To Thine Own Self Be True: A Stella Crown Mystery #3

To Thine Own Self Be True: A Stella Crown Mystery #3

Stella Crown rarely takes a break from managing her Pennsylvania dairy farm unless it's to take a spin on her Harley, but in the midst of the Christmas season she ...

About The Author

Judy Clemens

Judy Clemens spends her days in rural Ohio, where she writes, spends time with her family, and eats too much ...

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Chapter One

“So I said to him, ‘You know what could happen if I pierced you there?’ The stooge went white so fast I thought he was gonna do a face plant right there on the Linoleum. Never seen anybody change his mind so fast.”

I laughed at Mandy’s detailed storytelling, and Wolf clamped an iron hand on my arm. “Quit shaking, Stella.”

“Then tell your wife to stop telling funny stories.”

“You want this tattoo all over crooked, you keep on laughing.

You want it straight, you control yourself.”

“Yessir.” I would’ve saluted, but for the grip he had on my forearm. “You just know too many crazy people.”

Mandy Moore plopped down in the dentist’s chair across from me, the chair where she poked holes through people’s body parts. “Talk about crazy. Remember that lady, Wolf? The huge-ass Nordic woman with the scrunchy ’round her forehead?” She looked at me. “Comes in here one day, says she was in an airplane over the Bermuda Triangle and her tattoo disappeared. Fell off right there and evaporated into the sky. So she’s demanding her money back. I tell her she can take a flying leap right back into the Triangle, and she vanishes into our bathroom. Stays there for a half hour. We finally pound on the door enough she opens up. Turns out she’s cleaned our bathroom and washed our lunch dishes in the back of the toilet!”

“No laughing,” Wolf muttered.

“Still as stone,” I said.

The phone rang and Mandy pushed a button on the cordless in her hand. “Wolf Ink. Yes, ma’am, I’m in here all day piercing. She’s how old? Twelve? Can’t do it. Sorry. State law. That’s right, you do that.” She punched the button again. “Idiot woman. You know she’s going to take her daughter to some hack down an alley. Land her in the hospital. Shit. All for a ring in her belly button.” She lurched out of the chair and stomped to the front desk.

“Weren’t you having trouble with one of those guys?” I asked. “What’s his name?”

“Asshole,” Mandy said.

Wolf grunted. “Which one? There’s too many to count. But you’re probably thinking of Gentleman John—John Greene. He’s one of the worst.”

“Asshole,” Mandy said again.

I twisted my head around so I could see Mandy. “I thought he got sued last year.”

She snorted. “Three times. And there’s more this year. Jerk-off. Makes the rest of us look like scum, too.”

I laid my head back down. “You can’t look bad. I mean, who could come in here and complain?”

The place was spotless. Detergents everywhere. In fact, that’s the first smell that hit me when I walked in the door. The green soap surgeons use, antiseptic, alcohol. You name a cleaning solution, they probably used it.

“That’s the problem,” Mandy said. She came back and leaned against her chair, arms crossed. “The people who think badly of us don’t come in. They think all tattoo artists are drug-addicted dirtbags.”

“I guess they don’t see the commendation from the Chamber of Commerce on your front window.”

The plaque declaring the business a “non-smoking establishment” enjoyed a place of pride next to the door.

She snorted again, and leaned over to look at the tattoo Wolf was inking into my skin, her mane of brown hair brushing my face. “Looking good. It’s your old farmhand’s name, you said?”

I nodded and glanced down at my wrist. The image of a leather-banded ID bracelet was taking shape, with just Howie’s name left to go. A little something to honor his memory.

“You going to have Wolf fix this sometime?” Mandy pulled up my sleeve to see my arm. The skin grafts had healed nicely over the past five months since my motorcycle accident, but it still left my “To thine own self be true” tattoo illegible and ugly.

“Sometime,” I said. “When the scars heal a bit more.”

Scars. Physical and emotional. The wreck had happened the same week I’d lost Howie, and it was still hard to face. Getting the tattoo on my wrist was a small step in the healing process.

“So where’s Billy?” I asked Mandy.

She smiled, knowing I’d changed the subject on purpose. “My mom’s house. Wolf and I have a meeting tonight that’ll probably go late, assuming it’s still on with this weather, so we thought it’d be better if he crashed with her. If school’s not canceled, the bus will pick him up there in the morning.”

“Handy,” I said.

The door swung open, blasting in a frigid draft tinged with sleet.

“Shut the goddamn door,” Wolf said. “I’m gettin’ frostbite back here.”

“Sorry.” The man shut the door firmly, clicking it into place. “So what’s up, Tank?” Mandy said.

He looked like his name. Huge and solid.

“Wanted to see when I could get this guy filled in.”

His arm was covered with a black and greywash dragon, the red flames shooting out its mouth the only spark of color.

Wolf paused in his work and looked up. “Uh, Tank—” “You pay up from last time, we’ll talk,” Mandy said.    “We aren’t running a permanent tab for you.” Tank’s face darkened. “I paid you.” “With what? A word of thanks?”

Wolf watched calmly while his wife stepped up belly to belly—more like chest to belly—with the would-be customer. “You were supposed to put some time in on our truck, Tank.

Remember? Work out those dents Billy put in with his bike? Seems to me when I got in the driver’s side this morning the door still looked like it had been attacked.”

“I haven’t had time,” Tank said.

“Oh, I’m sorry. What is this, December? I would’ve thought you might’ve had half a day since July.”

He shifted his weight awkwardly. “I’ve been busy.”

“As have we. Come back when you’re ready to do some body work. And I mean on our truck, not your arm.”

Tank huffed and jutted out his chin. “Wolf?”

Wolf picked up the needle and got a fresh hold on my wrist. “You heard her, man. I ain’t no charity. Gotta feed my family.” Tank clenched his hands into huge fists, made an animal-like snarl, and spun on his heel. He left the door flung wide open. Mandy stalked to the door and slammed it shut. “Cheapskate. I heard through the grapevine he’s been out of work. If he would’ve come in and told us he had money problems, we could’ve worked with him. But to act like he wasn’t stiffing us…” “So we turn him away,” Wolf said. “No biggie.”

Mandy tapped her finger on her teeth and peered out the front window. “Yeah. I guess.”

The phone rang and Mandy plucked it off the counter, where she’d left it when Tank had come in. “Wolf Ink. Yeah, we’re here. You want to reschedule? Not a problem. Can’t blame you for not wanting to come from way out there. It’s not supposed to let up by tomorrow, either. How ’bout the next day? We can get you in if you don’t mind late evening. Say eight? You’re in the book. Okay. Thanks for calling.”

She hung up and turned to Wolf. “Angel’s not coming. His wife said she wouldn’t be pulling him from some ditch if he came out in this weather to get his body inked.”

Wolf smiled. “Sounds a lot like our family, don’t it, honey?”

She cheerfully gave him the finger while looking at their appointment book. “Stella’s it, then. You get her done, we’re closing up. No reason to hang out here if we can go home. Want to be sure we make it there.”

I laughed. “You have a hard time walking upstairs to your apartment?”

“Hey, those steps can get icy.” She started tossing Wolf’s ink tubes into an ultrasonic tray. “I’m gonna load the autoclave. You got anything else to sterilize?”

Wolf shook his head. “Not yet. Can you put on some Stray Cats or something?”

“Sure, hon.” She searched through a stack of CDs and slid one into the player, turning the volume up before heading toward the back. “Could just stick this dirty stuff outside and it would freeze off all the germs.”

Wolf grunted a laugh, and Mandy disappeared into the back room. Wolf hummed under his breath, keeping time with the tattooed lead singer of the band, and I sneaked a peek at my wrist, where Wolf was finishing up the “w” of Howie’s name. I also sneaked a peek at Wolf himself. Living up to his nickname, Wolf kept his beard full and his hair long. Dark chest hair curled out from the open V of his shirt, his wolf tattoo almost obscured by his hide. A wild man, in an attractive, alternative kind of way.

A crash from the back startled us both, and I bit my lip when Wolf poked me with the needle. “Sorry, Stella.”

I shook it off.

“Hey, Wolf!” Mandy called from the back room. “Can you come here, please?”

He sighed deeply and sat back, putting aside the machine and pulling off his gloves. “Gimme a minute.”

“No problem.”

He left and I turned to see what it was looking like out the front window. Crap. I hoped he really would be back in a minute, or next thing I knew I’d be getting snowed in there. I didn’t want to spend the night on Wolf and Mandy’s floor. I laid my head back down to wait.

Twenty minutes later I jerked myself out of a catnap, groggy and cold. Late afternoon was a bad time to be reclining in a comfortable dentist’s chair, and I was amazed the phone hadn’t interrupted my doze. Must’ve been the weather. Folks weren’t thinking about getting a tattoo when they were worried about blizzard conditions. But where the hell was Wolf? And why was I freezing?

“Wolf?” I struggled out of the seat, rubbing my eyes. “Mandy?”

I stuck my head through the doorway to the back room, and immediately saw why I’d been feeling a draft. The exit door at the far end of the room was wide open, snow and sleet pelting against it.

I stepped around the tray Mandy had been carrying. It was now on the floor, the equipment scattered across the vinyl. That must’ve been the crash we’d heard, right before Mandy had called Wolf to come back.

I looked outside briefly to make sure Wolf and Mandy weren’t standing there, and saw no sign of them. The blowing snow had obliterated any footprints they may have made on the sidewalk or the steps up to their apartment.

“Wolf? Mandy?” My voice evaporated in the wind. I shut the door and stomped my feet off on the snowy mat.

A glance at the clock on the wall told me I had to be heading home if I had any thoughts of doing the evening milking.

I went back into the store and called Wolf and Mandy’s apartment. No answer, except their machine. Well, crud. I looked down at my new tattoo—“How”—and tried to push down my irritation. There must be a good reason Wolf had deserted me mid-sitting. I guessed I needed to take care of myself and go home.

The A & D ointment lay on Wolf’s counter, and I smeared some over the tattoo. I found the non-stick pads and unwrapped a sterile piece large enough to surround my wrist, taped it on, and pulled my sleeve gently over it.

A cube of Post-its sat on the desk, and I peeled one off, scribbling a message for Wolf to call me. I stuck it on the computer monitor, where he and Mandy would be sure to see it when they got back. I didn’t leave any money. There would be plenty of time for that once Wolf finished the job.

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