Chapter 1: Dakota Frost
I first started wearing a Mohawk to repel low-lifes—barflies, vampires, Republicans, and so on—but when I found my true profession it turned into an ad. People’s eyes are drawn by my hair—no longer a true Mohawk, but a big, unruly “deathhawk,” a stripe of feathered black, purple and white streaks climbing down the center of my head—but their gaze lingers on the tattoos, which start as tribal vines in the shaved spaces on either side of the ’hawk and then cascade down my throat to my shoulders, flowering into roses and jewels and butterflies.
Their colors are so vivid, their details so sharp many people mistake them for body paint, or assume that they can’t have been done in the States. Yes, they’re real; no, they’re not Japanese—they’re all, with a few exceptions, done by my own hand, right here in Atlanta at the Rogue Unicorn in Little Five Points. Drop by—I’ll ink you. Ask for Dakota Frost.
To retain the more … perceptive … eye, I started wearing an ankle-length leather vest that shows off the intricate designs on my arms, and a cutoff top and low-rider jeans that show off a tribal yin-yang on my midriff. Throughout it all, you can see the curving black tail of something big, curling up the left side of my neck, looping around the yin-yang on my midriff, and arcing through the leaves on my right shoulder. Most people think it’s a dragon, and they wouldn’t be wrong; in case anyone misses the point, I even have the design sewn into the back of a few of my vests.
But those who live on the edge might see a little more: magical runes woven into the tribal designs, working charms woven into the flowers, and, if you look real close at the tail of the dragon, the slow movement of a symbolic familiar. Yes, it did move; and yes, that’s real magic. Drop by the Rogue Unicorn—you’re still asking for the one and only Dakota Frost, the best magical tattooist in the Southeast.
The downside to being a walking ad, of course, is that some of the folks you want to attract start to see you as a scary low-life. We all know that vampires can turn out to be quite decent folk, but so can clean-cut young Republicans looking for their first tattoo to impress their tree-hugger girlfriends. As for barflies, well, they’re still barflies; but unfortunately I find the more tats I show the greater the chance that the cops will throw me into the back of the van too if a bar-fight breaks out.
So I couldn’t help being nervous as two officers marched me into City Hall East.
City Hall East is in the old Sears building on Ponce de Leon, a great brick fortress squeezed between the empty parking lot that used to serve the Masquerade dance club and the full one that serves the Borders bookstore. Once it buzzed with activity, but now it’s like a tomb, soon to be demolished and turned into yet another mixed-use development as part of the new Belt Line project. Even the snack shop has closed. All that’s left here are a few Atlanta Police Department offices, more offices for the Feds, and some for permits and land planning.
And lots of police officers, more than I expected for this time of night, most of them scowling. Lots of them, muttering: Look at her? What’s she in for? Is she a stripper? If she’s under arrest, why isn’t she cuffed? The two officers escorting me—one black, one white, both wearing identical buzz cuts—had no answers, for them, or for me. Just: The police need to see you, Miss Frost. No, you’re not under arrest, but it is urgent. Please come with us.
Our footsteps echoed hollowly as we walked through a canyon of white tile and glass walls towards the metal detectors. There had briefly been a gallery and shops on this floor, but now empty offices surrounded us like cages, only a few showing signs of life.
We paused before the metal detectors, where a fat female officer sat, right hand pumping on her mouse in what could only be Minesweeper. “Anything to declare, Miss Frost?” she asked.
“Frost?” Beyond the barrier, a sharply dressed, Kojak-bald black plainclothes officer perked up at the sound of my name: Andre Rand, my dad’s best friend. “Dakota Frost?”
“No, I’ve nothing to declare,” I said, trying to ignore him as he stalked briskly towards me. The woman waved me in, and I swept through the metal detector just in time for him to corner me. I sighed, folded my arms, and stared down at the tall black man. Wonderful. He’d known I was coming—and probably engineered this whole thing.
“Dakota,” he said, voice forced cheeriness, sparkling eyes genuine. He was twice my age—I’d bounced on his knee when he and my father had been partners—but he was still a fashion plate, if you go in for the whole GQ look. “Your dad will be glad to hear you’re doing well—”
“Hey, Rand,” I said, smiling, shaking my head—half at his infectious grin and half at whatever he was planning. “Let’s get this over with. Where is he, and when did he get in? You know, I do have a cell phone. He could call me. There’s no need for the goon squad—”
Rand’s face fell. “I—your dad’s not here, Dakota. We needed to see you.”
“We?” I asked.
Rand’s face went stony, blank. “Homicide, Dakota. Homicide needs to see you.”
We got in the elevator and Rand punched the sixth floor, motioning to me to join him in the back. The officers—big men, almost my height—stepped in front of me, making me feel even more like a prisoner … or perhaps someone being guarded? But the guard theory evaporated when a sandy-haired older man slipped past the officers and joined us in the back of the elevator, leering at me and nodding to Rand.
“Hey, you old cockroach,” he said. After a moment his eyes slid to me, my tattooed arms, and my bare midriff, then forward to the officers. “Forgot to pay your fees?” he leered.
“What the fuck?” I asked.
“Miss Frost isn’t here for floor five, Jack,” Rand said. “She’s working with me.”
“Well lucky you,” the man said, slapping his shoulder. He caught my pissed-off, puzzled look and shrugged, with the conspiratorial leer suppressed but still trying to peek out. “Floor five is where you get your stripper license.”
“And fuck you too,” I said.
“We don’t license for that,” Rand said, deadpan.
“I’m just saying, you could do the job if you wanted.”
“Which one?” one of the officers said, and the other one chuckled.
“Floor five is also where you get your license to do magical tattoos,” I snapped, “which always sounds funny until you wake up with a working asshole tattooed on your forehead.”
Suddenly the cab got quiet. The two officers stiffened up, and Rand jammed his hands into his pockets and leaned against the back wall of the cab. He was trying to look pissed, but he looked so hot he came off more as a brooding GQ model.
But the sandy-haired Jack was staring at the officers, suddenly serious. “Cut the boys a little slack,” he warned me. “Things are crazy. You don’t want to go to jail tonight, do you?”
“Kind of feels like it,” I said.
“Nobody’s going to jail tonight, unless it’s you, Jack,” Rand said.
“Already been,” Jack replied, not the least bit perturbed. “Second time this week—”
“Oh, no,” Rand said. “Don’t tell me your boys messed up bookings—”
“Nope,” Jack said, grinning, “one of your boys tripped a power cord. Again.”
“Jeezus,” I said, abruptly hot under the collar. One of the only college jobs I’d enjoyed had been lab tech, and I couldn’t stand people who fucked up my computers. “You should set up a webcam to find out who’s doing it.”
Jack blinked at me. Then smiled and said, “Not a bad idea for a girl.”
And just when I was starting to warm up to him. “Blow me, you old cockroach.”
The doors opened, and Jack just grinned. “Not a bad idea either.” Jack strolled out to the right and began beeping himself in to a door with a keypad, and we followed.
Once again our footsteps echoed hollowly down a long narrow corridor. On the left were conference rooms and APD offices, but on the right was a long wall of tinted glass with a Fed-smelling seal engraved on it. Behind one window I saw a figure standing; as I drew closer I saw dark sunglasses and a devilish goatee. Sunglasses, at night. Come on.
We paused before another keycoded door, and I became acutely aware that the man behind the glass was checking me out, staring at me, sipping his government coffee. Finally, I looked over and saw a trim form inside a crisp black suit. He was looking straight back at me, raising his cup towards me in salute, his smile not a leer but … appreciation?
Jack opened the door with a beep beep beep, strolled in and disappeared into a warren of ratty old cubicles. We followed him through, and the door closed behind us. I looked back at the big, knobbly lock. I was sure you could get out without the code, but … it still slowly swung shut with a solid click, and I felt trapped.
In moments I was in a plain white “evidence” room, looking down on a salt-and-pepper haired, Greek-looking officer improbably named Vincent Balducci, seated at a large table in front of a large manilla folder. There was a side door to the right, and a huge mirror dominated the rest of the wall. If you squinted you could just see the blinking light of a camera, or maybe a video recorder, and I felt the invisible presence of a dark figure somewhere behind the glass. Maybe I was imagining it, but, come on, I’ve seen this movie before.
“Taller than I expected, Miss Frost,” Balducci said, not moving to greet me as I sat down. My long leather vestcoat shhhed against the tile as I settled into the chair, but after that, the only noise was the hum of the air conditioning.
Rand was seated at the edge of the table, naturally, easily, like an Armani model dressed on a police officer’s salary, but losing none of the class. Finally he seemed to lose patience with Balducci and said, “Show her.”
“This is pointless,” Balducci said. “She can’t tell us anything that—”
“Chickening out?” Abruptly Rand flipped the manilla folder open and turned it towards me, then stood and staring at the glass. “What can you tell us about this?”
Curious, I stared at the picture: it was a bad photocopy of a circular design, some kind of braided wreath with a chain and a snake eating its own tail. Big black blotches covered the upper quarter of the design, but after a moment I puzzled out what I was looking at. “This is flash,” I said. At Balducci’s puzzled look, I explained: “A tattoo design, or a part of one.”
Balducci nodded dismissively. “Told you,” he said to Rand.
“And?” Rand asked.
“And … you need to tone the contrast down on your copier?” I said. It was half blotted out … but then I realized it wasn’t a photocopy, but some kind of printout of an image, posterized to the point that it was almost illegible, with large-brush black blotches of a digital pen redacting some of the details. But it still had that distinctive natural look that meant it had started life as a photograph, not a drawing.
“This isn’t flash,” I said. “It’s an actual tattoo.”
“Told you,” Rand said.
As my eyes studied it I became suspicious. The reproduction was terrible, but something about the wreath and chain had the flavor of a magical glyph. What if it was magical? These mundanes would have no way of knowing. But how could I tell from this printout? “Do you have a better picture? No—a different picture?”
Balducci sighed, and slipped another piece of paper out of the folder. A similar shot, similarly degraded, but … I put the two next to each other and planted my hands on the table, staring down upon them. After a moment I saw it: the head of a snake in the design was three links past the belt of the chain in one, and five in the next. It was moving.
“This is magical,” I said. “This tattoo is moving. It’s a magical mark.”
“Told you,” Rand said triumphantly.
“Holy—” Balducci breathed. I looked up, and saw him not looking at the flash, but at my hands. “Hers are doing it too. I swear the fucking butterfly flapped.”
“What, did you think they only moved after?” Rand asked.
“What do you mean, after?” I asked. No-one said anything, and my stomach suddenly clenched up. “What do you mean, after? You don’t mean, like, after death—”
“I can’t discuss the details of an ongoing investigation,” Balducci said.
“Why did we bring her here if not to discuss it?” Rand said.
“It was your idea,” Balducci said. “She’s your old partner’s daughter—”
The side door opened.
The dark-suited Fed I had seen in the hall walked out. His crisp goatee and short wavy hair made him look more like an evil Johnny Depp than a laid-back agent Mulder. One hand was in his pocket, the other still holding the cup of coffee. In his dextrous fingers, the Styrofoam cup looked like alabaster.
“Show her,” he said, with unassuming authority. “Or quit wasting our time.”
Balducci looked up, at a loss. “You’ve got ‘it’,” he said.
The Fed just looked at me, mouth quirking into a smile, at which point Balducci touched his head in a “senior moment” gesture, then hit the intercom. “Rogers,” he said. “You got ‘it’? Yeah. Bring ‘it’.”
After a moment, a tall, drawn man stepped out of a back door I hadn’t noticed, gingerly holding a large, white plastic envelope with the same Fed logo on it. The cadaverous man paused in the white light of the doorway for a moment, eyes twitching as he saw me—not unfriendly, but … in pity? Then I noticed a long plastic tray in the man’s other hand, and saw the padded envelope bulging with something.
I suddenly didn’t want to see ‘it’.
The Fed touched his left ear for a moment, then turned to go. “Aren’t you going to stay?” I asked nervously. I wasn’t quite sure why I was asking him for reassurance, but there it was.
He paused. “I’ve seen it,” he said, and stepped into the blackness.
The tray clattered against the table, shockingly close to my hands, and Balducci and I both leaned back a little. The evidence technician, if that’s what cadaver man was, put on a pair of blue gloves before opening the envelope and withdrawing a smaller plastic-wrapped object. “Even though it is wrapped,” he said, putting it in the tray, “it would help if you do not touch it.”
My skin grew cold.
It was a ripped piece of human skin pinned to a stained wood board.