Once upon a time a girl was born in Missouri.
Her parents were high school sweethearts from one of the anonymous small towns orbiting the tourist trap of Branson. The mother was white, the father black; they met in the high school choir. He was struck by her uncanny blue eyes and the boldness with which she asked him out. She was charmed by his shyness and by his wonderfully true singing voice, which carried a local church choir for years after they were wed. They named their daughter Jennifer.
The parents were too poor to afford college, so they went to work in Branson like everyone did, serving food and taking tickets for vacationers from Cheyenne to Charlottesville. In time the daughter's singing voice became a legend among the employees; you should hear Jones' kid sing, they'd say on lunch break. The word migrated from the employees to the managers, until someone decided to give her a tryout, and now YouTube video can be found of one of the world's biggest singing stars at eight years old, belting Dolly Parton standards to a sea of white retirees who did not know what to make of the girl's coffee-with-cream skin and striking blue eyes.
She sang country for the audiences and hip-hop with her friends, and there was never any doubt in her heart that she could mix them both in Hollywood as well. Her idea was radical: write country-style lyrics to be sung soul-style, over R&B beats. Almost the entire length of her eighteenth year was spent hearing big-name producers and agents tell her it was impossible. Finally, she found a struggling producer who was willing to give it a try, and they produced a demo that has long since entered the annals of music-industry legend.
Suddenly the big producers and agents were tearing down her door. She was not yet twenty when the first album came out. Because the name Jennifer Jones was taken by an actress, she took to calling herself Sapphire, and leaning into the gimmick with streaks of blue in her hair. The album, titled simply Sapphire, went for a similar angle on its cover, where a headshot in black and white was digitally altered to highlight the blue in her eyes and hair.
The album was expected to be a summer album, to have legs from May through August, but no one had expected it to go platinum before Independence Day. A monumental set at one of the indie-music festivals ironically ensured that she would never again be seen as an "indie" musician. She was a star by twenty-one, a headliner by twenty-three, and at twenty-five the gossip sites were publishing unsourced stories claiming that Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift were jealous.
Then the bottom fell out.
Her parents were driving in the Ford pickup she had bought for them; like a goddamned tank, the salesman had said proudly, nothing can knock this baby off the road. But a drunk driver had been behind the wheel of an equally tank-like pickup, and no one had survived the crash that resulted.
The crash had happened early in October. It was not until January that she was able to bring herself out of her own house. She zombie-walked through a race to finish the new album in time for its scheduled March release, and no one wanted to say to her face that it was her worst effort to date, but they didn't need to. She saw it in their faces. She saw it in the mirror.
She had grieved long enough and spent enough time with the therapist to believe she was ready for her summer tour that May. But a white supremacist internet troll had developed a devilishly creative new technology which used artificial intelligence and digital voice technology to phone in hundreds of bomb threats, each one sounding like it came from a different person, at the touch of a button. The troll and his message-board cronies targeted her, and her alone. Promoters and insurers were in an uproar. An FBI agent responded to the phrase "artificial intelligence" as though she had just called him Mister Spock. She was forced to cancel the tour with two-thirds of its dates remaining.
In September, coming up on the year anniversary of her parents' deaths, Rolling Stone apologized after running a story which implied she was suicidal. She wasn’t, and never had been. But she had become so isolated from her friends during the trying times that they had leaked the suicide story, just to let her know how worried they were about her.
She had the money and all that came with it. She knew how lucky she was. But she was not willing to accept the idea that it could all be over years before she turned thirty, the result of what she privately called a Year of Horror.
So she decided to take a vacation. Drop off the grid, as best as someone like her could do. Find some inner peace, reconnect with the bold girl who had made it after just one year in Hollywood.
Instead she found out what real horror was.
Jennifer Jones had not felt as good in a year as she had with Branson in her rearview mirror.
She had driven through the tourist trap without stopping, because it was virtually guaranteed that she would be spotted there. Some of the vacationers who had first seen her on stage were still taking a week in Branson every year, like clockwork. Instead she was going to a cabin some thirty miles east, near the Arkansas border.
She had purchased the cabin for her parents to live in, but since they were happy with the house she had grown up in, it ended up being a vacation home. It was technically a time-share, owned by a series of interlocking shell corporations that, according to her financial manager, could not be traced back to her. Vladimir Putin couldn't crack this place, okay?, he had said to her, leering, as though his obvious bullshit would just blow her panties right off. Judging from the lack of paparazzi following her on the drive from the Kansas City airport, maybe it wasn't such bullshit after all.
She had flown commercial. She had washed the blue streaks out of her light brown hair, tied it up in a bun, and hidden it under a Kansas City Royals baseball cap. Her eyes peered out at the world from behind a cheap pair of sunglasses that her assistant had bought at a drugstore. She wore cargo sweatpants and a too-big sweater to hide her dancer's body. Even so, she had been sure that she would be spotted, that she would have to beg reporters for her privacy with some line about settling her parents' affairs. But, remarkably, it all seemed to be working.
She became aware that she had zoned out a little too much on this line of thinking when flashing blue lights reflected off of her rearview mirror. "Ah, shit," she said aloud, and glanced down at her speedometer. She might have been a mile above the limit, but maybe not. Certainly nothing that cops should be pulling her over for. She hoped that he was not a fan.
She pulled over to the shoulder and waited as the cop -- a county sheriff, it looked like -- strolled up to her window. The name tag under his badge read J. TALBOT. "Good afternoon, Officer," she said.
"Do you know how fast you were driving, Miss?" Talbot had his Cop Stare down pat, the jaw barely moving as he spoke, the skin around the rims of his mirrored sunglasses giving nothing away.
"I was making every effort to drive the speed limit, Officer," she said. "I grew up around here, I know how dangerous these highways can be."
"It's Sheriff, Miss," he said, "and my instruments had you a few miles above. When I saw it was a rental car, I figured I might give you a warning, just to be safe."
"A personal warning from the Sheriff," she said, straining to keep her tone non-snarky. "I'm flattered."
"Well, I see it all the time, Miss," he said. "People coming down here, thinking it's just like Branson, only less crowded. But it can get pretty dangerous down here, especially for someone as pretty as yourself."
Jennifer stone-faced him. She knew from experience in the recording industry that such a comment could be followed by something horribly racist, or horribly sexist, or nothing at all. And there was no way to predict which it would be. "I understand, Sheriff. Am I free to go?"
The Sheriff took off his sunglasses, revealing dark, beady eyes. Hungry eyes. She’d had men feel her up with their eyes before, the recording industry was full of those assholes, but the gaze she was feeling now was even worse. He leaned toward the driver's side window until he was only a foot or two away from her. "I don't think you do understand," he said. "People think the worst thing they can run into out here is a meth lab. But there is shit in these hills that would make you beg for a gang of meth-heads to take all night to kill you."
What the hell is this, Jennifer thought. She desperately wanted to see another car pass by, but there had been none. It was just her, alone on the road, with this armed and obviously insane man. "I'll be very, very careful, Sheriff," she said, hoping she didn't sound as freaked out as she was.
The sheriff leaned back, putting the mirrored sunglasses back on. "You do that," he said. "Have a nice day, Miss."
She sat stock still as he walked back to his car, got it, spent about thirty seconds writing something on a note pad in the driver's seat, start the car up, and drive away. Only when the cruiser disappeared over the hill up ahead, did she let out the breath that she hadn't even realized she was holding.
"Are you fucking kidding me!?" she shouted to the empty car.
She wanted him to be punished. She wanted that psycho asshole to never wear a badge again in his life. But as she sat there in the car, stewing, she began to talk herself out of it. What would she accuse him of? He hadn't touched her. “Take all night to kill you” implied something sexual in her mind, but she doubted a room full of male cops was going to go for it against another cop. Plus, who does one even call about this? It's not like rural-county Sheriff's departments have Internal Affairs divisions, right?
If she hadn't had such a sour experience with the FBI in response to the white supremacist trolling, she would have called someone. But she could not get the FBI agent's blank stare, when she had tried to describe how the trolls organized themselves online, out of her head. She'd had reams and reams of printouts of the assholes confessing to the crime, exulting in it, in their chat rooms. And nothing had happened.
After about five minutes of this internal monologue, she started up the rental car and drove on, calling no one. She would not regret that decision in the days to come, but only because the horror in those woods was well behind such simple concepts as regret.
After the traffic stop Sheriff Jim Talbot drove about a half mile, to the next rest stop. He pulled his cruiser into a shady spot under some trees, well away from the actual rest area, so it would look like he was using the rest area as a speed trap. Then he got out of his car and began walking into the woods.
He had no idea how long he walked; it might have been three minutes or thirty. He only stopped when the woman's voice said, "Who is she."
He turned around in a full circle, but he saw nothing. This was par for the course. "I dunno, Jez," he said. "Mexican girl in a rental car."
If Jennifer had been there, she would have informed him of the best way to spot a racist cop in L.A.: they made the same assumptions about her parentage.
"She's more than that," the woman said. "I can feel her beauty from here. Offending me, even miles away, like a layer of mud under my bare feet."
Talbot was fairly sure that the woman in the woods had never had mud under her feet a day in her life, but he had no desire to argue that point. "She ain't breakin’ the law, Jez," he said. "I gave her a warnin’. Tried to put the fear of God into her. What else you want me to do?"
No answer came for several seconds. He tried to tell himself every time that she was going to do this, that he would not jump, would not jump. Then came the cold, cold breath on his buzzcut, making every one of the hairs on the back of his head stand up. Of course he fucking jumped anyway, like he did every time, jumped and spun and shouted, "God damn it, Jezebel!"
She was far enough away that he only saw that pale moon of a face, floating out of the dark about ten feet distant. But that was all he needed, because he could see the dark eyes blazing at him. So dark, those eyes, dark with the red flecks whirling and dancing, like shooting stars in the night, and all he wanted to do was stand here and wait for the next one to flicker across his mind.
He did not ask himself how she could have breathed on his neck from that distance. Such questions no longer mattered. "Nothing," she said. "I will deal with her in my own way and you will do nothing."
Even through the growing fog in his mind, Talbot understood that to be a decidedly bad idea. By Talbot's count Jezebel had "dealt with" six different women so far this year, to say nothing of the years before. Sooner or later the State Police were going to get involved, and the Staties would be able to piece together the details of his relationship with Jezebel, at which point he would be royally fucked.
The red flecks danced and spun in the darkness, and he felt his head nodding. “Okay, Jez," he said. “Whatever you say.”
"Yes," the dark woman said. "It will be whatever I say. If you ever want to feel my touch again."
Despite her irritating theatrics, Talbot felt electricity run down his spine and a stirring in his member. She'd done things to him that he still couldn't recall, but the eyes very nearly reminded him, the red flecks pulsing in time with the fire in his balls, deeper and deeper every time that she stroked him, until it became painful, he desperate to climax but unable until those eyes commanded him...
His mind didn't remember, but that part of him remembered. And hungered, uncontrollably, for more.
"Yes," Talbot said, as meek as he'd been since walking into the woods. "I understand."
And then she was gone. He never understood how she did this. He would be looking right at her, and there would be no movement, but then the space occupied by the pale oval of her face would be shadowy again. "Then go," the voice said, seeming to come from all around him. "Go now!"
He needed no further encouragement.
The sun was getting low in the sky when Jennifer pulled up to the cabin.
Some of the cabins in the Ozarks were more like hotels in themselves, complete with magnetic key cards and daily housekeeping. This place was somewhere between that and a private residence: there were rules for cleaning up, and her representatives had to use the chain of shell corporations to communicate with the caretaker about when it would be vacant. However, the caretaker visited only once a month, did not arrange for cleaning, and otherwise left the occupants to their own devices.
Jennifer stood in the middle of the cabin, at the place where the living room rug ended and the kitchen began, and looked around. Through the bedroom door she could see that the bed had been made, with a comforter and heavy sheets intended for much colder weather. There was no television; her parents had wanted to install one, but put it off and put it off until they ran out of time. Jennifer's eyes stung at the thought.
The cabin had no computer, no wi-fi, and no clocks. This was all fine with Jennifer. All she wanted to do was sit out here from sunrise to sunset and write lyrics. She had brought her Korg keyboard in case she wanted to write music, but she had left it in the car; as it happened, she agreed with the many critics who had thought that the main weakness of her album last spring was lyrical.
However, she owed it to herself to check one thing. Jennifer took out her phone, and saw that it had one bar of signal. Just enough to place a call to Karen, her assistant in L.A., in the event of an emergency. Karen was one of about five people who knew that Jennifer was out here, as a backstop in case something really ugly happened. She nodded, then plugged its charger into an outlet, sincerely hoping that she would not need to look at it for a week, at least.
That was the plan: write lyrics out here for a week, see how she felt about the resulting material, and stay longer if she had positive feelings. Honestly, she already felt so good out here that she thought she might stay for a month.
Jennifer went out back, onto the patio. A futon stood there, the same futon from her first apartment in L.A. She'd had it shipped out here years ago, with the intention that she would never forget those days. Jennifer dropped onto the futon, extracted a pen and Moleskine from her bag, and took advantage of the last hours of sunlight she would have that evening.
Jennifer looked up from her pad, stretching her neck. She didn't know how much time had passed; she only knew that there was no more light left and that she would have to go back inside to continue.
The first five pages in the new Moleskine were covered in writing. It followed no specific pattern, with lyric fragments scattered all over the page. They were not in order, and many of the fragments would never be used in earnest, but only by having them all on the page could she follow her train of thought from first concept to finished song. It would seem like nonsense to anyone but her, which was how she liked it; paparazzi often perused her trash looking for discarded notebooks just like this one.
She got up off the futon, ready to go inside, when she heard a woman's voice say, "Jennifer..."
Jennifer froze in place. Her first thought, even though the voice sounded like it had come from the woods, was that she had left the front door unlocked and someone had walked into the cabin. But she had a clear view of the entire living room and kitchen from here, and both were empty. She could even see through the front door's window, and no one was standing on the front porch. And, of course, she had not heard a car pull up.
"Jennifer..." The voice sounded forlorn. Which was exactly the tone that certain emails would take before she asked her manager to call the police.
I really should check the entire house, Jennifer thought. I've had stalkers crazy enough to do shit like this.
She did not even entertain the idea of calling for help. The idea of inviting Sheriff Psychopath into her life for even one more minute was anathema to her. She had Mace and a military-grade folding knife in her bag, and--
(Jennifer, come to me.)
--she decided that she wouldn't need them. She also decided that she wouldn't need to check the house. The voice was in the forest, sad and alone, and even if it was a disturbed fan she would be able to talk her down.
Jennifer stepped off the patio and began to walk into the forest.
Jezebel smiled. The young women were always the easiest.
Years ago, the Dark One had touched her, gifting her with the smallest part of Himself that He could reveal to any living human. His full Presence would be a hammer-blow to the psyche, instantly obliterating any ability for thought; the quintessence that He had given to the woman who would become known as Jezebel was a gentle push on the subconscious, guiding people away from reason and rationality. With older people the this sensation tended to express itself with a level of discomfort: something's not right with this lady, just say yes to her so she'll go away. But people under age thirty, as this one was, had a response that was much more ... subdued.
Jezebel was glad that this one was already starting to come quietly, because everything about her had instilled rage in Jezebel's heart, right from the beginning. She had been meditating, waiting for the Dark One to gift her with a word, just one word, which could take weeks or even months to arrive. And then a flare had gone off in her mind, brighter than any had been in years. Someone was coming into her orbit, a woman more beautiful than she, one who could turn heads in the town and break the grip that she had over so many of the men there.
The Voice of Dark had come to her, whispering a single word: Jennifer.
And when Jezebel had laid eyes on the girl, she was further enraged, because she had been every been as beautiful as the intensity of the mind-flare had suggested. The brown hair falling perfectly to her shoulders despite being unkempt and crowded under a hat all day long. And the eyes! Those striking, compelling blue eyes were nearly enough by themselves to drive her to murder.
The skin color enraged her also, but for reasons that she did not remember. Reasons that she had lost the ability to remember after contacting the Dark One. All she knew was that, in all the time she had lived as Jezebel, she had never had a chance to use the Touch on a black person.
Her smile widened.
About twenty yards away from the house, Jennifer had her last reasonable thought of the evening. How long are you going to pursue this? she asked herself. If this person is crazy and you get too far from the cabin, you die. You know that, right?
She did know that. But the woman's voice had been so lonely, and she fully expected this county's sheriff would have no sympathy for her situation. The odds that it was a crazed fan were so low; the stalkers never knew more about her schedule than the paparazzi, and no paparazzi had followed her from the airport. She owed this woman as much time as she could spare before she went in, because--
(Jennifer, come to me.)
--she was so tired. When she was done out here, she fully expected to go straight to her bed and sleep as soon as her head touched the pillow.
And then she saw a woman, standing about ten feet away, in an empty space next to a particularly tall pine tree. Jennifer had a moment of--
(Wait, wasn't I just looking at that tree and nobody was there?)
(Jennifer, come to me.)
--she knew she had found the right woman. Tension between her shoulder blades, which she hadn't even known was there, noticeably loosened. She mumbled, "Hello?" wanting to call out louder but finding it difficult to do so.
"Jennifer," the woman said. He voice was warm and welcoming. "Look at me."
Jennifer took in almost nothing about the woman's body below the neck, save that she was dressed all in black. She was too struck by the woman's face. The stranger was older than Jennifer, that much was certain, but her age was impossible to gauge. There were no lines around her mouth or jaw. Her crow's-feet suggested that--
(Jennifer, it's so good to see you.)
--she had the eyes of an impressionable teenager.
The hair was a deep brown, almost black, but flecked with auburn in a way that Jennifer knew was impossible to do with dye. The eyes were the same color: deep and dark, but with red aspects that danced in the moonlight. To look into her eyes was to stand in a dark camp with one's back to the firepit, gazing up at a starless sky, the embers floating all around you while a gentle warmth caressed your spine, keeping the cold away, letting you know that this was ever a safe place.
"Jennifer, come with me," the woman said, though Jennifer was no longer sure if her mouth had moved.
They walked deeper into the forest together, Jezebel somehow making impossibly sure steps despite walking backwards in stiletto heels. The Dark One would never allow her to stumble in His neighborhood. Jennifer was always ten feet away, no more and no less, despite the fact that Jezebel was taller and took longer strides.
Jezebel noted with some satisfaction that Jennifer was wearing sneakers; on one occasion she had brought a woman into the forest barefoot, and her foot had been pierced by a particularly sharp stick, jolting her from the trance. Jezebel disliked when such things happened, because the required response was ... gruesome.
Jezebel took a deep breath, held it for a count of one, then let it out. After three such breaths, she spoke to the younger woman, always using--
(Jennifer, come to me.)
--the same phrase. She knew how powerful it was, to lull the girl into her rhythm. In the seventies, a psychologist from Chicago had moved to Cedar Grove, hoping to enjoy an early retirement; his mind had become wrapped around Jezebel's little finger as quickly as she could wrap her hand around his penis. She had ordered him to teach her hypnosis, as she soon understood that combining the Touch with hypnotic theory would make her influence all the stronger, and he had explained to her all that he knew. She had been grateful to the psychologist, even loved him, as far as that word could be applied to her, so she had given him the most glorious death: a chance to view the Dark One in His full splendor.
After about five breathing cycles, Jezebel saw that Jennifer's breathing matched hers exactly.
Presently they arrived at the Cave. Jezebel stopped in the middle of the leafy clearing which served as the Dark One's foyer, and Jennifer stopped at the same time, her mind deeply conditioned to maintain the distance.
"Oh, no, Jennifer," she said, a playful come-hither chuckle in her voice that caused the men in Cedar Grove to flock to her door. "Come to me. Come."
The change in tone brought no change in Jennifer's expression. Her face remained blank, the eyes wide, as she walked close enough for Jezebel to place her hands on the younger woman's cheeks and give her the Kiss.
There was no time in the older woman's eyes. No concern about how deeply she was entering the forest or whether she could find her way back. Jennifer simply let herself be in that warm, pleasant place with the embers floating all around her. There was just an instant of curiosity, a subconscious understanding that she was much closer to the older woman than she had been, and then—
She had kissed women before. She had never denied any of the rumor-mill stories that put her snogging a certain female starlet on a certain patio at a certain party. She had dated guys, but whenever they'd wanted to sleep with her she'd had to close her eyes and think of Jessica Chastain in order to get going. She was a lesbian in her mind, and the only question was when she wanted the whole world to know.
But even being as sure of her sexuality as she was, nothing on Earth could have prepared her for that kiss.
The older woman devoured her, lips hungering for everything they could kiss and then some, Jennifer's own lips too weak to do any kissing back. Her tongue was methodical, tasting every inch of Jennifer's lips, then feeling the shape and contour of seemingly every tooth in her mouth. Jennifer’s entire spine felt electrified. She closed her eyes and moaned with pleasure, the sound muffled by the lips that were pressed onto hers.
The final act was the most forceful, as the woman pulled away from the kiss but kept her lips wrapped around Jennifer's lower lip. It was erotic in a way that Jennifer had no words for, no comparison to. The sucking of her lower lip seemed to go on for hours, the older woman excising every ounce of her: all her thoughts, all of her feelings, all of her love, everything she ever had or would be. The older woman began to walk backwards, pulling Jennifer with her by the lower lip like an animal on a leash.
Jennifer had the strongest orgasm of her life. Her hips bucked toward the older woman's body as though she was trying to parody a man's thrusting. Her cry of passion was somewhat muted by the fact that one of her lips was completely at the other woman's command. The warm feeling she had previously felt down her spine was replaced by an icy coldness, something that caused her entire body to shudder even as her orgasm continued.
Then the lips were gone, the kiss over, replaced with a voice that thundered though the darkness behind her closed eyelids: "SLEEP."
Jennifer did not feel her body hit the ground.
Jezebel did not actually say sleep. She used a word in a Germanic dialect that had been rendered obsolete when the Roman Empire exterminated its speakers. She did not know what the word meant, but judging from how people reacted to it, sleep was what they heard.
The word had been given to her by the Dark One, not as a gift but as part of a deal. She needed the words, she gave Him the women. That was The Agreement.
It would be disappointing to give this one away to Him. Jezebel had never before seen a woman orgasm as a result of the Kiss.
She made no effort to catch the younger woman’s body as it flopped to the ground. She would sleep until sunrise, and wake with barely any memory of what had happened, but Jezebel assumed that the waking part was moot. The Dark One would come out of His inertia well before the sun was up.
Jezebel's body exploded into a cloud of mist. This was her preferred way to travel home, and though He demanded payment to perform the spell, she thought this girl would be more than enough in exchange for two spells in one night. The mist began to eddy into the forest, weaving between tree branches, leaving the senseless woman lying on the ground a few feet in front of the cave opening. Jezebel saw no need to watch the denouement. It went the same way, every time, without fail.
TO BE CONTINUED