Chapter XXXI: The Shattered Violin
Chapter XXXII: They Just Walk Away
Chapter XXXIII: In the Heat of the Night


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Early evening Mill Ave, on a weekday, the crowds were thinner but still present. Eschewing her usual haunts, Vex instead decided to patrol the red-brick sidewalk while she waited for the sun to set. Street rats smiled at her as she passed by their carefully chosen spanging locations; they perched on the edges of the ever-present brick casings that housed the sparse trees. While passing near the Valley Art theater she paused to roll her eyes at a rat she knew as Amish. Dressed in mediaeval cosplay garb, he thrust a crudely made fishing pole out into the sidewalk; dangling from its line hung a small takeout bucket with the words: “Fishing for a buzz.”

“Any bites?” she asked.

He shook the line, it jingled. “A few nibbles, but nothing worth mentioning. I think another hour of this and I’ll have to swim upstream.”

“Here,” she said, fishing some loose change from her pocket. “Maybe you just need better bait.”

“I think it’s the heat,” he commented. “Far less people are coming down to Mill than ever. Past few days, even my friends haven’t surfaced. And, have you noticed, two of the shops closed this weekend.” He gestured further down the street, towards a shoe store. She glanced in that direction, but the glare of sunlight from one of the newly constructed glass buildings by the lake blinded her. “That cookie place, it hasn’t been open since Saturday.”

“It’s like everything is drying up,” she said.

Amish nodded. And next to him a pile of rags shifted, or at least she’d assumed it was a pile of dirty laundry until it moved. A small, feminine face peeked out at her; steely grey eyes and dirty eyelids blinked in the brilliant light. Tiny metal whiskers protruded from around the girl’s lips and she cocked her head in a distinctly feline fashion as she pulled herself up onto the small brick ledge.

She emitted a soft purring sound as she stretched and the nodded. “A lot of people have gone missing,” she said after enjoying her stretch altogether more than seemed modest. The whiskers glittered in the light as she quirked her mouth into a smirk. “I’m glad you’re not missing. You have all those beautiful outfits.”

“Are you sure they’re missing and not just heading to Flagstaff or someplace colder?” The moment she said it, Vex knew that couldn’t be the case. The news had been reporting an increase in missing persons for days now, and her encounter with hypnosis-girl at the concert only led her to wonder if these things could be connected.

“When people leave, they usually take their stuff,” the girl said, shaking her head.

Amish frowned pensively and said nothing.

Vex shrugged. “Where could they be going?”

“I don’t know,” the whiskered girl said. She stood up, one hand on Amish’s shoulder, and brushed herself off. She cast Vex a level stare. “You find out. You tell me.” With that, she turned her back on them and walked away; shoulders hunched, she scampered away down the street.

“Mêlée is a little strange,” Amish said as he watched her go, “but she’s taking the disappearances rather personally… I’m trying to get out of here myself. And not in that get-out-of-the-projects sense, I mean the ‘buzz’ I’m fishing for is gas money. I don’t think I’m the only one who wants to be somewhere else.”

“Any thoughts?”

“Maybe they got arrested…maybe,” he said. “The cops aren’t the only bogeymen. The security guards have been really hinky lately. It’s been almost enough of a hassle for me to go someplace else—but…” He shrugged his shoulders. “Where else is there?”

“Good point there,” Vex said. “There is nowhere else to go. Not in this town.”

“You said it.”

She glanced down the road, the lights in shops were beginning to come on—and some that never extinguished—producing sallow hollows in their windows. Foot traffic had begun to lull, as the changing of the guard prepared to happen—the sunbabies trailing out or vanishing into the shops, but the late night crowd wouldn’t set boots onto the Ave until the sun’s last rays guttered out.

“Hey,” she said. “I gotta jet. Better luck with your bait.”

“You coming out to drum circle? I think it’ll be my last one for a while.”

“Sure. I’ll see you there.”

As she strode past vast windows, joggers passed by trailing chlorine-smelling mist—sleek, tanned muscles glistened with sweat and the spray from gimmicky fans that misted tap water from little bottles. She wrinkled her nose at another pair, a man and a woman, who huffed past in the heavy late day heat. Only the sundown would bring actual asylum from the relentless sun, but nighttime temperatures these days were still on the rise.

She headed back to where she parked her cab, around behind the Graffiti Shop, a little nook of shadow she’d gotten special permission to use during the day. Even after sitting there in the shade, Vex still had to let the broiling hot air inside spill out for a minute before she felt comfortable getting in. She slid the shoebox out of the front seat that contained the ruined violin, tucked it under one arm, and shut the door. The sun still hovered glumly in the sky, but now the shadows were lengthening; soon the night life would pour out—and she could find the woman her godmother bid her to seek.

On her round-trip, she entered Coffee Plantation to find Patrick and Megan taking advantage of the air conditioning and some cold drinks. Patrick had dressed up in his usual outfit of jeans and a white shirt, but his leather jacket was oddly cinched at his midriff. He rose and hugged her tightly while Megan sipped at her drink, smiling speculatively at them. She had forgone her cat ear headband and finger jewelry for a much more conservative outfit; a grayish blouse and skirt—something that would survive the oppressive heat far better.

“Have you gotten any leads on the violin?” Megan asked as Vex set the shoebox on the table.

“I haven’t gotten to that part yet,” she said, waving for Patrick to sit down again. He did. “There’s a palmist who works across the street that my godmother wants me to talk to. She might know how the violin connects to everything that’s going on…”

“Half of my classes were cancelled today,” Patrick said.

“Same here,” echoed Megan.

“I guess there’s some sort of flu going around,” he went on. “Professors and TAs have all been getting sick. The business computer lab was so understaffed today that they closed it, I had to stand in line at the Computing Commons. I hate that place.” He hunched his shoulders. “It’s too big and open.”

Vex drummed her fingers on the top of the shoebox while looking out the window.

“Something on your mind?” Patrick asked.

“Ever heard the phrase ‘like rats abandoning a sinking ship’?” she asked. “What does it mean when the street rats are abandoning their street?”

“Have people been going missing here too?” Megan sucked up the remainder of her tea with the straw and shoveled at the ice. “I haven’t been able to get a hold of my friend Osiris in a week now.”

Vex reached over and playfully tugged on the sleeve of Patrick’s jacket. “Come on, I want to steal you for a while. You can keep me company while I have someone put the violin under a microscope.”

“As you wish.” Patrick downed the last of his drink and stood up. When he turned towards both of them, Megan burst into a guffaw. Glistening on his upper lip was a frothy white milk moustache.

Suppressing a snort, Vex grabbed a napkin from the table and pressed it into his hands. He frowned, but with little prompting wiped it off as she drew him by the cuff towards the door.

“Vex… Wait,” Megan said.

The goth cabbie paused to look back at the other girl, studying her face.

Megan took a shallow breath and chewed over her thought for a moment. Finally, she said, “If you want, I know a lot of the kids who hang out here… I could talk to them about who’s missing and where they were last seen. See if there’s anything, yanno, strange afoot.”

“Thanks. That’ll help. I’ll see you back here later tonight.”

Patrick paced Vex closely as she led him out into the evening heat. The street smelled of dust and desert wind, scents cluttered occasionally by the smell of mesquite smoke from some distant fire or restaurant stove. With the sun finally down, and the lights of the Ave up, the temperature had begun its slow drop.

“Half of your classes were cancelled?” She smiled coyly. “Is that why you were still in my bed around the time I woke up? Did I wear you out?”

“After you,” he said, reaching out to take her hand. His palms were sweaty against hers, but she didn’t care. “Calculus just couldn’t compare. Plus, after that disaster, I figured I could use a little more company…”

Vex chuckled under her breath; slipping one arm around his midsection she squeezed him gently against her as they walked.

“Oh,” he said. “Your friend, Brent, sent me an e-mail earlier today. I printed it out, but it’s in my back pocket and your—eep!” He yelped when she goosed him with her free hand, but didn’t miss a step. “—hand is in the way.”

“What?” she said. “I’m innocent, I swear.”

Her destination, a small stand set up beneath the Arizona Republic awning, held a single table with a woman sitting behind it. A white linen cloth with frilled edges lapped over the small, round table and in the center lay a deck of Tarot cards, held down by a crystal ball sheared flat in the bottom. The woman looked a lot younger than Madame Summer had suggested, but she rather looked the part. She wore a flowing outfit of purples in a gypsy fashion, gaudy gold rings threaded her fingers, and small black beads crowned her forehead.

As the pair approached, she tilted her head to the side. The beads clinked together and she smiled slowly, gesturing to a pair of chairs set nearby.

“My godmother told me to—”

She let herself trail off when the young woman squinted her eyes and nodded silently. She again gestured, wordlessly, keeping her eyes fixedly on Vex’s.

While Patrick went to grab a chair for her to sit, she watched quietly. The woman behind the table was college age, sporting several small earrings and a tiny, silver stud right below her right nostril. She had a blouse on underneath her swaddling gypsy outfit, and grey sneakers poked out from beneath. A backpack peeked out from behind a sandwich board announcing: PALM READINGS, FORTUNES TOLD, TAROT READ.

“Bosslady said you’d be here,” the woman said as Vex sat down. She moved the Tarot cards and crystal ball to the side of the table and, gazing at the shoebox, made a come-hither gesture with her hands. “I’m Regan, by the way. Miss Talia asked me to deal with you while she’s out. People call me Madame Raven when I’m working, but I think we can skip that.”

Patrick set down a chair, head lowered, and mouthed the word, “Bosslady?” Vex tried her best not to smile.

“Is this the violin?” she asked. Vex nodded. “Lay it on me.”

She lifted the lid off of the shoebox and slid it towards Regan, who peered inside.

“Oh, how tragic!” she exclaimed, plunging her hands into the box and withdrawing the shattered remains. “Someone did a real number on this number… Was it you?” She fixed a glare of sharp disapproval on Vex for a moment, but the expression melted a moment later. “Of course it was. I can tell you don’t have an appreciation for fine music, you don’t have a musician’s hands.”

“Now wait a second.” Vex’s voice hardened and she lowered it into a resonant growl. “If I wanted abuse, I would have gone to a pawnshop. What are you, an orchestra snob?”

“Tsk, tsk, Miss Talia said you had a temper.” Regan rolled her eyes and flipped a lock of hair away from her face.

Vex leaned onto the table, summoning up the darkest glower she could. “Here’s how it is. I’m in a good mood. I have an absolutely gorgeous guy I woke up with and I got out of bed feeling like I could take on the world. So Miss Talia warned you that I get angry—did she tell you what I do to people who piss me off?”

“Sorry…” Regan didn’t flinch, but Vex could see that her pulse had kicked up a few notches, drumming out a rapid beat in the hollow of her throat. “I just—mmf—cannot stand people who mistreat works of art. This is a very expensive instrument. Someone loved and cherished this and now it’s broken beyond repair.” She frowned over it pensively.

The bleak ruin rested on the table, maneuvered into a shape that resembled its once majestic curvature; snapped strings and splinters cast odd shadows against the cloth as Regan ran her fingers over the wood with a melancholy slowness. She traced the different bends, paused at the nape of the fractured neck, and finally she lifted a bit of the torn soundboard to gaze at it thoughtfully. Eventually she set it down, trading that piece for the bow.

“The last person who played this…probably didn’t know what they were doing,” she said after a long moment. “I’m surprised that it made any sound. There’s no rosin on this bow.”

Regan set a thick wooden box on the table. In the dim light the tops of envelopes could be made out, they had been stuffed tightly in from front to back. “This is a Dvorak violin,” she said. “A Czech maker, easily six-k at auction. And well taken care of—until the accident.” She hissed the last word with a malicious underscore, but did not look up to see if Vex reacted. “The person who last had it has left an imprint, I think. Miss Talia would say it ‘resonates with their energy.’” She picked through the envelopes, judging and dismissing them as she went. “If you were to go looking for this person you could probably use that to find them. Like a compass, I figure.”

A few more minutes of idle speculation and angry words, she finally pulled out a battered looking envelope. Written across the surface in a fluid, lithe script was the word: “Czech.”

“There,” she said. “This is for you. Miss Talia prepared it for your arrival. This should tell you where to go.” She gingerly laid the corpse of the violin back into the shoebox with grave respect, closed the box, and presented the box—letter on top—to Vex. “If you happen to catch the person who caused you to wreck this beautiful piece of art, please give them my regards. And don’t be kind.”

“Don’t worry,” Vex said, taking the box. “I won’t be.”

“There you go,” Regan said. Flashing them a grin, she made dismissing motions with her hands, as if sweeping them out of their seats. “That’s that! You can go now. I have customers.”

Vex handed the box and envelope to Patrick, who tucked them under his arm, and she thanked Regan with a ten dollar bill. The girl beamed at the money, quickly tucking it out of sight with a gracious nod.

As they walked away, Patrick offered the sealed envelope to Vex, keeping the box. She opened the tiny envelope and teased out the paper inside. She unfolded it and read:

There is a little voice that you’ve been ignoring. Open your ears. Listen.

Vex clenched her teeth and fought down the sudden urge to punch someone. Regan, in a seeming rare case of wisdom, had abandoned her table post-haste. Even her backpack was gone.

“Fuck!” The paper crumpled in Vex’s hand and she trembled, trying to suppress the sudden rage. The last thing she wanted to do was deal with something like this. She spent too much of her time avoiding and controlling that voice.

The note might as well have said: Mind your mother.

“I take it the note wasn’t what you wanted?” Patrick asked.

Vex sighed. He was beautiful. Beautiful and didn’t need to be bothered with something like this.

“In so many words,” she said. Her head rested on his chest for a moment. There, embraced by the smell of his body mingling with that of his leather jacket, she found it possible to release her white-knuckle grip on the crumpled note. It fell to the ground. She slid her hands around his back and held him tightly against her.

Probably uncertain of what to say, he did the next best thing—saying nothing, he pulled his arms around her. No mean feat while he still held the shoebox.

“Honey,” she said, smiling into his chest. “My innocent little hands are going to get that printout from your pocket in a moment. I have a feeling I’ll do better to go deal with Brent rather than think about the note.”

He didn’t move, just chuckled. “Take your time. It’ll be there for you.”

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