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
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
“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
“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?”
* * *
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
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
“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
* * *
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
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.”
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
“Can I buy you dinner to make up for it?” he asked.
She sighed. “Fine. But I don’t want any lectures out of
“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.