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


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As the brilliance of the sun guttered around A Mountain and receded from the tops of the buildings around Mill Avenue, Vex ventured back out onto the street once again. The crush of people and car exhaust vanished with the gentle rush of an evening breeze, clearing away the stale scents of day and replacing them with the head clearing perfume of fresh night air. The olive and brown streetlamps began to flicker dimly on as darkness descended, filtering the crowds with gentle shadows as they gathered and gabbed at street corners.

Vex found Patrick and Nathan in each others’ company—apparently having recovered from their spat from the day before. Watching them from across the street, she smiled; she had worried some that Nathan wouldn’t get along with Patrick after that, and vice versa. Nathan had never really been a one to keep grudges, but she had sensed that Patrick had a propensity for petty irritation.

They were bonding over one of Nathan’s favorite Saturday night games: heckling the street preachers.

Though he himself was Christian by admission and wore it like a badge, he didn’t find the behavior of those who proselytized on the Ave much to his liking. And even with his legendary disagreements with Vex herself on the nature of religion and faith, he often conscripted her for ad hoc performances of satire and cheerful vitriol for the benefit of the crowds gathered to listen to the preachers.

She walked into the middle of a favorite tirade of the weekly sermonizing—something about becoming liars and thieves for the most minor offenses. Today the crowd appeared larger than usual, the size quickly explained away when the speaker, standing on his stepladder with his microphone, handed out a two-dollar bill to a girl wearing a black ballcap turned backwards on her blonde head.

Nothing else could draw a crowd on Mill quite like the promise of money.

Nathan noticed Vex first, tugged Patrick’s shoulder and pointed. Both young men turned in unison and bowed elaborately.

“My lady,” Patrick said, taking her hand and kissing it above the knuckles. “It is good to see you this evening. I was just spending some time with your friend, Nathaniel.”

“Forsooth,” Nathan said, stumbling over the words. “It is fort—portentous, your arrival, into this delightful gathering.”

“Did you have a run-in with the SCA while I was away?” Vex asked.

Nathan shook his head.

Patrick grinned. “Well, no,” he said. “A few minutes back microphone guy—”

“Micah,” Nathan said.

“—was asking everyone what it makes them if they tell a lie. The answer, obvious I suppose, is ‘a liar.’ But Nathan here countered that we are also soothsayers.”

“Truthsayers,” Vex said; “a soothsayer is entirely something else.”

“Yes, that.” Patrick grinned, pleased with himself. “Well, after that got said, Nathan set off on this ‘Shakespeare In Love’ sort of talk and it actually caught on with the crowd for a while.”

“I’m glad that you two got over your differences from yesterday,” she said. “Enjoying the show?”

“Yeah, it was a thing to do before you showed up.”

“Now that you’re here,” Nathan said, “would you like to add to our merry band of hecklers? Heaven knows these guys need rousting from time to time and we haven’t been keeping up our side of the bargain lately.”

Vex held up a hand. “I don’t really want to get into it with them tonight,” she said, “and I’d rather not smear my makeup again.”

“Again?” Patrick asked, glancing between her and Nathan.

She waved her hand out, indicating the preachers and their microphone. “Last time Nathan and I got into it and the weather was like this—and I was using oil based makeup like I am today—things got a little ugly.”

Even with the cooling wind blowing down the street, the terrible temperatures of day still lingered. The evening chill only went so far to take the punch out of the smothering heat—but the warmth that remained still retained the strength to divest street goers of their jackets and outer garments, leaving a sweat-glistening menagerie of flesh for the hollow light of the streetlamps to illuminate.

Patrick unzipped his leather jacket further, silver loops dangled at the ends of a multitude of metal toothed zippers all across his chest and arms—underneath revealed a white wife beater, allowing for an ample display of his own perspiring chest and arms. As usual, he managed to be slightly out of place with his outfit, as he wore a pair of dull, slate cowboy boots. He poked his thumbs into the pockets of his black jeans and grinned at Vex.

“So, what are we up to tonight?” he asked. “What else is there to do?”

“We could introduce you to a few people. You’ve already met Nathan.” She swung her attention to the crowd and noticed a small girl standing on the brick planter near the corner bearing a look of disdain on her face. “Ah, perfect. That’s Alex.”

As Vex took Patrick by the hand and drew him out the assembled faces, the preacher standing on his step-ladder belted into another tirade:

“Lechery and debauchery have brought our very civilization low. Sex is a gift from God and should be cherished in the bond of marriage between a man and a woman. Sex outside of marriage is fornication and a sin.”

Like most of the crowd, Alex dressed light: a very short pair of cut-off jeans, trailing white threads, and a low cut blouse that accentuated her compact body and swelling breasts. A few locks of her dark hair rested lightly on her pale skin, tumbling unruly curlets across her chest that settled inches above her folded arms.

“You’ve got to be kidding!” she shouted. Several heads in the crowd turned to look her way.

“And only a woman of loose morals, a harlot, would dress in such a provocative way. You youngsters are shameless and squander God’s gift. As pornographers make coin off of it by selling photographs and films—and post it onto mile high billboards, flaunting for all to see.”

“Well, you have part of that right,” Alex shouted back. “Sex surely is a gift from God—but if you really believe that gift can be photographed, or filmed, or… How did you say? Put up on a billboard and flaunted. Then you have no clue what that gift is. Maybe you’ll understand better one day when you’re older. Meanwhile, do us all a favor: grow up or shut up!”

Applause and jeers drown out the amplified reply.

Vex reached over and tugged on a belt-loop of Alex’s tight, cutoff jean-shorts. “Hey girl,” she said.

The girl’s dark eyes flashed down and she smiled. Alex placed her hands gently on Vex’s shoulders and used her as a brace to hop down. Her head only came up to mid-chest on Vex, and not quite so far on Nathan and Patrick. Noticing them, Alex smiled flirtatiously and swung her hips.

The preacher had recovered the crowd and began yet another riveting lecture about clothing—or lack thereof—and how being an all-night partier could end a person up in Hell, or worse. The group gathered around Vex tuned him out.

“Patrick,” she said. “Meet my friend, Alex. She’s been a regular down here for longer than I have.”

“Yours?” the small girl asked, eyeing Patrick. Vex shook her head. “He should be.”

Patrick chuckled deep in his throat and extended his hand. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Alex,” he said, his voice drawling.

She ignored the extended hand and hugged him, squeezing tightly. “Don’t be shy,” she admonished and released him. “I don’t bite…much.” She winked.

He nodded.

Noticing a flicker of mischief in Alex’s eye, Vex piped up before she could take it any further: “Alex is a student at ASU. She takes dance. Quite good at it too.”

Alex curtsied. “I like to think so, myself.”

“I saw you perform at Gammage recently,” Nathan said. “A charity recital of Swan Lake. You were quite impressive.”

“Thank you. Not my ordinary venue for performance, but I get my gigs where I can. Nowadays I prefer practicing.”

“I’ve passed by the Music building quite a few times,” Patrick said. “Do you practice with a bar and a mirror like ballerinas do? Or is it on an actual stage?”

Vex snickered. “Actually, she practices dancing at a club.”

“A dance club?” Patrick asked.

“Strip, honey,” Alex said with another wink.

“I still don’t understand how you can sell yourself like that,” Nathan said. “You’re obviously a talented dancer. You could do so much better for yourself if you didn’t… Well, you catch my drift.”

Alex waved rebuking finger at Nathan with a don’t-make-me-come-over-there look. “I can shake my booty just as well on the practice floor as I could out here with my friends. But mirrors don’t enjoy the show as much as living, breathing people do,” she said. “If you catch my drift.”

Nathan sighed.

“Vex,” Alex said, “I hate to trouble you, but have you noticed any weird goings on recently? I mean aside from it being on into autumn and it’s still hotter than a tea kettle. There’s been some weird rumors going around about people just disappearing, and some of my regulars have been having these nightmares.” She shivered and hugged herself. “These past few days have been really off.”

Vex shook her head. “As much as I’d like to bear my soul on this subject, I’m taking night off of that job.” Nathan and Patrick both rolled their eyes in almost the same manner; not only had they made up from that first encounter scrap but skipped straight to catching up. Vex wondered if she would have to separate them after all.

Alex pointed a finger and winked; clucking her tongue she said, “You do that.”

“So,” Patrick said, “you do this every weekend?”

“Me?” Alex asked. “No. I dance Saturday nights, usually. But, like your girl, I needed the night off. So here I am. And, usually I wouldn’t mess with them.” She thumbed at the preachers; then gestured to the ground beneath her feet. “But this corner has been my people watching spot for years now and hell if I’ll give it up without a fight.”

“So you’re heckling them for the sport of it?”

“What sport? I’m outwitting numbskulls.”

“It’s not about the heckling,” Vex explained to Patrick. “What Nathan and I do is about performance. When someone like the guy behind us gets up on a ladder, with his big sign, and invites argument, he’s putting on a show. They’re just showmen.”

“Last year,” Nathan said, “there was a guy who would stand out front of the MU with a similar sign. He shouted until his voice went hoarse. A few days into this along came a student with fire in his eyes, a passion in his voice, and a bottle of Powerade.

“That day they started their routines at about the same time—but as the preacher’s voice faltered and failed, the guy with the Powerade went on about The Gospel of Thirst. It was an example that I took to heart. If there’s a place for satire, this is it.”

“Did the Powerade guy offer any to the preacher who was losing his voice?” asked Patrick.

“Yeah, but he wasn’t taking.”

The roar of an engine revving brought attention to the street. A sporty, red roadster with three male, and somewhat drunk, occupants nearly spilling out the doors sat at a red light. They shouted and whistled at the crowd, several choice phrases were directed at the preachers, and one hollered a cheer for ASU’s football team, “Go Devils! Woo!”

“Son, your fast car is going to drive you straight to Hell!” the man on the stepladder trumpeted in reply. The occupants of the vehicle couldn’t have heard him; they were already speeding down Mill, high on drunken jocularity, hooting and screaming gibberish into the wind.

“Points for good use of the Sun Devils’ name,” Vex said with a snicker. The stupid grin plastered on Patrick’s face teased a smile from her lips and made her heart flutter. She crooked a finger at him. “Come with me, it’s time that I introduced you to the Drum Circle.”

“As you wish,” he said, stupid grin at full intensity. “Lead the way.”

As they walked, Vex and Patrick had to step over a litter of dozens of trod upon, crumpled, and torn pamphlets—most passersby who took them from the eager hands of the men, women, and children standing around the corner tended to simply drop them where they stood. “Six in the morning on Sunday you can tell exactly where the preachers were standing by the piles of trash,” Vex said.

“That seems like kind of a waste,” he said.

She looked up at the ruff of his short brown hair; perspiration glistened on his broad brow and wet the edges of hair, curling the tips of some of the longer hairs around his ears. His blue eyes regarded her gently as she paused to smile. The look in his eyes harkened her back to the relief she felt when she found him and Nathan together. She realized that she wanted them to be friends, or at least tolerate each other. She had managed to spend a lot of time with Patrick recently—and Vex wanted more.

“What is it?” he asked, as if sensing her thoughts.

Instead of speaking her mind, she covered with a joke. “I just get this image that you should be wearing a cowboy hat. A big one. Black. Good guys wear black.”

Maybe it was too early and, unlike Friday, he wasn’t tipsy on whiskey. Having almost been killed by his last girlfriend should have meant one hell of a rebound, but Patrick managed to be a gentleman. Sane, stoic, down to Earth—Vex understood why she liked him so much: he was everything she couldn’t be.

“It’s my accent, isn’t it?”

“No. It’s the boots. I love your accent.”

Behind them, Micah, or some other street preacher, continued to rant at the dwindling crowd and unheeding passersby. One hand held a red-bound bible with gold edged pages, red and green ribbons fluttering as he gestured with upswept arms.

“We hear in the Book of Matthew:

“‘And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in many places. All these are the beginning of sorrows.’

“These are the birth pangs, the footprints of the Messiah, and as the revelation of the Kingdom of Heaven nears they come closer and closer together. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wars –

“Just today the very ground opened up, ladies and gentlemen. It opened up just north of Phoenix and consumed two Greyhound buses. A sinkhole opened up under Interstate 17—out of eighty-three passengers only twenty-three lived. Sixty people were swallowed by the very earth never to be rescued! And surely the wrath of the Living God will swallow you if you do not leave behind your unclean lifestyles.

“Whatever you do: do not get caught flat-footed. Repent today. Give yourself to God. For in His coming no flesh will be spared.”

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