Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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Sticky Graves Pirate Tattoo Parlor

by Dan Cardoza

One extraordinary difference between Kyle, and all the rest of us, is the amount of freedom our imagination allows us.

Kyle read a lot. He never underestimated the power of words. He especially loved reading about the smattering of anti-heroes who became malevolent protagonists. But, with the passage of time and stacks of books, his thoughts grew cluttered and chaotic, inconvenient obstacles that kept him from digging deep enough to unearth the hidden story arcs. Instead, by using his murky imagination, he’d become a living, breathing part of each convoluted tale. Kyle’s favorite genres are horror and high wire adventure. Thus for him, it was easy to portray a modern day marauder.

Kyle grew up a precocious child. He was very bright and cunning. At the tender age of five, he’d easily figured out how to bypass the parental controls on the families Samsung big-screen. He frequented the off-limit, cable channels and watches those he could direct, and cast himself in. It was no coincidence that most of the channels worth viewing, featured horror story lines.

He was particularly enthralled with the hit HBO series, Autopsy. He became infatuated with the host’s deadpan dialog with the network camera. The show’s star was the famous autopsy pathologist, Dr. Michael, M. Baden. Since he was so old, Kyle fantasized taking his place one day in the popular documentary. He thought Dr. Baden was ancient, yet a likable curmudgeon whose shelf life had simply expired. Hell, he was born in 1934 after all.

During his introductory show, as the replacement host, first Kyle created a story board for his first autopsy. It would be a cameo of sorts, featuring the illustrious Dr. Baden himself, splayed on the post-mortem, stainless steel table. After the televised dissection, he’d clandestinely bury any memory of him, in the lightly trekked segments of the nearest forest. If you haven’t guessed by now, Kyle’s blood throbs salty and diabolical.


In his unique cocoon of horror, Kyle relished the metallic, scythe sound that Dr. Baden’s branch loppers made as he chopped open the cadaver’s sternum. It was done with such passion and pathos, as if he was hoping to discover a bird of paradise, somewhere in there behind the ornate ribcage. Lop, lop, ribs and radius, lop, Ulna and Tibia bones.

As Kyle watched Baden, he’d multi-task, cruse Google, and search for landscaping implements. His treasure hunt yielded exotic descriptions and images of hinged cutters and whackers, all with curious names like Fiskars and Tabor. The pulsing curser appeared to throb next to each description and five-star review. Every weapon showed off its sharp, steel edges in the antiseptic light of his laptop. This made him smile and bring wood.

On rare nights, when Kyle found sleep elusive, he’d relax by killing helpless sheep. Of course this was just part of a cognitive script. He’d begin by butchering the whitest. And then 2 and 3, he’d hang in trees, ripe fruit for the skinning. 22-23-24, ended up in a far off land, in a European farmers barn, clean up to the rafters. There they’d dangle and spin like wooly cocoons, bleating with their necks clutched tight in an oval loop he’d made into a noose. Mostly he’d field dress them, 74-75-76, dismembering each one, just because.

After such slaughter, he’d find himself at peace. Then, just before sleep, he’d scatter the disarticulated mutton racks and chops somewhere in the backwoods. In his forest pantry, he’d leave fresh kill for the famines of hungry coyotes, badgers, and foxes.

The depraved landscape of horror that mucked up his thoughts was much worse, but through sheer psychological vigilance, his mind wouldn’t let him go there, besides most of those acts were performed in his sleep. Kyle never woke a day in his life that he recalled a dream or a nightmare. To a sociopath, a clean slate is a conscience.

While other kids ruffed it up playing tag football, or pedestrian grab-ass in the city park, Kyle built tree forts, using his father’s hammer and nails. Each fort whether near home or deep in the woods, evolved into the shape of a hardwood coffin. There was something about the location of the elephant neck branches and limbs that formed his lumber into such strange architecture. Or maybe, the situation was less nuanced. Perhaps, he simply had coffins on his mind. During the warmth of summer, it wasn’t uncommon for Kyle to pour through the crack of his bedroom window, run off, and catnap in one of his beloved tree forts. Only then would he find sleep that didn’t need counting.


Kyle learned of his new DSM-4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) diagnosis by hacking his mother’s computer. He wondered why refractory personality disorder was even a diagnosis, and what all the fuss was about his cherished OCD. Dr. Covington, at the Children’s Mental Health Center, in Walnut Creek, gave him that label. For some reason, the good doctor threw in a bonus diagnosis of narcissist personality. Don’t feel bad, Kyle felt special, no, elated when he read more about what he was capable of. He saw himself as a rare black pearl in a world that was his oyster, everything for the taking. As a new dark, glossy planet, he’d sail in his own special universe, among the limitless stars.


Kyle grew up in a logging community in Northern California. His father cut and destroyed first growth timber, supervised their slaughter and dissection. He was the lead foreman on the green-chain, tasked with watching over the worker’s who selected and picked over bones of conifers.

At the Chaney Lumber Company, located near Mt. Shasta, California, a management job turned his dad into a superstar. In the sawmill community, management was assigned the most elegant of cedar shacked homes, free of rent. There were three or four homes in a row, situated on the top of the most luscious, and tall green hills in town. Kyle’s father was as respected as any Greek God in this lumber town, a destroyer of everything wood.

From an early age, Kyle knew he could become anything in life that he wanted to be. His stratospheric I.Q. supported his confidence. But his intellectual superiority came at a cost.

He was acutely aware of how and why his classmates made fun of him, such as when as they’d whisperer hurtful words behind his back: ‘four-eyes and egg-head.’ They were jealous of course, wrongly confident the gifted Kyle would falter in his attempt to grow away from his small town lumber roots. They were, bet certain he would eventually wither back to the dirt of earth. That he’d eventually relent, work beside them on the green chain. His schoolmates wagered, over too much beer and hard to start campfires, they’d all grow old together in anonymity and mediocrity, under the deep shadows of tall trees, just like their father’s had. And then one day, they’d all be buried with their hands full of slivers from handling ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. Oh, were these suspendered, minuscule Paul Bunyans in for an epic surprise?


In celebration of completing his junior year of high school and graduating early, Kyle was treated to a weekend in San Francisco. His parents even lent him the family sedan and booked him a tall room at the Union Square, Hyatt.

In the iconoclastic city by the sea, Kyle enjoyed his alone time. So much so, in the early morning, he’d walk the warped, planked streets of the city. Each enchanted turn and buckle yielded another famed district, each with its own special nautical history: Castro, The Warf, and The Tenderloin. As he trekked, he’d take-in the names of exquisite signage, as it showed him the way in the darkness. Kyle new those as seafaring signs, from bygone times, stenciled with navigational wordings of Lombard, Divisadero, and Pacifica. Each seemed a perfect fit, for christening any of the tall ships in his make believe, oceanic pirate fleet.

As captain, he fancied sailing the unruly, golden scaled Pacific. Each of frigates would be adorned in square downriggers and equipped with ample spars for the waterproofed sails, all made with from the finest flax or hemp. In the dark ocean that was his mind, he’d also fit them with Reef Bands, to straighten each sail in preparation for the lanky, and roughest of Pacific waves, the inevitable gales. Finally, he’d install fail-safe Sisal Shrouds for the inevitable battles and warring at sea. His lead ship would become a wooden voyager, ready for any tumultuous star filled galaxy or ocean he’d choose to explore. And of course, at the highest tip of each ship mast, he’d adorn his proper skull and bones flagging. To Kyle, his raider thoughts were as celestial and real, as the moon’s Sea of Tranquility.

He often drew puzzlement from the faces of friends and acquaintances when he quoted François l' Olonnais, the infamous French Caribbean pirate, who once said, “If there were no oceans, then where would we employ pirates?” They didn’t appear to know what the hell he was talking about, Olonnais, pirates–oceans? Of course they didn’t, they were common deck hands. He’d stare back at them and think to himself, “Thank God for sexton and stars.” The synergy reminded him there would always be oceans, Kyle’s oceans.

On this particular early morning, before he knew it, Kyle found himself in the infamous Haight-Ashbury District. From his devouring of books, he knew this to be the fabled hippie, love generation’s utopia, now strewn before him in decay and ruins. From his extensive readings he didn’t expect less. Kyle pondered all the years that had passed, and how this once promised land, the Haight, had been looted of all its precious cargo of love. In this urban, twenty-first century wasteland, Kyle felt a kinetic sense of excitement and wonder.

As he squinted into the distance, a neon sign pulsed before him. He knew it wasn’t a mirage. He read it out loud in his head, “The Sticky Graves Tattoo Parlor.” The purple signage appeared to float before him. He envisioned it a catatonic neon skiff in the deep green mist, just as he’d always planned.


Although our Kyle was a true pirate at heart, like you and I, he was cognizant that there were societal restrictions concerning wearing your feelings on your shirtsleeve. He knew the jails and prison cells were filled to the rafters with once proud privateers. Yet he wouldn’t be fully comfortable performing surgery while brandishing neck tattoos and a fully inked arm sleeve, landmarked in bitchin’, renegade totems. Kyle had his sights set on the medical profession, just like his disassembled hero, Dr. Baden.

Yes, of course, he was thankful that the generation before him had pioneered the way, introducing meaningful tattoos, piercings, and even scarification into the heart of societal institutions, including the medical industry. And now, at the highest levels of medicine, tattoos and success seemed to have reached a happy compromise. Of course, our Kyle, a chameleon ‘bad-boy’ needed seafaring symbolism to go along with his sociopathic persona. But he reasoned, it didn’t have to shout his freakiness out load. Sure he had the need to let his freak flag fly, but ever so discretely.


Shirleen, a veteran picaroon tattoo artist, hearing the doorbell jingle, slowly raised her eyes up from the artsy black and white tiled floor that she’d been contemplating, littered with all her life’s bad choices. Surprised at seeing his youth, she asked, “What brings you here kid?”

Kyle, curiously asked, “Why are you open at 4:30 A.M.?”

Shirleen responded with her signature spicy, wry smirk, “Well, we are never really closed, here.”

“Ah, ok then,” said Kyle, rolling his eyeballs up at the cobwebbed ceiling. After he untangled his sticky trance, he lowered his gaze back to the interesting tattoo artist, “Ah, well, I’m here for a fucking bad-ass tattoo.”

Kyle was surprised at Shirleen’s appearance. She didn’t look the part, no tattoos. At least any that was visible. Based on her rough, good looks, he guessed she was a hard-livin’ twenty-five. She appeared modern and edgy, and very magnetic.

“How charming, you look like one of those preppy boys with that fancy V-neck sweater and those rectangular glasses. What is your mom going to say about your new tattoo?” Shirleen’s sparkling, white teeth shined Cheshire.

“Nothing, she won’t even know for a while. It’ll be on my chest,” our rebellious pirate quipped. “I’m going to be a freshman at Stanford in the fall. My mother’s distracted with her prideful bullshit and all. Besides, I already have a few tattoos, in discrete places no one ever sees. My new one has to be small, about the size of a cannonball.”

Kyle pointed to his left pec, he’s right handed. “I want it here, over my heart, a skull and bones.”

Shirleen, sensing a kindred spirit, lowered her shoulders, her expression less testy. She’d somehow figured he was a kindred soul, “Whatever floats your boat preppy, 4”x 4” inches will cost you $99.00, and a five dollar tip if I’m good. And by the way, I am God-damned good!”

“If you really are that good, why don’t you have any ink, like most tattoo artists?” Kyle began his excavation.

Shirleen glared back at him, using her best Oakland, mad dog grimace, “Just a good habit. I am not stupid. When I was at Valley, tattoos were a dime a dozen, so I made sure not to display any in public. That kept me out of gang trouble and safe from cell inspections.”

A clear memory burbles to the surface of Shirleen’s churning thoughts, like an oil slick that won’t dissolve. To Kyle, she seems to drift away a little.

A memory bubble places her back in the shower where that Barrios bitch asked her what was up with the nautical tattoo on her right ass cheek. How she’d told the Chica, “I have one and my future soul mate will have an identical one on her left ass cheek. The tattoos are symbolic in sailor’s folklore: Both icons tats when together, insure that with any of life’s shipwrecks, the two matching tattoo survivors will somehow be guided ashore in rough seas.”

“Cool! Valley Prison, damned, in Chowchilla, that’s a State Prison, right?” Kyle’s eyes opened wider like when a crocodile reaches the surface.

Shirleen, having returned from her memory bubble said, “Yes, besides Preppy-boy, Hep-C was all over the place in there. The fewer prison tattoos, the better, feel me? It only takes one bad tattoo to ruin your day, your whole fucking life as a matter of fact. Enough of this damned chit-chat sit down, let’s talk art.”

She quickly glanced down again at the turn of the century, tile floor again, before flopping down on her work stool. All her cluttered mistakes were still a mess down there, just short of a dumpster fire. But somehow, she stiffened herself against depressing thoughts and remained hopeful. Maybe one day she’d find that special someone, and ink that matching nautical tattoo on her new lover’s pretty ass.

She pointed again for Kyle to sit on the tattoo chair. They briefly exchanged Déjà Vu glances, as if they’d be in the same place in the future somewhere.

Kyle extended his forearm and unfolded his palm. He revealed a crumpled yellow sticky note, displaying a pirate skull with an arched dagger grin, in the background, two classic long bones.

An hour later Kyle was at the corner O’Farrell and Lim’s Market clean over in Chinatown, sipping an underage lager and admiring his chest ink through the crack in his v-neck. He fancied himself a badass gangsta’, a pirate boss.


Six years go by, as fast as a supersonic, hyaline cannon ball. Oh how time passes. He finds himself completing his internship. M.D. Barton had become a hit at the newly named Zuckerberg–San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. The other doctors called him Captain K, though only the chosen few knew why. Even the gorgeous and intelligent nurse Liz Clayton, a porcelain-skinned, black-haired beauty seemed attracted to Dr. Barton’s wind chapped smile. Liz would soon become more than his convenient strumpet. Together, they’d burn a lot of midnight galley oil, and scheme a future of high seas together.


Another seven years sail by, in record time. It’s Kyle and Liz’s seven year anniversary. The couple’s been sailing the upper class Pacific, seemingly happily married. They’d begun as such a good match. But oh how things can change on rough waters and in storms.

Kyle had been hired as a post-mortem pathologist by the City of Oakland, just across the bay from his beloved Standard. He’d recently completed seven years of employment, conducting autopsies, and scribbling names on stinky toe tags. It had been seven years of bad luck for all of his clients, but certainly not for him. But, during this time frame, Kyle’s smooth waters of love have been stirred into an unseen squall he never saw coming. His love ship was listing badly, starboard.

Who knew Kyle would be celebrating seven years of marriage, and his seventh year of employment. In the earlier hours of tomorrow, he would be conducting his labor of love, working the night shift, alone. Kyle always preferred working solo. He had his reasons. He preferred partying with the bad company of stiff’s.

His hastily planned celebration included an Uber delivered Happy Meal, including a McBlizzard. To Kyle, this was much better than any specialty baked Italian Butter creamed Ganache, gilded in a filigree of inscription.

At this stage in his career, he was adored by the Alameda Coroner's Bureau. He was so accomplished and proficient, and artist, really. Kyle had placed on the fast track because of his extensive skill set. In his current capacity, his surgical brothers’ in decay envied his use of the Hagedorn needle in creating the finest in subcuticular sutures. His wound closing, and cinching final pirate knot was deemed legendary, high art.

In the early morning hours of a new day, Kyle completed his version of a gourmet meal. As usual, he worked as he ate. He’d nearly broken his bad habit of licking his gloved fingers clean. But what the hell he thought, it’s a double anniversary. Kyle was nearly finished with his second cadaver, except for the gill hole at the bottom of the classic Y-cut chest zipper, down near the victim’s emptied abdomen.

Dr. Kyle Barton, Summa cum laude, began stuffing the meaty, open vault with the extra catsup packets and the empty Sweet’n Low wrappers he’d used to lighten his coffee. And then, in went the unused plastic spoons, the used napkins, and the empty McFlurry cup.

Such debauchery had become a sublime pleasure over the years, and so financially rewarding.

Next Dr. Barton inserted the small satin bag chuck full of South African diamonds.

After his deposit, he goes back to his favorite playlist, beginning with Pantera covering Metallica’s, Seek and Destroy.

As gifted as Mozart, Kyle sealed the opening, using his favorite concerto violin string, the standard medical grade Nylon. In record time, just like the calf roping he’d seen at the Folsom rodeo, he’d tie his fleshy knot, close the oozing, salty orifice, in perpetuity, unless the corpse demanded costly exhuming.

At times, Kyle’s filigreed art demanded the expensive Ethibond and Prolene threads. And for royalty, he’d employ the highly sought after silk spider filament.

It wasn’t that often he’d use the expensive upgrades, usually at the request of the wealthiest of clients. Only then could he justify such exquisite detail in the entombment of the given booty fo opulence.

His deceased, buried sentinels were lovingly tasked to keep their blackening eyes on the buried treasures, which could, at any time, include important flash drives, crystal clear emeralds, and even full sized hard drives preferred by the non-techy Saudi’s.

Kyle had also stitched in a few top-secret counter-military and cryptic Silicon Valley thumb drives, each sporting important codes or combinations. His Israeli, Mossad customers were some of his best, and they tipped very well just like the Italians.

Kyle reserved a private smirk, each time he recalled turkey-stuffing the compromising sex tape into the abdomen of a deceased businessman. This time, the UK governmental purveyor of secrets paid Kyle dearly to cover up the horny, disgraceful antics of a British Royal. Kyle was always paid well for his safekeeping skills. In this case, his efforts were part of a noble blackmail scheme, so damned costly these days.

Kyle’s motto was, “Only the very best for those who pay the very most.” Hell, in California alone, he’d made upwards of six digits last year. He was confident the quality of his sutures alone could get him into the Autopsy Hall of Fame if there ever was such a place. Before he’d close his cadaver’s blowhole, he’d tie his famous cowboy knot. For just a split second, he was John Wayne on crack––Getty-up cowboy. Hell, if he was in business way back then, he might have stitched in that controversial blue dress.

Kyle was happily available for any exhuming demands. Of course, there’d be a high cost to pay.


On this special night of celebration, his wife Liz was at home. She was a whirligig of activity. Liz was busy fleecing the family safe of cash, and other valuables, including all the expensive jewelry she’d maxed out on their newly minted credit cards. However, to be fair, she left Kyle one lonely VISA by accident, heavy with debt, just behind an abruptly closed fire proof door. After all, she’d run out of time.

So she quickly fed Jailbird, the ten-year-old Cockatoo and gave kisses to one-eyed Jimmy, the nearly blind, rescued Shih Tzu. He was the only thing she intended to miss. Then, and only then, the last thing she left Kyle, was alone. Liz slammed the front door behind her and headed in the direction of a new life.


Back at the morgue, Kyle rolled out his final corpse of the night. No inserts on this one, for some reason business was slow just after tax season. For a change, Kyle flipped the corpse on her stomach. Umph! Maybe it was intuition, or instinct, or even memory.

On what could only be described as an ass as flat as a milled 2”x10”, Kyle stapled his eyes on the distinct tattoo on her right ass cheek. It was an unmistakable clone of his wife’s new ship rudder tattoo on the left side of her ass. The tattoos were an exact match. Kyle immediately recalled an old sailor’s tale, about two matching rudders bringing good fortune. If they match, they exist to navigate you away from bad storms toward safe harbor. This confirmed why lately, he’d developed suspicions of infidelity. There love life hadn’t been exciting for quite a while. But now he had proof of an affair. The corpse that lay before him was someone who washed up from his past. It was Shirleen of course, the gifted Tattoo artist from the Haight-Ashbury.


In an instant, Kyle snapped his blue gloves to the floor. He began loading his canvas utility bag with post-mortem instruments. In frenzy, in went the bone saw and the stainless steel breadknife, the enterotome scissors. So too a new scalpel, the long Hagedorn needle, along with a new spool of silk thread. Grabbing the rib loppers, that he nearly forgot, he sprinted through the push bar back door.


In record time, Kyle arrives home, in the hills of East Oakland. He slams on the breaks, nearly ramming the steel garage door at the end of the downhill driveway. He cares less if he wakes her, or the whole fucking neighborhood for that matter.

Kyle kills the engine and claws the glove box door open and grips his Smith and Wesson 38 Special. Out it comes. Kyle manically finger rolls the cylinder.

His eyes fixate as it spins like a death carousel, making sure the six small coffin silos are filled to the deadly brim. He snaps the cylinder back in place and exits the car, nearly sprinting to the front door.

Once inside, his gift of sonar tells him he’s alone. Kyle thinks long about where she might have gone, especially after he sees what’s not in the safe. He sizzles and sparks with anger, the need for revenge.


Liz left on a plane out of San Francisco International and heading for Spain. Perhaps she was in search of new love, or perhaps she was just looking for a fresh adventure in Catalonia, where dreams are cheaper than the discontinued Peseta.

Elizabeth, in short order, struck a match to her new fire. He was a retired Barcelonan bullfighter. Once she felt safe in her new homeland, she would give Kyle up to the district attorney in Alameda County. States evidence is what she’d bargain for, and then testify against him. Reducing the look of complicity, she’d then attempt to cut a deal. At least that was her brilliant plan. However, a two month whirlwind romance put a halt on any rash disclosure, at least in the short run.

Kyle, as usual, was correct. Time would eventually give up her inevitable story, even her exact location. We will never know what Kyle would have done, had she been home that early morning? I know Liz had a hunch. But she wasn’t talking.

Her body was discovered two months later, not far from her new home near Montcalm Massif, in the Pyrenees.

After finding his new lover deceased, the brave Enrique Ponce Junior, spoke of his innocence to anyone in earshot. During the interrogation, he said he’d been framed, gored in the back.

In reality, someone owed someone a favor. And It was clear that someone had poisoned the lovely Elizabeth with Ethylene Glycol, anti-freeze. Her new Catalonian homeland required an autopsy. It was performed at the Sancho de Ávila Morgue, a new state of the art facility in Barcelona proper. The autopsy report documented the absence of toxins or exotic chemicals and poisons. The cause of death was listed as liver failure, of unknown etiology. Per her will, Liz was cremated the very next week.

The reason for Liz’s untimely death would never be solved. And It wouldn’t become a cold case because there wasn’t a murder on record. However, the local authorities postulated that somehow her new Caballo had poisoned her.

But in fact, he would never stand trial. There was simply no motive or sound evidence to point at, such as any life insurance listing him as the beneficiary.

In fact, her life insurance, of one million dollars would go to her abandoned and bereaved husband, back in sunny California. As for Kyle, there was little suspicion. After all, he was so well respected and wealthy. He and Liz both carried life insurance, for many years, and her payout was just a drop in his financial bucket. Besides, Kyle had an airtight alibi, not that he needed one.


Our Kyle sits quietly in his red Adirondack chair, resting comfortably on the expansive planked front yard deck. It’s here he has a wonderful view of the glorious San Francisco Bay.>

He imagines the expansive deck that of the famous pirate ship, Royal Fortune. He’s contemplative as the sun thaws over the November stainless steel horizon behind him in the Berkeley Hills. In the warmth of his lap snuggles his one-eyed, furry deckhand. From behind the sliding patio glass, nearly soundless, Kyle hears his pirate cockatoo, Jailbird, repeating, “Argh, Argh Matey.”

It’s not often that Kyle thinks about his cheating wife, and the matching rudder tattoo on her ass, literally right under his nose. Nor does he think much of the clean lab reports from the year of testing, after all, Tatoo–Shirleen died of Hep-C. What Kyle does think about often, is what a great life he has.

He lives for such early mornings and the inbound rising tide of sun that slowly floods his face with such a buoyant, wicked smile. He’s so in tune, always just a wave or two away from that drowning feeling of insanity, he so much enjoys.


© 2020 Dan Cardoza

Bio: Dan A. Cardoza’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have met international acceptance. Most recently his work has been featured in, Black Petal, Cabinet of Heed, Cleaver, Close to the Bone, Danse Macabre, Dream Noir, Dissections, Entropy, Five-Two Crime Poetry , Gravel, Liquid Imagination, New Flash Fiction Review, Rabid Oak and Spelk.

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