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TAT MASTER - Part 3 of 3

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I took me an hour to finally locate where Shawn Finche had been hospitalized. It was in the ICU at a Catholic hospital in the middle of Los Angeles. I had seen ads about it in the Japanese newspaper; they apparently had a Japanese wing, in which they served Asian patients sticky white rice instead of bread.

Before I left the tattoo shop, I stuck some irezumi needles and ink in my bag. I had special ordered them through Roberto. He didn’t understand why I needed them. You never know if someone wants traditional Japanese hand tattooing, I told him. If I had been thinking straight, I would have packed my tattoo gun, too.

When I arrived at the hospital, it was past regular visiting hours. The visitors’ door was locked but a sign said deliveries could be made to the service entrance. I didn’t know what I should do. I saw a security guard step out to walk a nurse to her car. I looked into the window of the side door; no one was there. The door wasn’t properly closed. I slowly pulled at the handle, and I was looking into an empty corridor.

It wasn’t hard for me to find the ICU. There was a large of people—Asians, whites, and a couple of blacks—gathered in the first glass cell, crying. A priest was standing next to the bedridden patient, an old dark Asian woman who was breathing hard, free of all the machines around her. The priest held a white book while he spoke softly to them. Nobody, even the nurses, seemed to notice me as I edged deeper into the ICU, looking for the jet black hair of Mr. Shawn Finche.

He was in a corner room. Finche’s face was pale, almost glowing green in the hospital lights. I checked his upper arm. The fresh tattoo, of course, hadn’t healed yet. But you could still make out the fatal kanji, death.

I moved up a chair towards his bed and worked as fast as I could. I hadn’t done irezumi since I had been in the U.S., so I was rusty. While I poked the needles into him, he twitched at times and I was worried that he would wake. I wouldn’t take much to change shi into outside, soto. What would soto do to Finche’s body? I wasn’t sure, but it had to be better than death. As I worked, I noticed color begin to return to Finche’s cheeks. By the time I had stuck him for the last time, Finche was almost looking tanned, as if he were sunning himself outside.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” A nurse frowned at me from the doorway.

“Just visiting,” I said, immediately getting to my feet. I dropped the needles into my open purse and tried to look as innocent as possible.

“You can’t be in here.” The nurse quickly checked Finche’s IV bag and his monitors and then glared back at me. “Don’t you move,” she said, leaving for the nurses’ desk.

Sweat balled up on my nose. Chikusho. I could run out, but who knows if that security guard would be barring my exit at the side door.

The nurse returned with a colleague and they both crossed their arms. “Only family allowed,” they said.

“Wife,” I murmured.

“Yes, she was here. Are you trying to tell us that you’re the wife?”

“Ah, waiting for the wife to go,” I said. I tried to arch my eyebrows knowingly. It was amazing what a person could do when she was trapped in a corner.

The nurses exchanged glances. The first nurse looked a little more disgusted than her counterpart and said to me, “It’s probably best if you don’t come around here again.” I couldn’t have agreed more.

* * *

It was midnight and the tattoo parlor was dark. Pitch dark. No lights at all. We were usually open late on Saturdays, sometimes even past eleven. Tonight everyone must have left right at closing time. Roberto usually made sure that the neon light, TATTOOS, was on, but considering what had happened today, it wasn’t a surprise that his routine had been disrupted. I had told him that I would be back later that night to pick up a few of my things for a last-minute vacation. Roberto thought it was a good idea for me to take a break; he didn’t know it was actually for forever.

As soon as I unlocked the door, I heard banging behind the counter. Someone pulled me from behind and held my mouth shut. The person stank of strong expensive aftershave—it was European but not how an American would wear it.

A second person closed the blinds on our full-length windows and flipped on the light. In front of me was Nobuo in a black suit and tomato red shirt. He looked fit and healthy. His life without me had served him well.

“Ai-chan,” he said. “You’ve lost some weight here in America. You looked heavier on television.”

I looked down at my other captor’s arms. A tattoo of an oni, a demon, flying into action. I knew that image. I had been the one who had tattooed it on the arm of Sandy, Nobuo’s bodyguard. His real name was Jiro, but being a baseball fanatic, he had changed it to Sandy, in honor of his idol, Sandy Koufax. In the mirror across from us was Sandy’s ridiculous bleach blonde head towering over me.

I knew what was coming next. I had left Nobuo and would pay dearly for it. He carefully took off his jacket, hanging it on the back of Roberto’s chair. The banging from behind of the counter had been from Roberto. They had apparently tied him up with duct tape and laid him on the linoleum floor. He had since wiggled forward so that his face was visible, his brown eyes wide with fright and a big piece of gray tape over his mouth.

Sandy loosened his grip on me and then unsheathed a hunter’s knife from a leather case on his belt. He positioned the tip of the knife towards my neck.

Nobuo then carefully undid the buttons of his shirt. As his shirt hung open I saw the familiar images on his chest—the dragon emerging from smoke, a tattoo that I had created. He then pulled off his shirt and placed it over his jacket. As he walked over to me, his nipples hardened. He looked down into my face, a mixture of both anger and expectation.

“What have you done to your hands?” he asked, referring to my Okinawan tattoos. “I don’t like them.”

You don’t have to look at them, I thought to myself. What you’re interested in is what I can do with them.

He sat down in my tattoo chair, his back towards me, revealing the magnificent orange koi fish that I had tattooed on him years ago. That’s how I had met him, actually. Even though I was relatively inexperienced, he liked the novelty of a female Japanese tattoo artist. He had given me a chance, and I gave him everything in return.

“You’ve had some new tattoos,” I said, noting a few peony flowers that some amateur that added to the water design.

“But none were good as yours. You’re the master.”

“What do you want?”

“Anything,” he said. “Just make sure it’s kawaii.”

For some couples, gifts of red roses or chocolates would be considered part of courtship. But for Nobuo, it was tattooing. After I tattooed him, he usually would take my body. And tonight he would take my life.

“I’m going to use the gun,” I told him. “I don’t have any irezumi needles. It will be faster this way.”

Sandy kept the blade on my neck, looking over his shoulder and making sure that I didn’t deface or hurt his boss. Sandy had studied some techniques of tattoo as well, but his thick fingers and lack of patience prevented him from excelling. His skills were better suited for destruction than creation.

So I’m going to die here in Sawtelle, I thought to myself. I’m never going to see my mother and sisters again. I thought back to the ICU in the hospital, where the family had gathered to see their loved one die. There would be no such gathering for me in America. And the only person in America who might halfway care was next in line to be killed. Unless I was able to do something with the tattoo. But what? I couldn’t try something stupid like tattoo the death kanji on Nobuo. My throat would be slit before I was done.

I carefully drew my design directly on Nobuo’s skin, right above a peony.

Kawaii,” said Sandy, giving his approval.

I then began to tattoo with the gun using black ink at first and then changing to yellow. I created my final straight line in black.

As soon I had drawn that stroke, the tattoo immediately began to swell.

“I’m done,” I announced and sat back in my chair. Was this really going to work? I felt the tip of knife on my neck and closed my eyes.

“Nobuo, it looks nice,” Sandy said from behind.

Nobuo remained slumped over my tattoo chair.

Sandy stepped forward and gently nudged Nobuo with his left hand. Nobuo then fell to the ground.

His eyes were open but his breathing was labored and shallow.

“What did you do to him?” Sandy then turned to me, this blood-shot eyes narrowed like daggers. The knife was still in his hands. He took a quick swipe and tore open the side of my blouse. I tried to knock the knife out of his hand with my tattoo gun but its cord limited my movements. I dropped my tattoo gun and took hold of my purse and dragged it towards me. I pulled out my irezumi needles with my right hand and threw the purse as hard as I could at Sandy’s face. He was able easily block it away with the side of his lower right arm—that was my opening. I didn’t hesitate. Like someone trying to chip a block of ice with a pick, I raised the irezumi needles and drove them into Sandy’s left pupil. A few ended up sticking into his cheek, but at least two broke through his eye, leaving blood pooling down his face. Sandy shrieked in pain and cupped his gouged eye.

We didn’t have much time. I ripped the duct tape from Roberto’s legs and practically dragged him to the door. We ran down the stairs, through the parking lot, and then to Olympic Boulevard. I had loosened Roberto’s arms and he removed the tape around his lips. “Who the hell were those guys, Eye?”

“Men I used to work for. Back in Japan.”

“What did you do to the first guy?” I knew he meant Nobuo.

“Just tattooed him.”

“That was some kind of tat.”

It was. A beautiful yellow and black bee, its wings outstretched, it stinger erect and strong, injecting its venom into the flesh of a man whom had once known me as Love.



* This story was originally published in THE DARKER MASK: Heroes from the Shadows, edited by Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers.


© 2014 Naomi Hirahara

author fiction naomi hirahara tat master tattoo artist Tattoos