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Chapter IV: The Calm Before
Chapter V: The Wanton Wand
Chapter VI: The Hanged Man

 
 
 




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The sun rose on Tempe and the fountain behind Coffee Plantation. Though of late it had been empty of water, today the mist machine billowed fog and water gushed down its ledges. A few stragglers here and there mingled among the chairs, a pair of street rats sat quietly in the sunlight at the front of going-out-of-business Duck Soup and bantered between themselves. Flat, bronze figurines of the Native American figure Kokopelli still lined the windows of the store, glinting in the sunbeams beneath the “CLOSING SALE” banners. The copper-colored hunchbacked dancers continued to play their flutes unabashed by the doom that had come to the shop that sold them.

Mêlée purred softly under her breath and greeted the pair of indigents lurking in front of the store, both with closely held hugs. She made her usual rounds, greeting the gathered celebrities of the streets: Doc, Corpse, Nightshade, Maniac, Sparky, and Antoinette. Sparky nodded a ragged head with a smile from over his drums, slung over one shoulder; and a few others gave her greetings as she prowled past.

Nobody slept much last night; there was something wrong in the air.

Remy had fallen asleep, headfirst on one of the tables. Now that he was awake, Mêlée suppressed a chuckle at the crisscross pattern it had left on his forehead.

“So,” Mêlée drawled with a throaty growl, “it seems like something’s going down?”

“Yeah,” came the reply, Maniac. An empty cigarette carton cart-wheeled aimlessly through the air, its contents now spent. “Got a light?”

“Nope, sorry,” Mêlée made a show of hands and spread her threadbare jacket to show how her pockets were empty. A lighter was produced by nearby street rat and Maniac lit his last cigarette with thanks. Mêlée continued, “What’s going on?”

“I don’t know, dude,” Maniac replied, exhaling a plume of smoke. “Things are just strange.”

“Anyone know what this is?” Nightshade leaned over and thrust a notebook under Mêlée’s nose, who gently took it to examine the chicken scratches and lines. On the facing page were some scrawled quotes, but on the other, deliberately set away from the writing was a line-heavy design. The figure was jagged like a lightning bolt, with lines thrusting out of the undulating center, and terminated in a thickly scribbled black dot.

“No,” Mêlée said after a moment of gazing at it. Nightshade tilted the page to show Maniac, who shook his head. “Where is it from?”

“I’ve been seeing these scratched into the walls around where I crash.”

Mêlée shrugged and licked her lips, a motion that caused the metal whiskers in her lip to sparkle in the morning sunlight. “Graffiti maybe?”

“Things are just strange,” Maniac repeated.

Nightshade retreated with her notebook, shaking her head, and Mêlée tilted her head to look at Maniac.

“Going to be at drum circle tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” he said. “You?”

“Yeah.”

 * * *

The Hanged Man—a sacrifice.

Korey woke up in Mary Beth’s bed alone. The bedclothes smelled like sweat and lovemaking. Though entirely spent by the night before, the smell made him feel just a little bit aroused. He glanced around the dark dormitory room: there was an open closet, a window covered with a heavy blanket to keep the sun out, a dresser with a mirror above it, and a wall that divided the room in half. The other half of the room would have housed a roommate, but RAs received special treatment. Mary Beth had no roommate.

The sound of movement in the other side of the room brought him to his senses.

He rose out of the bed.

“Bethany?” he asked the quiet air. “Is that you?”

The sheets slipped from his naked body, and stuck for a moment to his legs. He tried to slap them away and discovered that they felt clammy and slick. The sheet peeled from his leg like wet clothing.

The hiss of the air conditioning became the only sound that greeted his queries. But then something shuffled again in the dark on the other side of the room. He walked the few paces over to the door. Calling her name again, there was no reply.

He reached for the light switch.

His hand touched another; the flesh was cold and clammy. He shrank back. He couldn’t see in the darkness but it seemed like another person was standing there, also reaching for the light switch. Something gurgled wetly nearby.

“Uh, Beth, honey?” he said, once again reaching for the switch and this time he turned it on.

Korey screamed out. He screamed until he could scream no more.

 * * *

Dropping the cabby off for inspection went without a hitch. After Patrick left Vex at her apartment, they parted ways so that he could get sleep. She did the same thing. She awoke sometime late afternoon, well past the hottest hours of the day according to her clock, but certainly not too late in the day to miss the festivities that were planned.

Six o’clock on a Friday. Coffee Plantation had its fill of customers inside and sitting in the tables and seats, those that still remained—the seats nearest to the coffee shop had been removed for amps, wires, and other equipment for the musicians to use when their time came to perform. The displaced peoples clustered together on the sidewalk nearby, laughed, and cajoled together. Vex only recognized a few of them: Lily, Remy, Rain, and Andrew. The group numbered over six, and they hustled and shuffled whenever the crowds walking past along the Ave pushed around and through them.

This caught none too few glances from the TEAM workers walking along Mill, wearing their white shirts and discerning gazes. Vex was never sure what to think of them, impromptu security for a public space, with radios and watchful gazes. She had seen them working the Ave for years now, she rarely spared them more than a glance; they weren’t cops so they didn’t matter. So when one of them watched her for too long for standing next to the red brick planter at the edge of 6th and Mill, her back against the green grating of the Centerpointe sign, she ignored him.

A year before there had been little green grates that served as benches attached to these planters. People could sit on them. At some point they had vanished. Vex didn’t know when, it was just like one day she had come out to Mill and suddenly there was nowhere to sit. It was dreadfully annoying. Certainly, people complained about it. Though, she quickly began to notice that the people who complained were the people who actually lived near the Ave, not the tourists, and not the students who got to go home during the summer.

Peeved at the TEAM member staring at her from his perch next to the Coffee Plantation awning and outside juice bar—a part of the coffee house that Vex had never seen used for that purpose—she stood up, brushed her trench off, and crossed the street briskly. A man standing there offered her a pamphlet; she brushed him off with a wicked smile and the gentle admonition that she’d already gotten one. She shifted to a sultry walk that accentuated her curves and the tightness of her outfit as she passed—trying her best to imitate the sashay that many girls used to walk across the dance floor at the Nile. She could tell that it worked from the tightening of his expression. People could disapprove of her as much as they wanted: they weren’t responsible for her.

She passed the alcove into the now-empty Wells Fargo branch when a voice stopped her.

“Tsk, tsk, teasing people like that, one might think you were trying to pick a fight.”

This time it was Vex’s expression that tightened.

“I don’t have to answer to you, Christian.” She did not let her recognition soften the hardness of her voice. His name was Nathan, but she called him what he was: a Christian.

He wore an oddly overformal outfit of a smart-white suit, white tie, and jacket, a glimmering symbol of his faith—a crucifix—displayed prominently on his lapel.

“Still wearing the devil’s sign, I see,” he said.

If there was anything that Vex disapproved of more than someone who dressed her down with their own ideology, she could not think of it. Her fight with Nathan was ages old, wrapped up over and over again in legends and stories never told for mortal ears, held over dinner tables, at wartime councils, and in the hearts of men. She hated him the first time they met, but that was when she was a freshman in high school—many years earlier. While her opinion hadn’t changed since, she had come to tolerate his casual jibes for what they were: attempts to categorize her into his narrow-minded view of the universe. The years of contention and rivalry had forged a strange rapport between them that few other people understood.

“While I would normally stand beside myself for a joust with you, Christian, I do not have time for this right now,” said Vex; exasperated, she picked a convenient falsehood: “I have somewhere to be.”

She made to move along beside a family with two children: a boy and a girl wearing blue and holding ice cream cones. Nathan slipped out of the alcove and paced her, brandishing a serious look.

“May I accompany?” he said with a clipped breath. “I really must have a moment of your time.”

She nearly growled at him, but bit her tongue. She knew it was no use; when Nathan sank his teeth into something, he didn’t let go easily. “Fine,” she said. “Keep up the pace.”

With her usual gait, Vex left ordinary people behind in the dust. With her long legs, and smooth stride, she could slide along easily without winding herself. A feat that few other people were easily capable of. He paced her easily, even while having to dodge around people who themselves swerved to avoid her oncoming presence. Like any good local, she made a direct route through the tourists to Mill, they were trespassers on her homeland, and she let them know that with her bearing. Unwilling to walk even slightly behind her, Nathan could not reap the benefits of the wake that her passage produced.

“I would like to, ahem, apologize for our last encounter,” he said. “I was perhaps a little abrupt.”

“Abrupt?”

Vex stopped dead in her tracks and fixed Nathan with a withering glare. The motion was so sudden and unexpected that a young woman, wearing a shirt way too tight for her bust, yelped in surprise and backpedaled into her date. Together they stumbled and nearly fell into the nearby bus stop. Vex ignored them.

“You all but called me out for a fight and called me Satan’s Mewling Whore in front of half of Mill!” The booming sound of her voice reverberated from the nearby walls and people were staring. “I know that most of our little spats are half theatrical posturing, but you really pushed it that time. ‘Satan I rebuke you and your whore.’ Oh please, Christian.”

While Nathan was not a short man, he certainly wasn’t that much taller than her; she still towered over him. When she was moving she had produced a wake, now that she stood stock still the sidewalk was empty. People nearby had stopped to stare at the exchange. If she were in any mood to see the comical nature of it all, Vex would have allowed herself a smirk at the vision of a black-clad admonishing a clean cut, young man wearing a white suit.

“I deserve that,” Nathan said. “I apologize, sincerely. I was out of line. I got caught up in the moment, and I have no excuse. Normally we have a, ahem, much clearer rapport. I feel like I tested your respect for me with that performance.”

Vex knew that he was trying to mollify her. She also knew that it was working.

“Don’t you remember? I’m a heathen; we’re not the forgiving type, that’s your shtick.” Her glower did not falter, but her resolve was fading.

“Can I buy you dinner to make up for it?” he asked.

She sighed. “Fine. But I don’t want any lectures out of you, hear?”

“Deal,” he said. “Well,”—he looked around, noticing the crowd that had gathered; people were starting to look embarrassed and turn away—“where were you headed?”

“Away from you,” she said. Seeing that her humor was lost on Nathan she continued, “No, really, that’s where I was headed. But, if you want to walk with me to Graffiti, you’re welcome to come.”

The crowd hadn’t entirely dispersed and Vex took pleasure in plowing through them.

Across 5th a man stood at the corner casually greeting passersby, offering to sell them newspapers, he had a smile and a story for everyone. Dennnis smiled when he saw her and waved a hand. His curly brown hair turned honey brown in the sunlight, and his mustache gave his round face a friendly appearance. He had been around for years, always standing on this corner, always sociable. If any person could be called a landmark: Dennnis was it for Mill Avenue.

“Hi, Dennnis,” Vex said.

“Hey there pretty lady, and gent,” he said with a grin. “I hope you’re having a good night out.”

“Good as always. And I am pleased to see you.”

He only bid a nod for her compliment, another couple was walking past and he moved on to talk to them. She smiled, and kept moving along, drawing Nathan along with her.

A short distance ahead, Megan’s sharp eyes caught the sight of Vex walking towards where she sat with her pencil and paper. She had been sketching for some time. Ever since the guy had given her that strange tarot reading and given her a card, The High Priestess, with some silver writing she couldn’t read on it. The interesting thing was, the woman on the card, and the woman walking toward her now looked very similar.

Megan closed up her sketch work, pulled the card from her pocket, rose, and walked to meet the young woman in black.

 
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