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
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
“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.”
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
“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.”
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
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
“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.
“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
“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.”
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
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
“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
“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.