A scream whirled from an alley across the street, punctuated by barked obscenities. Rubbish tinged the bitter wind pricking up the fine hairs on Laina’s clammy arms. The bar-enforced door slammed shut behind her. A shudder slithered up her spine and niggled at her scalp as Arden clicked his key into the locks. She turned up her coat collar and hugged her arms close. But not so much against the cold as the deeper chill riding the darkness as sirens howled over the Cauldron.
Arden touched her elbow, triggering a jolt. “Ain’t safe to hang in the doorway. C’mon. Bessie’s just round the corner.” He skipped a step ahead and waved her onward. His boots shuffled along the uneven sidewalk as if strolling an amusement boardwalk.
Laina scuttled to his side. As they approached the corner, she kept pace with him to brush against his sturdy arm. “You parked in the alley?”
“It’s more of a narrow side street. I’m on good terms with the gang lord there.” He pointed to a lamppost a block away. “And Bessie’s snug in the circle of a streetlight. Try not to look so worried.”
A trio of black-coated men strutted toward them in a matching, off-kilter gait. Each gripped his sagging denim waistband with one hand while holding the other inside his unzipped moto jacket. Their grim expressions did not soften when Arden greeted them with a smile.
The foremost thug tightened his lips and jerked his chin upward at the passersby. “Something goin’ down tonight, preacher man. Shouldn’t be out on the streets.”
“Same thing Mamaw Birch says about you, Ray.” He tipped his hat to the other men. “How you doin’ Fish? Cribbs?”
“Ain’t nobody gots to worry ’bout me.” Ray rolled his shoulders and strode past them. “I’ma be fine.”
“Mamaw and I both keep believin’ in you for that.” He turned the corner and strolled into the halo around his rusty hatchback. As he unlocked the passenger door, a head ducked behind a dumpster at the far end of the narrow lane. Arden didn’t turn to face the movement, but called to the trio vanished past the next building. “Watch your backs tonight and try to stay outta trouble.”
He opened the door and hurried Laina inside with a firm push, dropping the keys into her lap. As he hustled around the hood, she jangled the ring in her trembling hand. She pricked up the car key and glanced over her shoulder at five encroaching thugs as she turned it in the ignition. The engine caterwauled.
Please, Jesus. Get us out of here!
She turned the key again. Bessie sputtered to a rolling purr as Arden tapped at the driver’s window. Laina reached over and unlocked his door. He whipped into his seat and nearly sat on her.
A jogging figure approached the hatchback. As he drew his hand from the pocket of his hoodie, the streetlights glinted on the steel in his grip. Arden shifted into gear and pealed away from the curb while slamming his door. Bessie careened around the corner. A shot clanged against the rear bumper. He shifted and squealed around another intersection, then gassed the engine into a chortling roar.
Laina compressed herself against the seat and sank below the windows. She spat an expleetive. Or two.
As they wove in among midtown traffic, Bessie slowed. Arden winked at her. “Well, that was more thrillin’ than a Spanish bull run.”
“What the–” She pressed herself to sit upright. A tremble strung her voice with tension. “So that’s a day in your life as a preacher?”
“Not every day, of course. I stay indoors at night to avoid the excitement most of the time.” He glanced at her with a simper. “And I wouldn’t put myself in the middle by taking sides, except for Mamaw Birch’s sake this time. Reckon I’ll hafta stay outta the Cauldron for a few days now.”
“You shrug off living in a war zone like it’s a normal thing. I don’t get it.” She raked her hair.
“We all live in a war zone, Ms. Journalist.” Bessie braked at an intersection. His expression softened and he cast a more serious gaze into her eyes. “It’s critical you know who’s on the winning side before the next battle springs at you. It’s coming sooner than you realize.”
“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand”(Isaiah 41:10).