Crime Factory’s Hard Labour Easy To Enjoy
12 October, 2012

Australia is a nation chiselled from its indigenous inhabitants for and by criminals.  Our anthem kicks off by celebrating that most of us have since been released on our own recognisance.  It’s hard to think of another country where malefactors are such rock stars – sure, English Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs made it onto a Sex Pistols’ cover, but I’d like to see him front Ned Kelly or Chopper Read in a prison exercise yard.  With the intriguing Australian characters who share their stories in  Crime Factory’s new anthology, Hard Labour, we all have more reason to rejoice.

Book-ended by smash-hit stories by two greats of Australian crime fiction, Gary Disher and Peter Corris, the guts of this selection need no propping up.  Leigh Redhead’s “Grassed” is an authentic slice of the Northern NSW hash brownie, featuring her trademark pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and a sense of creeping paranoia resonant with the context.  In “Killing Peacocks”, Angela Savage’s signature lyricism sings the murder ballad of an authentic, empathic character.  Andrew Prentice builds a world as crystalline – and as empty – as the breakers his characters surf, in “The Break”.  In Helen FitzGerald’s “Killing Mum And Dad” cosy, slightly addled domesticity chills to horror.  JJ DeCeglie’s “Death Cannot Be Delegated” features a philosophical hit man wielding Occam’s razor, style cunningly morphing to reflect  both narrative and character arc.  With sparse economy, David Whish-Wilson depicts a career criminal and junkie as cold as the Ice he cooks – “In Savage Freedom”.  Andrew Nette’s “Chasing Atlantis”, where crims take on cultists in hippy country, is a bar-room brawl of Australian noir where the twists will king-hit you if you don’t watch your back.

The individual contributions to Hard Labour are unified by Australian flavour and realism – and the recurrent theme of stuffing up.  Narrators tell their stories: some in the clear dispassionate tones of hardened Narcotics Anonymous confessors, others in deceptively breezy voices or pleading laments.  They draw the reader closer before slipping a knife between their ribs, with a smirk, a wisecrack or a gentle kiss.

Jittery and seductive as a strung-out whore, Hard Labour is highly recommended.  Sampled one at a time or devoured in chunks, I’m sure you’ll want to book repeat visits with these characters.  Now available from Amazon, here.

If you’re not already addicted to these talented authors’ longer forms, check out their rap sheets here: http://www.thecrimefactory.com/

Short story: “Tattoo You”
4 March, 2010

Well, so much for “Busted”. The judges didn’t approve so it WON’T be included in the anthology. So I thought I should post a piece that will be included:

Tattoo You

Morgana MacLeod

There’s a story behind every tattoo. I gotta say, but, nowdays they go on with a lot of bullshit about tattooing. Look at the names they give the parlours, hey? Sacred Skin – that joint’s run by some hippy chicks who fart-arse around painting henna on dance party kids. That’s not tattooing, mate. Tattoos are about steel and ink. Blood gets spilt, they’ve got to hurt, it’s part of the deal. My shop’s called Tradewinds Tattoo. Tells you all you need to know – it’s on Tradewinds Road and I’ll ink ya. Right to the point, like me. Ask me and I’ll tell you, straight up. No fucking around.

My father was a gambling man… nah, I’m just pulling your leg. He was a wharfie, but and some of the blokes he knocked around with had a lot of tatts. In the merchant marine and that, they’d get work done wherever they landed for a bit of shore leave – kind of like stamps in a passport. A Maori curl here, a bit of Tongan geometric stuff there. One bloke was a classic, talk about wearing your heart on your sleeve. He had an old-school valentine with a rose, high up on his left arm, scroll underneath with his old lady’s name, you know. Well, this joker, he ended up with, no word of a lie, 13 scrolls underneath, one after the other, all but the last one with some sheila’s name. He got ‘em inked out, see, whenever he had a bust up. He ended up staying with the last one, Mavis she was. Everyone used to ride him, said he’d only stuck with her ‘cause he was running out of skin.

We’re not all rough blokes. You know the image, beer-bellied bikers, all beards and balls. Yeah, okay, I’ve got a fair bit of work myself – wouldn’t trust a cleanskin tattooist, would ya? No more than you’d buy steak off a vegetarian butcher. But what I’m saying, from the jaw up I could be anyone – tradie, copper, office stiff. I got glasses, now, for reading and inking, but you get that when you’re speeding past fifty. Longish hair, grey mostly but still plenty of it, combed back. Clean shaven – these blokes with long beards, it’s not hygienic, hey, inking away with crumbs of yesterday’s lunch dropping into the open wound. It’s all about hygiene, these days, with AIDS and hep and who knows what-all else. I was always very careful about keeping clean, but, even back in the day – fussy old woman, the inkslinger who apprenticed me used to say.

But it’s serious, like, you know – serious business. A tattoo is for life – don’t get me started on those lasers – and you better know what you’re doing before you stick your needles deep into a person’s skin, squirting ink. It’s an intimate thing, the trust and the time – on the South Sea Islands, way back when, lot of times it was the priests, medicine men or witch doctors, whoever, used to do tatts, did ya know that? My work is there when the client is stark bollock naked – just him, his missus and my art. People take my ink to the grave. Think about it. Laying in a coffin, all alone, no family or friends, but they’re still wearing their tatts.

The pain… people worry about the pain, and it takes some different from others. I’ve had big strong blokes bawling in the chair – can’t even finish the outline on some of ‘em, that or they never come back to get the colour filled in. Sketch artists, I call ‘em. Others are hard, you can work away for hours without a flinch. People surprise you, hey? I had a dainty little lass come in the other day, wanted a lotus on her back… well, it was so far down it was just above her crack, really, you know where they get ‘em these days, so they show off with those low-slung jeans they wear. Here’s trouble, I thought, first time I put the machine to her she’ll squeal like a stuck pig. But nah, she laid there with her jeans pulled down and a dreamy smile on her face like I was… well, anyway, she didn’t so much as twitch.

I’m a bit old-fashioned, you’d probably call it, there are some things I won’t do on a woman. Nuthin’ on the face or neck, for a start. Trying to be blokes, some of the girls these days, and the guts of it is – they just look crap. No respect for themselves or for anyone else and I’m not gunna work on them, help them drag themselves down into the gutter. What’s a girl with a bloody great tatt on her neck gunna do with her life, you tell me? Make her living wrapped around a pole or lying on her back – dead set, talk about marked for life. I have done work for some ladies – working girls I mean – but I won’t touch their high-traffic areas, I think you get my drift. I saw one girl with pay before you enter on her belly, with an arrow pointing down. Nothing artistic about that, is there? What if she manages to hook some fool who wants to make an honest woman out of her – like I say, it’s not nice. There was a girl, pretty little thing, too, wanted a trail of ants marching up her thigh, leading to… well, use your imagination. I did that one, that was okay, a bit of fun, you know – not crass.

But here I go, rambling on. I wanted to tell you about this one bloke I had in. Quiet bloke he was, bit under six foot, not heavily muscled but not real soft, either. Normal, you’d have to say – just a bog-standard bloke. Anyway, in he comes one quiet arvo, mid-week. I heard the door chime – I was out the back mucking around with the autoclave, you know, sterilizing some gear and that, and the bell goes off and out I come. He’s there, hands in pockets, casual, just checking out the flash up on the walls.

‘Can I help you with anything, mate?’ I asked him. Just a sightseer, I reckon, nuthin’s happening here.

‘Yeah’ he says and strolls over to the counter. ‘Something a bit different.’

‘No worries. What have you got in mind? Did you bring a pic or drawing in, give us a start?’

‘No, nothing on paper. I can tell you, though. I… umm, want a girl. On my chest. ‘Bout here.’ He points to his chest, just above his heart.

‘A special girl? Wife, girlfriend, daughter? I can do ya a portrait from a photo, so real you’ll expect her to look up at ya and start nagging.’ I flip open one of my photo-books, push it across to show him.

‘Nah, a dancing girl. You know, Hawaiian?’

‘A hula girl? Grass skirt, bare tits, maybe a bit of surf and sunset behind her?’

He nods.

‘Too easy.’ I tell him. ‘Come on back.’ I lift up the flap on the counter, bring him around to the business side. You ever been in a tattoo parlour? I’ve got a big chair like at the dentist, black vinyl and chrome. All adjustable, like, so I can get ‘em at just the right angle. It’s bright lights and stainless steel, hey, my workshop, not a titty calendar in sight – can’t even smoke inside, these days. So I get him to strip off his shirt and climb up on the chair. He’s a bit hairy, there on his chest where he wants the ink, so I grab a throwaway razor.

‘I’ll just get rid of a bit of this, mate.’ I tell him and shave him down. I get him to swing his arm around a bit, watching how his flesh moves and reshapes with different positions. That’s the kind of attention to detail you don’t get from these backyard scratchers, teach themselves tattooing from a book. Anyway, while he’d got his arm up over his head I get an idea.

‘Flex your pec for me a bit.’

He kind of looks at me sideways, but does it.

‘You know, I could make her dance if you want, when you twitch that muscle, if I put her hips right here.’ I point where I mean.

‘Sounds good.’ he says and we’ve got a plan.

‘Bit cold, now.’ I warn him, and swab on the antiseptic. ‘So, you’re happy for me to go freehand?’ Sometimes I draw a design and transfer it, sometimes freehand.

‘Yeah.’ He says. ‘Go for it. I can suggest a few things, maybe, as we go.’

‘Alright, mate, it’s your tatt.’ I tell him, tilting a mirror so he can keep on eye on what’s happening while I work. Customers always right, they reckon, but once I start getting stuck in with the machine most people are flat out not screamin’ – forget about making design suggestions.

‘Here we go.’ I switch the machine on, put the needle into his skin for the first time. It’s just a test dot, really, the first one. You have a good look, next time you’re on the beach or in some other place where there’s a bit of skin on show – no, don’t tell me where, your private life’s your own. But what I’m saying is, check carefully and you’ll see quite a few lonely blue dots. Some people can’t cop it – one dot and that’s it, they’re out of there. Anyway, this bloke doesn’t flinch or sing out or nuthin’, so I think goodo and hook in.

I’ve got the outline of the girl’s body down, nice and curvy, hips tilted at just the right angle and not a squeak out of him. Mind you, the tattoo machine buzzes pretty loud – like a mozzie zapper taking out bugs the size of a chook – and most blokes under the needle aren’t all that chatty.

‘You need a break?’ I say.

‘Nah mate, it’s all good.’

‘I’ll get going on the colouring and shading, then. You want her light or dark skinned?’

‘Light on the body. On her face… something different.’

‘Different, how?’ I’m looking through the flesh-toned inks, thinkin’ I’d probably go for a custom mix to get the right shade of sun-burnished bronze.

‘Have you ever seen that Green Lady picture? Chinese bird with a blue-green face?’

‘Yeah, I know the one. My olds had one on the lounge room wall when I was a nipper.’

‘Like her.’ He looks really pleased with himself, settles back in the chair.

Hang on, I thought. Bugger that customer’s always right crap. I had to put in my two bobs worth. ‘She’s gunna look like she’s gone ten rounds with Kostya Tszyu.’

‘Yeah, maybe you’re right.’

Beaut, I thought, the silly bastard’s seen sense. I went back to loading the machine with ink.

‘Do it anyway.’

I shook my head but didn’t argue anymore. I changed out the ink for a seasick green and got to it, shading and tinting her face like he wanted. I glanced up and caught his eyes in the mirror.

‘Bring a bit more shading through the face there, mate.’ He tells me. ‘Show more of her bone structure.’

What did I care? He’d already turned my smiling Aloha girl into a freak. When I finished with her head she looked… creepy. I mean, I’m used to bikers gettin’ the Grim Reaper inked all over ‘em, you know – if it wasn’t for flamin’ skeletons I wouldn’t have eaten, some weeks – but this bird just looked wrong. Her lush curved hips and waving hands topped off with that corpse’s head. I dunno, I’m good with ink, not words – all I can tell you is that she looked wrong. ‘Mate, we’ve got a bit of a problem here.’ I tell him.

‘What’s that?’

‘I’m getting set to colour the body. It’s not gunna blend in with that face you’ve given her.’

‘Problem solved.’ he says, with a smart-arsed cheesy grin. ‘I want you to put a narrow red band around her throat.’

‘Hey? Like a choker? I was gunna put a lei around her neck, but lower, you know, half over her tits.’

‘Exactly right. A choker.’ He chuckled, a crazy high-pitched cackle. His eyes in the mirror were glassy, too bright and too wide, bigger pupils than Mickey Mouse. I’m a big bloke, know how to handle meself, but I felt a cold ripple like someone just run an ice cube up my backbone.

‘A choker.’ He said the word slowly and carefully, his mouth deliciously full with it, like ‘choker’ was chocolate melting on his tongue.

I had a bit of a word with meself, then, like, while I fiddled with the machine, pretending it needed adjusting. This bloke had more than one kangaroo loose in the top paddock, no question – did I finish the tatt or get shot of him? I kept going. Yeah, he was sus, but his money was the some colour as a sane person’s. Besides – the heart of the matter – I couldn’t come at leaving a piece of art half-finished.

I inked in her body, her grass skirt and the lei. From the neck down she was a top sort. I could have turfed him out then, but we had a deal.

‘So, we’re still going with sunset on the beach in the background? Ripple of water running up to her feet?’

‘In that wave, I want you to write something.’

Of course you do, I thought.

‘Put: Layla R.I.P 11.10.08.’

‘October the eleventh this year? Almost three weeks ago?’ I sort of felt better then, took the first full breath I’d managed since he’d started going on about chokers. His missus had carked it not long ago, that was why he was a bit off. I rolled my shoulders a bit to loosen up and started on the background, but old mate wasn’t finished.

‘Everything would have been alright if she’d just shut up. Break it up, I said, I don’t want to know, but she kept on and on… you know women. Even then it might’ve been okay, I maybe could have just walked away, left her to it, but she started going on about his cock. About how he was such a dynamite root and how she’d had her first orgasm, for crying out loud. First orgasm? We’d been married fifteen fucking years. I saw red. You ever had that happen? I actually saw red, like my eyes were filled with blood instead of water and when they cleared, when I could see what was going on -  Layla was dead. And then it was her eyes that were filled with blood. Wasn’t seeing much, but.’ Again he let fly with the cackle. ‘She didn’t go green then, in case you were wondering. That came later. I threw her in the boat, went out to Mudjimba Island. Bit of a project, landing her on the island. I didn’t have time, then, to bury her. Sun was coming up and I had to get back, didn’t want anyone to see me. I put her in that falling down shack, there, didn’t make it back until a week later. Waited for a cloudy night, no moon. By then she was green.’

Turned my guts, fair dinkum. Not the thought of her lying there, bloating in the sun, no company but the insects as her pretty face swelled and changed colour till it was just one big bruise. Don’t get me wrong, that’s bad enough, but I’ve seen a bit over the years. I used to ride with some boys who solved their problems by digging holes, ya know what I’m saying. It was the way he said it, the gloating gleam in his eyes and the way he savoured the memories as he filled my ears with poison.

‘You know my only regret?’

I shook my head, inking as fast as I could.

‘Now the bitch is dead I can’t have the pleasure of offing her again.’

I usually like to see my art on people out and about – walking billboards, I call ‘em. But as I finished up, smeared the tatt with vaso and slapped on a dressing, I was muttering prayers to any god listening that I’d never see this one again. ‘Keep that on for a few days.’ I told him. ‘Keep it clean for the next week or so, and stay out of the sun until it heals up. And mate?’

He was sitting up now, back to me as he climbed out of the chair. ‘Yeah?’

‘I’m not gunna dog you to the cops. Nuthin’ to tell, hey, just two old mates having a bit of a yarn.’

He’s nodding away, grin on him like a bull terrier and he’s still got that crazy cold light behind his glassy eyes.

I lean forward, then, closer than I wanted to get to his face. ‘I reckon you might want to pack up and move on, you know, for the good of your health. Sea air’s not the best for everyone. I’ve got a lot of mates around the Sunny Coast, mates with daughters, sisters, nieces, cousins…’

He gets a bit pale, then, well, more greenish like and his mouth screws up like his guts have just turned. Now he can’t leave fast enough. He’s nearly through the door when I call him back. He swings around all in one piece, like he’s stiff and sore all over.

‘And if you want any more work done, go somewhere else.’ Like I said, every tattoo tells a story – but some, you’re better off not knowing.

~~~

A short story: “Busted”
16 February, 2010

Since Catty was kind enough to ask,. I can actually write “By popular request’. This is the shortest of four pieces that will be published in our anthology,  due out this winter:

Busted

Morgana MacLeod

And they pay for this, the tattooist gloated, as a luscious young miss slunk onto his chair. Out loud he told her ‘I’ll just lay the back down all the way, then I’ll get ya to roll over.’

Sharla giggled as she complied. Such a nice old man, not scary at all – he reminds me of Pops.

‘I’ll need you to pull your jeans down a bit.’ Saliva surged and he swallowed hard as she wriggled out of the skin-tight denim. ‘Nah, love, I have to be able to get at the base of your spine. You might have to unzip a bit.’ He didn’t miss a shimmy as she stripped. D’ya need a hand with that?

Sharla lay, face turned to the side as the tattooist swabbed down her back. She giggled again with the trickle of cool antiseptic. ‘It tickles!’

You like that, don’t you? I’ll show you tickles. Aloud, he confirmed, ‘So you want a lotus, here, over the sacrum…’ he traced the outline of the design with a finger stuttering stickily on the taut curves of her buttocks ‘… with the top petals morphing into blue flames, and an om sign in the smoke.’

‘Uh huh.’ she replied, saving most of her attention for dreamy mooning. Matt’s gonna be stoked when he sees this. We’re so in love. I just know he’s the one. Sharla was lost in a rose petal fantasy so seductive she hardly noticed the needle as it penetrated her tender flesh.

Just under two hours later she was standing, torqued around to admire her new ink in the mirror. The tattooist was willing her unzipped jeans to slink just a bit lower so he could confirm his theory that she was a Brazilian girl.

‘Awesome. Perfect.’ Sharla smiled. The tattooist managed to keep his hands from shaking as he smeared Vaseline and applied a sterile dressing.

‘Any problems and you come straight back, okay? Anytime.’ He flashed a smile. If you came back, babe, it wouldn’t be any problem at all. His eyes clung to her curves as she bounced out the door.

Ten days later and less than ten kilometres north, at a private property in swanky Marcus Beach, Matt’s eighteenth was going off.  Under a rented marquee the dance floor was packed with sweaty, writhing bodies in stages of intoxication ranging from merry to maggotted. Tiki torches flared, adding the tang of kerosene to the miasma of spilt beer and cheap perfume. Three couples had already hooked up – one pair, regrettably, in the garage on the bonnet of Matt’s Dad’s E-type jag, leaving a trail of bum and hand prints, slimed secretions and a pre-loved condom hanging from the aerial. More than a month’s salary worth of landscaping had fallen victim to volcanic regurgitation and trampling feet. The neighbours on either side were less than half an hour away from calling the cops.

‘Epic!’ Tallis approved.

‘Yeah, mate, yeah. I’m amped.’ Matt replied. He was teetering on the sobriety tightrope – at the moment his prodigious intake of pre-mixed rum and cokes was nicely balanced by the lines of speed he’d kicked off with, but one more bucket bong and he’d be hammered.

‘Have you seen the girls?’ Matt reckoned he could go a bit of e-type jaguar style action himself.

‘No, man. Wanna nuther bucko?’ Tallis had fallen off the highwire and was floundering in the safety net. Matt left him to it and plunged back into the tent.

At the same time, a girl was looking for Matt. Chemically augmented only by the caffeine-based diet pills she’d swallowed by way of dinner, her mind was clear. If she had a sound-track it would be an ominous accelerating heartbeat of base notes, theme from Jaws style. Single-minded as a hungry white-pointer, she cut through the crowds, circling with intent. Tonight. She repeated her mantra. It’s gotta be tonight.

In the crowd near the DJ, Matt was ambushed. He nearly lost his eye to an acrylic nail as slim fingers blindfolded him from behind.

‘Guess who?’ Sharla giggled.

Geez, I hate it when she does that. Matt got over his irritation by the time he swung her around in front of him. ‘Hey, babe. Lookin’ good.’

‘I’ve got a surprise for you, Mattie.’

Matt was buggered if he knew where. Her spangled mini-dress left little to the imagination and no room for cargo. ‘Well then, give.’

Sharla giggled again – it was her default setting. ‘Not here, silly. In private.’

Matt had no problem with that; privacy would promote his agenda. He grabbed Sharla’s hand and they headed into the house.

Outside, Tallis was slumped in a lounger next to the pool. His half-mast eyes vaguely tracked the swinging of a screaming exchange-student girl. She wouldn’t want to be from a land-locked country, not that Tallis was in any state to care whether or not she could swim. Not his problem, either or.

‘Hey, Tal.’

Tallis didn’t respond.

‘Tallis! Hey, Tal.’ A local chick bent over him, blocking his view.

‘Yeah?’

‘You seen Matt?’ She shuffled her slight weight between high-heeled sandals while he thought about it.

‘Inside.’

She hurried away, which suited Tallis just fine. The dunked girl’s skirt clung to her in all the right places, riding high over her g-string as she clambered out, over the edge.

Inside the house in his upstairs suite, Matt lay on his bed, eyes closed.

‘Okay, you can open them now.’ Sharla stood in front of him, naked, facing away to show off her new tattoo. ‘Look, Mattie, it’s just like on your surfboard. Do you like it?’

Matt went cold all over, but soon defrosted when he contemplated Sharla’s perfect legs and what lay at their juncture. ‘Yeah, babe. It’s da bomb. Now get over here.’ He unzipped and shucked his jeans, indicated his burgeoning enthusiasm. ‘Surf’s up.Wanna ride?’

Sharla giggled and climbed on board.

Matt closed his eyes again to concentrate, straining towards his climax. Getting off was fine but he had to get back to his party. Bros before hos, man, every time. He flipped her over and around, searching for the sweet spot. After a medley of positions, Sharla was back on top.

‘Oh yeah, that feels so good. Give it to me, Mattie, oh yeah.’ She forced out a counterfeit groan.

Sharla’s lines were getting a bit stale. Matt would have to get her to watch more porn. ‘Yeah, babe. You like that?’ He grunted and strained. Just as he was about to cross the finishing line his bedroom door swung open.

‘Matt? Mattie?’ the intruder squealed as light from the hallway slanted across the bed. ‘Oh my God, Mattie?’

Sharla gave a squeal of her own, authentic this time. She dived for cover under the crumpled sheet at the foot of the bed.

Matt lay where he was, shrivelled but not spent. ‘Brooke, babe, it’s not what you think.’

‘Matt…’ Brooke paused as she yanked down her top to expose her left breast. A crisp new tattoo of a lotus wrapped around the small swell of her tit, just over her heart. It was complete in every detail, om sign and all. ‘What is that bitch doing with my tattoo?’

~~~

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