Fade to Black, by Robert Borski

(Download the audio version of this story here, or click the play button below. Read by S.R. Jones. Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.)

Fade to Black — art by Stjepan Lukac — click to enlarge

“I bet over the years, Dr. Engel, you’ve seen some pretty interesting body art,” said my first patient of the afternoon, as he began that ritual process all those who come seeking my help must undertake, unveiling himself before me like some half-drunk nursing student back in my long ago residency days.

“That I have,” I said, looking away, glancing down at the name on top of the chart. Today’s two o’ clock appointment was one Nathan Scuyler and from his bowtie and tweed jacket it would not have surprised me to learn he was an academic from one of the Bay Area universities. “And believe me, I’ve often chided myself for not taking pictures or video of the more spectacular. Not only for promotional purposes — I once removed an elaborate full-body dragon that would probably generate a million hits on YouTube, as well as considerable business — but also because somewhere down the line, after I retire, it would have been interesting to look back upon everything and reminisce. Then again, people don’t come to me because I’m a preservationist. Just the opposite, in fact. So pictures or any kind of digital record always seemed antithetical.”

By now, of course, with the last of his shirt buttons unbuttoned, Nathan Scuyler stood waiting for me to cast my eye upon him, then in a flash quickly completed the process. From the waist up, in his plain white t-shirt, he looked a study in contrasts: half pristine and pure, like the belly of a cloud; half grubby and stained, like a bathroom graffito.

“Ta-da,” he proclaimed, lifting up his arms. “Pretty cool, huh, Doc? Around campus I’m known as Davey Jones’s Little Brother. You know, from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies?”

Conjuring up the cinematic image, I shuddered. But then blinking away Bill Nighy’s prosthetic face, I replaced it with the figure in my examining room, who at least was squid only from his shoulders down to his hands, along the underside of which, and ranging from larger to smaller, two rows of intricate blue-black suckers pocked his arms like barnacles of ink, while on top, a more uniform imbricated green dominated its entire length, ending with three claw-like appendages, one each to his ring, middle, and forefingers. Its renderer had also done an uncanny job of grafting the tattoo to the natural swell and curve of his musculature, such that when he finally lowered his arms a few seconds later, the motion was so fluid I might almost have been looking at real tentacles.

“Interesting,” I admitted, feeling the hair on the back of my neck rise. And then because I knew how much money work of this nature commanded and the hours of pain he must have endured under the needle: “Now tell me why you’ve come to Invisible Ink.”

“Probably the oldest story in the book,” Nathan Scuyler began, even as I bent closer to see what I could glean about the very work of art he would have me soon eradicate, “at least in terms of tattoo regrets. Simply put, the new love in my life — and soon to be fiancée, I hope, if your magic beams of light can do the trick — hates them. Says they totally creep her out. Me, in terms of popular culture, I see squid, I think Spongebob Squarepants’s neighbor, Quincy Tentacles. But Sonya, who grew up in Japan, thanks to her father’s military command post, thinks shokushu goukan – this weird sort of Japanese erotica I doubt you’ve ever heard of. Basically, it’s a form of horror cartoon involving tentacles and, um, how shall I put this, deep groping?”

“I’ve removed my share of anime-based tats over the years,” I said, pressing down on his forearm to gauge the depth, quantity, and age of the ink, “so while I’m not an expert, I’m semi-familiar.”

“Great. Great,” he said, his face considerably more flushed and acne-scared than the waters of his forearm, where, reaching for an invisible fish, the tattooed sea-coil rolled and roiled. Generally, when you were this unpigmented, laser treatments were more successful. “At any rate,” he continued, “Sonya had an older brother who was really into the stuff and apparently he and a friend attempted some sort of fantasy reenactment that went terribly awry and was so traumatic she still refuses to talk about it. At least that’s what she claims. It’s also why she’s pretty much insisted I have my, er, dermal equivalencies removed. Provided I comply, everything will be good again.”

“I seem to detect a note of skepticism here, Mr. Scuyler,” I said, peering closer, trying to get a better fix on the tattoo’s chromatics. Was that a tinge of indigo beneath the blue-black? Some vermillion behind the scales? “You suspect she has a truer motivation for disliking your tats, perhaps?”

“Look, Doc,” said Nathan Scuyler, sighing as I continued to inspect the tattoo’s ebb and flow, tracing the Laocoön-like sleeve of each arm all the way up to his shoulders. “I teach marine biology at Stanford. My graduate and Ph. D. work was done on Mesonychoteuthis, which in case you didn’t know is the giant squid’s even bigger brother and largest invertebrate on the planet. Eyeballs the size of cantaloupes and a penis you can skip rope with. You want factoids, I have a million of them. Because the plain simple truth of the matter is, ever since I was a kid in Massachusetts and hunted squid by moonlight, I’ve been totally entranced by cephalopods. You put me in the company of anyone who’ll listen, let alone a biologist, sailor or fisherman, and I totally geek out. Fortunately, part of me was able to diffuse this by acquiring the unique artwork you see before you. Cost me a pretty penny at the time, too. But I was also lucky enough to write a well-received book that quite a few libraries, both university and public, wanted for their stacks. In fact, it’s book club money that’s paying for the laser treatments. So you’d think I’d mastered my obsession or at least had partial control over it. But even now, and knowing better, there’ll be times I’m with Sonya when suddenly I’ll start rhapsodizing about some aspect of octopi or squid-dom and she’ll give me this withering look like she just caught me sneaking a look at another woman’s ass.”

“Ah, then,” I said, finished with my preliminary exam. “The green-eyed monster rearing its head methinks. Or in this case, the siren jealous of Scylla.”

“Exactly,” Nathan Scuyler agreed, reaching for his shirt, abandoning like all those long ago nurses any notion of seduction. “But it’s the former I intend to marry. And I really do love her. So what’s the verdict, Doc? Can you help me or not? Are me and my tats good candidates for photothermolysis? Or should I stop saving for an engagement ring? Give it to me straight.”

And so I did, at least with all the straightness and coherence of form my Q-switched laser could muster one week later (actually, only God himself could wield a tighter beam, although I do not know if He, like me, would use His punishing left hand to administer the correction). Overhead, a monitor was situated so that even patients lying on their bellies could look up and see the progress of my work, and I had just begun with a preliminary patch of skin on the topside of his wrist, where his sensitivity to pain was likely to be reduced.

With the cryofan supplying coolth in one hand, and the laser’s ruby nib in the other, I watched subdermal ink, but nothing else, absorb the energy from the tuned light, turning puffy white like a contrail against the pink sky of his flesh.

“You feel any discomfort when I do that?” I asked. Lying under the sheet, but tethered to a drip, Professor Scuyler remained alert, but still, and I was hoping I would not have to increase the level of anesthetic.

“I’m feeling nothing, Doc,” he told me. “At least not now. Although from the pamphlet your receptionist gave me, I’m sure tomorrow will be a whole ‘nother story.”

“You can expect some post-thermolytic blistering I can pretty much guarantee,” I said, strafing another cluster of black, hearing again the distinctive fluttering of the laser, the percussiveness of which sounded like helicopters in the distance. “But it won’t be much more painful than what you underwent when you got your original tattoo.”

Another series of pulses, and three more suckers underwent the transformation to ghostly areolae.

“At twice the price, I should hope not. Which reminds me. I brought you a copy of my book, King Kraken. It’s a bit dense in places, I’m told by lay readers. But if nothing else, I think you’ll enjoy the pictures.”

Not what most iconoclasts do, I thought to myself, restoring another 2.5 centimeter square of his skin to its original integrity. Then again, perhaps it was something I could browse during my next bout of insomnia.

Buoyantly, from below then, his blue eyes nictitating: “Is the pigment breaking up like you hoped?”

“Well, as I told you before, we won’t really know for sure until your immune system has had a few days to remove the smaller particles from your body. But it does appear to be debonding. And you’re almost certainly going to need a follow-up session or two. But from everything else I’m seeing, it looks good. It is, however,progressing slowly. And it’ll probably take me another hour or so just to finish this arm. Are you still sure you want to do both of these bad boys today?”

“Let me put it to you as if you were a colleague, Doc,” said Nathan Scuyler, suppressing a yawn. “Does a squid love doing the backstroke?”

Above on the monitor, I watched myself blaze the dermal equivalent of Nazca lines with pulses of light in the 694 nanometer wavelength. Below, starting to squirm at times (I’d shut off the EMLA drip by now), Professor Scuyler kept up a steady stream of chatter, as if to help diffuse what I felt was some nervousness.

“You know,” he explained, laying his right ear down on the operating table, as if listening to some sea conch for the ocean’s swell, “most of your smaller cephalopods will rise to the surface whenever the moon is full, although we’re still not sure why. Some of us believe they’re simply following the fish and plankton that form the main bulk of their diet and which are similarly driven, while others like myself believe it’s a more atavistic, hard-wired impulse. At any rate, to draw them to your boat on cloudy or moonless nights — something I did endless times as a boy — all you have to do is shine a reasonable facsimile, like a searchlight, or if the night is really dark or shoreline dim, a good lantern. And up they’ll come in droves, squiggling, like some sort of hive intelligence summoned by a queen.  But what you’re doing, with your little device there–”

As I progressed, more and more of his left arm was looking tufted and wispy, like the sloughed-off skin of a lace python.

“–is configured more like infinitesimal star-bursts, or mini-novae.  And it is eating me, the squid wannabe.”

“A nice bit of irony, I suppose.”

As I shut off and cradled the laser, I heard his grunt of assent. “Your word to the Deity’s ear, Doc. And then some. We done for now?”

The rest of the afternoon transpired routinely enough. I met with a number of patients in various stages of post-removal recovery, all but one of which were resolving quite nicely and needed no further treatments. The lone exception: a former NBA star whose dark skin, as I’d cautioned him all along, was scarring in huge keloid bundles. (“‘Think before you ink,'” he said mournfully, “Why didn’t I listen to my friends?”) He asked if I thought cortisone injections would help flatten the keloids, and I said yes, but also told him I wanted to try topical imiquimod first, to see if we would get better results. On the Dermatology Network, I then partook in a fascinating telelink conference that concerned a young woman with a rare case of telangiectasia, all of her birthmarks looking like bruises. Unfortunately, even with the latest technology, it appeared they were no more blanchable than original sin; whereupon it being six o’ clock, I went to my usual Wednesday evening choir practice, where we began preliminary rehearsals for next month’s Easter pageant.

Not much later, at home, tired, but not sleepy, I remembered Nathan Scuyler’s book, King Kraken. I’d never heard of the small university press that had published it before; perhaps, given its location, it appealed to Scuyler’s sense of home or he’d been employed there before he moved to Palo Alto. As he’d mentioned, it did contain a number of fascinating picture galleries. Certainly, when it came to outré and bizarre forms, if not at the same time outright beautiful, God had outdone Himself with the multi-limbed denizens of Pod Nation. Whether it was the diaphanous glass marrow of the ghost squid, the umbrella-mouthed vampire squid, squid that looked like piglets, chandeliers, or lava lamps, or even the mysterious and semi-cryptozoic mud squid of Appalachia (its lone snapshot clearly photoshopped in my opinion), it was not hard to figure out why Nathan Schuyler had been so beguiled by the beasts. But perhaps the two pictures that haunted me the most and which I kept turning back to over and over again were Katshushika Hokusai’s early depiction of two octopi and a naked woman for “The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife” and a news wire photo of Nathan Scuyler standing aboard a Japanese fishing vessel alongside the netted, if disintegrating, remains of a giant squid — only a single huge tentacle of which had survived, along with a great mass of unidentifiable gray goo (imagine an elephant hit by a train traveling 200 mph and you will come close to picturing the result). Both so intrigued me I barely heard my ringtone several minutes later; apparently two calls had come in since my cell had finished recharging.

According to the ID tag, the first call originated from Hopkins Marine Station and was who I thought it likely to be:

“Hey, Doc, it’s me, Nate Scuyler,” said the familiar voice from this afternoon. “Sorry to bother you at home, but I have a question I’m hoping you can answer for me real quick. Is it part of the healing process for the tats to turn darker after treatment? And thicker? Because that’s what’s happened once the puffiness went down. Seriously, Doc, it’s freaking me out. Please call me back as soon as you can. And I’m most definitely gonna want to see you soon as you open up shop tomorrow.”

So not good, I told myself, troubleshooting several corrective procedures in my mind. But before I rang the good professor back, I wanted to see who the second call was from, having no idea who or what the IDed Ogdoad was.

A woman’s voice laughing shrilly, for starters. Followed by: “O-ho, Doctor Engel, exalted owner-proprietor of Invisible Ink Tattoo & Scar Removal. Apparently, your medical training notwithstanding, you’re a bigger idiot than my husband. Otherwise you’d know the principle constituent of squid ink is melanin. You two fools –” And then no more, at least of her mocking words, just the double punctuation marks of two gunshots.

While I waited for the police to call me back, I found a small footnote in the book’s end pages about the ink sac Nathan Scuyler was able to tease out, intact, from the giant ship-salvaged Architeuthis. Quips he: “Given my love of the creatures, colleagues have suggested I get myself a tattoo rendered in squid ink. Perhaps this time I just shall.”

Shortly thereafter, the doorbell rang. Standing on my doorstep was a tall, close-cropped, plain-clothes police officer who flashed me a walleted badge on which was embossed his division: HOMICIDE.

“Detective Toby Hamilton, sir,” he said, shaking my hand firmly. “I don’t know if you remember me, Dr. Engel, but I was a patient of yours about eight years ago.”

Ushering him inside, I said, “Actually, in this respect, my memory is quite good, although I tend to remember tattoos better than faces. Let me think a few seconds here…” Almost immediately a crescent-shaped growth appeared in my mind. “Wait. Not a tattoo, but a skin tumor. Squamous cell carcinoma, on your eyelid. Which we micro-ablated with no loss of vision.”

“Wow,” said the detective, sounding genuinely impressed. “Good guess. Let’s hope the same attention to details prevails throughout this investigation.” Pulling out a notebook: “But before I once again thank you forty times over for saving my sight, maybe we should tackle the night’s nasty business first. Professor Scuyler hasn’t called you back, I take it?”

“No,” I said, watching him flip back and forth through the notebook. “No, he hasn’t. Nor has he answered any of my attempts to reach him. May I assume, however, given what I heard, something unpleasant has happened to the woman who called?”

“You do understand I’m limited in what I can tell you, right? But yes, we do have a victim, and we are looking for Professor Scuyler, both for next-of-kin notification and other purposes. You told nine-one-one he was a little bit panicky when he called?”

“He was concerned about the post-operative effects of a treatment he received this afternoon, yes.”

“And in the course of the time you spent with him today, did he happen to mention he was in the process of getting a divorce or that a restraining order had been filed by him against his estranged wife?”

“Quite the opposite, in fact,” I said, feeling myself frown. In as succinct a fashion as possible then, I repeated the story I had first heard only this afternoon, telling the detective about how the removal procedure was actually supposed to make Scuyler’s relationship with his “fiancée” stronger.
“Rather a puzzling set of lies,” he said, tapping his pencil against his lips. “But you see that often with these odder belief systems. Apparently, the professor and his wife are charter members of a neo-gnostic cult out of Berkeley called the Ogdoad. Kind of a weird group, you ask me. Its principle tenet, as nearly as we’ve been able to determine, involves the veneration of a bizarre octopus-like deity whose name I can neither pronounce nor spell. Unfortunately, though, as will happen in groups of this nature, there’s been quite a lot of infighting, with each faction claiming the other is attempting to intimidate or poach away influential members. Ordinarily, of course, in a turf war like this, we wouldn’t get involved, at least as long as no laws were broken. But Professor Scuyler also had this huge research grant from the Navy to develop a new kind of optical system that would work in murky water and the Pentagon wanted to make sure his work wasn’t being affected or compromised.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Husband and wife were on opposite sides?”

The detective nodded. “Cataclysmically so, I’m afraid. Although some of Professor Scuyler’s colleagues seemed to believe he was on the verge of leaving the cult altogether.”

“That at least might explain why he wanted the tattoo removed,” I ventured.

“Or was doing his best to piss off the wife,” the detective counter-suggested. “Dunno. But hopefully we’ll find out. Anything else you can think of that might be relevant?”

But before I could tell him no, overhead, what was either a police or news helicopter had now begun to thrash the air, and I soon saw outside the window a searchlight sweep over the grounds, seeking either to eradicate or entice I-knew-not-what.

It was the on-line version of the San Jose Mercury News the next morning that first reported the murder of a local Palo Alto woman. Details at the time were still being withheld, but according to anonymous sources, the victim, an unnamed Asian woman in her forties, had been found strangled in her apartment, although she also had two superficial gunshot wounds. A person of interest was being sought, the article went on to state, and authorities were stressing that this did not appear to be a random killing and that the public should not be overly concerned.

By noon, however, when I checked for an update, a name and picture had been attached to the victim: she was Sayano Scuyler, age 42, a Japanese national married to Stanford faculty member Professor Nathan Scuyler, whose whereabouts were still being sought. Authorities were also remaining tightlipped about a possible suicide note found on his computer.

But by far the most startling feature of the update was the picture of Sayano Scuyler, who looked instantly familiar, though I was almost certain we had never met.

Only later, when I was in mid-removal of a tramp stamp from the lower back of a pretty young thing, did it occur to me that, despite modern flourishes, Sayano Scuyler could have easily been the real-life model for the woman depicted in Hokusai’s 1814 wood-block print, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife.

Over the coming month Wednesdays remained my busiest day. I’d received a ton of referrals from the ex-NBA star and now knew better than to use the 694 wavelength setting of the Q-source. I was also close to being double booked for sessions, wanting to take off an extra several days for the forthcoming Easter weekend. Thus, running late for choir practice, I fairly flew through the shower once I got home. Then after finishing inspecting myself in the mirror (blemish-free as always), I went into the living room, where, as I continued to towel off, I turned on KPLH for a bit of the evening news.

Backdropped by the blue waters of the Pacific coast, the female half of the anchor team was saying, “Like the swallows of Capistrano, the Humboldt Squid, more commonly known as the red devil squid because of its aggressiveness and rusty color, are once again invading local waters, heading north from Mexico during their annual migratory period. Take a look at his amazing underwater video, folks. Scientists estimate the total number of squid shoaling here at well over a thousand. Can you imagine yourself going for a swim and winding up in the middle of that, Franklin? Talk about your ick factor.”

“No, Mitsy,” said her bronzed co-anchor. “On the other hand, it does help explain why I have a sudden hankering for calamari, haha.”

But as the inane chatter of the talking heads continued, now discussing El Niño weather patterns with the meteorologist, I was caught by the brief image of something in the Gordian-like mass of red squid. Tentacles, fins, and crimson mantles swirled in the fray, but by using the backtrack, freeze frame, and zoom features of my remote I was able to zero in on the footage I wanted to re-examine.

It was still overly cluttered, of course — not for nothing is the Humboldt variety called the jumbo squid — and I was never able to clearly isolate anything but two of the suckered limbs in that galaxy of forms.

Nevertheless, I would have recognized those tattoos anywhere.

Robert Borski grew up in Wisconsin, not far from Sauk City, home to Arkham House and its founder, August Derleth. Though he has not written much HPL-inspired fiction, he was a contributor to the early Weird Tales fanzine, Etchings & Odysseys. These days he mostly writes poetry, a collection of which, BLOOD WALLAH, is now available from Dark Regions Press.

If you enjoyed this story, let Robert know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Stjepan Lukac.

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5 responses to “Fade to Black, by Robert Borski

  1. Excellent! I’ll certainly seek out this skilled author’s work and hope that he writes/releases more Lovecraftian content.

    For me, this story is the highlight of this wonderful issue. Thanks very much.

  2. This one really stuck with me. Something about its subtle mood and execution I thought was exceptionally done. Great job!

  3. I should also mention that someone in the HWA recommended Fade to Black for a possible Bram Stoker Award. So if you’re a HWA member, head on over and give the story another rec!

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