional to Japan.
- vodou – Haitan Creole for ‘voodoo’.