Career Advancement

Two Ladies of Quality


A prosaic buzzer went off as he opened the shop door. The first thing he noticed was the Wookie. Orangutan. Sasquatch? The . . . person sitting in the barber's chair at the first station at the front of the store was tall and wide and had orange-brown fur sticking out of his plaid shirt sleeves and collar and sprouting profusely from his head. The boots and blue jeans hid the rest of him. Pointed ears stuck up through the fur, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses rested on the long muzzle. He looked up from his newspaper and blinked in apparent surprise.

"You lost?" he said. His voice was low and rumbly, but his English was better than that of lots of people Xander had gone to school with.

"Not tonight," Xander answered.

The . . . person squinted at him, then sniffed a couple of times. "Don't get many of your sort in here on purpose."

Xander raised an eyebrow. "My sort?"

The orange-furred guy looked a touch concerned. "Human. Are you another sort?"

The answer still held good. "Not tonight." He tried not to laugh at the doubting look he got. If he wasn't careful, he'd get himself thrown out of a demon store for being too odd.

"Yeah." Orange Fur studied him a moment longer, then folded the paper and stood. "So what can I do for you tonight?"

"I think I want a tattoo."

"You think you do. You ever get one before?"


Orange Fur frowned at him over his spectacles. "And you came *here*?"

Xander wondered if he should worry about how casually he was taking all this. "I was outside, I saw the place, I got the idea."

"You're weird."

He nodded gravely. "It's been said."

Orange Fur's muzzle twitched in what was hopefully a smile. "It's your skin. Well, I'm Melvin, and this is my place." He saw Xander's twitch. "What?" he frowned.

"Nothing, nothing. Melvin. It's an interesting name."

"It means 'He who has many children with many females and can feed them all.'" Melvin shrugged. "Shorter to say Melvin."

"I can see where it would be. I'm Xander. What?" he added as Melvin snickered.

"You don't want to know. So . . . Xander. What kind of tattoo are you looking for?"

His bizarre confidence left him. "I don't know."

Melvin stared at him, then sighed. "You are weird." He waved a hand at the walls. "Take a look around. See if anything appeals. Don't freak out at my customers." He went back to his chair and picked up his newspaper.

Xander started to protest that he wasn't going to freak out, then he finally looked around the rest of the shop. The other two chairs were occupied. In the far chair sat something with skin that must have had the consistency of stone, considering the tattoo artist was using a mallet and a very fine-pointed chisel to work on some scrollwork on the creature's arm. The middle chair held an Orion slave girl--uh, woman with green skin--where had the Orion slave girls gone in Next Generation Trek? Were they all emancipated and made to put on clothes?

He paused and took a serious look at where his brain was. He was standing in a weird-creature-owned tattoo shop in the demon part of town, seriously contemplating permanent markings in his flesh, and his squirrel brain was musing on Star Trek rather than self-preservation and basic mortal safety. Where was he currently on the great spectrum of sanity?

He honestly didn't feel threatened, and he got the impression that Melvin would object to ruckuses in his place that might damage current and potential customers. Was he feeling antsy for good reason, or only because he knew he was supposed to be feeling antsy?

A small voice inside said, "Buffy wouldn't approve. Willow wouldn't approve." Yeah, well, where had doing things they approved of gotten him? All alone on a Friday night--standing in a weird-creature-owned-tattoo shop in the demon part of town.

He didn't actually need to get a tattoo. He could just look at all the pictures on the wall and think it over for a while. Call it recon, getting a feel for life on the non-human side of things.

He paused a moment to think that he might just want to spend some of Saturday in a sunny park somewhere, watching typical humans do typical human things. And maybe that wouldn't feel like recon, but more like reality. Whatever reality was supposed to be.

He turned his attention to the pictures on the walls of the tattoo shop waiting area. There were a surprising number of roses and thorns and blood-dripping daggers stabbed through hearts. Were the demons who wanted those kinds of tattoos aping humans, or did the symbolism actually transcend species? A lot of the pictures looked like words in differing language. Xander recognized Greek and Arabic and Fyarl and what was probably Japanese or Chinese. He stepped forward to study the Oriental characters more closely.

"Found something?" Melvin asked from behind his paper.

"Maybe. But for all I know, these say things like Eat at Wong's or My Body Went to Tokyo and All I Got was a Lousy Tattoo." He grinned. "Or, Stupid Human, Good to Eat."

"That scar on your throat says that."

Xander's grin twisted. "No, that one says, Stupid Human, Good to Eat, Still Standing."

"Fair point." Melvin folded the paper and got up. "So you're looking at something in Japanese or Chinese?"

"Maybe. I remember seeing something once that I liked in Japanese. Just a single character. Supposed to represent a tree growing in a doorway. The book said it meant Quiet."

Melvin nodded and went to a desk to pick up a pen and a piece of paper. He sketched out a few lines. "That?"

Xander studied the two gate-like symbols bracketing the smaller symbol. "Yeah, that." He nodded again. "That."

"So you're going to get some ink. Where do you want it?"

He quickly considered his skin and how blatant he wanted to be about casual viewing of possible body modifications. "Small of the back."

Melvin snorted. "Tramp stamp."

Xander glared at him. "I know a lady who has a tattoo in the small of her back, and she would tear out and feed you your gall bladder if you called her a tramp. If you don't have a gall bladder, she'd find one just for the purpose."

If Melvin laughed, he didn't do it out loud. "My apologies to the lady." He glanced around the room. "Gat and Hobe are still going to be awhile, looks like I'll be the one doing the work. Shirt off, in the chair."

"Aren't there some kind of permission forms and liability stuff I have to sign?"

"You don't trust me to do it right, go somewhere else. As for permission, you're not drunk and you walked in alone under your own power. I assume you know what you're doing." Melvin raised what might have been a fuzzy orange eyebrow. "Or don't you?"

"Depends on who you ask." Xander shrugged and pulled off his t-shirt.

Melvin folded back parts of the chair so that the padded back became something Xander could lean his chest against and rest his arms on. Xander watched in the mirror as Melvin mixed inks and pulled up a machine that looked like Laurence Olivier's toy in "Marathon Man."

"So," he said, "how many humans come through here?"

"Not a lot, more than a few."

He slapped something cold and wet against the small of Xander's back, then wiped it off a few seconds later. There was a mirror in front of Xander, where he could see the reflection in the mirrors on the wall behind him. Melvin put the piece of paper with the drawing of the character on his back and rubbed the picture with his thumb. When he pulled the paper off, the character had been transferred to Xander's spine.

Melvin looked up into the mirror. "Look right?"

Xander craned his head, then nodded. "I like it." Just a small little scribble at the base of the spine. Like a punctuation mark, or something on a map that says "You are here." He settled back into the chair. "Let's do it."

Melvin pulled on some gloves, picked up the gun-shaped part of his device, screwed and attached bits to it, and hit a button to make it whirr. He met Xander's eyes in the mirror again. "Last chance to change your mind before something permanent gets done."

Xander looked over the machine, contemplated needles, wondered briefly how they compared to vampire fangs, then folded his arms on the top of the chair and rested his chin. "Bring it."

"OK, starting."

He managed not to jump at the first sting. After the first few, he closed his eyes. It wasn't as bad as vampire bites or demon claws or monster fists . . . or other fists . . . or heartbreak . . .

He focused on the buzz at the base of his spine, virtuously ignoring the other nerves that found the new sensations intriguing, and spent some time contemplating his flesh and bones and not his brain for a change. Footsteps went back and forth behind him occasionally, skittering taps that sounded like hooves, scratchy noises that might have involved claws, the clomp of boots. The buzzer on the door went off a few times, accompanied by various people talking.

Xander's nose twitched at the smell of cigarette smoke. "I guess no one bothers you guys about violating the indoor smoking laws."

Melvin paused in what he was doing to Xander's back. "Yeah, don't get many inspectors through here. Still wish people wouldn't smoke in here, though."

Xander heard the scuff of a boot, and the cigarette smell got stronger. He opened his eyes to look in the mirror. The reflection of Melvin was looking towards his left, where a cloud of smoke hung in the air. No one else was visible in the mirror, but there was a weird empty spot in the middle of the cloud. Xander studied that spot and smirked before settling his chin back down on his folded arms. "So how does it look, Spike?"

A chuckle came from the direction of the cloud. "Ink looks good on you, whelp."

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