Vex stirred at her hot cocoa. She had bought it two minutes
earlier, but suddenly she really didn’t want to drink it. The swirls of
white and brown bubbles on the surface were entertaining enough for the moment.
All of the scents of the night, fresh wind, exhaust fumes, mixed with the cocoa’s
aroma as she observed. Nathan and Megan sat around the table with her, nursing
their own drinks. The sun was in the process of setting. Dimming light mixed
with the Mill streetlights, creating an interplay of red flickers and blurry
shadows; cars on the street became less distinct, even passing people seemed to
lose their substance. Mill became a parade of hollow silhouettes in the
The amp, speakers, wires, and mixer had all been removed
by the Coffee Plantation staff, and were once again replaced with the ugly dark
green wire mesh chairs and tables. Despite the earlier disruption, people
arrived and filled the tables; oblivious to whatever shadow play of paranormal
arts had taken place a mere hour before.
The voices whispered cloying phrases in the back of her
head—they were always stronger when in the presence of powerful
magicks—Vex pushed them to the back of her mind and sealed them away.
Like a girl locking away memories she would like to forget in a chest in the
attic, knowing that one day she might come back to torment herself with them
Megan chatted with Nathan while Vex stared into nothing.
She ignored their voices more readily than she ignored the others. After a
series of long pauses in their conversation, Megan shifted in her seat and
rose, picking up her cat-shaped backpack.
“How long are you two going to be here?” she
asked, pawing at her bracelets and adjusting her gauntlet and claw rings. Vex
hadn’t noticed the claw rings earlier in the day. One of them was a
silver draconic talon; it extended past the tip of Megan’s finger and
covered both of her knuckles. Vex made a mental note to ask where she had
gotten that one.
“I’m hoping that there’s some sort of
residue left over after what happened to that girl,” Vex said.
“Maybe I can pick up on something by being here. I think it’ll be a
few hours at least. I have nowhere to go.”
Nathan just shrugged. “It was a pleasure talking to
you, Megan,” he said. “I don’t know that I’ll stay hours
but I’ll certainly be here for a bit.”
“Have a good night both of you,” Megan said.
“It was good meeting you, Vex, and you too, Nathan. Take good
Moments later Megan became another shadow in the gloaming
procession that was Mill. Cars now had their headlights on, bearing bright
gleaming facets of light from the various metal surfaces on the edges of
buildings. One car drove past with neon blue lights underneath, giving it
ghostly, glowing wings of azure light along the ground. A few minutes later
another car drove past trailing its trunk and back bumper, they scraped and
screeched as it drove past, spraying light like Forth of July sparklers.
Mill on a Friday night was a menagerie of sights and
sounds. Gaggles of college students mixed with teenyboppers from Scottsdale,
giggling herds of lollygagging teens, indolent trios of lotus-eater
thirty-somethings out for a night of drinking and cavorting, and stiff-jawed
aging couples who had known Mill when most of the buildings were red brick.
Vex wondered about how much the place had changed in her
own time. Especially now that a P.F. Chang’s stood where a lush and
grassy hill, perfect for sitting on and reading during the breezy summer
evenings, once existed. “First there was a hill, and then there was a pit
of mud, eventually from the mud grew spars of iron and concrete, and now we
have a Chinese bistro.”
The old landscape of the city had transmogrified from open
spaces to storefronts and glass windows. Benches and chairs had vanished,
replaced by ornamental trees with metal grates around their roots. A
construction known as the Brick Yard had been created on the corner of
University and Mill, not too far away from the Coffee Plantation, Borders had
moved into its bowels. In her heart, Vex couldn’t fault the bookstore
because she liked to spend time poring over books, but she preferred the
Changing Hands Bookstore—and that had given up its ghost and moved away
from Mill when things started to change. She found that aside from Borders, the
Brick Yard was largely disused: the shops were either boring and valueless or
hidden from view.
Vex shook her head and went to sip her hot chocolate. She
grimaced upon discovering that she had waited too long and it had gone cold.
“What are you thinking about?” asked Nathan.
“I’m thinking about how much of the world has
gone by while I wasn’t looking,” she said. “I drive my cab
through all of this every day, but I don’t often get a chance to sit
around, sip hot cocoa, and just feel the world pass by. Mill has been here as
long as I can remember, sometimes I feel like it’s going to be here
Presently, a shadow wearing a ragged biker jacket resolved
itself from the crowded street. “So, what does a guy have to do to get a
pint around here?”
“Patrick,” Vex said, cooing his name despite
her best efforts otherwise. She stood up and hugged him tightly, wrapping her
hands together in a rough squeeze—rough enough to squeeze a startled
sound from him. He was taller than her by more than a head, the hug buried her
nose near his lapel, and the smell of his leather jacket was enticing. She kept
the embrace brief and stepped back, casting him a narrow look. “I’m
fit to smack you, where have you been? We were supposed to meet before
seven,” she put her hands on her hips in her best mock-chastisement, “or
did you forget?”
“Don’t go nuts on me now,” Patrick said.
“I was detained.”
“By the police.” Vex raised an eyebrow at that
and he held up his hands. “Room right next to mine, a girl and a boy were
murdered. And I don’t mean your run of the mills, garden variety murder.
I mean Jesus-fuck-psycho shit—”
Nathan instantly chimed in, “Please don’t take
the Lord’s name in vain.”
Patrick looked at Nathan like he hadn’t even noticed
he was there until he’d spoken. Patrick’s voice hardened.
“Who the hell are you?”
Vex immediately moved between Nathan and Patrick.
“He’s a friend of mine. Both of you: chill. Patrick is usually less
foul mouthed than I am, actually… Nathan? You don’t have to
Nathan had stood up and was brushing dust from his coat.
“It’s alright. I was already getting ready to do something else. I
can see that you two have some catching up to do. I should leave you to
“Man, I’m sorry,” Patrick said. “I
don’t mean to offend you, but today has been really creepy.”
“I understand,” Nathan replied and held out
his hand. Patrick shook it. “It was nice meeting you, Patrick. My name is
Nathan. I really must go. Good evening, Pagan.”
“See you, ‘round, Christian.” Vex nodded
and watched him go. “You really do look bothered—distressed is the
word you’d use for it, I think. Take a seat.”
Patrick sat down heavily and sighed. She could see dark
rings under his eyes, the muscles in his neck were tense, and the daring
twinkle was gone from his eyes. She hadn’t noticed these things when had
first arrived, she was too busy being happy that he had arrived at
all—not that he was known for being unreliable by any measure. Sitting in
his chair, Patrick looked like he needed to relieve some stress.
“So, if you really want that pint, we could go
somewhere that sells alcohol,” Vex said. “You look like a man who
could use a drink.”
“Distressed is right,” Patrick huffed.
“And, no, that’s alright. I think the drink can wait. I should have
just gone back to my room to sleep, but I don’t want to. Not after last
“The police were a bit sketchy on the
details,” he said, “but the girl and her boyfriend who were in the
room right next to mine were butchered. From what I hear tell—and I
didn’t want to hear tell—there was blood everywhere. Slasher
type shit. Jesus, and I didn’t even wake up. I slept through it. Whatever
it was. Ten feet away and I didn’t notice.”
Vex chewed on her lip. She was never good at consoling
people. Normally she didn’t want to console people: other
people’s emotions were theirs and she didn’t care much. She wanted
to offer to let Patrick stay at her place; she knew he wouldn’t take it
the wrong way. Though, for a moment she wanted him to take it the wrong
way—she caught herself wondering if she could somehow take advantage of
this situation. Cool blue eyes and the smell of leather…
No, she chastised herself. Patrick was too much of the
down-to-earth blue collar sort for her anyway. He would get freaked out really
quickly if he actually knew the full extent of her mystical activities, he was
a good friend. It had to stay that way for now.
Temptation and charity aside, Vex knew the dread
experience of sleeping at a murder scene.
Finally, she came to a decision.
“You’re staying at my place tonight, and
I’m not taking no for an answer.”
He laughed after a moment. “No.”
“What did I just say?”
“I can find a hotel room tonight. I’ll stay
there.” Patrick said. “It’s alright. You don’t need to
put me up.”
“For once will you shut up and let me do something
for you?” Vex scolded. “Ever since we met you’ve been
doing things for me and you don’t ask anything in return. Well,
that’s gracious and all that rot, but really, get over it.”
“You’re sleeping at my place tonight and
A pregnant silence passed and he looked away, when he
looked back the light had returned to his eyes. “As you wish.”
“Let’s go get that pint, shall we?” Vex
Elsewhere the Tarot card reading that began earlier that day
continued to read itself out:
The Eight of Swords—crisis and enforced
isolation, illness and oppression, major difficulties and adverse circumstances
dictated by fate.
Three candles burned in a fitful circle on a concrete slab
intended to be a stage in the center of the West Hall courtyard on ASU Campus.
Three ASU students, practicing the Wiccan craft, held their hands up, each
fingertip barely touching the others. Shadows scuttled against the walls and
windows, cast from the climbing vegetation and trees grown along the edges of
the courtyard. Only the meager illumination from windows gazing into the square
gave any indication of its size.
A wind swirling through the dark boughs of the trees,
rattled their leaves, and sang along in a hollow serenade with their chant.
As their chant subsided, so did the wind, but still the
candles guttered. Quiet descended all around them as it seemed even the stars
held its collective breaths.
Each girl heard a quiet melody played on a violin. The
three looked around, uncertain, attempting to find the source of the music.
Only echoes greeted them as they exchanged perplexed glances.
The indistinct specter of a young woman, holding a violin,
playing it intently stood between the candles. The sound of the violin music
whispered to the girls as they moved away from the candles and clustered to
each other. The ethereal vision maintained a very lifelike quality. They could
make out the blue of her eyes, the floating tendrils of loose hairs from the
long braid that hung over her chest, and even the reflection of a rapt phantom
audience in the polish of the instrument. As they watched, the young woman
paused in her playing, a look of consternation crossed her expression, and she
In the moment her eyes met theirs she seemed to dissolve,
and vanished like a popped bubble.
The girls fled that place then. Leaving behind their candles,
the goblet of grape juice, the veil of gauze, and the letter opener they had
used for the ceremony. In the grass where they stood they also forgot their
book on Modern Witchcraft. It would be some time before any of them returned.
That night, huddled together in a room in Manzanita Dormitory, they swore to
each other never to toy with magic again.
While others reveled in the pubs on Mill Avenue, drank deeply of
booze and sweet spirits, and sang off key karaoke, the diligent police officers
who mounted themselves on bikes maintained their patrols. Amidst the night,
they whisked on their mounts of steel and vulcanized rubber past street
vendors, past revelers—through darkened alleyway and poorly lit college
walkway they sped.
Ever vigilant against wrongdoing but not so vigilant that
peril could not creep past them unchecked.
Three of Swords, reversed—war, breaking of a
truce, quarrels and enmity.
Tiffany smiled when she saw the bike cop slide past her
through the murk. It was good to know that they were out here. She didn’t
have a good feeling about going out by herself in the dark. She knew that ASU
had an escort program for young women, who had to walk home in the evening
hours after classes, but she had never called them before; she felt no need to
call on them now.
She had a can of pepper spray in her purse anyway and the
nice man at the self defense store who had sold it to her taught her how to use
it. Keep a firm grip, level hand, aim for the eyes, and squeeze. Just as
effective as a Taser, he explained. Tiffany couldn’t help but wrap her
hands tighter around the ergonomic pommel of the spray can in that moment, the
molding was ridged as to fit nicely into her small hand.
The sound and light of foot traffic from the Computing
Commons faded behind her and she could see the lights of busier streets up
ahead. The smell of dusty gravel and wet grass wafted around her, made sticky
in the hot, humid air. Palo verde trees with their scratchy limbs rose up in
lines and rows, tiny leaves shivering in an unfelt wind. Low bushes and other
desert vegetation formed black pedestals around the trees and buildings.
Tiffany turned a corner under a dim streetlight. Somewhere
a light went out.
Footsteps scraped in the gravel nearby.
“Hello?” Tiffany called. Several of the
buildings were lit, there was more than enough light to see by; the parking
structure wasn’t that far away—only a few more feet. All she had to
do was cross the road. She glanced around with a frown: her mind was playing
tricks on her.
Trying to remember the tips she had been given, Tiffany
changed the direction she was walking. She went directly for the road. There
was more light there, and a greater chance of people watching. A passing car,
someone else going to their own car in the structure, anything would be better
than being caught alone.
The staccato blue-violet light atop a police telephone
greeted her after she crossed the road. Tiffany moved toward it.
As she rounded the corner into the crisp light cast from
the brighter garage lights, she felt relief wash over her. The car was only on
the other side of a column just within sight. She relaxed her grip on the
pepper spray can—
—and that’s when it struck.
Suddenly: Arms. Tiffany couldn’t see what was
happening but she knew she was in trouble. Why would hands be reaching for her
otherwise? Someone shouted and grabbed at her. Tiffany reacted with all of her
pent up fear and paranoia charging her muscles with strength. And she shrieked.
Tiffany would have rather not screamed—it
didn’t seem very brave to scream. Yet, she was screaming.
She swung her purse and struck her assailant in the face.
He staggered back a few steps and lifted his hands to shield himself, and then
lurched toward her again, groping and flailing blindly. The pepper spray in
hand, Tiffany gripped it firmly, leveled her hand, aimed it directly at the
man’s eyes, and pulled the trigger.
FOOOOOOOOOSH! A white blast exhaled violently from
the nozzle of the spray can like a fire extinguisher. The hiss of the spray was
quickly overwhelmed by an inhuman howl of agony. The man—Tiffany could
clearly see that he was a man now—clutched his face and fell onto the
ground wailing. He curled into a fetal position and bawled.
“You bitch! Why did you do that? God! It hurts!”
Now that she had better control of her breathing, Tiffany
could see more details about him. He was wearing a uniform. A name-tag
glistened on his shirt. Further details resolved as she looked around. Nearby
there was a door: Employee Restroom.
Better recollection of what happened struck and Tiffany
realized that he wasn’t attacking her; he had tripped after coming out of
Unable to handle what she had just done, Tiffany squeaked
and ran. A shower of blind abuse and cries of pain followed her as she ran to
her car. Tears were streaming down her face. She couldn’t tell if that
was from the fright, what she had done, or if some of the stinging cloud of
mist had gotten in her eyes.
She fumbled with the keys, her fingers shaking as she tried to
nudge the proper one into the door. The key slid in and the lock popped.
Tiffany reached for the door handle when a reflection in the window stopped
her. The ghost pale image of a girl with curly reddish hair slick against her
forehead stared back at her with shaded eyes.
Startled, Tiffany turned to look and she saw a young
woman, completely naked, standing right next to her.
She opened her mouth to speak when something struck her
upside the head. She spun and slammed face first into the car’s window.
As she slid down the side of the car she thought about her self-defense
seminars and how they had never brought up this particular situation. Her
vision faded to grey and another blow struck her neck. A splintering sound
resounded with the dissonant twangs of breaking steel strands.
How strange, was Tiffany’s last thought, someone
is beating me with a harp.
Her broken and naked body would be found the following
morning by a professor from the College of Education out for her morning jog.
The police would puzzle over the strange bruises and ligature markings around
her neck and shoulder blades, but they would not have any difficulty
identifying the wood fragments and splinters in her flesh as those belonging to
an expensive violin.