Dire Watchword moved his mouth in something approximating a smile when I walked through the door of his tattoo parlor. It was a learned behavior—werewolves don’t really understand why baring their teeth is supposed to put people at ease, but Watchword tried to be polite. He was a decent guy if he didn’t forget himself and try to eat you. More importantly, he had superb fine motor control and was afraid of Fairfax.
“How’s it going, Milo?” he growled. He sounded about the way you’d expect a seven-foot, three hundred fifty pound carnivore with huge teeth and claws to sound. He looked around hopefully. “Leave Fairfax at home?”
“She’s behind you, Watchword.”
Watchword flinched. He turned around very slowly, sat down, then lay down on his back and exposed his throat to the little dog. She pressed her teeth against his windpipe briefly and went to sit down next to the chair.
I watched with interest as he got to his feet. “Do you do that with all your clients? I’ve always wondered.”
“Nah. Don’t usually bring Atomic Schnauzers. Usually wear silver or carry thermite.”
“What if they don’t do either?”
“Eat them. Don’t know what a regulated tattoo parlor’s all about, no business coming in in the first place.”
“Can’t argue with that.”
“Nope. What kind of ink this time?”
I tapped my shoulder. “Cherub pooped out teleporting me and the dog home from Venus Theta. I need a new one. And I want a stunner.”
Watchword looked at me sharply. “Stunner’s fine. License, please.”
I handed him my troubleshooter’s license. He carefully checked the photograph, scratched the inside of my wrist with a little sterile rake to match the DNA and peered at me through a loupe to read my karmic signature. After a minute he nodded and motioned me toward the chair. I hung my bomber jacket on the coat rack.
“Shirt off, please,” he said. “For the stunner.”
I peeled off my tee shirt. “What about the cherub?”
I got into the chair and lay back. Watchword tapped the foot pedal until I was at the appropriate angle, then sat back on his haunches, like a dog. He took a deep breath. “Obligated to inform client that if regulated ink is used in the commission of any crime, client’s license will be summarily revoked, all regulated ink will be removed—by force if necessary—and client will be prosecuted to fullest extent of the law. Ready to go?”
“Ready. Let’s have the stunner first.”
Watchword handed me a binder full of flash. “Pick one.”
I flipped through. There were pages of rabbits, mallets, and boxing gloves on springs. I pointed to a crouching blue robot with his fists raised. “That one.”
Watchword took a needle out of its plastic package and slotted it into the tattoo gun. He got out several bottles of ink and set them on a tray next to him, tied an anti-microbial mask over his long muzzle and went to work.
I looked around to confirm that Fairfax was paying attention and let my mind wander. I didn’t dislike Watchword, but he wasn’t much of a conversationalist. So I was surprised when he looked up and pulled his mask down.
“Why not take Amtrak out of Venus? Why’d you use the cherub?”
I blinked a few times. “I had to derail the only train that could have taken us off-world. The line conductor didn’t run a carbon detector over the cars before leaving the station like he was supposed to, and an Ecthros was masquerading as the goddamn engine. It ate fifty-six people before Amtrak realized something was up and called Miskatonic University.”
“Thought you were freelance.”
“The dog and I do a lot of contract work for Miskatonic. Anyway, I had the rock elemental—“ here I tapped the image of Atlas holding up the world on my forearm “—tear up the track to trap the Ecthros in one place while Fairfax killed and ate it. Derailing the train cracked the cloud island in two and dropped it ten thousand feet straight down. The wind elemental—“ I drew my leg up and tapped the tornado on my ankle “—air-walked us down to the next island, but it was fifty miles from the nearest landmass and there wasn’t any other available transportation. The cherub was the only way out.”
Watchword was silent for a minute. “Was burning out the cherub worth it?”
“Of course. The dead have been avenged and the monster will never hurt anyone ever again.” I paused. “Why do you ask?”
“Flatlanders choose to die defending someone like you. It isn’t fair to waste them.”
I frowned. “Flatlanders? What does that mean?”
Watchword leaned forward and got back to work. “Regulated tattoos are alive.”
“No kidding. I have a dozen of them. They move around and they talk to each other.”
“Smart guy. Know what they are?”
I looked at my arms and bare chest. From the alarm clock on my left wrist that stops subjective time for seven seconds, to the can of spinach on my right bicep that gives me a burst of superhuman strength, to the cemetery angel on my back that spreads its wings around me to form an impenetrable shield, I’d be dead many times over if it wasn’t for my tattoos. “No. What are they?”
Watchword’s claws came up toward my face. Fairfax sat up. Watchword froze. “Reaching past him,” he said quietly. The little dog didn’t lie back down. The werewolf’s arm moved slowly, his movements exaggerated, as if he was reaching for his wallet to hand to a police officer. He took a flat copper box down from a shelf above my head and set it gently down on the tray. He rested a claw on the box and tapped out a complicated rhythm on the lid. In response, the top of the box split and fanned out, revealing a row of compartments about two inches to a side lined with some dark, soft material that looked like suede. I peered inside.
The creatures inside looked like watercolors done on thin paper, but they were creatures—in some way, without moving, they made it clear that they were alive. Some of them looked warlike. Others were serene. Some brought to mind the ocean, or the stars. I reached down to touch one and Watchword’s claws gently closed on my hand. The werewolf looked imploringly at Fairfax, who was suddenly standing on the counter next to the chair, staring at him.
“Can’t touch flatlanders, Fairfax,” he whined. “Fragile.”
“Let go of my hand, Watchword,” I said.
Fairfax’s eyes stayed locked on the lycanthrope’s neck. Watchword released my hand. The little dog hopped down, curled up and began licking her paws.
I sat back in the chair. “What are they?”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean by ‘illegal?’”
“Flatlanders come from same stock as Ancient Ones Who Lie Beneath.” He saw the look in my eye, and held up his hand to stop me. “Same stock. Not Ecthroi themselves. Worse, in some ways. Can’t change shape or eat souls like an Ecthros, but same degree of power, only compressed like the core of a planet. Could cause earthquakes; draw superstorms if it felt threatened. Feds won’t have that. Flatlander comes to Mars Prime, makes a deal with Feds, Feds send it to Miskatonic University, Miskatonic sends it to a regulated parlor—all deniable—and the flatlander’s pups get citizenship.” Unexpectedly, he smiled, this time like a happy dog rather than a forcibly civilized wolf. “Pups are little glowing squiggles. Beautiful, like fireflies. Harmless. But deal is conditional—adult flatlander is too dangerous to exist in one place unsupervised. Has to allow itself to be transplanted onto special paper to immobilize it, and then into a regulated tattoo. Eventually burns out and dies protecting its host. Coming to Mars Prime is certain death for a flatlander. They know it and come here anyway, so their pups can live here. I take care of them. Make sure there’s no pain.” He closed his mouth abruptly and went back to work.
Two hours and a restroom break later, he put the tattoo gun down and took the copper box off the counter. He caught my eye. “Show you?” he said.
I nodded. “How come I’ve never seen you do this part?”
“Seen it. Didn’t pay attention. Didn’t know it was important.” Watchword drummed on the lid and the box slid open. He reached carefully into the box and came up with a sheet of rice paper in his claws. He held it up for my inspection. The creature in his hand looked somehow good-natured, like a boxer with nothing to prove.
Working quickly, the werewolf covered the fresh tattoo with the paper and went over it twice with the needle. My stomach did a flip-flop and the big blue robot stood up and cracked its knuckles.
Watchword padded into the back room, coming out a moment later with a cinderblock in one huge paw. He beckoned me over to a poured concrete run with a high ceiling, surrounded on three sides by a chain-link fence plugged into a ballistic damper. I checked that Fairfax was paying attention and went to stand in the run opposite Watchword. Without preamble, he hurled the cinderblock at my head.
There was a blur of motion as the robot leapt off my chest, grew to twice Watchword’s height, and threw a right cross that turned the cinderblock into a cloud of shrapnel. Then it was back on my chest, doing a little victory dance and grinning from ear to ear.
Watchword nodded and walked back to the chair. “Cherub now.” He pointed at the clock hanging over the counter. “Got to close up in an hour.”
This time I paid attention to the strange feeling in my stomach as the little creature settled into the fresh ink on my shoulder. There was a kind of tenderness in the lycanthrope’s eyes as he withdrew the now-lifeless sheet of rice paper. I felt like I could see him clearly for the first time. “Are we friends, Watchword?”
“You’d eat me if Fairfax wasn’t sitting here, wouldn’t you?”
“Yes. Can’t help what I am any more than Flatlanders can. You kill Ecthroi. Can’t help what they are, but you do it anyway. Circle of life. Lift your arm, please.”
I lifted my arm. Watchword signed the cherub and then the stunner with a stylus. He motioned me to put my shirt back on while he fed an image of the signed tattoos into a registration app on his handheld.
“Why do you do this?” I asked. “Tattooing, I mean.”
“Good at it.”
“Not what I meant.”
“I know. You mean ‘why be wolf in a city when you could be wolf under the full moon.’”
“That’s about right.”
He reached over to the coat rack and handed me my bomber jacket. “Have pups. Want them to have a better life.” He ducked his head respectfully to Fairfax and pointed at the switch plate next to the door. “Turn off lights on your way out.”
Alexander Karelis is co-founder of Writers Room DC, a boutique co-working space for professional writers of fiction and creative non-fiction and the unofficial literary nexus of Washington D.C.