THE MURDER OF CHELSEA RAND
A Tattoo Crimes Series Short Story
Chelsea scanned the floor-to-ceiling wall of tattoos. She’d first gotten inked on a dare. A tiny four-leaf clover on the inside of her left wrist. The instant the needle hit her skin, she’d been hooked. That had been four years ago. Now she was waiting for her favorite artist to set up for her seventh tattoo.
Needles Ned patted his chair. “Ready when you are,” he said. Chelsea went over and sat down. “I embellished the design a bit but I think you’ll approve.” He showed her the transfer he’d made up.
“Wow,” she said appreciatively. “I like.” She pulled her t-shirt up and tucked the end into the side of her bra. Needles rubbed Vaseline on her ribcage. She held her breath when he ran his fingers over her ticklish spot. He smoothed the drawing down her side and lifted the paper.
“You wanna check the placement before I get started?”
“I trust you.”
She glanced up at him but he’d turned his focus on the tattoo machine. He squirted black ink into one of the small cups. After snapping on a fresh pair of black latex gloves, he dipped the needle. Chelsea loved the sound the machine made. The humming vibration calmed her in a hypnotic way. The relief from the emotional pain the needle gave her was profound. As a young teenager, she had been a cutter. Getting tattooed was her new socially acceptable form of self-injury. By the time she was in high school the insides of her forearms were covered in dozens of thin parallel scars. They’d faded in last the four years.
She smiled as the needle punctured her skin, not that she could feel each time ink was injected. The sting felt good. Her anxiety lessened. The chronic tightness in her chest subsided. She breathed easier.
Needles didn’t talk much while he worked and Chelsea appreciated this. She allowed her eyes to rove over the owner of the tattoo parlor across the room. Mikey was in profile as he inked some nerdy looking dude wearing khaki pants. He didn’t seem the type to get a tattoo or even step into a place like this. Although, as far as tattoo shops were concerned, Ink Addiction was by far the cleanest she’d ever seen. Mikey’s muscle shirt showed off his impressive biceps. If Chelsea had been into guys, she probably would have been salivating over him. He never glanced up at her.
“I’m about done with the outline. You wanna finish coloring her up tonight?” Needles asked.
“I have a party to get to.”
“It’s still early. I got time.”
Her cheeks heated. “I can only afford the fine work tonight.”
“No problem, come back anytime you got the cash.”
Needles set the tattoo machine down on the stainless steel rolling tray. She sat up after he cleaned her off and taped a cellophane bandage on her side. “Where’s this party?”
“Uh, it’s nothing you’d be interested in.” Chelsea knew the guy would ask her that. He was forever asking her to do things.
“That’s too bad. Maybe some other time.”
“Maybe.” She shrugged. His stare lingered on her face and she pretended not to notice.
“Tammy’ll cash you out up front.” He indicated the receptionist behind the glass fronted display case. The owner’s client, Mr. Khaki-pants, stood in front, leaning over the top. Mikey said something to him and he handed over a hundred-dollar bill.
Needles called across the shop. “Tammy, she’s gonna come back, only charge her the minimum.”
Chelsea whipped around. “No. You don’t have to do that.”
He winked at her. “It’s all good.”
She didn’t want to owe this guy. Clearly, he liked her. How could she get him off her back? Like now?
Mr. Khaki-pants snorted. “He likes her,” he murmured.
“Tell me about it,” she said, fully aware the dude was talking to himself, not her.
“Are you dating him?”
The question surprised her. “Oh, God no.”
“Keep the change,” Mr. Khaki-pants told Mikey, who thanked him and walked away promptly like he couldn’t wait.
“What did you have done?” Chelsea asked.
Mr. Khaki stared over her right shoulder at the wall.
When Chelsea pivoted she caught a glimpse of Needles eyeing her. What was with him?
“I think you’re dating.” Mr. Khaki-pants said.
She giggled. “Nope. Well, maybe he thinks so, but I’m not into dudes.”
He nodded, and said, “I’m Lance.”
“Oh. Chelsea.” When he only gazed beyond her and said nothing further, she headed for the door. She was dimly aware that he followed closely behind but she wasn’t alarmed.
Out in the warm evening air, Chelsea walked past a Harley toward her car parked at the end of the block. The shops on her right had closed at nine o’clock. It was past ten now. Footsteps beat the pavement behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Her older model car wasn’t equipped with a keyless entry and she fumbled with her keys, her heart pounding.
“It’s dark out here,” Lance said.
“Yeah,” she said, out of breath.
“Don’t be alarmed. Please. I wanted to make sure you made it to your car.”
“Oh. Thanks.” She relaxed somewhat. He stopped at what she considered a safe distance. God, she couldn’t find the lock in the dim streetlights. Her body cast a shadow on the car door. Through some miracle Chelsea got the door open, sat behind the wheel, and slammed the door. She’d left the window open earlier because there wasn’t anything worth stealing, including the old sedan.
Lance leaned down and spoke through the eight-inch gap. “Hey, I didn’t mean—did I scare you?”
She swallowed hard. “No. I’m in a hurry.”
“Oh. That’s right, the party.”
A motorcycle engine roared and she saw Mikey pull away from the curb on the bike. Needles waved to get their attention. She glanced at Lance then at the tattoo artist. Who was the safer bet? She hated to admit it but Lance looked better. He was smaller and looked non-threatening. “It’s your lucky day, Khakipants, get in.” He hesitated for an agonizing number of seconds then jogged around to the passenger side. Needles approached her car. In case the dude wasn’t actually a creeper she called out the window. “I’ll see you in two weeks for the rest of my tat.” She caught him waving dismissively in her rearview mirror and slowly breathed a sigh.
“My car’s back the other way,” Lance said. “If you don’t mind.”
“I’d rather drive around the block to make sure he’s gone, if you get me.”
“Understood.” Lance sat with his back ramrod straight, hands resting on the tops of his thighs.
“Relax. I don’t bite.”
“You always like this?”
“Uncomfortable around women?”
“Who said I was uncomfortable?” Chelsea laughed and shook her head. “Forget it.”
She drove in silence. “There’s this party tonight. You wanna hang? Except, I have to stop by my house for a minute.”
He was definitely strange but she kind of liked him. She drove them through town past the wealthy neighborhoods. They chatted. Well, she asked questions and he gave brief answers. She pulled into Webster Heights Manor trailer park. Her brakes squeaked as she stopped in front of her family’s double-wide. “Come on in. I live with my parents by the way. Just ignore them.”
Inside the mobile home, her mom was glued to the flat-screen watching Game of Thrones. Another TV blared from her parents’ bedroom. Dad didn’t watch her mother’s favorite program.
Her mother pressed the pause button. “Oh, hi there,” she said when she noticed Lance. “Who’s this, honey?”
Her dad cleared his throat over by the transition from the hallway to the living room. “Who’s your boyfriend?”
Every time she brought a dude home her parents hoped she’d switched sides. “This is Lance. My friend.”
Chelsea went to her bedroom, changed her clothes, and freshened up her deodorant. She grabbed five bucks from her tattoo fund jar then saved Lance from her parents’ clutches.
* * *
The party wound up being lame. The best part was whoever had bought the keg hadn’t gone with the cheap shit. Chelsea’s five dollars wasn’t wasted after all. Lance even opened up more as the night progressed. She could see herself being friends with him. He’d confessed that he was bullied as a kid and never fit into anyone’s mold, not his parents, teachers, no one. She related well to that.
She drove her new friend back to where he’d parked his car. At two-thirty in the morning the commuter lot off the freeway south of Webster was empty. Lance’s Impala sat in the middle under the only lamppost. Without a word she pulled alongside his car and flashed a tight-lipped smile. “I could’ve picked you up or something. Well, next time.” He grabbed the handle and pushed the passenger door open. “You don’t want me to see where you live. I get it. But I’ve shown you mine.”
Lance shrugged. “Where you live is fine.”
“I guess, except you probably don’t live with your parents, do you?”
“They’re dead,” he said, getting out of the car. He slammed the door and walked to his car without another word.
“See ya,” she called out the open window. His eyes met hers then he ducked inside his vehicle.
Lance was strange. Chelsea couldn’t tell what his story was except the one thing she did know was he was straight. Although he was respectful toward her, he spent some time watching the other girls at the party. Not in a creepy way, but in a curious manner. She drove off, gravel pinging the undercarriage of her car.
Chelsea had to travel back through town past Ink Addiction to get home. Everything looked deserted at night. She slowed as she drove by the tattoo shop. No lights were on, only the neon tubing around the front window. She craned her neck when she thought she caught a glimpse of a shadow moving around inside.
“You’re losing it, Chelsea.”
She drove another mile north. Headlights turned onto the road and shone behind her. She adjusted her rearview mirror downward, cutting some of the glare. The other car rode her bumper. The road she was on had four lanes, two going in each direction. She slowed and switched to the far right lane hoping the person would pass her. Whoever it was didn’t get the message and changed lanes too. They slowed down then sped up with a roar of their engine. Dread filled her stomach like a lead weight. After another mile of this she’d had enough. The sheriff’s station was up ahead. She floored it and slammed on her brakes at the entrance to the station lot. The driver behind her laid on the horn and swerved around her. Chelsea pulled directly in front of the building. Panting, she parked there until her heart stopped pounding. She closed her eyes and rested her head on the steering wheel.
Someone tapped on the glass. She gasped and clutched her chest.
“Are you all right, ma’am?” a cop asked.
“Someone was following me. I pulled in and he drove off.”
The officer looked concerned. “Do you know who it was?”
“No. I assumed…I’ve got to get home. I think it’s okay now.”
“That was smart of you to come here. If it happens again—”
“If it happens again I’ll report it. Thanks.” Chelsea rolled her window up. When she pulled out of the space, a wave of concern washed over the officer’s face. She wanted to tell him she was fine but continued on her way.
* * *
Ned’s fingertips grazed Chelsea’s ribcage. She sucked in a breath. Her nerves calmed and her mind drifted when the needle began its assault on her skin. Relief.
“I was surprised to see you this early on a Saturday,” he said, leaning over her.
“Yeah, I uh, I’m going to a beach party in the afternoon.”
“That explains the bikini.”
“Don’t worry, I’m not going in the water and I’m wearing a bandage on the tat. Probably won’t even take my shirt off.” Why was she telling him this?
“Good. Hate to see my work ruined.” He smiled and the corner of his eyes crinkled. With the way he kept his hair, in a ponytail with several rubber bands along the length, she didn’t have a clear idea of his age. He looked to be about fifty, although she suspected he wouldn’t appear that old if his hair was short.
“How old are you,” she blurted without thinking.
He chuckled. “How old do I look to you?”
Ned barked out a laugh. “Not quite. Forty-five.”
“Don’t be sorry. It’s all good. I can still party.”
“I bet.” Chelsea started believing that Ned hadn’t been the one who had followed her two weeks ago. He smiled more today than she’d even seen him before. “The beach party I mentioned…anyone can come. It’s near the old boat house at Lake Webster. My friends are all different ages and stuff.”
“Sounds cool. I might join you later.”
Chelsea left the tattoo shop smiling. She called Lance from the car. He wasn’t sure if he’d make it out to the lake during the day, but maybe later tonight. They’d been hanging out lately, although she refused to subject him to her mom and dad again. Lance referred to them as parental units. She laughed every time she thought about the label.
When Ned showed up at the party at eleven, she was already drunk.
“Hey, Ned,” she said with a grin plastered across her face. He smiled as she sidled up to him. She wavered on her feet and he caught her under the arms. They wound up in an awkward embrace. He set her on her feet again. “Thank you.”
“It’s all good. You need another beer.”
“You think that will help…even me out?”
He snorted-chuckled. “It will help with something.”
“It will?” Man, she was wasted. He handed her another can from a six-pack, that was now a four-pack, dangling from his hand.
“I like my women liquored up.”
She giggled. “Are you flirting with me? I gotta warn ya, it’s not gonna work on me.”
His eyebrows rose. “Why’s that?”
“Take a guess, Ned.”
“Yep. I like my women liquored up too.” Chelsea laughed.
“Do you?” The light from the bonfire glinted in his eyes.
An arm came around Chelsea’s shoulder and hugged her from behind. “Hey, Chelse.” Veronica planted a kiss on her cheek and Chelsea flushed. She’d had a crush on Veronica since high school. They were good friends, but nothing more.
“Who’s your friend?” Ned asked.
“This is Veronica.”
“Shhh, no,” Chelsea said, shaking her head quickly. Not her girlfriend. Ned winked and nodded as if he didn’t believe her.
Veronica diverted her attention toward another group of her friends. “Catch you later,” she said and ambled away from her and Ned.
“You ever hooked up with her?”
“I’m not her type.”
“Seems like she’s into you.”
Chelsea looked down at her feet. “She’s not. Listen, I…”
“You all right?” Ned asked, nudging her shoulder.
Chelsea took a deep breath, suppressing her tears. Ordinarily, she wouldn’t get emotional over Veronica. Alcohol always put in her a mood. “I wanna get out of here. You mind taking a walk?”
“Why’s she got you so messed up?”
“It doesn’t matter, forget it. Come on, walk with me.” Chelsea took his hand, more for balance than any other reason. Although, she could use the attention right now, even if it was from someone she had zero interest in being with.
They walked to the edge of the water in silence. The lake’s surface looked like black ice in the moonlight. She wet her feet and her toes sunk into the gritty sand with each step. After a while, they rounded a bend in the shoreline. The sand turned to large rocks, making the water’s edge hard on her feet. Ned led her away from the water a little bit. He faced her and his eyes darted to her chest. Her baggy beach cover-up showed off the top of her breasts. The bikini she wore had been a poor choice.
“You ever been with a man?” he asked.
She told him “No,” because she still felt shame surrounding the only time she’d been with a guy. Some things were better left in the past. Goosebumps formed on her skin.
“Ever considered it?” He put his hand to her cheek.
She ducked out of his reach. “No.”
“Then why did you bring me out here?”
“What? I didn’t—I thought you were cool. Guess I was wrong.” She stalked off but only got three strides.
“No you don’t. You’re giving me what I came for.” Ned grabbed her arm and spun her around. He loomed over her, forcing her back to arch. She pushed at his shoulders and tripped on a decaying log. Her teeth rattled and she bit her tongue.
Rolling over, Chelsea scrambled on her hands and knees. He caught her slender ankle, jerking her across the coarse ground on her stomach, pinning her with his heavy weight. The air in her lungs squeezed out. She wheezed as she tried catching her breath.
“No,” she whispered.
Ned yanked on her shorts. “Stoooop!” she cried. What could she tell him that might make him stop? “I’m on my period.”
He let go of the waistband of her shorts. Thank God. The gratefulness faded when he stayed on top of her. His weight shifted as he reached for something.
* * *
Lance had shown up to the beach around ten-thirty. A small copse of woods hid him from view. However, the partygoers were busy getting drunk and not paying attention to much of anything that wasn’t right in front of them. He was about to show himself to Chelsea when Ned arrived. Since Lance wasn’t much of a people person and despised Ned, he kept to the shadows.
Chelsea and Ned laughed and drank from cans for thirty minutes before wandering off. This surprised Lance, considering she’d said she wasn’t into dudes. They disappeared around a curve in the shoreline.
He trudged through the thicket and found the two of them talking near the edge of the water. At this area of the lake, the sandy beach led into a rocky shoreline littered with a few washed up fallen tree trunks. Ned held onto her and leaned down over her. She pushed at his shoulders and fell backward over a log. He captured her leg while she crawled away.
Ned pinned her to the ground. “Stooopp!” she cried as he tore at her clothing. There was a pause in the frantic movement. Chelsea said something Lance couldn’t make out. Ned hit her several times with a large rock on the back of the head. Her cries fell silent. He tossed the object into the water with a plunk. Lance wiped his sweaty palms on his khakis and swallowed hard. Ned jumped to his feet. A dock with a paddle boat tied to it stuck out of the water twenty feet away.
Witnessing Chelsea’s murder awakened Lance. Freed him from his own inadequacies. His heart pounded. Adrenaline made him high, powerful, and he hadn’t even been the killer. Imagine if he was…imagine...
The tattoo artist dragged Chelsea’s limp body by the wrist. He waded through the shallow water, got into the boat, and paddled out with her in tow. The boat was barely visible in the dark. After several minutes, water lapped against the rocks on the shore and Ned crawled out of the water. He collapsed onto his back, panting.
Lance licked his lips, tasting the death in the air.