Release date: May 11, 2021
Publisher: Write Choice Ink
Print pages: 273
Content advisory: Some profanity
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Behind the book
My older son, Erik, is a tattoo artist. When he asked me to order some supplies for him, I discovered a long-ago tattoo convention named The Inkslingers Ball--tattoo artists being known as inkslingers. When I saw that, I knew it had to become the title for a book in my Forensic Handwriting series, so I built a story around it, and here it is.
Early Wednesday morning
It started with a late-night phone call.
She knew the phone was in his hand even before Jovanic rolled out of bed. The familiar ringtone was never a good awakening. He pressed the answer button, waiting until he was in the bathroom with the door closed before acknowledging the caller, but Claudia had already been jarred out of a sound sleep.
Curling onto her side in the dark, grateful to escape the dream in which she had been immersed, she struggled to recapture it. She had been running barefoot through the barren rooms of a derelict mansion, her feet never quite touching the floor in the odd way things worked in dreams. The sense of feathery fingers reaching for her as she fled. Not quite a nightmare, but the memory left her unsettled.
Reaching for the blanket crumpled at the foot of the bed, she drew it over her bare shoulders. Jovanic’s low voice filtered through the wall. The words were indistinct, but something in his tone made her think that this was other than a routine homicide callout. If any homicide could be thought of as routine.
The sound of water beating against the wall a minute later told her the call had ended. Three minutes in and out of the shower; then water running in the sink—brushing his teeth, a hurried shave. He’d switched off the light before re-entering the bedroom, doing his best not to disturb her as he made his way across the room to the closet. Still, Claudia knew from the click of the security snap precisely when he holstered his Glock; from the whisper of cotton against acetate when he shrugged into his suit coat. She knew, too, from the muttered curse under his breath when he stumbled against the sharp corner of the bed frame while hunting for his shoes.
The red numbers on the bedside clock glowed 2:33.
“Where is it?” she asked in a voice still thick with the remnants of the dream.
“Shhh. Go back to sleep.”
“No, tell me.”
Jovanic hesitated, then loosed a sigh. “Venice Beach.”
Normally she would not push him, but his reluctance compelled her. Claudia propped herself on an elbow, seeking him through the shadows. “I want to know.”
Already halfway through the bedroom door, he paused in the frame and turned back, chilling her with his words. “It’s a kid.”
The previous Friday
Weed shops, tattoo parlors, Rose the body painter. Crazy Guitar Dude on roller blades, amp strapped to his back, singing as he swept past. Amateur rappers hawking their latest CD. Old guy wearing nothing but a Speedo; everyone said he’d been there forever. A pall of pot smoke thick enough to give everyone within a block a contact high.
Venice Boardwalk was like a theme park where the theme was all the wack jobs doing their own thing. The crazies excited fifteen-year-old Annabelle Giordano the most and stirred her curiosity. She wanted to know what made them do what they did, and would have gone up to the guy with the “Kick me in the balls for $1” sign and asked him, but Monica grabbed her by the arm and dragged her away before she could, afraid she’d get rabies or maybe something worse.
Monica Cabot was Annabelle’s BFF, which was totally weird because two girls could not have been more unalike. Monica’s aunt Claudia called them Snow White and Rose Red, like the sisters in the fairytale.
Annabelle’s raven-colored hair and olive skin were gifts from her father. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but even she knew there was something appealing about her exotic looks. At least, when she forgot to paste on her sullen face and curl her cupid’s bow lips into a sneer.
Monica, on the other hand, was conventionally cute, with the curly blonde hair of a baby doll and china blue eyes that got big and anxious when she was out of her comfort zone. Like now, when she was feeling guilty. “I hope my dad doesn’t call me.”
Annabelle kept her eyes on the painted men dancing like robots, and the rapping acrobats. “Why would he call when he thinks we’re at the mall?”
“You know how he is.”
“Yeah. He’s obsessed with keeping you a little kid.” Annabelle let out a huff of irritation. For sure Pete Cabot would never have given permission for his daughter to go to the Boardwalk if she had told the truth about where they were going. “He should let you be more independent. That’s how you learn what to do if something bad happens to you.” Annabelle knew a lot about bad things happening.
“You know it’s because of my mom.”
Annabelle could tell that Monica was regretting the little white lie she had told her father. She tore her gaze away from a weight lifter who was getting his photo taken with a girl in a bikini; he charged five bucks for the privilege. “Her getting killed by a drunk driver doesn’t mean he has to keep you wrapped up like a big burrito all the time.” She didn’t remind Monica that her own mother had died in a car accident, too. Instead, she changed the subject. “I might get a piercing. Maybe my tongue.”
Monica gave a derisive snort. “Not while you’re staying at my aunt’s. She’d freak.”
“You think so? She’s usually pretty cool.”
“She just wants us to think she’s cool. Inside she’s freaking. Remember that time she caught you with those cigarettes? I heard her talking with my dad. She was pretty upset about it.”
Annabelle grinned. “Duh. I didn’t even smoke them; I’m not that stupid. I was just carrying them in my backpack so my homies wouldn’t think I was a total loser.”
“Well, Auntie C told my dad he’d better keep an eye on you when you’re over at our house.”
“Everyone says I’m a bad influence on you.”
“It’s not that…well, maybe it is. But you know she loves you anyway.”
Annabelle didn’t answer. It would have sounded pitiful to say that nobody loved her, even if that’s how it felt most of the time. She knew deep in her heart it wasn’t true. But after believing it for so long, the habit was hard to break.
Annabelle was fourteen when Monica’s aunt Claudia came into her life. She had been motherless for eight of those years. Pretty much fatherless, too. The man who raised her might have given her his name, and far more in a material way than she could ever have wished for, but a name and material things were not what she hankered after.
Discovering that Nicholas Giordano was not her father was like having a big icky spiderweb lifted off her. She had always felt it in her bones—isn’t that what people said when they knew something with their whole entire self? Well, that’s how strongly she had known something was wrong with the way Nick—she had started thinking of him as her fake father—had looked at her, like she was something gross he’d picked out of his nose. When he even bothered to look, that is.
Annabelle had tried every way she could think of to get his attention, from jacking up the sound of her favorite Grunge bands to a gazillion decibels, to involving herself with a very bad crew. But it was always the same. Nick’s voice reverberating through the big house in the hills above Malibu Beach, screaming at whatever dildo was directing the latest movie his studio was producing, demanding to know why they were over budget and not on schedule. Nothing Annabelle did mattered.
Finally, she had given in to her loneliness and desperation to be loved. Early one morning, she stole a bottle of vodka from Nick’s wet bar and took it down to the beach. She’d forced down as much of the booze as she could tolerate, then smashed the bottle on the rocks and dragged a thick shard of the broken glass across her wrists.
She had no memory of it, but later, in the hospital psych ward, they told her that a guy walking his dog had found her before it was too late. She wished he had just let her die.
Nick had stood over her hospital bed and yelled at her for making him look bad. He sent her to the Sorensen Academy, a school where rich parents sent their troublesome daughters when they didn’t know what else to do with them, or just didn’t want to bother. Annabelle thought of it as Juvie with fake glitter. She had been to real Juvie, so she knew.
Meeting Claudia Rose had been the start of her new life.
Claudia had lectured to the student body about their handwriting and what it said about them. Afterwards, she had showed Annabelle something called ‘graphotherapy,’ which was written exercises that she was supposed to do while some funky special music played in the background.
Claudia said the exercises would help her deal with her feelings appropriately, instead of stuffing them inside until they spewed out like an angry volcano. Annabelle had pretended not to be interested, but deep down she was totally over constantly getting in trouble for her behavior. So, despite her skepticism, she agreed to try the program, and after a while was surprised to discover that she was actually feeling better.
Meeting Monica was another awesome event in her life. The instant feeling of sisterhood was totally alien to Annabelle, but despite—or maybe because of—their differences, the two girls formed a bond that had only deepened as their friendship evolved.
Annabelle was the older of the two by only a few weeks, but Monica, who had been sheltered by a loving father and aunt, seemed much younger. Upon learning how Annabelle had pretty much raised herself, smoking dope at thirteen and cruising with gangbangers in the cars they stole, tender-hearted Monica had burst into tears. Annabelle decided she had better not tell her the part about getting passed around for sex.
Her friend’s impatience filtered through the memories.
“Anna, are you even listening to me?”
“Sorry, Mon’. Anyway, it’s no big, I’m just thinking about it. Maybe I’ll get a tattoo instead.”
“What kind would you get?” Monica sounded wistful. “I’d like a little flower on my ankle—maybe a rose. But I’ll have to wait ‘til I’m about a hundred. My dad would never let me do it.”
“For sure. He’s like the witch in that Rapunzel movie. You might as well be locked up in some old tower, growing your hair a thousand feet long.”
“So now I’m a burrito, and Rapunzel?”
Annabelle grinned. “A big burrito with really long hair.”
“Whatever. Anyway, what would you get?”
Annabelle stopped walking and thought about it for a minute. “A mermaid, maybe. I’d have them do it someplace where no one could see it.”
“Because it’s nobody’s business.”
“Well, what’s the point, if nobody can see it?”
“I would know it’s there. It would be my secret.”
Monica giggled. “Unless you had a boyfriend. He would know.”
“Shut up. I—”
“AnnaB. Hey, home skillet, wait up.”
Annabelle swung around in surprise. “Angel?” She had recognized the voice, but it took a few seconds to match her memory to the girl calling out to her across the sidewalk. The silky formerly chestnut hair had been dyed white blonde and teased out like straw. Thick black mascara outlined her eyelids like pictures Annabelle had seen of Cleopatra. In her tiny stretch shorts and hi-top sneakers, she looked like a baby hooker.
She introduced her old friend to Monica. “This is Angel. We used to hang out in jail—I mean at Sorensen Acad.”
“Jamie,” Angel said, jerking her head at the girl who was with her.
“Hey.” Annabelle nodded back, thinking that Jamie, whose face was camouflaged behind a pair of enormous shades, must have gotten her strategically torn jeans and tight T-shirt off the same tacky rack as Angel.
“So, whatup, AnnaB? It’s been like forever.” Angel ignored the beachgoers who flowed around them on the crowded boardwalk, some throwing annoyed glances at the girls blocking their path.
“I know, huh? We gotta talk.” A strong whiff of barbecued meat wafted past and made Annabelle’s stomach rumble loud enough to be heard in Santa Monica. Everyone on the boardwalk seemed to have food in their hands: mangoes with chili powder, hotdogs, churros. “Let’s go to Figtree’s and get some food.”
Angel nodded. “I wanna hear what you been up to since the great escape.”
Fanning out across the boardwalk, the four girls turned as a group, too engrossed in their conversation to pay attention to where they were going. A little boy licking a mile-high ice cream crashed into them and nearly dropped his cone. The father shot them a dirty look as they walked away.
“Fuck you, asshat,” Jamie yelled after him. Angel laughed. Monica blushed bright crimson. Annabelle, feeling ashamed even though she hadn’t done anything, grabbed Monica’s arm and started walking faster toward the café.
They got a table on the patio and ordered burgers and Cokes, except for Monica, who was trying out vegetarian and asked for a salad. Across the boardwalk, three shirtless dudes with guitars and a bass were singing for donations. They sounded better than they looked.
Angel leaned forward in her white plastic chair, elbows on the table. “So, tell me, AnnaB, what happened after I left? Did that skank Jordan Riley get herself pregnant? All those times she sneaked out at night; I know she was too dumb to take care of herself.”
Angel looked like she’d had the flu and was just getting over it, but Annabelle recognized her sallow skin for what it was—bad diet and drug use. She shrugged. “I don’t know. Didn’t you hear, the school got shut down? It wasn’t all that long after you left.” She felt Monica’s foot nudge hers under the table, as if tapping out a question. “Angel escaped,” Annabelle explained. “Like the slaves—right, Angel? She got emancipated.”
“Emancipated minor,” Angel corrected her. “The judge let me get free from my mom. She didn’t give a shit anyway—too busy playing with her friends in Europe.”
“But she’s still a slave,” Jamie put in.
Angel’s face fell. “I moved in with Mouser and his brother.”
“And his brother’s lady, and his brother’s kids, and his brother’s dogs,” Jamie added.
“Mouser’s her boyfriend,” Annabelle informed Monica. “He’s like, this insanely gorgeous surfer dude.” She looked back at Angel. “I can’t believe you’re still together.”
“Yeah. I take care of his brother’s rugrats and help with the housework, and they let me live there,” Angel said with a conspicuous lack of enthusiasm.
“She’s like that Cinderella chick,” Jamie said. “Ariceli treats her like dogshit and Bad Bobby lets her. In fact, he kicks her ass if Ariceli tells him to. It pretty much sucks.”
Angel ignored her. “It’s not all that bad. I get to hang out sometimes, like now, for instance. Anyhow, what happened at Sorensen? Why would they get shut down?”
Annabelle and Monica exchanged an uneasy glance. Annabelle still had a hard time talking about the horrors she had experienced in those weeks. She avoided a direct answer. “Ms. Sorensen’s stepkids took it over and closed it. I go to regular school now, with Monica. Hey, you won’t believe this—I found out my father isn’t really my father and my real father’s a stuntman.”
Angel’s eyebrows shot up. “No shit?”
“I know, huh?”
“So, when do I get to meet Real Dad?”
“He’s been working on a movie in Canada all summer. I’m staying at Monica’s aunt Claudia’s.”
“Well, I wanna meet the stuntman.” Angel scraped back her chair and pulled off her sweatshirt, revealing a colorful design. “Keep my seat warm, sistas; gotta hit the little girl’s room.”
“She has a tattoo?” Annabelle said as she disappeared at the back of the restaurant.
“Sugar skull. We both got ‘em.” Jamie pulled her own shirt down to display some serious ink on her own shoulder, a stark white skull’s face, female, a red rose adorning a mane of black hair. The tip of the nose formed a black triangle, the eyes heavily outlined charcoal and decorated with green petals. Black stitches sealed the lips.
Annabelle stared with admiration at the mix of glam and horror. “That is so awesome.”
“It comes from some Mexican celebration,” Jamie added. “The Day of the Dead, or something.”
“Dia de los Muertos,” Monica said, then looked abashed when the other two girls stared at her as if she’d said something dirty. “It’s the day after Halloween. We studied it in Spanish class. People bring food and stuff to the cemetery to honor their dead relatives.”
“That’d be so cool; a picnic on a grave.” Annabelle’s mind was already spinning with the possibilities.
But Monica wasn’t having any of that. “Don’t even think about it. We’re not going to any cemeteries for a picnic.”
Angel returned from the restroom, dropping into her chair with dilated pupils and a glassy stare that told Annabelle she’d taken a hit of something. Once, Annabelle would have asked her to share, but she could feel something changing in her.
“What’d I miss?” Angel asked with a big sloppy smile.
“Your BFF is jealous of our tats,” Jamie said.
“Does it hurt to get it done?” Monica asked.
Jamie gave a jeering laugh. “You didn’t hear us crying or nothing. I guess it kinda feels like a bee sting. You gonna get one?”
“I want one,” Annabelle broke in. “Where’d you get it done?”
“No parlor is gonna ink you,” Angel said with certainty. “You’re underage. They’d get busted and lose their license.”
“But the guy who did ours is a special friend. He knows we’re not gonna rat him out.”
“Would he do one for me? Yours are so awesome.”
Jamie and Angel exchanged a look, then Angel giggled. “Viper? He might, but you’d have to fuck him, and he’s an old dude. He’s at least 40.”
Annabelle wrinkled her nose. “Hells no, I don’t want it that much.”
“Maybe Crash’d do it,” said Angel.
“He’s just another old tattoo dude, but he doesn’t got his own studio like Viper, so he don’t have to worry about a license.”
“He’s a really good artist.” Angel’s lips pursed. “I bet I could talk him into it. He likes me.”
“You better hope Viper doesn’t find out you’re hangin’ with Crash,” Jamie said.
Annabelle intercepted the warning look Jamie threw at her friend, but Angel brushed it off. “Who’s gonna tell him? Anyway, he’s the one who sent me over there. He wants those guys to like me.”
“Shut up, Angel. Viper doesn’t need his business spread all over town.”
Angel pursed her lips in a sulk, but she didn’t argue. Annabelle’s curiosity nudged her. She wanted to ask Angel what she meant—who did this Viper person want to like her? But she kept the question to herself, not wanting to incite any more friction.
Monica filled the tense silence. “It’s not gonna work, Annabelle. Aunty C won’t—”
“She doesn’t need to know,” Annabelle interrupted. She turned to Angel, all business. “So, you think this Crash guy will do it for me? Would you mind if I got one like yours? It’s so cute.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call a skull with makeup cute,” Monica protested. “And you should wait ‘til your father gets back.”
“Like he’s gonna say yeah? I’m so sure.” Annabelle shook her head. “Anyway, don’t be such a wuss.”
“She gonna rat you out?” Jamie asked, nodding toward Monica.
“Of course not,” Monica indignantly declared. “I don’t snitch, but she’s gonna get in trouble. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Well, I do.” Annabelle got out her cell phone. “Ask him, Angel. I’m gonna do it.”
“What are you so antsy about, Annabelle?” Claudia wanted to know. “Do you think it’s going to make the phone ring if you keep looking at it?”
“I’m waiting for a call.”
“I guessed that much. Anyone interesting?”
“I ran into this girl I used to go to school with at Sorensen. We’re gonna get together and talk about the bad old days.”
“Anyone I know?”
“What’s her name?”
“I don’t remember her last name. It’s really Angela, but she didn’t like it, so we called her Angel.”
“Where did you run into her?”
Annabelle made an exasperated noise. “Why are you asking me all these questions? Don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you. Do I have a reason not to?”
The answer came rapid fire. “No.”
“Okay. But I have one more question. Do you need a ride?”
Annabelle looked abashed. “No, thanks. She’s going to call me when she gets to Tyler’s. I’ll walk down and meet her.” Tyler’s was the neighborhood coffeehouse about a half-mile away, down a steep hill.
“I’d be glad to drop you there. I’m going to the grocery store.”
Annabelle’s cheeks flushed a sudden bright pink. “You don’t trust me!” She jumped up and flounced out of the kitchen, her words trailing behind her.
Claudia frowned, listening to the slam of her bedroom door. It had been some time since she had seen this kind of behavior from Annabelle. She pondered on it, trying to figure out what was going on. The girl had been in an odd mood since her trip to the mall with Monica on Friday. That furtive behavior was hiding something, for sure.
Claudia sighed. Three steps forward, two steps back. It felt like they were doing a dance. But it was to be expected. After everything Annabelle had endured last year, including being kidnapped and witnessing the vicious murder of someone she cared about, it would have been strange if she didn’t continue to have bad days. And nights; though thank God, several weeks had passed without her waking up screaming.
According to Zebediah Gold, Claudia’s old friend and Annabelle’s therapist, she was suffering from PTSD—post traumatic stress disorder. Maybe meeting up with Angel, who was part of her old life and memories of the Sorensen Academy, had triggered a return of the nightmares.
Claudia resolved that after she had done her grocery shopping, she would put in a call to Zebediah and make an appointment for Annabelle.
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