Josh Lanyon Main Title

"Fade to Black"

An excerpt from short story by Josh Lanyon

“It is you.”

I jumped as though I’d been caught mid-robbery and dropped the trash bag I was carrying. A couple of crumpled coffee cups rolled out, dribbling onto the black cement floor. “I didn’t know anyone was still here.

He was standing in the shadows, but even so he was kind of hard to miss. Tall, lean, weathered. Leathered, in fact. Dark hair, dark eyes, skin deeply tanned. Like one of those Victorian teething dolls. Right down to the ugly seam creasing the left side of his rugged face.

“I saw you through the window,” he said.

“Oh. Yeah. That.” The picture window was Rikki’s idea. And actually, it did generate a lot of business—barring those times that the showcase client turned out to be someone who couldn’t take pain. Then…not so much.

The man in the shadows didn’t move, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. What was that about? Like he still couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Which was…a man about his own age—forty-ish—medium height, slender, black ponytail, sleeves of tattoo tombstones wound with green and blue ivy. Dotted Line being a tattoo shop. The only tattoo shop on the island.

“We’re closed now,” I said. “You could come back tomorrow.”

He shook his head. “No. I don’t want another tat.”

Good thing. He didn’t have room for any more ink on those muscular arms. Not under the revised military regulations—and he was definitely military. Or maybe ex-military, because he was out of uniform. Sort of. Olive drab T-shirts, faded blue jeans, and huarache sandals are their own uniform.

“Okay. Well…” I picked up the bag of trash again and nodded for G.I. Joe to head on out the door. It was late. I was tired. My back hurt. I hoped this wasn’t going to turn into something weird. Off season was usually pretty calm, but I’ve been robbed twice off season—and the second time the dude had wanted to stay for a carving.

This guy? He was still staring at me like he was seeing a ghost.

Which actually he was. That’s my name. Ghost. Okay, Gordon if you want to get legal about it. Gordon Plymouth, but no one has called me Gordon in over twenty years.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked.

I looked at the ink on his arms again. Nice work, but not mine. Not from anywhere around here. That looked Asian. The real thing. Irezumi. Not your KYF-00049 or a pick from 2011 Ten Best Japanese Tattoos.


He reached for the hem of his T-shirt and yanked it up, revealing a brown and brawny chest. Smooth, hairless, and adorned with one of the worst pieces of body art a scratcher had ever carved into a piece of meat.

“What the hell is that?” I stepped closer to get a better look at what appeared to be a stapler adorned with a skull and crossbones.

The Guy laughed. “You should know.”

I gaped at him.

He nodded, grinning, and I got a glimpse of a gold incisor.


I took another step forward, peering at his chest—he smelled pleasantly, reassuringly of Ivory soap—and dropped the trash bag again. This time just missing his huaraches. I gazed at him in horror. “I did that?”

“You sure did.” He was grinning like it was the funniest thing ever.

Which…nice he had a sense of humor about it, but…my gaze zeroed back on that evil-looking office product. It was old ink. At least a decade. I felt almost dizzy gazing at those fuzzy lines. I did vaguely remember…

“Wait,” I said. “It was a cover up, right? I was using the Jolly Roger to cover up…something. Bad.”

“Bullet holes. Tats, I mean.” He met my eyes. “I do have bullet scars now. I didn’t then. This was twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years ago,” I repeated in wonder. “Dude. You wore this blowout for twenty years?”


I couldn’t read his expression at all. His dark eyes were doing a flickering thing, his gaze roving over my face like he was looking for something from me. If it was remorse, oh hell yeah.

“Come back tomorrow and I’ll fix this for you,” I said. “In fact, if you want, I’ll fix it for you tonight. If you have a couple of hours, I’ll fix it for you now.”

“No, no. That’s not why I…” He stopped.

I couldn’t seem to stop gazing into his eyes. Like everywhere I looked, I was somehow staring at him. It was so weird. But he did have pretty eyes. Kind of a black-brown and almond-shaped, fringed with thick eyelashes. Almost like cartoon eyes. They would be fun to draw for a New School stencil.

He gave me a funny, self-conscious smile. “You really don’t remember me at all, do you?”

“Twenty years ago.” I shook my head. I felt bad about it because it seemed to matter to him, but I’m horrible with faces at the best of times. And that tat…I had probably subconsciously blocked it out. “I had a lot going on back then.”

He nodded. “Well, anyway. I’m glad you’re good. Glad everything worked out.”

And with that, he headed for the door. The evening air wafted in, the scent of the ocean and frying burgers. “Hey, wait,” I said. “You gotta let me fix that for you.”

“Nah. It’s part of me now.”

Bad art was part of him?

“At least tell me your name.” I have no idea why I asked because something about him made me uneasy, nervous—and the mention of bullet holes hadn’t helped. But that Ivory-soap smell was kind of disarming—as were those big, soft dolly eyes he turned my way.

“Gene Carson.”

“Gene, I owe you better. You can’t go around looking like the office manager from hell. Seriously. I can see why you have your doubts, but I’m actually a pretty good artist. Plus I don’t do nearly as many drugs now.”

He laughed, which was good because I was kidding about the drugs. He didn’t change his mind though. “It’s okay. I saw you through the window and I wondered if it was really you. That’s all. I wasn’t looking for anything. Well.”

An awkward and sudden pause.

What could I say? What did I want to say?

“If you change your mind—”

Gene nodded politely. I had a final glimpse of square shoulders, narrow hips, long legs before he vanished into the island-scented evening.

That qualifying “well” had me thinking as I carried out the trash to the dumpster behind the building. Twenty years ago had been a rough chapter in my life, and to be honest, I’d forgotten a lot—and was glad to have forgotten. But Gene…The more I thought about it, about him, the more I wished I could remember. I did sort of recall the bullet-hole tats. There had been three of them in a row, complete with dripping blood. Gruesome. Especially gruesome for a guy going off to war. Like…not a good omen.

Which…yeah. Something else I could recall. Gene had been leaving for basic training the next day, and he’d wanted those tats covered. And being inexperienced and not at my sharpest, the only idea I had for a cover up was a big black flag. A Jolly Roger. Which I guess would have maybe made sense if Gene had joined the navy.

Anyway. \Even back then I could—and should—have opted for something more creative. Tribal, at the very least. Now days? I could think of a million clever and artful ways to cover up bullet holes. And a half million ways to cover up that black block of a pirate flag. But Gene didn’t want to trust his canvas to me, and I couldn’t really blame him.
So that was that.

Fade to black.

Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.