Chapter XIII: Chance Encounters
Chapter XIV: Street Preachers
Chapter XV: The Drum Circle


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Some days in Arizona could be compared to different types of ovens, or the less used term: ranges. Over time, ovens evolved from mud and brick constructions, into free-standing pot bellied stoves, and eventually into gas and electric ranges. Saturday felt like it wanted to hark all the way back to the most blistering of all ovens: the coke oven. Under a cloudless blue sky and the relentless supervision of the noonday sun, Saturday baked.

Mêlée found it difficult to rouse herself from her sleeping spot after the terrible midday heat had finally passed. Even squirreled away deep into a crevasse formed by two weighty slabs of concrete, beneath the lee-side of a parking garage, she could sense the insatiable heat of the day outside. Many of the street rats had become abruptly nocturnal in the sudden rising temperatures and even in the deepening shadows, sleep blinked heavily in her eyes.

The asphalt outside her shaded cubby smelled liked smoldering charcoal.

As the sun fell cars slid lazily past and the city of Tempe began to stir. The crowds slowly began to return to the street, still lingering in the shade, sipping juices and iced coffee. Mêlée slid through their conversations like smoke, they barely noticed her passing. She mused about the swarms of out-of-towners who hit the Ave on nights like this: with the day so hot to keep all but the most veteran natives indoors it squeezed them out into the night like a foot stepping on a discarded roll of toothpaste. Her tiny form darted between them without obstruction, a frictionless person.

The scent of cooking food mingled with a breeze off the Tempe Town Lake causing her stomach to rumble most embarrassingly. As 5th Street approached the crowds thickened; she could barely see the stoplight above the heads of the college-age gawklers milling about in front of her.

As quickly as she could, she found her way off the Ave proper and into the better seclusion of one of the side roads. It would extend her trip to Coffee Plantation some, but it would be worth it. Dodging and weaving between tourists and teenyboppers would become tiring and what she really wanted right now was something cold and milk-like to sip.

She made her way around the buildings, pussyfooting between them on silent feet brought from years of learning to walk across hot ground without shoes. Although, today she had shoes—their soles nearly gone and over worn from whoever had previously owned them—her feet and legs still remembered and recreated those reflexes.

Still a street away from the coffee house, Mêlée came to a stop. A chalked line stood out from the red and tan brick of a nearby wall. She had seen the symbol before, its shocked lines both weaving and jolting like a crisscrossing lightning bolt, with stubby lines sketched out of one end and a round dot on the other. The last one, scrawled badly near her sleeping place, had been quite primitive; made of thick lines like a hastily drawn image, done while pressing too hard on the chalk. This one seemed more elegant, the hand that created it did so with careful precision and not with chalk; this image had been chipped out of the bricks with a stone, like an urban petroglyph.

Mêlée’s metal whiskers twitched as she slid closer and reached a hand out to touch the discolored bricks. When her fingertips encountered the chipped wall a shock went through her arm; she jerked back sharply and put her fingers in her mouth.

“Yow,” she breathed. Her fingers tingled, as if stung. She pulled them out of her mouth and examined them in the fading light. There was no redness or stone splinter on her fingers.

Glancing back at the scrawl, she noticed that it had changed subtly. The figure, if it could be called that, had extended—lengthened. The lightening-bolt had gained a very small segment near the top and tilted just slightly to the right. Puzzled, Mêlée cocked her head to the side and frowned. It could have been a trick of the shadows that she had not noticed that; the sweeping shade of a tree bristling in the non-wind had crept up over the bottom half of the picture while she had been examining it.

The sun was setting in earnest now.

Angry, Mêlée hackled her shoulders and hissed.

A rock lay nearby, very likely the one used to scrape it into the wall. She snatched it up and applied it vigorously like a child brushing her teeth. The rock bit deeply into the wall and obliterated the scraping as she did so.

“Hey! Stop that!”

Rock in hand, she looked up. The voice belonged to a man wearing a purple Proguard uniform. She had never seen him before, and she thought she’d learned the faces of all the guards. Ordinarily she could have simply waited and tried to explain, but something in his voice resonated within her. Something simply felt wrong about the way he moved. And he certainly was moving—walking towards her, with menace in his eyes. Something that looked like blood dripped in small trickles down his arm and across the back of his hand. It was hard to tell, the daylight was dimming.

Mêlée dropped the rock and bolted.

“Yeah, run!” he shouted after her, his voice sounded hollow and rasped as he yelled, it trailed off into a rattle like dried juniper seeds. “If I see you around here again I’ll trespass your ass.”

A safe distance away, and with no obvious signs of pursuit, Mêlée circled back. She squeezed between buildings and shimmied back to near where she had been before. From the safety of the deep shadows and the narrow space, she peered at the man wearing the uniform.

He had picked up the rock and was chipping out another, crudely made, variation of the lightning bolt image.

“That’s really messed up,” Mêlée said to herself as she shimmied back out.

Maybe going to Coffee Plantation wasn’t such a good idea after all. She decided that today she could have to try out Starbucks instead. Chances are their milk isn’t that different anyway, she thought to herself.

Vex always found something significant about the smell of old books. The fragrance of condensed words brewed over time and stirred very slowly by the bodies and hands of passing browsers. Shelves of old subjects, depths waited to be plumbed by the eagerly curious and fanatically intense alike. The bookstore, Those Were the Days, right off Mill Avenue plunged her into the very heart of that sensation every time she walked through their doors.

The store had been a haunt of hers since the first day she’d set foot on Mill Avenue as a much younger girl, right out of high school. It was one of the first places she’d found could actually cater to her bibliophile needs for out-of-print and strange books that few other places in all of Phoenix could contend—and it was literally right on her doorstep.

She thumbed thoughtfully through a book describing the old architecture and buildings of Tempe; it included a long section about early Arizona State University, and even described—much to Vex’s amusement—the very building that the store was set in. Which was only a few years away from declaring its 100th birthday.

A lot like the books in the bookstore, Mill seemed to be a shelf that carried old and wise shops right next to the plastic and glass exteriors of young and flashy storefronts.

“Hey look,” a girl’s voice piped up nearby. “This one says that it has love spells. Ten Magical Missives That Can Change Your Life.”

Her companion replied. “Yeah, get that one, we can try it. I saw another book like that at Borders. It reads like a diary.”

Vex rolled her eyes at the giggling that ensued and did not turn to look as the two girls, still chattering, walked behind her towards the store’s exit. Fortunately, none of the “magic” sold in modern books would yield anything of any real consequence for the uninitiated, except maybe rashes from badly chosen concoctions. These girls probably wouldn’t face anything worse than burning their dorm rooms down with forgotten candles if they tried what was in that book.

While scanning a few lines from the page about the placement of some old Hohokam ruins around the Phoenix and Tempe area, a whisper seemed to rise up from the words on the page and surround her with the gusting sounds of a breathy conversation. Even with the warding magic of the makeup to protect her from the voices, sometimes old places buoyed them up to just below the threshold of her hearing despite. Though, something about the wraithlike dialogue caught her attention and she let her attention drift from the book.

The whispers simmered just out of earshot in the way that the voices of a cocktail party next door did in the late evenings. It felt like listening to twenty conversations at once, broken by the staccato twinkle of wine glasses clinking together, a rising and falling, undulating tide of truth and gossip so well mixed as to become inseparable. But there, even through the haze of the other voices, one vocalist struck out—akin to a choir where all the altos were singing flat, but one.

Once she had closed and returned the book to the shelf, Vex moved with the opiate grace of a person sleepwalking as she strode, almost on tiptoes, towards the source of that one whisper. It grew louder as she ascended the stairs that flanked the opposite wall of the store, and beckoned her to rise still further.

Her early experiences with the voices ran a lot like this. The strange surrender to intuition that lent knowledge into the ways that things worked, beneath the surface of their sounds—in those cocktail conversations and wineglass twinkles—a vast ocean of working knowledge waited, but so did she. But this time, Vex could tell that it wasn’t her mother’s voice guiding her, but something deeper, something perhaps connected to the building—or a book.

Vex found herself looking up at the spine of a fabric bound volume. She reached for it.

Starling, you mustn’t look for them.

Eyes narrowing, a frown creased her lips. She could feel eyes on her, and for a moment Vex could see the stormy sea-foam grey-green of her mother’s eyes gazing from across the cocktail party of conversations. She reached for the only weapon that worked against the intrusion of this voice: anger.

“Don’t you fucking call me that,” she growled under her breath. Only her mother called her “Starling,” not even her father used that nickname. “My little starling,” her mother would say. “My dark songbird.” Admonishing this phantom whisper wouldn’t stop the transgression, but at least it made her feel better.

They are not yours to find, the voice continued. We cannot go with you should you walk after them. Always by your side. At your beck and call. If you want power, we will give you power. If you want knowledge, we will give you knowledge.

The softer voices faded, the cocktail party dwindled away, leaving only a ringing hollow black, filled only with her mother’s voice. Bracing and all too real.

I say this because I love you—and you are not ready to face what you will find there.

“Then make me ready,” Vex spat. “I’m going with or without you.”

That seemed to get them, the voice did not reply. She waited a long moment, giving her time to collect her thoughts. In spite of how useful the voices could be, with their visions and information, it always carried a price if she was noticed. Her early interactions had seemed far less sinister, but then, she mused, she had also been extremely naïve then.

She slid the worn book out of the shelf; it was reddish and bound with white thread. The cover was unadorned except for the title and author on the spine: The Wisdom of the Red HillsThe Collected Notes of Fr. Eusebio Kühne, by Thomas Coloradas.

Book tucked into the crook of her elbow, she turned, and saw her.

Eyes wide, Vex froze. It was her mother. Gwendolyn Vice Harrow, standing motionless, cast in the yellow light of the bookstore's lamps. The fragrance of jasmine that always accompanied her hung in the air like a payer offering to the gods. An unfelt air current rustled the hem of her dress and teased at her raven tresses. Her eyes, undaunted and caring, gazed directly at her daughter.

Vex’s head swam. Her veteran instincts responded but she held them carefully in check. The floor shook with slight tremors and the books in the shelves rattled.

Her mother raised a light-haloed hand and Vex could see that she had little more substance than a mirror projection on scrim. The apparition spoke.

“Do you remember when you were ten,” she said, “and we visited the ruins in North Phoenix? You chased lizards and marveled at the ancient artists who had drawn spirals and pictures on the tumbled stones. For weeks afterwards you used your crayons and ingenuity to create reproductions of those stones and placed them all around the house. I was so proud.”

Vex bit her tongue and glared.

“Go there. Visit those stones again. Recall your crayons and the lizards, and everything that I have taught you. Among those stones, lives an ancient memory, as old as the land itself, it recollects a time a lot like now.

“It knows where the children have gone and why you cannot follow them. It will tell you why you are not ready and you will understand.”

Her mother let her hand drop and gave Vex such a look of deep consideration that for a moment, she almost forgot that her mother was dead. And this apparition had been doppelganging her voice for years. Every photograph of her mother had been carefully squirreled away in a box, shoved behind a pile of coats, and left there. Seeing her again, even now in this ethereal form, threatened to open the sluice gates holding back far-distant memories and emotions pent up from years of keeping the phantom of her mother at bay.

Stiff backed, Vex walked through the ghost figure and did not pause for the top of the stairs. She shambled down them with such a clatter that everyone downstairs turned to look at her. She ignored them and made a beeline for the checkout desk.

Passersby outside Those Where the Days stopped short of their walks and cradled their expensive coffee as a woman clothed in black and wreathed in barely restrained fury bustled past them in a huff. The ever present chatter on the street subsided when she stomped by.

After her passing, conversation was slow to return, but return it did—as the crowds had only just begun to fill the Ave.

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