VOLUME INDEX



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

 
 
 




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The noise of the street and the shouting of the preachers faded behind them as Vex and Patrick entered another world.

Between the State Theater’s marquee gleaming with soft magenta light and black-lettered show titles and the Bamboo Club, with its patrons toking at hookahs under green umbrellas, the sidewalk split away from Mill Avenue and curved out of the light. There, at the threshold, the red bricks of the Ave gave way to muted grey hodgepodge of cement squares. The sound of rushing water emanated from a fountain made of flat rocks and bronze cubes and the dusky scent of burning sage enveloped Vex as she inhaled it deeply.

Walking between the buildings felt like stepping through a doorway. As the cloud of sage enveloped them, the sound of gentle, rolling drumming and scuffling feet swallowed the outside world. Patrick stopped short, trying to take in the view and brushed against her. So absorbed in drinking in the vision of the drummers and audience taking their enjoyment from the night he didn’t seem to take notice when she leaned against him and gazed at the Drum Circle as well.

A group had already assembled around the circular dais between the buildings. There, just beyond the ephemeral light of Mill, a patchwork of blankets spread across the cement, couples and groups sat on the glass and cement rise, and conversation clustered, whispering at the feet of the tall bronze statue there. Vex had always wondered at the bizarre sculpture. Originally it seemed that the round pedestal and the leggy bronze-metal silhouette had been erected simply to disrupt the drum circle. However, being a living thing—whereas the statue was not—the Mill Avenue Drum Circle adapted, the people made use of the new amphitheater created by the tiered base for seats, and the drumming still continued.

A close look at the strange, rust colored cement and glass pedestal of the statue revealed an interesting texture: the glass fragments across the surface all held periodical and newspaper print, like the random musings of a city trapped forever in amber. Only a few had enough text to make any sense, but nobody ever really read them and the few that did only wondered at the weird message in the art. Most ignored that and simply sat on it.

Once, she read the plaque dedicating the statue to some bygone agent of the city. “Standing Above the Crowd,” entitled the strange visage of the stilt-standing sculpture. She couldn't bring herself to remember the name etched on it. Whoever it was had stood so far above the crowd that his name, much like his intentions, had obviously been lost in the clouds—invisible to the common people, who now huddled around his memorial’s feet, equally oblivious.

The drummers and dancers were a ragged but picturesque bunch, ranging from young street rats with shining faces to older, bearded and wrinkled complexions surmounted by red cheeks and vivacious grins. An equal number wore all black outfits sporting silver chains, patches, and pale faces as did gypsy garish schemes of colors and stained glass ensembles that jingled as they twirled. Bare feet stamped the ground alongside heavy boots, white stockings, dingy sneakers, and the occasional high-heels. Billowing sage smoke eddied around the drummers and dancers alike, clasping about their wrists and haloing their heads in otherworldly light.

“I’d heard of it but never seen,” Patrick said.

“Then let me be the first to welcome you to the Drum Circle,” Vex said. She tugged on his sleeve. “There are a few people that I would like you to meet.”

One such person presently revealed himself as he dodged around a cluster of dark eyed, pale faced goths—several of whom glared haughtily at her, she ignored them for the dark chocolate face of the one who approached. As he walked, his black dreadlocks became apparent, a spilling mane that lashed at his shoulders with each stride like a willow tree with leaf-thick branches. Spicy cologne wafted from his skin and mingled with the sage in the air. “Vex Harrow,” he boomed and revealed a predatory crescent of brilliant white teeth.

“Patrick, I would like you to meet An—”

“Doctor Moungeaux at your service, should you be needin’ such.” A vaguely Caribbean accent edged his words with melodic baritone swoops. He pumped Patrick’s hand with an eager handshake, and when gesture was complete he gripped his hand for a moment, turning it over to examine the palm. “You’d do to have worse company, broda, you’re in for a bite o’ trouble next few days. Da lwa tell me so.”

Patrick withdrew his hand. “Is that a Jamacian accent?”

“Haitian,” Doctor Moungeaux said, touching one of the many dangling shrunken skulls that populated his ragtag outfit. It was made of strips of oily fabric of varying colors and patterns, fringing his entire body in a scarecrow ruff of rags. Here and there fetishes of feathers, bones, and skulls hung; with every motion of his hands and legs they banged together with a hollow wind chime death-rattle.

“A pleasure to meet you, I’m sure,” Patrick said.

“Andre,” Vex said, “you don’t have a drop of Haitian or Jamaican blood in you. Drop the act.”

Moungeaux lifted his chin and placed his fists on his hips. “Woman, why are you dissin’ my her-i-tage,” he said. The accent totally gone, he spoke in a deep voice but plainly American dialect. He looked at Patrick almost pleadingly, who was fighting to keep a grin off his face. “The old traditions of my people beckon me; I heard the lwa whispering my name… That’s how I roll.”

“Andre here is one of the more colorful characters you’ll meet out here,” Vex said to Patrick. “But just don’t take shit from him. It’s not how I roll.”

“Wait, I think I’m getting the hang of this. So let me guess,” Patrick said, “you practice voodoo?”

Andre/Moungeaux chuckled then, overcome with some amusement, threw his head back and roared with laughter; his mane of dreadlocks shook and tousled about his face as he lowered his head again. He clapped Patrick on his shoulder with a meaty hand. “You sound as if you don’t believe yourself, brother.” He flashed a look at Vex. “Is she getting you into trouble she shouldn’t?”

“Nothing he can’t handle,” she quipped.

“Voodoo can’t really be real, can it?” Patrick narrowed his eyes. “Cutting the heads off of chickens and throwing entrails on walls? You don’t really do that, do you?”

Andre opened his mouth to reply, Vex cleared her throat. “Not so much,” he said, “but I have used chicken blood on occasion.”

Patrick looked at Vex, she grinned.

“Any friend of this woman is a friend of mine,” Andre said. “It is good to have met you, Patrick.”

“Likewise.”

Andre nodded and walked past, away from the drums and towards Mill, behind him followed the cologne of spices and the hollow knocking of bones. Patrick watched him go with a ponderous expression.

“Next you’re going to introduce me to a Satanist,” he said.

“Sadly, no,” Vex said with a mock sigh, “the Satanist and I don’t get along. Unless you want to watch me cold-cock her, there won’t be any introductions in that direction.”

“I meant it as a joke.”

“I didn’t.”

Without another word, Vex took his hand and pulled Patrick into a whirlwind tour of the Drum Circle scene.

She introduced him first to Sparky, whose snaggletooth grin gaped and mangy hair bounced as he told stories with his drums. Antoinette and her little daughter sat and swayed to the drumming and dancing as she offered tarot card readings, which Vex declined. Nightshade and her cobwebby outfit of black silk, leather, and spider web gauze scarves that she wore like veils across her entire body—she paused for brief greetings and then fluttered past, looking more like a wisp of black than a person. Several of the drummers paused long enough to shake hands with Patrick and talk, while the dancers performed—from amateur belly dancers, wriggling sinuously in the pale white light, to kids enjoying the night, eyes closed and moving to the beat of the drums.

All around the concrete and glass plinth she led him, threading through the crowd, she was the needle and he the string. Here and there he pointed out faces that he’d seen hanging around the preachers earlier and when Vex knew them she stopped to make introductions. Most were street rats, one a chef going to ASU, a few college students mixed into the bunch, with the odd high school skater, a few goths, and none too few punks dressed in patches and safety pins.

Growing weary of the crush of people, even familiar as they were, and the heady aroma of the thick sage smoke, Vex eventually drew him away from the drum circle proper and out into the darkness that surrounded. Just beyond the light of the drum circle a rather peculiar building rose out of the ground: an upside-down pyramid.

The glass sides of the building rose up out of a one-story pit dug into the ground, and the sides loomed sheer, leaning outwards in all directions, glass windows reflected the lights from outside with sometimes visible scenes of office furniture, grayed walls, and dimly visible computer screens. The building stood almost ten floors high and capped flatly above.

“A little weird, isn’t it?” Vex said. They were standing beneath one of the steeply angled glass sides, out of sight of the street, with the sounds of the drum circle still audible, but now mixed with the sounds of desert night. “It’s the Tempe government building, from what I know. Strangest thing I’ve never seen.”

“It looks as if it might fall over.”

“Yeah, I keep thinking that too…but it’s been around as long as I can remember and it certainly hasn’t fallen over in that time.”

Patrick just nodded, lost in thought.

“You really care about those kids,” he said gesturing back towards the drum circle. “I always wondered what you did when you weren’t driving your cab or running around…doing magic stuff.”

Vex stubbed the toe of her boot against the rough walkway. “Yeah, I look out for them. We’re all pretty much in this together,” she said. “The normals—those people who walk past you on the street and don’t see you—are rather disconnected from what really goes on in the world. They don’t see any of this, and when they do they complain about it and try to stamp it out. Few of us actually have someone to look out for us. I can, so I do.”

“Reminds me of something my ROTC sergeant said back in high school.” He paused and shook his head. “Don’t look at me like that. Everyone went to Junior ROTC back where I lived—especially me. Heck, my father and my grandfather were both in the Army. Discipline ‘em young, I’d always heard, and the uniforms meant something to everyone who looked at you.

“Well, early as I can remember my dad taught me how to hold a gun and how to shoot, and before I knew it, there I was, marching with other boys from my part of town and singing songs. Being told that soldiering was a duty and that our country needed strong young men to fight for it and look after it. I didn’t do it so much because I felt like it was my duty—but because of the pride in my father’s eyes.

“That and I felt more certain about myself with the strict rules.”

“Yeah, you’ve always struck me as the Boy Scout type,” Vex said. “You’re too uptight about a lot of things… If only I could convince you to loosen up a little.”

“Loosen up?” he said. “Yeah, well, that’s part of why I left home and came out here to ASU. My dad was so furious he wouldn’t speak about my decision. Would’ve thought he was expecting to lose his little boy. Talked at me like I was ten years old again.”

“I barely remember what my father was like when I was little,” Vex said. “My mother dominates those memories. He did do one good thing for me back then: he taught me how to use my fists. Though, after he left, I used them a little bit more than I should have.”

“You told me he left when you were very young, I can barely imagine what that must be like.”

“Don’t try,” she said. “My da now and the person from my childhood are totally different people. All I remember of him from back then is the smell of cedar chips, leather gloves, and a deep voice all emerging from a large, shadowy man. I remember feeling the stubble on his face, but not his face. I try to, but all I see is the man I know today, but he’s different. I’m different. And mom’s dead.”

“I’m sorry,” Patrick said. “I’m intruding into your personal life.” He and Vex had managed to move close together, the light from nearby lanterns reflected off of the angled windows nearby and cast haphazard shadows across their features. He started to step back.

She reached out and grabbed him by the collar. “Don’t.”

He stopped and glanced down at her hand.

“Don’t what?”

“Stop pulling back,” she said. “Every time we get slightly intimate you’re always backing off, withdrawing. If you ever get too close for my comfort, I’ll push you away. I’ll let you know. If you want to be my friend you have to accept that I’ll confide in you. And you should do the same.”

“I just feel I’m being too forward bringing up issues of a personal nature.”

“Oh, I think we’re way beyond that,” she said. “Look, Patrick, I am not your ex-girlfriend. I am not going to try to knife you through the heart, I might br—” His jaw tightened from the memory, Vex froze mid-beat, and her eyes widened. She pursed her lips and released his collar. “You’re a virgin.”

What? I—”

She took a deep breath. “Dear gods, it explains everything. Why your ex tried to sacrifice you when I came to save your butt. Why I’ve been so inept at seducing you. I am so fucking stupid.”

“I…” He swallowed. “Can’t say that you were doing a bad job at it.”

Vex felt like her heart had jumped into her throat. Every single clue was already there and she had totally, blindly missed every single one: the puppy dog loyalty, the slow smiles, and easygoing attitude that Patrick displayed every time they got together. He was totally out of his league but had no sense of it—and as a result so was she. The last time she’d made a mistake like that it’d blown up in her face. That was high school; she thought she’d gotten better at it by now.

“I guess all my cards are on the table now,” she said. Her eyes searched his face as if it were a mirror of her own. “The worst I can do is break your heart.”

“Vex,” he said, the Southern drawl had returned to his voice. “I’d hate to rile you, but I’ve kinda gotten the sense that… Well, what with us getting together almost every day and hanging out that we’ve been steady and just not saying it.”

“If you’re willing to put up with me being a total retard.” She felt a little dizzy, almost as if she’d been holding her breath.

“Can’t say that I’ve noticed, actually. I think, though, we need to take this slow.”

“Slow isn’t something I’m good at.” She reached up and smoothed out his collar where her rough grip had wrinkled it. “But perhaps you’d be willing to settle for gentle–er.”

“Now that we have that settled,” he said, his hand gently closing around hers, “there is something that I’d like to ask of you.”

She lifted her gaze into his eyes. “What?”

“You—” he started to say, drawl firmly entrenched in his tone, but stopped short. She waited patiently for him to try again. “You have a second life that I think I’ve only scratched the surface,” he said firmly. “Your second job. I reckon I make light of something very serious to you every time I joke about it. Jamie tried to kill me, sure. I believe that, I was there. But, sacrifice me because—well… It’s just hard to wrap my head around.

“I’m just trying to say. A month ago I would have laughed if you’d told me that I’d be along for a ride to translate unusual symbols on a Tarot card or break into the library to take pictures of weird graffiti. What I’m trying to say is that I can tell this is all very real to you and I respect that.”

A grin blazed on her face when he lifted his eyes again.

“Walk into fire,” Vex said.

“I don’t follow...”

“Come with me.” She took him by the hand and led him away from the building and across one of the bridges. Together they descended across a grating and onto a small lawn of grass that rimmed the odd structure. “It’s my unspoken motto.”

“Don’t people usually run into fires?”

“Like a fireman into a burning building?” she asked, he nodded. “That’s exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t do this because I’m a hero: I do it because it’s my calling. In your ROTC classes they taught you how to work as a team. Firefighters rush into burning buildings with their crews backing them up.

“When I walk into a fire, I’m going alone. I am doing it deliberately. With conviction. There is nobody else who can do what I do; anybody with me is just a liability… So I hope you’ll understand why I won’t be inclined to drag you along into the hot and heavy stuff.”

“Is this a speech you give often?”

“This is a speech I never give.”

“Why is that?”

They had walked several dozen steps, passed out of the grass, skirted some gravel patches sporting prickly bushes, and came to rest next to a brick and mortar box surmounted by a grating that came up the level of her chest. The muffled blare of giant fans below moving air out of the underground parking garage filled the air. Vex raised her voice against the din.

“Because I think that you can handle it,” she said.

“Handle what exactly?”

“That some magic is real.”

Without waiting for a reply, she jumped up onto grating and walked a few steps out into its middle. The roar of the fans surrounded her then, air coursed past her with such a force that it felt almost as if it could lift her off her feet. Through the lashing locks of her hair, she peered downwards at Patrick. Uncertainty and curiosity etched all across his expression as he looked back. “Come on up,” she said. “Let’s dance.”

Patrick gripped her hand and she bore him up over the lip of the vent into the gushing air. Soon, his hair also whipped around with the undulations of some living thing. Vex laughed and touched his cheek with her hand. In the half-light cast from the parking structure she could see the strong lines of his face drawn in flesh: a strong jaw and a ready smile; innocent eyes and gently sloping cheeks. For a moment, she hesitated. His grip was strong in hers as she led his hands around her waist as if preparing for an actual waltz; and his eyes never left hers, but she could not tell quite what he was thinking.

What would he think, she wondered, if he only knew what stray thoughts wandered in the ocean behind hers. She knew him to be a skeptic by word and manner, she doubted that he fully accepted or totally understood how serious she was that his ex-girlfriend had attempted to kill him mostly because he was a virgin.

“What if I told you I don’t know how to dance,” he said into her ear. The noise from the air rushing out of the vent made it necessary for him to hold her close and lean his head over her shoulder.

Everything was going as planned. She but only needed to concentrate. The cantrip was simple, its execution so reflexive to her that she didn’t need to even murmur the words. Its form so ingrained she didn’t need the crutch of a staff. Everything would be perfect.

“I’d call you a liar.”

“I suppose you’d be right, but it’s been years since I danced with anyone. Last girl I took onto the dance floor happened to be my cousin.”

“Was she pretty?”

He snickered. “I was ten,” he said. “Is this the magic you wanted to show me? Your feminine wiles?”

“Look down,” Vex said.

She smiled when his hands tightened around her waist.

 
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