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Day Seventy-three: Ink

“Is this going to hurt?” Lila asked, craning her neck to try and look behind her.

“That depends,” Shavenne said. “You good with pain?”

“No, not really.”

“Then yeah, it’s gonna hurt.” She flipped a switch and the needle started its high-pitched whine. “As far as I know, though, I haven’t killed anyone yet. So just lay forward and relax.”

Lila winced in anticipation of the needle hitting her skin, and bit back a yelp when it first stung her. Shavenne chuckled quietly behind her and kept working.

The tattoo parlor didn’t look anything like what Lila thought of when she thought of a tattoo parlor. There were no giant, hairy, sweaty men in leather jackets. There were no cement floors and drunk teenagers and dim lighting. There was no haze of cigarette smoke and overflowing ashtrays. Instead, Violet Nights looked like someone’s living room. A large window let in plenty of light, the walls were decorated with small pieces of artwork. Shavenne said that some of it was hers, others by some friends. There was a deep, beautiful Persian carpet on the hardwood floor that was relaxing just to walk across, and soft instrumental music was playing, rather than the speed metal or rap that Lila had expected.

In her defense, though, all of her expectations had come from tv and movies, which rarely portrayed getting a tattoo a something you do in a casual drawing-room, so Lila didn’t have a lot to go on. If it were up to her, she would never have come to get a tattoo in the first place. But it wasn’t up to her, really.

“So how long have you been working for Albeth and Halding?” Shavenne asked.

“Only six – nnng – six months now,” Lila said through clenched teeth. “My probation ended last week.”

Shavenne made a nodding noise. “So you’re in, what, accounting?”

“Yeah. It’s not what I really thought I’d do with my life, but – OW!”

“Sorry.” Shavenne wiped away a little spot of blood and continued inking. “But what?”

“Well…” Lila trailed off as she thought about it. “Well, I guess it’s because that’s what I’m good at. Numbers and things.”

Shavenne switched off the needle as she changed colors. “You think you’ll keep doing that?”

Lila shrugged, which stung a bit. “I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe. I mean, in this economy you don’t want to risk it, right?” Shavenne made another nodding noise, switched the needle back on, and went to work.

The noise of the tattoo needle and the soft classical music merged nicely, and after a few minutes, Lila didn’t notice the stinging quite as much. She thought about her job, and the question of what she wanted to do with her life. She always thought that question was kind of unfair, asking someone to make a commitment like that for a whole future, sight unseen. But that was what she was doing, wasn’t it? She’d applied to Albeth and Halding, one of hundreds of college grads looking to fill ten positions, and she’d gotten in. She still felt like she didn’t know why – even though she did. Her grades were fantastic, she really did have an aptitude for “creative math,” as it was called by her friends, and her advisor had worked for A&H years ago, before he went into academia. She had the talent, and she had the support.

So why did she feel like she was the only kid in the adult’s party? It seemed like everyone at A&H was throwing around terms she’d never heard of, dropping names that she’d never met, and referencing figures that she’d only ever seen in textbook exercises. Millions of dollars were flowing through that bank every hour, billions every day, and she had no idea where it was coming from or going. All she knew was the tiny portion that her probation supervisor gave her. Small hedge funds, retirement accounts, mortgages, that sort of thing. Basic bookkeeping. The kind of thing they taught housewives in night school

But they wanted her. Mr. Kubik had called her into his office Friday afternoon and said, “We’re very pleased with your performance here over the last six months, Lila.” He looked like someone who stepped out of a financial services brochure, with his perfect hair and whiter-than-white teeth and a tailored suit. And for some reason, she wanted to stay away from him, out of his reach. “We think you’ll make a fine addition to our family,” he said, putting his hand on her shoulder. She didn’t flinch, and was both proud of that and ashamed that she’d wanted to. He took a fat envelope off his desk and gestured for her to sit down. “There are a few details that need to be hammered out first, some technicalities, standard contracts, that sort of thing.”

So for the next hour and a half, Lila went through benefit packages and pension schemes, pay grades and bonus requirements, terms and conditions in that tiny, lawyerly language that she dared not overlook. And somewhere in the middle of that, when her head was spinning from one official document to the next, Kubik handed her a business card and said, “There is one more thing, Lila. It’s a little… unorthodox, but it’s a tradition here at A&H.”

The card was simple and discreet. Violet Nights Body Art, Shavenne Horio, Proprietor.

Lila looked at the card then back to Kubik. “What is this?” she asked.

Kubik put on his best Concerned Face. “You understand that in a business like ours, security is very important, right?” Lila nodded and felt like she was twelve years old. “We need to to everything we can to assure our clients that their money is safe with us, and that their trust isn’t misplaced. That means making sure we can trust everyone who works in the Albeth and Halding family. From the lowliest of the janitors to the CEO himself.” He took off his jacket, loosened his tie and started to unbutton his shirt as he talked. Lila shifted her grip on her pen. If she had to, she’d stab him with it. But it would probably cost her the job.

“We used to give everyone ID cards, and that was fine for a while. But those can be lost, or stolen, or cloned. And biometrics is fine, for what it does. He took off his crisp white collared shirt and walked over to her. Lila gripped the pen. “A few years ago, we worked with Cerbecorp to develop the best, most secure system we could.” He lifted the sleeve of his undershirt and showed her the mark on his shoulder.

It was a tattoo, done in jet-black ink. It was beautiful, really. A complicated fractal design, all arcs and squares and circles, and embedded in the middle of it, barely visible, was the Albeth and Halding logo. “Like it?” he asked. Lila nodded. “I designed it myself. You don’t have to go that far if you don’t want to – there are plenty of pre-done designs to choose from.” He lowered his sleeve and sat on the edge of his desk. “That tattoo is embedded with nanoparticles, which can be read by the building’s security systems. They’re unique to me, so they act as a kind of permanent ID, letting me into the parts of the building I need to be, and out of those parts I don’t need to be in.” He smiled. “They can’t be lost, can’t be copied, and they work on any A&H property.” He stood up and started putting his shirt back on. “And if, god forbid, I should leave the company, well… They’ll be deactivated and I’ll have a nice souvenir of my time here.”

The looked at her while he dressed, waiting for her to say something. She didn’t know what to say. After a few moments, “So… You’re saying I have to get one of those tattoos?”

He nodded as he buttoned up his shirt. “I’m afraid so.” He picked up his tie and started to re-tie it. “But like I said – you can choose the design, it’ll only take an afternoon, and it means you’re officially part of the A&H family.” He picked up the large package of forms and waivers. “Besides, you’ve already signed an agreement. So unless you think this isn’t a job you’d like to hold on to, there are plenty of others who’d be happy to take it off your hands.”

Lila stood up at that point and told Kubik that no, she would be happy to get it done. It was just a little surprising, was all.

The next day, she came to Violet Nights and was taken aback by its dissimilarity to her expectations. She chose a design that looked like a butterfly as Shavenne explained the procedure to her, and – with only a little trepidation and uncertainty, bared her shoulderblade to have the mark of Albeth and Halding applied to her skin.

“Done,” Shavenne said, rousing Lila from her thoughts.

Lila sat up. “Really? That was it?”

Shavenne raised an eyebrow. “We can do more if you want. It’ll be on your tab, though.”

“No, no, I just thought…” She smiled and went to put her shirt back on. “Thank you.”

“Hold on a second,” Shavenne said. She reached behind her and pulled out a small, hand-held scanner. She ran it over Lila’s shoulder and it beeped, followed by a small red light turning green. “Good,” she said. “This should work fine. And if your clearances change, they can do that at your office.” She smiled. “You won’t have to come down here again.” She shrugged. “Unless you want to.”

Lila tried to demur politely, but she was pretty sure Shavenne could see through it. She wasn’t the type of person to get a tattoo before this, and that hadn’t changed anything. Before she was allowed to put her shirt back on, Lila had to read a pamphlet about proper tattoo care and let Shavenne rub a tingling salve over it. She put a light bandage on top, gave it a gentle pat, and then said, “Okay. You’re good to go.”

She put her blouse back on and flexed her shoulder a bit. It was itchy, and a little sore, but that should go away in a few days. In the meantime, it was official. She was now part of the Albeth and Halding Family.

She shook hands with Shavenne, who wished her the best. Then Lila walked out of the tattoo parlor into bright springtime sunshine, hailed a taxi, and broke down sobbing before the driver made it to the highway….

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