“The tat is semi-permanent. There will be no puncture wounds, no scary needle. Think of it like body paint but it's not going to come off for several weeks.” Fox explains as he dips a fine brush into the pigment. “And the paint is fruit-base, so it’s totally harmless to your body.”
“As long as you aren’t giving me a stick and poke. What are you going to paint exactly?” I ask, shrugging off my jacket to reveal the 4000-dollar worth of fabric. The tattoo is going on my right shoulder blade. Thankfully, the dress has a tube top so I don’t have to remove more clothing.
“This,” He passes me a crumpled piece of paper. On it are two birds, a dove and a crow, circling each other. My eyes trace the intricate shapes of the two animals with amazement.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, admiring the details of the picture. You can even see the feathers on the wings. “You’re gonna replicate this?”
He gives me a smug grin and flicks the brush with his fingers as if it was a part of his hand. It reminds me of how Dad maneuvers his knife. “I’ve done this before and my clients were pleased with my work. That’s why you are here.”
“Burner has it on his chest.” I say, recalling the tattoo I saw under his dress shirt.
“And your father has one on his bicep.” He provides and urges me to turn my back to him. He pokes the edge of my dress and lets out a low whistle. “Balmain, fancy.”
“Yeah, better cover it up. Don’t want fruit paint all over it.” I say absentmindedly, my head whirling with bewilderment. “Why are we getting matching tattoos?”
The tattoo artist gives me a shrug. “I am only paid to do the job.”
“So I don’t think you happen to know what my dad’s business is here?”
He clicks his tongue. “Not a thing. I was hoping you could give me some answers.” I press my lips into a grim line. Fox snorts loudly, poking my shoulder with a blunt finger. “Seems like he keeps you in the dark as well. Your parental relationship with Alston is a real fuck-up.”
My cheeks burn in humiliation but I can’t demur his accusation. “Dad and I have a perfectly healthy relationship.” I snap, losing my cool.
Fox smirks, his green eyes shine with mischief. “Knock it off, Princess. Tell me your theory then. What do you think your dad does for a living?”
I can’t believe I have to guess my father’s occupation in front of a tattoo artist. “He brought guns to work and wearing knives like accessories,” I mutter, mostly to myself. “I used to think he worked for law enforcement or private security.”
“Or a mafia thug. Maybe a drug dealer?” Fox suggests casually.
I glare at him, flustered. “Dad is not a miscreant.”
“I am just pointing out more possibilities. Your view is biased.”
My stomach plunges. The logical part of me agrees with Fox. Actually, his theory makes more sense. If Dad is doing decent business, why is he sneaking around all the time? “We can’t make any conclusion now. We need more clues.”
“Investigating your own dad. Problematic but I like it.” He sounds too excited, clapping his hands. “We can be detective duos, like Sherlock and John. The game is afoot.”
Jesus, what did I get myself into? “If we want to do this, we need to be furtive. I don’t want Dad to know I am looking into him behind his back.”
“Because it is problematic. And he…” I recalled the last time I demanded to know about his job and shiver slightly. I don’t think his reaction would be benign if he ever found out our plan. “Just keep your mouth shut about it.”
He regards me with narrowed eyes, pursing his lips. Then he shrugs and starts working on my tattoo. “Okay then. Have you tried to dig something out from T yet?”
"Yeah but it's futile. He is not talking."
I glance at the closed door warily. Burner was still on the phone when Fox led me to the backroom. He hasn’t reappeared. Fox follows my line of sight and makes a disgruntled noise in the back of his throat. “Have a problem with queers?” He asks, scrunching his nose in distaste.
My eyes widen and I shake my head frantically. “No, of course not.” I clarify. “My best friend Mal is gay.”
“Then what’s bothering you? You can burn holes in that door with your eyes. Do you have a crush on him?”
I did confess my attraction to him in New Work. I clear my throat. “No, dude. He’s not even in my league.”
The hum he gives me is laced with suspicion.
“What?” I snap, annoyed. “He is handsome, but he’s too old for me. Not to mention that he works with my father.” I shiver in repulsion. Why didn’t that particular detail come across my head when we were at the airport? “God, no. I will never ever date my dad’s friend.”
“Stop squirming.” Fox protests.
“It’s you who has a major crush on Burner.” I drawl. “You were all over him out there.”
He snorts softly before releasing an exaggerated sigh. “He is the hottest guy I have ever met since I moved here. But I am not interested in stealing other’s toys.”
“He is with somebody?” I ask in surprise. In the past two days, I didn’t see Burner reach out to anyone who doesn’t speak German or caused a massive frown on his face.
“Have you seen the necklace he wears with a ship-shaped pendant?”
“Maybe? I didn’t pay much attention.”
“I asked him out the first time we met and he flat out declined me. He didn’t explain why, but he kept toying the pendent with his fingers. And he had that look of distantly remembering someone was waiting for him to come home.”
I laugh, which earns me another yelp of protest from Fox.
“Be still unless you want a third leg on your bird.”
“Sorry...” I say with barely restrained laughter. “What is the look of distantly remembering someone was waiting for him to come home ?”
“Eyes went unfocused. A faint, sentimental smile on his face...”
I burst out laughing. “You were just cooking some stories up to justify his refusal.”
Fox fumes behind me, but he doesn’t try to vindicate himself. The metal door rattles a little before it creaks open for a fraction. Burner pops his head in. He intentionally looks anywhere but me.
“There’s some trouble.” He says like he expected us to know what kind of trouble he was talking about.
Fox cuts a glance at him before going back to his work. “Go then. I got it covered here.” He says. The other man narrows his eyes at him, obviously not trusting him one bit. But then he sighs, pinching his nose bridge with a conflicted look on his face.
“Xavier is going to kill me.” He grumbles before vanishing behind the door again. I watch the spot where he is standing moments ago, frowning.
“Not a homophobic. Not a crush. Then what is eating you up?” Fox steps around and plants himself right in front of me. The paint drips from his paintbrush when he waves it in my direction. I yelp in horror, jumping away from the flying pigment. “Watch it, Fox. It’s 4000-dollar I am wearing.” I scold.
He belatedly tucks the brush into his jean pocket. “Sorry. But you and T were acting weird around each other, especially after I outed him.”
Even an outsider can sense the strange qualm spreading between Burner and me. Ever since he showed up, everything has changed. Dad brought me to his business trip, started to speak German, and planted a fake tattoo on me. And I still haven't figured out why we had to meet in a coffee shop while Dad could simply come to JFK with Burner in the first place. “I feel like he is hiding something from me.” I shake my head, can’t get the right words to describe what I saw in Burner. “He is like a closed book. Full of stories but all you can see was the cover and the synopsis, which don’t necessarily represent the whole book.” I shrug in defeat. “The strangest thing is that he kept looking at me with a sad look.”
“Yeah. And sometimes he even appeared to be scared of me.” I laugh bitterly, remembering how Burner dodged my gaze before he left here. That wasn’t embarrassment on his face. It was dread. “I mean why would a huge ass man like him be scared of me? I just don’t get him.”
Fox doesn’t speak for a while, just going back to work. The silence lands heavily between us, broken occasionally when he switches brushes or pops open another bottle of paint. My thoughts run wild in my head as I try (and fail) not to think about Taylor Burner, along with my other questions: This trip. This dress. This fake tattoo. This new side of Dad’s life. Maybe knowing isn’t better than ignorance.
“Taylor is very good at reading people,” Fox says abruptly, pulling me back to reality. “The first time I met him, he came here alone and asked me to do a flame on the inside of his elbow. At first, he was just a regular customer. He was chatty. He told me a lot of stories, asking me questions and my thoughts afterward. We had a pleasant time together.”
“When I finished, he told me about me.”
I turn in my seat, locked eyes with Fox. His green eyes glaze over with wariness.
“He pointed out some of my small habits, listing out my personal traits. He told me what kind of person I am and why he decided to trust me with this.” He points at the design of the tattoo of the two birds. “All the time I thought he was mingling, but he was actually psychoanalyzing me.”
My blood chills. Was Burner doing the same thing to me whenever we were talking? Maybe I shouldn’t let my guard down around the man. But Dad seems to trust Burner wholeheartedly... “What’s your reaction?” I ask, needing to say something.
He gives me a wolfish grin. “I asked him out.”
Despite myself, I laugh. “You were desperate.”
“If I was desperate, I would have skipped the date part and directly asked him to sleep with me. After all, he seemed to know me better than I do. There was no need to get to know each other.”
“You are a bit impudent.” I give him an assessing look. “And maybe have Stockholm syndrome. Did you realize how uncanny the whole story is?”
“My point is,” Fox rests the brushes on the table, crossing his arms at his chest. “You can’t expect to decipher him from the outside. If you want to know him, you have to let him show you. That’s the only way.”