Ned pauses to stretch his neck and roll his right shoulder once . . . twice . . . before lifting the needle to his customer’s arm again, humming along with Willie Nelson’s twang, a staple in Black Rabbit for as long as I can remember. After all these years, the aging country singer still holds a special spot in my uncle’s heart. He even sports the matching gray braids and red bandanna to prove it.
“You’re getting too old for the big pieces,” I joke, pulling my foot up onto the counter, where my ass is already parked, to tighten the laces of my boot. I finished my last appointment an hour ago and could have left. Should have left, since the CLOSED sign hanging from a hook on the door is dissuading any potential walk-ins. But every once in a while I like to just sit here and watch my mentor work—his hefty frame hunkered down in that same creaky plastic-molded chair. It brings me back to my nine-year-old self, in pigtails and scuffed Mary Janes, trailing my older cousin to the shop so I could draw BIC pen tattoos on burly bikers while they waited for the real thing. It’s within these dingy black walls that I discovered my life’s passion, all before I turned ten. Not many people can say they’ve made that discovery, at any age.
“Too old, my ass,” he grunts. “Make yourself useful and grab me my damn dinner.”
I slide off the counter with a smirk, hitting the button on a cash register that belongs in a museum so I can grab a twenty. “Foot-long again?” The sub shop two blocks away gets at minimum fifty percent of Ned’s weekly food budget.
“Don’t forget the jalapeños.”
“The ones that almost put you in the hospital last time?” At fifty-eight, my uncle still eats like he’s in his twenties, even though his body is showing signs of revolt, his thickening midsection and aging digestive system begging for more exercise and less fatty and spicy food.
“I let the girl apprentice here when she was eighteen, and then she abandoned me as soon as she got her license. I let the girl come back six years later to work out of here without paying a fee to the house. I let the girl sleep under my roof without paying rent . . .” he mutters to no one in particular but loud enough for everyone to hear. “If I wanted grief about my life choices, I woulda gotten hitched again.” There’s a long pause, and then he throws a wink over his shoulder at me, to confirm that he’s joking. That he loves his niece and her smart-ass mouth and her acidic personality, and he’s ecstatic that she decided to come back to San Francisco and work alongside him again. He’d never take a dime of rent money from me, even if I tried to pay.
And I have tried. At two months, when the wanderlust bug hadn’t bitten me yet and I realized that I’d be staying longer than my usual four months. At four months, when I was afraid I was wearing out my welcome and started talking about finding an apartment to rent, and Ned threatened to kick my ass out of Black Rabbit if I did. At six months, when I left five hundred bucks cash on his dresser and came home to a note and the money pinned to my bedroom door with a steak knife, telling me never to bring up the subject of rent ever again. Except he put it in more colorful language.
I’ve been here for seven months now, and for the first time in I don’t know how long, I’m feeling no itch to leave. Between working alongside Ned six days a week, hanging out with Dakota, an old friend from high school who moved here from Sisters, Oregon, about a year ago, and hitting the streets at night with a crew of guys who are as into decorating walls as I am, I’m loving San Francisco. This time around, at least.
“I’ll be back.” I turn to leave.
Dylan, the guy sitting in the chair with arms as thick as tree trunks, clears his throat rather obnoxiously. This is his fifth session this month. One of those bulky arms is nearly all covered in Ned’s elaborate ink.
I roll my eyes. He’s clocked four hours in that chair tonight, the first half of them spent muttering in an irritatingly croaky voice about how expensive it is to eat organic. I was ready to stuff a cloth into his mouth at around the two-hour mark just to shut him up. I really don’t want to give him a reason to speak again. “Did you want me to grab you something?” I ask, not hiding the reluctance from my voice.
“Eight-piece sashimi dinner. Extra wasabi,” he says without so much as a “please,” his eyes glued to the matte-black ceiling above. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that this guy showed up here flying high as a kite. Ned doesn’t care if his clients are high or tipsy, as long as they don’t stumble in and they circle “no” to being intoxicated on the client paperwork, he figures it’s their ass, should something go wrong. I’m guessing this guy has been smoking weed. He’s too calm to be strung out.
“Try again, and make sure it ends with the word ‘sub.’ ” I’m not going the extra three blocks to the sushi place. I’m nobody’s fucking errand girl.
Tree Trunks dips his head to level me with a flat gaze before focusing on Ned’s brow, furrowed in concentration. “You gonna let her talk to your customers like that?”
“You got an issue, you take it up with her. And good luck, because that girl can handle herself like no one I’ve ever met,” Ned mutters, never one to coddle anybody, even a customer paying well over a grand. He’s been running this shop for thirty years “the right way,” and he’s not about to change for “a bunch of lily-whites ruining a classic culture.” His words, not mine.
The guy eyes the full length of me—from the shaved sides of my hair and my black tank top and leggings, to my full sleeve of colorful ink, which unsettles some people but shouldn’t faze him, seeing as he’s getting his own done—down to my Doc Martens, and decides against whatever he was going to say, though that pinched expression never leaves his face. “Chicken club sub. Grilled. No oil or mayo.”
I could be a real bitch and demand a “please,” but I let it go. “Back in ten,” I call over my shoulder, heading down the narrow hallway to the back door, grabbing my tattoo case on the way, knowing that if I don’t toss it in the trunk of my car now, I’ll probably forget it later.
“Watch how that new kid over there makes my sandwich. He doesn’t know a tomato from his own asshole!” Ned’s shout catches me just before the door clicks shut.
I step out into the crisp evening with my jacket dangling from one arm, and inhale the clean, cool air.
I finally know what home feels like.
I let myself in through the back of Black Rabbit with my key exactly twenty-two minutes later with two subs: one with double peppers, one with breaded, deep-fried chicken, extra mayo and a splash of oil.
Ned was right; I had to give the dumbass behind the counter step-by-step instructions, going so far as to point out the vat of jalapeño peppers directly under his nose. He won’t survive a week before Ned revolts. Just the threat of losing Ned’s business will probably get the guy canned.
I’m going to tell my uncle that I think the dumbass is cute, and I’m going to date him. I smile, thinking about how Ned might react to that. I haven’t had a chance to parade a boyfriend through here for his guaranteed disapproval yet. In the seven months I’ve been here, I haven’t found one guy in San Francisco that even I approve of. That’s been the only downfall of this city, so far, and I’m really ready to get out of this dry spell.
Tossing my purse onto the old metal desk that serves as a catchall for mail, office supplies, the archaic security-monitoring system, and anything else that might land there on our way through, I reach for the cowbell hanging against the wall. A gag gift that Ned’s kept for years, even though the sound of it makes him wince and curse. I use it to irritate the shit out of him every chance I get.
A shout freezes my hand.
“Quit playing fucking games, old man!”
I hold my breath and try to listen, but the rush of blood flooding my veins and ears suddenly makes it hard to concentrate.
“Don’t know what the hell you’re talkin’ about,” Ned grits out, and his voice squeezes my chest, because I can tell that he’s in pain. That odd, muted sound of knuckles hitting flesh followed by a groan pulls a gasp from me, and I immediately purse my lips and dart back and out of sight, panicked. Was that loud enough to be heard?
Whoever is up front obviously didn’t hear me come in. Ned always jokes that I have the natural graces of a cat burglar, silent and stealthy even when I’m not intending to be.
An aluminum baseball bat leans against the wall next to the cowbell. If I were stupid, I’d grab it and run out front kamikaze-style. But Ned is two-hundred and twenty-five pounds of hardened man, Tree Trunks is even bigger, and someone has gotten the upper hand on both of them. I can only imagine how fast they’d have a hundred-and-ten-pound female subdued, even one that kicks and claws like a rabid wolverine. I don’t even know how many guys are out there.
The security camera.
I dive for the old thirteen-inch tube monitor sitting on the desk and hit the Power button, desperate to get a glimpse of what’s happening out front.
But only gray static appears. They must have busted the camera lens.
I do the only smart thing I can think of. I fumble for my cell phone, my fingers shaking as I dial 911. Hoping my whispers don’t carry as I beg for police backup for a robbery in progress. Can I get to safety? the dispatcher asks. I’m not leaving Ned, I snap. Stay on the line, the woman responds. We’re sending help.
The ding of the cash register sounds, and I hazard a peek around the corner and down the long hall, past the private room, and to the open-concept space at the front where Ned does as much of his work as he can. A hulkish man in dark cargo pants and a black turtleneck, with a black balaclava pulled up over his brow, hovers over the register, emptying it of cash with his left hand.
In his right, he grips a gun.
I squeeze my phone—pressed against my ear—tighter.
Beyond him, the window and front door are covered, the shades pulled to block anyone’s view inside. They weren’t like that when I left. I’m sure the front door is now locked, too, though it’s too far to see from here.
“I’ve always wondered what it feels like to be on the giving end of a tattoo gun,” a man with a deep voice and a Chicago accent says, and it’s not the same guy I see standing at the register, which means there are at least two of them. Where the hell is Tree Trunks, anyway? Is he in on this? I haven’t heard his croaky voice. “I just step on this pedal, right?” The buzz of the tattoo machine fills the shop, followed closely by a series of grunts.
Somehow, I know that it’s Ned making those sounds.
“Hurry!” I hiss into my phone, tears streaming down my cheeks, torn between the urge to run out there and pure fear.
The guy who was at the cash register is now searching front desk drawers. He glances behind him. “You know, you’re a sick bastard, Mario.”
Mario. I have a name.
“My ex used to say that to me.” A sinister chuckle sends shivers down my back. God, what are they doing to Ned? He has ink in a dozen different places. I did a design for him along the web of his finger when I got here seven months ago and he barely flinched then. “Go and see what you can find in the back.”
I’m in the back.
I duck behind the wall, my heart hammering in my chest as heavy footfalls approach down the hallway toward me. The back door is right there, and yet it’s not an option because it’s in his line of sight and he has a gun.
I have nowhere to run.
“Shhh!” I hiss into the phone, hoping the dispatcher will understand me, will stay quiet so I don’t have to hang up on her. I dive under the metal desk, tugging the chair in as far as I can, until my body is contorted around its legs and my entire left side is crammed against the wall. I thank God that I’m dressed in all black and hope it’s enough, that he won’t spot my bare skin. The female dispatcher hides with me under here, my phone pressed against my chest, smothering any sound she might make. She’s my only connection to the outside world—and perhaps the last person I’ll ever speak to—and she can surely hear my heartbeat.
Polished black combat boots appear around the corner. They stop for five seconds, and I feel each one of those in my throat.
And then those shoes swivel and stalk toward me.
I can barely focus through my fear anymore, sure that I’m about to find myself looking down the barrel of a gun. Where are the police? They should be here by now. We’re not far from Daly City, hands down the worst area of San Francisco, where cruisers circle the streets like crows over a ripe cherry tree.
Around me, boxes topple and papers shuffle, and I pray to whoever watches down from above that this guy doesn’t decide to check beneath the desk.
“Found something!” he shouts. It’s followed by a snort and a low mutter of, “People still use these fucking things?”
I know what he’s found. The VHS player that records the feed from the camera in the front on a continuous loop. Ned’s never been one to keep up with technology trends and, instead, swears by what he knows.
Sirens wail in the distance. They’re so faint at first that I think I’m imagining them.
“Fuck! Did you trip an alarm?” That angry voice—Mario—out front yells, and I allow myself a shaky breath of relief because he’s heard them, too, so they must be real. Only a few more seconds and we’ll be safe.
Ned’s laugh—deep and throaty—carries all the way back. Good. Whatever that guy just did to him, Ned’s still capable of laughing. Tough bastard.
“Come on! We can’t get caught here,” the guy above me shouts. He starts fussing with the VCR, first pressing, then slamming the Open button. I know that’s what he’s doing because she’s a temperamental bitch and I’ve done the exact same thing once or twice when Ned’s asked me to change a tape over. “Fuck it,” he mumbles, and he begins to tug at the cables plugged in beneath the desk. He’s taking the entire machine. He wants whatever video proof might be on there, I guess.
And if he reaches down to unplug the cord, he’s going to find more than just a power strip.
I yank the plug out of the socket for him and hold my breath.
The sirens grow louder, three distinct wails now. “Come on!” His boots shift away from the desk. Footfalls pound down the hallway, and the guy named Mario appears, also in polished black combat boots. I can see him only from the waist down, but it’s enough to see him peeling a black glove off.
A splatter of blood coats his wrist.
“Who the fuck called the cops? I could have gotten him to talk. I just needed more time.” I guess he was obviously expecting to work Ned over at a leisurely pace. I ruined that for them, at least.
They barrel out the back door.
I’m still frozen, unsure if it’s over or not.
“Hello? Hello?” A muted voice calls out, over and over again, and I finally remember the dispatcher pressed against my chest.
“They’re gone,” I whisper into the air, my voice hoarse.
And then I snap out of it.
I drop the phone and scramble out from under the desk, dashing for the door, my shaking hands snapping the dead bolt shut before those two can decide that it’s better to hole up in here. The dispatcher calls to me from beneath the desk. “They’re gone, out the back!” I yell, hoping she can hear me. I struggle to catch my breath and my balance, staggering down the hall toward the front of the shop, using the walls to keep me upright. I’m drenched in sweat, the relief so overwhelming. “Ned!” I’ve never been so happy to have the police coming for me. “They’re gone!” I round the corner. “It’s going to be—”
My words cut off with the sight of Ned’s slumped, still body, a puddle of blood soaking into the wood grain floor beneath him.
Ivy Lee, a talented tattoo artist who spent the early part of her twenties on the move, is looking for a place to call home. She thinks she might have finally found it working in her uncle’s tattoo shop in San Francisco. But all that changes when a robbery turns deadly, compelling her to pack up her things yet again.
When they need the best, they call him. That’s why Sebastian Riker is back in California, cleaning up the mess made after a tattoo shop owner who resorted to blackmail and got himself shot. But it’s impossible to get the answers he needs from a dead body, leaving him to look elsewhere. Namely, to the twenty-something-year-old niece who believes this was a random attack. Who needs to keep believing that until Sebastian finds what he’s searching for.
Ivy has one foot out of San Francisco when a chance encounter with a stranger stalls her departure. She’s always been drawn to intense men, so it’s no wonder that she now finds a reason to stay after all, quickly intoxicated by his dark smile, his intimidating strength, and his quiet control.
That is, until Ivy discovers that their encounter was no accident—and that their attraction could be her undoing.