INKarnate was originally included in the kINKED anthology, so when we released it as a standalone title we wanted to use it more as a way of introducing readers to the INKomplete universe than as a way to make money. In that same spirit, we invite you to read and enjoy the first chapter of INKarnate:

CHAPTER ONE

Emily took a deep breath.

The winter air was bitterly cold in her lungs and she shivered, pressing her nose deeper into her woollen scarf. She wasn’t likely to get any warmer standing outside and yet she couldn’t force her legs to move through the door. Nervous, she peered around the curling edges of posters advertising local rave nights and up-and-coming bands to see through the tinted window. The room on the other side was dark; she couldn’t see anything.

“Come on, you coward,” she muttered. Then, ignoring the anxiety churning in her stomach, she took another deep breath, pushed open the door and stepped through.

A buzzer echoed around the room, startling her. When nobody immediately came, she closed the door gently and took a few steps into the room, her eyes taking in everything. The reception area was spacious and lit by three fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling. The furniture was surprisingly stylish, all chrome and glass and sparsely placed, giving a modern and almost pretentious feel to the room. There were no trinkets decorating the place, just a few magazines stacked neatly on a glass coffee table, but the walls were crammed full of framed pictures, each showcasing the talent of the tattoo artists available. Interested, she went over to examine them.

She was on the third frame when she heard somebody delicately clear their throat behind her. She whirled around and faced a stern-looking man of around fifty-five. He was a walrus of a man, with huge rolls of fat circling his waist, hips and neck. The shirt he was wearing was two sizes too tight and bulged alarmingly. One deep breath and Emily feared the shirt would rip from his body, Hulk-style.

“Can I help you, miss? You wanting some art doin’?” He said in a drawling, phlegmy voice. “Matt is booked for the next few months but we can probably slot you in fairly quickly with one of the other artists, depending on what you’re looking for?”

Emily blinked. “Matt?”

“The main artist? I assume you’re here for him? Girls of your age usually are.”

“Oh no, I don’t want a tattoo.” Emily answered, too nervous to even smile. “I’m here for the apprenticeship. The one that was advertised this week in the paper?” She pulled the cutting from her portfolio and slid it over to the man.

He cocked an amused eyebrow at her. “You? You’re here for the ‘prenticeship?”

“Yes, sir.”

“There’s no sir’s and madam’s round here. I’m Blakey. The owner.” He said, holding out a huge hand to her. She took it, wincing at how damp and warm it was. He gave her fingers a quick squeeze–tight enough to make her quietly gasp–and then dropped her hand. She resisted the urge to wipe it clean on the fabric of her dress.

“I’m Emily. Emily Mistry.”

“Pleased to meetcha. Now, you want to know more about the ‘prenticeship?” He said, eying the wrinkled paper still on the counter. “This isn’t a typical apprenticeship—it’s paid for starters—I don’t expect you to work for free whilst you’re learning. I pay you, so you’re not distracted by working elsewhere. This is the best studio in the city, bar none. And I only take the best. I haven’t taken on a new ‘prentice for around five years so the quality of applications is pretty high. Competition is going to be hard. Can you hack it?”

Emily swallowed, her stomach bubbling with nerves. She forced herself to look Blakey in the eye and answer with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Of course. No problem there.”

His rubbery lips twitched. “Okay then. That’s good to hear. Now…” he trailed off as his eyes lingered on what little skin she had showing. She was wearing a smart cotton sun dress and black cardigan that flattered her dark skin. His eyes dropped lower, taking in her sensible court shoes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, Em’ly, but you don’t look like any tattoo ‘prentice I’ve ever seen before.”

She glanced down, startled. “It takes different types to make the world go round, Blakey.”

It was obviously the right thing to say as he gave a brisk nod, his lips twitching with amusement again. “Right you are, but still, I don’t see any marks on your pretty skin. We normally learn our trade at home before we get taken on by an expert.” He unbuttoned the cuff of his shirt and rolled it up. It would only go as far as his mid forearm but it was enough for her to see a crude tattoo of a cross on his doughy skin. The thick inked lines were uneven and shaky.

She leaned forward and peered at his ‘design.’ “How old were you when you did this?”

“I was seventeen. Too eager to wait and too poor to pay. Most of us have at least one of these home brews.” 

“Why haven’t you had it covered up?”

He gave a barking laugh and rested a hand on the girth of rounded stomach. “Who’s interviewing who here?” When Emily flushed he gave another laugh and said, “Don’t you mind me. But seriously, where’s your tats? Don’t tell me you’ve got them hidden away underneath that pretty dress of yours.”

Emily would have flushed deeper at his intimate words if she had thought he meant it in that way, but he wasn’t leering; he seemed genuinely interested. “I don’t have any.”

“Why not? It’s not empty bragging when you hear tattoo artists saying their work is a way of life and not an industry. We don’t carve our skills onto skin for money–though it’s always nice when you’re talented enough to ask for the big bucks. We do it for love of the craft.”

Emily lowered her eyes, thinking quickly. She knew this was a deal breaker for him. He wouldn’t waste his time on somebody who wasn’t into the lifestyle. A quick glance around the prestigious tattoo studio told her how seriously he took his work. The four artists here were the best… and their skin was no doubt littered with incredible tattoos.

The truth was tattoos had never interested her. She was here because she needed a job and what little money she made from commissioned portraits wasn’t nearly enough to keep her living in her plush apartment for much longer. The money her parents had left behind had dwindled down to the few grand lingering in her bank account and if she didn’t start making real money soon then she’d have to move. The apartment held far too many memories of her parents for that to be an option.

She decided to be forthright. She spread her hands in a self-deprecating gesture. “Honestly, Blakey, I don’t think I like pain.”

His eyes creased at the corners. “But you like giving it?”

“I like to draw.” She said firmly, blushing again at the intimate undertone to his words.

“Having no tats doesn’t really bother me, Em’ly. Most of what is learned at home, tearing at the skin with needle and ink, has to be unlearned if you want to be really good at the craft. The more experience somebody has with home tattoos the more likely they are to be a scratcher. I’m prolly generalising, I guess; it’s just what I’ve found over the years.” He rubbed at his eyes with a fat hand. “Okay, talk me through a little of your stuff. We try to steer clear of flash here. That’s why we’re the best. Each tattoo is tailored to the client.”

She placed her portfolio on the counter and pulled out a few of the better pieces. They were mostly portraits—human and animal. She knew they wouldn’t transfer into tattoos very well but they showed her talent. He flicked through them carefully, studying certain areas of the images. She watched him out of the corner of her eye, hoping for some sort of impressed or pleased expression, but he kept his face carefully neutral. When he slid her work back into her portfolio she had no idea how he felt.

“You can leave this here?” He asked.

She nodded. “Of course. I can collect it when you make your final decision?”

“Yeah, that’s fine. Closing date is this weekend so I should be able to let you know by then. Because of the amount of applicants, we’ll be having interviews.”

She said that was fine and shook his hand. This time there was no friendly squeeze. She couldn’t help but feel disappointed.

Are you a little disappointed that it’s over? Would you like to read more? Well, you can — and for free:

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