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brooke stevens
           
TATTOO GIRL

CHAPTER ONE

           At 2:01 A.M. Harold Parks, the security guard of the Blue Night Mall, a tall, soft-spoken black man in his mid-fifties, left his office with his check point keys in hand and walked past the gated windows of the sporting goods store, the blue jean shop and the closed metal curtains of the hamburger and hotdog stands. The mall was empty and quiet enough to hear a pin drop. It had been that way at this time of night for the last twelve years of Harold's shift. That may have been why the sight of somebody's head from behind, a person seated on the wooden bench behind the fountain under the atrium in the center of the mall, struck Harold as peculiar. Even from his vantage point through the wide-leafed, tropical plants, Harold could sense the tranquility of this person. As he rounded the octagonally shaped fountain, he saw a teenage girl, fifteen or so years old. Twigs, bits of leaves and dust were woven into her matted black hair; her face was pocked with dirt worn deeply into the skin.
           Harold stared at her. He'd never seen another person in the mall at this time. It suddenly occurred to him that she might have beenHarold stared at her. He'd never seen another person in the mall at this time. It suddenly occurred to him that she might have been separated from her friends or parents, though the mall had been closed for over two hours. He smiled and walked toward the bathrooms. He'd already checked them once that night, but it was always possible that he had missed somebody in a stall. He swung open the door to the men's room and walked along the urinals. "Anyone here?" He pushed open all the stall doors and then turned around.
           Down the corridor he could see the placid girl sitting on the bench near the fountain, her hands on the wood beside her. Harold knocked on the women's room door. "Hello? Anyone here? I'm coming in. Security guard, got to make my check." After a brief silence he strolled through the lightly colored room that was always far neater than the men's room. He would never have walked through this room if it had not been on his list of duties.
        Back in the corridor Harold squatted in front of the girl. "Hello," he said. She turned to him and he thought her pupils dilated. "Are you okay?"
        She stared without saying a word.
        "Your friends, where are they? Out in the parking lot? Did they leave you here?"
        His own question gave him an idea. Maybe they had been locked out and were outside trying to get in.
        "Do you want to come with me or stay here?
        She didn't answer.
        He got his keys out and made his way to the alarm box near the front entrance.
        A yellow moon had risen over the lake at the edge of the mall parking lot since his shift had begun. The light mingled on the water with the faint lights of the far shore. A wind caressed his cheeks. He left the front door open and followed the sidewalk to get a look around the back.
        The brake lights of a pickup truck parked near the guardrail at the far corner of the lot kept blinking on and off. The truck was too far away too see inside but as Harold approached he made out two figures inside kissing passionately, teenagers. The boy in the driver's seat must have had his foot on the brake pedal without realizing it.
         Harold turned and headed back to the towering flat-roofed windowless building with the neon lit sign, The Blue Night Mall, crackling against the sky of stars and stratus of thin white clouds. The pick-up truck peeled out, the rear tires smoking and shot through the wide empty lot toward the exit.
        At the fountain the girl was in the same position, arms to her sides, staring down the corridor. He put his hand down for her and she reached up and took it. "Come on," he said and led her along the slick tiles, past all the closed stores to his office where his dinner lay wrapped in tinfoil getting cold. He always ate it right after his final check while listening to the news on the radio.
        "Hungry?" he asked. He peeled the top of a banana. The girl took it from him, holding it in her hand without eating it. "Go on, I'm going to make a telephone call and we'll find your friends or parents, whoever you came with, sure as the sky is blue. Okay?"
        As long as he'd been working at the mall, Harold had never once needed to call the police. A female dispatcher came on.
        "This is Harold Parks, security guard at the Blue Night Mall. I just found a young girl in here. She doesn't talk, she seems lost or something. I don't know how in the world she could have gotten in here."
        The dispatcher asked that he describe her.
        "She's fifteen or sixteen years old, a white girl. Her hair's all matted and dirty, her shoes covered with mud. Seems her shirt's got some stains on it or something, something's dried on it. What's on your shirt?" he said. The girl held the banana without eating it. She seemed to understand what he was saying. "I don't know what her name is."
        After Harold hung up the phone, he knelt next to the girl. Now he noticed the crusty stains were all over the back of her shirt and pants. "Somebody spill their dinner on you?" he asked.
        Something dark caught his eye through a small tear in the fabric. He got up and bolted the door, despite the fact that the mall was empty. Then he came back to the girl, knelt down behind her and carefully lifted her shirt. She stood there without moving.
        He had thought there would be another shirt under this one. But there was only skin. Surely it was skin for it was alive and moving as she was breathing. A pattern, a fine mesh of tiny overlapping U's making her look almost as dark as Harold. Scales, fish or snake scales, drawn evenly across her smooth white flesh, obviously by a person adept at the art. The scales went up as far as Harold dared lift her shirt. Turning her around, he saw they were on her stomach too. He reached for the cuffs of her pants. The tattooed scales extended all the way to her ankles. "Mercy," he whispered. "Look what somebody did to you. You poor baby." He lifted her shirtsleeve. The pattern came down her arm all the way to her wrist.
        Ten minutes later he was standing next to the girl at the mall's glass doors as a police cruiser parked next to the sidewalk. Perhaps the officer was having a bad night, or perhaps he wasn't sympathetic to what he saw: a black man holding the hand of a young white girl alone in this wide-open country. He kept his narrow eyes low as he silently stepped out of the cruiser. Sneering, he lifted the girl onto the seat.
        Harold leaned down to the open window. "Excuse me, officer, but do you think it'd be possible if somebody down at the station could give me a ring and let me know why this poor girl's out here? I'll worry all night." He knew he was going to worry longer than that. Despite her silence, he already felt a connection to this girl, something he couldn't put his finger on.
        "Sure," the officer said. He turned away as if he'd said too much already and put his car in gear.
        An hour later, Harold called the station.
        "What do you want to know about her?" the dispatcher said.
        "Just if you found her parents. I'm about worrying myself to death here."
        "Nothing yet."
        "Oh," Harold waited, hoping she'd say something more. The dispatcher was quiet. "What a shame, somebody leaving a young girl like that all alone."
        "A lot of creeps out there," the woman said.
        "Sure," Harold said. "Sure is."
        The dispatcher hung up and Harold carefully put the receiver on its cradle. The image of the beautiful young girl was in still his head. The three times he had to walk by the fountain, he thought he could feel her presence again. Her soul's innocent, he thought, but somebody put something around it, some darkness.
        On his way back home to his small apartment that morning he bought a newspaper. Far more tired than usual, he crawled into bed and fell asleep. At one-thirty in the afternoon when he walked out to the kitchen of his apartment for breakfast, he opened up the paper and searched through the articles as if the story could possibly have written itself while he'd been sleeping. He thought better of calling the police, and then his telephone rang.
        "Mr. Parks?"
        "Speaking."
        "I'm a reporter at the Morton Chronicles, name's Tom Grant, maybe you've seen my name."
        "I don't know the reporters there."
        "We were wondering if you might want to answer a few questions concerning the girl who turned up in the mall last night for an article."
        "I can't tell you much more beyond the fact that she was sitting by the fountain around 2 a.m.," Harold said.
        "But you were the one who found her, is that correct?"
        "Yes, I did. Is she okay? I'm--"
        "You're what?"
        "Worrying about her."
        "Did you notice anything unusual about her? Did she seem shook up?"
        "Maybe."
        "Anything else?'
        "She didn't say a word the whole time we waited for the police car."
        "Well, she's evidently in shock. Once they took her clothes off she livened up a little, I'll say. There were stains on them, Mr. Parks, blood stains--not her blood either."
        The sadness that had settled on Harold's shoulders the night before grew heavier. He could feel it in his stomach.
        "Human blood. All over her," the reporter paused.
        "No," Harold said and put his hand against his stomach and kept it there.
        "They don't know whose, but it seems from more than one source."
        "Lord have mercy, what happened?"
        "That's just what the homicide squad is looking into..."
        "That doesn't make any sense."
        "More sense than the other thing they found out about her. Did you notice anything on her skin when you found her, Mr. Parks?"
        "She was all dressed up with a sweater around her neck."
        "So, you didn't notice anything on her?"
        "Nothing."
        "Scales tattooed all over her. Yes, indeed," the reporter said. "The needle of the perpetrators of this crime against her spared nothing except her hands and feet right up to her neck. Nothing, no part of her body whatsoever, Mr. Parks. It's no wonder she can't talk. They blamed it on a cult, but there aren't any around here. Somebody thought she must be from a circus, but none have passed close by in quite a while."
         "Who in the world--"
        "A sicko, she's just a little kid."
         "Just a little kid," Harold said.
        On his way back to work that afternoon he bought a copy of the Morton Chronicle. For the first time in his life he saw his name in print.

        CIRCUS GIRL FOUND IN MALL
        Morton, Ohio. An apparently speechless young girl in blood splattered clothing was found in a state of shock at around 2 a.m. inside the Blue Night Mall by the night watchman, Harold Parks. Though the girl was said to be otherwise unharmed, police said that tattoos were discovered covering over 90% of her skin...