Jennifer Jones had not felt as good in a year as she had with Branson in her rearview mirror.
The paparazzi were not following her from the airport, and her phone had not erupted with gossip-news reports that she had been spotted in Kansas City. She was free to drop off the grid like a normal person, to isolate herself at the cabin and get back in touch with the bold teenager who had made it in Hollywood.
The only real problem was the persistent itch on the backs of her legs. Jennifer looked down, to see if she could spot what the problem was, and saw that she was driving the car completely naked. She wasn't even wearing shoes.
"Huh," she said aloud, raising her eyes back up to the road. "That's ... something."
And then blue lights flashed in her rearview mirror.
"Shit," she muttered. Had he seen her driving in her birthday suit? Or was it unrelated, like a busted tail-light or something? "Shit, shit, shit!"
She pulled over to the shoulder, because what else could she do? NUDE SINGER LEADS MISSOURI COPS ON SLOW-SPEED CHASE would lead every news broadcast in the country.
But, as soon as she saw the cop get out of his cruiser, she was sure that she had made a mistake. Not only would she not be able to talk her way out of this, but something awful was going to happen. She didn’t know how she was so certain about it, but she was.
She undid her seatbelt and lunged over to her bag in the passenger seat, thinking of the can of Mace inside, and—
Jennifer, half asleep, fell off of the couch.
She did not hit her head on the hardwood floor, but she was so groggy and disoriented that she might as well have done. Still half-stuck in the nightmare, her hands went to cover up her vagina, although she was wearing the sweater and cargo sweatpants from yesterday.
There was uproar, somewhere. She heard someone say, "Danny, she's awake! Get some water!"
Jennifer opened her eyes. She was looking up at one of the two easy chairs in her own cabin's living room; she recognized it by the astonishingly ugly Christmas blanket that her mother had knitted to go with it. From the light, it seemed to be just after dawn.
Footsteps. Jennifer turned her head to see two sets of legs advancing across the living room. They went to their knees at her side, and she saw them both for the first time: one man and one woman, white, both brown-haired and plain-looking, about thirty, watching her with concern. "Don't try to get up," the woman said. “Drink this.”
She set a cup on the floor in front of Jennifer’s face. The first sip made Jennifer realize how painfully dry her throat was, and she gulped the rest of the water down.
"Can you tell me your name?" The woman asked.
"Who's the President of the United States?"
Jennifer believed, from some half-remembered fragment of a TV-doctor show she had once watched, that these were questions asked to a patient who was possibly not mentally competent. "Come on, don't make me say the name," she said. "The orange guy."
The woman looked at the man, and in that moment Jennifer decided that they were husband and wife. The wife looked back at her and said, "Is this your cabin?"
"Yes," Jennifer said, the word turning into a groan as she pushed herself up into a sitting position, her back against the couch. "My mother never knitted ugly Christmas sweaters. She did ugly Christmas blankets, like that one."
"What do you remember before—” the woman began, moving a hand toward Jennifer's face. Jennifer reached up to grab her wrist, squeezing hard.
"Now you tell me who you are," Jennifer said. "And if you aren't doctors, you'd better get the hell out before I call the police."
She threatened them with the law on reflex; in truth, there was no way Deputy Dawg was coming in this cabin, no matter who these people were. Still, it seemed to get their attention.
"Calm down, now," the man said, showing his palms in placating fashion. "I'm Daniel Handler, and this is my wife Donna. She is a doctor, in Kansas City."
Dan and Donna from Kansas City. It was so Midwestern that a movie producer would reject it as a stereotype. "Show me some proof."
"Danny, go to my purse and get my hospital ID," Donna said evenly. As her husband went into the kitchen, Donna leaned in slightly and whispered to Jennifer, "I know who you are. I love your music."
So much for staying incognito. "We'll talk about that later," Jennifer said, also whispering.
Daniel came back with an ID for a Dr. Donna Smith, from Kansas City General Hospital. The picture seemed to be the same woman. "Smith is my maiden name," Donna said, as she was looking at it.
"Now tell me, why are you here? What happened to me?"
"Can you let go of my hand, and we'll tell you the story while I check your eyes?" Donna said.
Jennifer made a gut decision to trust these people, mainly because she had little choice. She released Donna's hand. Donna produced a penlight from one of her pockets and flicked it on. "Follow the light with your eyes," she said. "Danny, tell her the story."
She watched the light as Dan said, "We're vacationing in a cabin five miles up the road," he said. "We just got here, and we were on our way to Cedar Grove to see if anything was still open, because we forgot—“
"She's had a trauma, Dan," Donna said, her voice never wavering from that gentle bedside-manner tone. "She doesn't care about our eating habits."
"Right," Dan said sheepishly. "We were driving past your cabin, and we saw you walk off the patio into the woods."
"Into the woods?" Jennifer asked. "I don’t remember doing that. It was, like, below forty degrees last night."
"Well, that's what we said," Donna replied, moving the light to Jennifer's other eye. "'Why on earth is she going out there dressed like that?' Danny said we shouldn't get involved, and maybe he had a point, because here we are trespassing in your cabin like we own the place. But I just had a feeling that something was very, very wrong."
"I didn't say we shouldn't get involved," Dan said. "I said that if it was serious enough for us to pull over, it was serious enough to call the police."
"Yes, dear," Donna said. "We argued about it for a quarter-mile or so, then turned around and came back. By that time you were gone."
"I'm glad you didn't call the cops," Jennifer said. "I had a run-in with the Sheriff yesterday. He's a real nightmare."
"Anyway," Dan said, "I wasn't really worried about getting lost, because we both have those key-fob things that work with Google Maps, and Donna has another one for her bag, and I have another one for..."
As he droned on, Jennifer became aware that her panties were damp. She’d gotten so wet last night that somehow she could still feel it this morning. She didn’t think the Handlers were responsible; they seemed dry in more ways than one. But if it wasn’t them, what the hell had happened last night?
"...we found you passed out in this clearing, next to a creepy-looking cave," Dan was saying. "We couldn't wake you up, so we carried you here, but it was a really scary thing, because halfway back our phones started getting no signal and we couldn't find the key fobs."
Donna switched off the penlight, saying, "I thought it would be better to keep you here." The look in her eyes said everything: I knew who you were and I wanted to respect your privacy. Jennifer's estimation of the woman increased greatly.
"But what happened?" Jennifer said. "I don't remember walking off the porch. Am I brain-damaged?"
"Not as far as I can tell," Donna said. "This is hardly a full examination, though. You should go to a hospital. The only reason we didn’t go to a hospital last night is that we had no idea where the nearest one was.”
“We still don’t know,” Dan said. "Branson, maybe?"
"I'm sure you can Google it," Jennifer said dryly.
"We haven't had signal since we lost it last night," Dan said. He showed her his phone as proof, saying, "And you don't have any land lines here."
"We have a land line and Wi-Fi at our cabin," Donna said, "but I thought it would be too risky to move you there." Another knowing look.
Having half a conversation around Dan was going to drive Jennifer crazy. "Look," she said, "you should understand what is going on here. I'm Sapphire."
Dan looked at her blankly. It was always weirdly charming to meet someone who had never heard of her. "A famous singing star," his wife told him.
"Yeah," Jennifer said. "Really famous, if that doesn't sound like bragging. I've had some problems lately and I came out here to get away from it all. If you call 9-1-1? If you take me to a hospital? 'It all' is going to come rushing in and stomp all over your lives."
"And if you die in your sleep out here when we could've gotten you help?" Donna said, rhetorically. "How bad would that be for our lives?"
"Is that going to happen?" Jennifer asked.
"I don't know," Donna said. "I can't know. The fainting, and the memory loss ... some illnesses with those symptoms are really serious. But it could also be nothing.”
For a moment Jennifer almost told them to find the nearest hospital and take her there. She would handle the media fallout somehow. Being embarrassed in the pages of /Rolling Stone/ was better than being dead. But something—
(The lingering ghost of a tug on her lower lip)
"Then stay here," Jennifer said, with her mother’s characteristic boldness. "On my dime — I’ll pay for the place you have up the road. Sleep out of my bedroom. Keep me under observation. You can still take me to the hospital if it's an emergency."
Dan and Donna looked at each other. "We'll have to talk about that," Dan said. "It's kind of a big deal. Would we be interfering with your, ah, getting away from it all?"
"Don't worry about it," Jennifer said.
"Danny, whether we do this or not, we should go back to the cabin first," Donna said. "Drop off the things we don't need, pick up the things we do. As your doctor, I'm telling you to get cleaned up and changed into new clothes."
"Absolutely," Jennifer said.
Jezebel had unusual dreams: for the first time, she dreamed of women. No woman had ever orgasmed in response to the Kiss before. It aroused them, of course, because that was what it was supposed to do. But Jezebel, who had never met a lesbian before in her life, had never before considered that some women could fall under her control as easily as men.
Then she awoke with her mind on fire.
The sensation was that of a glove, wreathed in flame, gripping her brain stem. She rolled back and forth across the mattress of her bed, hands locked at the base of her skull as though she were about to perform a sit-up, moaning.
The girl was still alive.
The Agreement had been broken.
This had happened a few times before, early in her career as Jezebel, when she had cast too many spells in a day and one woman was not enough to placate the Dark One. It was only by His grace that He had not lanced her with agony in the middle of town, driving her to her knees in front of a hundred people and under-cutting her power over the town forever. After those early agonies, she had established a plan, a routine, and it had not failed in decades. Not until now.
"How?!" she wailed at the ceiling, as the burning in her head went on and on.
Someone had found the girl. That was the only explanation. The sleeping spell had never failed, not in countless uses. The Dark One had never before waited until after the spell wore off to emerge from the cave. Animals would not have taken her, as they were able to sense the Dark One and avoid the cave. Even though a third person finding the girl so far out in the woods seemed improbable, it was not impossible, so that must be the answer.
Through the agony clouding her thoughts, Jezebel made a plan. First, she had to satiate the Dark One. Then she would find the girl; after all, she knew where the girl lived. And she would find the people who had ruined her Agreement; they couldn't be far away, if they had been able to find the girl so quickly.
She would find them all, and they would suffer as she was suffering now.
Jezebel rolled out of bed, landing in a heap on the floor. After a minute of gathering herself, she began the slow process of crawling out of her bedroom.
After a long, hot shower, Jennifer walked out onto the patio, clad in a different pair of sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt with the logo of an indie-rock band that had recently signed to her label. She had gone to the patio to find her Moleskine. It was on the futon, right where she had sat the night before. She couldn’t remember when she had dropped it.
She sat down, picked up the Moleskine and the pen, thinking. She began to chew on the tip of the pen, barely realizing that she was doing so, as she often did when she hit a rough spot in her writing.
Some of her best songs had come from writing her way out of a personal problem. Could she write her way back to whatever had happened last night? She put her pen to the page.
Dying sunlight, she wrote.
Twilight chill, she wrote.
Quiet forest, she wrote.
And then the forest had stopped being quiet—
(Jennifer, come to me.)
Jennifer jumped at the sound of a car door slamming shut. She hadn’t heard anyone pull up. She looked around the forest, thinking that something was strange. It took her a moment to realize that the light had changed quite a bit, that it was closer to noon now. She had been writing for three hours, maybe more.
She looked down at the Moleskine and stopped dead.
The notebook had been turned to a fresh page. Long strings of words were written in concentric circles, in her handwriting but much smaller, the tiniest circle so small that she would need a magnifying glass to read the writing.
On the other side of the building, Donna was saying something, but Jennifer did not listen. Her eyes were drawn to some of the phrases in the rings, repeating over and over:
COME TO ME
Her eyes flew to the second-smallest ring, the smallest one she could read, and she saw it was just two words over and over, round and round:
DARK ONE DARK ONE DARK ONE—
A hand fell onto her shoulder. Jennifer’s head, which had sunk down to her chest, shot upward. Her eyes, which she did not remember closing, flew open. She gasped for breath, noisily.
The hand on her shoulder was Donna’s. Like any good doctor, she sprung into action, dropping to her knees at Jennifer’s side in a flash. “Are you okay?”
“Something really fucking weird happened to me last night,” Jennifer gasped.
They stood around the kitchen island, the Moleskine lying between them, open to the page with the rings of writing. Jennifer told them exactly what had happened since they had left. There was a long moment of silence.
Jennifer felt confident that they could work through this. Dan was a little buffoonish, but he was well-meaning and intelligent enough. And Donna seemed like a superstar; Jennifer would not be surprised if she found out that Donna was the best doctor in the state. There was a reasonable answer to all of this, and they could find it together.
Donna looked at her and said, in a frank no-bullshit tone, “Is this a Scientology thing?”
Fuck, Jennifer thought. “I’m not a Scientologist,” she replied.
“Well, that’s not an answer,” Dan said. “I read an article about how Will Smith says he’s not a Scientologist, but he owns a school that does a bunch of Scientology stuff and that movie After Earth was just a Trojan horse for all this—“
“It’s not a fucking Scientology thing!”
Donna’s voice turned quiet. “There’s no need to shout and curse at us,” she said.
“What is wrong with you two?” Jennifer said. “You saved my life last night and now you act like this?”
“On the drive, we started asking ourselves why you would act like this,” Donna said. “Refusing to call 9-1-1, refusing to go to the hospital...”
“Like maybe you had something to hide,” Dan put in.
“Inviting us into your life on your own dime at the drop of the hat, and now...” Donna jabbed a finger at the Moleskine. “‘DARK ONE DARK ONE DARK ONE’? Who’s the Dark One? Xenu?”
“I don’t know who that is,” Jennifer said. She took a breath, tried to collect herself. “Please. I thought you were trying to help me. And I am starting to think that I will need the help.”
“Jennifer, look at that page. Those circles are perfect. That thing was prepared, and it’s your handwriting.”
Jennifer recalled that the liner notes on her most recent album had been handwritten. Donna struck her as the sort who found a way to read the liner notes, even in the Spotify era.
“If you think I’m playing you,” Jennifer said, “then just what do you think my plan is? Because, at the risk of sounding like a Hollywood bitch, I don’t need y’all’s money.”
“No,” Donna said. “Like you said, you need help.”
Belatedly, Jennifer realized what was going on here: an intervention. The woman was a fan, she knew about the heavy shit that had happened in Sapphire’s life over the last year, and she was taking a hard line because she sincerely thought that her idol’s mind might have snapped or been converted by some cult nonsense.
Then, a deeper insight: was Donna even wrong? The gaps in her memory were disturbing indeed. If she was losing her grip on reality, then maybe Donna was suggesting the most humane way to deal with it. Just like a good doctor would do.
That page in the Moleskine had not been prepared. Even knowing that something was messed up with her memory, she was sure that the page had been empty when she had sat down. She started each new album from a fresh notebook. She never, ever, broke that rule.
“I’m not sick,” she said. “I’m not in a cult. I came out here to recharge, change my priorities, write some great songs, and instead some very weird shit is happening to me. If you don’t believe any of that, then you should leave.”
“Jennifer,” Donna said, making one last push, “I wasn’t exaggerating before, when I said I loved your music. You’re very important to me. When I heard about your parents it broke my heart. And it just ... it blows my mind that I have this chance to help you. Let me help you.”
Jennifer realized they were never going to find a middle ground. “You want to help me?” she said. “Don’t call anyone. Don’t share about me on your social stuff. Go back to your vacation and I will come to you if I change my mind. But don’t act like you can make this decision for me. Just because you love my music, doesn’t mean you run my life.”
Donna and Dan looked at each other. Dan shrugged, as if to say, we gave it our best shot. Donna looked back at her. “We’re in our cabin for five more days, until Halloween,” she said. “We’re going to come back here one more time before we leave,” Donna said. “I hope you’re still alive when we do.”
They turned and left. After they were out the front door, as they were halfway to their car, Jennifer heard Donna say bitterly to Dan, “Never meet your heroes.”
Honey, Jennifer thought, meeting your fans isn’t always so great either.
Cedar Grove was unincorporated, which was to say, it was not technically a town. It had no city council, no mayor, no school districts or public parks. It was little more that a collection of homes that had sprung up around the intersection of two public roads, Missouri State Highway 17 and Local Route 52, back in the pre-Walmart days when those roads had more value to the local farmers.
Jennifer had been to Cedar Grove once, as a little girl, when her father had wanted to visit the hardware and farm-supply store. She was amused to see the same four businesses around the intersection now, as had been then: a gas station and grocery; a larger diesel-only gas station for big trucks; the same hardware/farm-supply outfit that Jennifer remembered; and a greasy spoon that had no name, only a sign with the large and vaguely threatening proclamation DINER.
Jennifer sat in her car at the intersection, trying to weigh the odds of getting recognized in each building. What the hell, she thought. The Handlers are probably going to give me up anyway. Jennifer pulled up to the diner.
The diner was even emptier than she could’ve hoped. There was only one man in the back, ignoring a television playing Fox News with the sound off, and no customers in the front. There was a cook in the kitchen and a sixtyish woman in the front whose role seemed to encompass everything from “waitress” to “bouncer.”
Jennifer slid into a booth as the older woman approached. “Whatcha have, hon?” she drawled.
Jennifer had to catch herself from making her standard breakfast order in Hollywood, a lengthy word salad which basically added up to make me a really complicated omelette. “Scrambled eggs, wheat toast, orange juice,” she said.
“You sure?” The woman said. “We just stopped serving lunch. Billy grills a mean burger.”
Oh, right. She had forgotten that several hours had passed while she had written the odd Moleskine page. It had seemed like the blink of an eye, and her body still believed it to be nine o’clock or so. “I’m having a brunch kind of day,” she said.
“Fine with me, hon,” The woman said.
As Jennifer ate, she tried to weigh her options. She couldn’t remember what happened last night, but more than that, trying to remember now seemed a little dangerous.
She did not consider simply packing up and going back to Los Angeles. Hubris was part of the reason; not only was she rich and famous, but her plan to hide out as though she were not rich and famous was working, and she thought she could make any other plan work just as easily.
Figure out the simplest thing that you can, she thought. Start as small as possible and work your way up.
“Excuse me,” she said to the waitress, when the check arrived. “You wouldn’t happen to have a magnifying glass, would you?”
“Sure don’t, hon,” the woman said. “I bet they got one at the Hardware, though. They got everything over there.”
“Thank you so much,” Jennifer said, leaving a generous tip.
Jennifer did not want to go into “the Hardware.” Her father’s one visit, years and years ago, had been short and he had stalked out with thunderclouds on his face. He wouldn’t tell Jennifer what was wrong, but he later told his wife that the store was “Klan as hell,” a phrase Jennifer had not understood at that age.
Look, something’s got to go right for me at some point on this trip, she thought, as she walked across Highway 17. Maybe they’re under new management. Right? Right?
After entering, she went straight to the cashier. If it was that kind of store, best to just get it out of the way as fast as she could, rather than browse the aisles and draw their side-eye. The cashier was an older man with salt-and-pepper hair, looking down at his phone.
“Hello,” she said. “Do you have magnifying glasses?”
“Aisle two,” he said, not lifting his eyes to look at her.
She went and retrieved the glass, and as she purchased it, the cashier was nothing but polite. Finally, something was going right. “Can I borrow your counter for a second?” she said.
“Sure,” the cashier said, still not looking up from his smartphone. Beyond the two of them, the store was completely empty.
She put her Moleskine on the counter and opened it to the page with the rings of writing. Trying to ignore the outside rings, and the odd feelings that the words there—
(COME TO ME)
—gave her, she put the magnifying glass over the inside ring. It was difficult at first to understand what she was seeing there, because it seemed like a random collection of consonants and vowels: BELJEZE
Jennifer, who had grappled with Sunday School in the same way that most non-her people grappled with piano lessons, didn’t see the pattern at first. But then she realized that the circular ring of letters had caused her to start in the wrong place, and she put them in the correct order. “Jezebel,” she murmured.
“Jezebel?” the cashier said. Jennifer looked up just as he leaned across the counter, his face only inches from hers. He said, “You know Jezebel?”
“No, who is—“ she began, as the cashier reached across the counter and grabbed her right forearm with both hands. His grip was tighter than she had grabbed Donna, earlier that same day, which had been painfully tight.
“Where is Jezebel?” he said. His eyes were dark and beady. She had seen that look before, somewhere.
“Let go of my arm,” she said, trying to keep her voice firm but even. That was how her bodyguard had told her to deal with psycho fans, firm but even, let them know that you’re upset but still try to de-escalate.
The cashier was not being de-escalated. “Where is Jezebel?!” he said. “Why won’t she see me?!”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Jennifer said. “Let go of my arm now.”
“She needs to see me!” the man said. The unreality of his transition from bored phone-face to maniac in the space of maybe five seconds, made it seem like a dream. “I can’t live without her!”
“I am not playing,” Jennifer said. “I will Mace you.” She was already digging in her bag with her free hand, finding the canister, making sure it would be turned the right way when it came out of the bag.
“Where is Jezebel?!” the man wailed. He began pulling her arm toward him, and she saw that he had an erection. A pronounced erection, absurdly so, almost a Saturday Night Live parody of a man with a pup-tent in his pants. “I need her!”
Jennifer brought up the Mace and released a full blast in his face. The chemical did its job as advertised. The grip on her arm was instantly gone. The impassioned wails dissolved in a fit of coughing and gagging. The cashier staggered and hit the display wall behind him, sending batteries and cheap headphones flying, and he slid down the wall on his back, hands covering his face.
Jennifer had just enough composure to pick up her Moleskine and glass, throwing them in her bag as she broke for the doors at a dead run. She sprinted across the highway with hardly a thought to the traffic, was in her rental car, and had started the engine with shaking fingers before she stopped to think.
Call the police. Call the police right now.
She took out her phone. No signal. Zero bars.
“What?” she whispered at her phone. She knew that she still could call emergency numbers with zero bars, but how the hell was zero bars even possible? Even an unincorporated wide spot in the road like this should have—
That caused her to remember: Cedar Grove was unincorporated. The only law around here was the county Sheriff. That Sheriff.
Call him anyway, the voice of reason in her head replied.
But then she remembered something else: the hunger in the cashier’s eyes. She had seen it before, when Talbot’s mirrored sunglasses had come off. She had simply assumed the sheriff was an asshole dude, and maybe he was, but maybe there was something else. Something to do with this Jezebel woman.
This woman, whoever she was, connected Talbot to the cashier, the cashier to the Moleskine page … and the page to whatever had happened to Jennifer last night?
Given the way the local law had treated her, if the answer was yes, it was going to be up to her to find this Jezebel and kick every part of her ass.
Local Route 52 served as Cedar Grove’s Main Street. About five blocks away from the intersection of 52 and Highway 17, there was a building which had been erected, decades ago, with the intention of being the Cedar Grove church. There had been a certain collection of citizens who thought a church would bring enough civic respectability to formally incorporate the town.
Jezebel’s first gift for the Dark One, before she had even decided on the name Jezebel, was the seduction, insanity, and eventual annihilation of the intended pastor. The church had never been founded, the efforts to incorporate collapsed, and the town had remained the same since … with only one true ruler.
The church building had been turned into a strip mall of sorts, one of the saddest of its type to be found anywhere in the Midwest. There was a laundry where mice often found a way into the machine loads, a bar where other mice often found a way to impersonate chicken wings, and a dilapidated morass of half-empty bookshelves that called itself the Cedar Grove Public Library.
The librarian (who also happened to be the library’s owner and only employee) was named Lucretia Root. Lucretia was sixty-eight years old, and had once allowed people to call her Lucy, but that had been a long time ago. Now she was just an angry spinster that refused library cards to anyone who dared do anything but correctly pronounce every syllable of the word Lucretia.
At the same moment when Jennifer was sitting in her car, cursing her phone for its inability to carry a signal, Lucretia Root was doing what she did on most days: sitting at the librarian’s desk, not a reader in sight, with an 18-inch TV tuned to Fox News. Sometimes she listened to the mice crawling in the walls and tried to pretend they weren’t there. Sometimes she talked to the TV, without the self-awareness that the news stories which outraged her most were about women similar to the happy-go-lucky twenty-three-year-old who had allowed the boys to call her Lucy.
The news was about a singer who’d had a problem with some computer nerds, as far as Lucretia could tell, when the doorbell rang. Lucretia looked up to see Jezebel entering the store.
Lucretia felt a flash of white-hot rage. Jezebel, the trollop who had stolen the best of all those men who had called her Lucy, the one she had been going to marry! But as Jezebel came closer, the rage faded. Roger hadn’t bothered to stick with Jezebel either; he’d decamped to parts unknown. But even if he had stayed? The wrong could never be undone. Decades of water under the bridge. She might as well give the trollop what she wanted.
When Jezebel came close, Lucretia saw how much older the woman had gotten. The crow’s feet around her eyes were a webwork of wrinkled flesh, lines were beginning to set around her jaw, and ... was that hints of grey replacing the red in her hair? For decades, that had been the most outrageous thing about the whole affair, the trollop barely seeming to age a day while Lucretia herself had gone old and gray, but now Jezzie looked almost frail.
“Jezebel,” Lucretia said. Her voice sounded wrong. She wanted there to be more fury, but it seemed like too much work. Water under the bridge, and all that. “Never thought you were the reading type.”
“I don’t have time for this, Lucretia,” Jezebel said. The fire in her brain no longer carried enough pain to send her crawling across the floor, but neither had it gone out. It was a slow, throbbing burn at the base of her skull, a constant warning that the Dark One had demands, and would see them delivered.
“Well, I’m glad you’re so busy, Jez,” Lucretia said, turning back to the TV. She would give this woman whatever she wanted, just to make her go away, but not without making her wait a little out of sheer spite.
Jezebel stalked around the corner of the desk and into the librarian’s space, something that not even the most insolent of teenage brats had ever done. “Hey,” Lucretia said, again unhappy with the lack of rage in her voice, but not willing to summon the energy to do anything about it. “What do you think—“
“Lucretia, look at me,” Jezebel said, and focused her Touch. She wouldn’t be able to do this if the library had any customers — third parties always found it off-putting to see her Touch a person, and they always tried to interfere — but it was a much more rare thing for the disintegrating bookshelves to be browsed, than not. She did a breathing cycle, then repeated, “Lucretia, look at me.”
Lucretia stared into her eyes. Her face did not achieve the pleasant blankness that the girl’s had the night before; Lucretia’s age affected the process, and the Dark One’s anger had lessened the power of the Touch. But she stared with the intensity of a person reading an interesting and complicated nonfiction article, and she did not blink or look away.
“I want to ease the pain between us,” Jezebel said, “and make an offering of peace. Come to my house, share a cup of tea with me, and we will be at peace.”
“At peace,” Lucretia murmured.
Jezebel would not be able to get this woman into the cave. A tranced person could not drive, and the Dark One’s anger would not hold out over that long a walk. But if she could get Lucretia into her basement, there were rituals she could perform that would create some partial relief from the Dark One. She rarely offered women from town to Him, and had never done it in her own home, but there was no choice now.
Jezebel glanced out the library’s front window, to see if anyone was parked in the street. Her glance took her eyes past the television, and she froze.
The girl was on the television.
The FBI had announced an arrest in the array of computer-engineered bomb threats leveled at Sapphire’s concerts, but Jezebel neither understood this nor cared about it. She asked Lucretia, “Who is she?”
“Who is she,” Lucretia echoed vaguely. Her eyes never left Jezebel’s face.
Jezebel hissed impatiently. She palmed Lucretia’s chin, turning her head towards the screen, and asked, “Who. Is. That. Girl?!” before turning the elderly woman’s eyes back toward her own.
“Famous singer,” Lucretia said.
“Why is she here?!”
“Why is she here.”
Jezebel hissed again, harsher. Clearly the girl could not be offered so easily to the Dark One. She probably had a whole entourage with her, who had taken her away from the Dark One last night. And, even if Jezebel could avoid so many helpers, the girl’s disappearance would cause far more police to arrive here than Jezebel could deflect or control.
The upside was that the girl had money, power, influence. Jezebel remembered Ed Sullivan announcing Elvis Presley, and an entire roomful of young women screaming at such a volume that the subsequent song was rendered irrelevant. That had been early in her career as Jezebel, and drunk as she had been with the amount of control she had gained over the town’s men, she had not been impressed with Presley. But perhaps she should have been. Popular music could be a Touch in its own way, one that might not be able to destroy the mind of an individual person, but could put a forceful bend on the wills of thousands. Millions.
Jezebel, who been born in the armpit of Arkansas and had not graduated high school, saw possibilities open up before her that she could not even comprehend.
A particularly intense pulse of fire at the base of her skull reminded Jezebel of the task at hand. She took Lucretia by the wrists and guided her to her feet. “Lucretia, come to me,” she said, walking backward through the library, beginning her next breathing cycle.
She really would offer Lucretia a cup of tea before she was done. The condemned deserve no less.
If Jennifer had left the diner and driven through town on Route 52 at exactly that moment, she would have seen Jezebel walk Lucretia across the street. Instead, Jennifer sat in her rental car for another few moments, leaving the engine running, trying to make a plan. Then she said aloud to the empty car, “Fuck it.” She turned off the engine and walked back into the diner.
“Forget somethin’, hon?” the matronly waitress said as she entered. “Y’know, you look just like that singer who was on the tee—“
“Who is Jezebel?” Jennifer said.
“Who?” The woman played ignorant, but Jennifer did not buy it for a second.
“Jezebel. The guy in the hardware store seemed really upset about her. He did this to me,” Jennifer said, pulling down the sleeve of her hoodie. The places where the cashier had gripped her arm were already bruising, the marks moving from maroon to purple.
“Well, I’m real sorry to see that, hon. You want some ice?”
“I want to know who Jezebel is. I grew up in a small town, like this one. Anyone who could create that much drama would instantly become the most famous person in town. The old men in the back of the diner would talk about her every day.”
The woman went to the end of the counter furthest from the entry to the kitchen, and began wiping the counter furiously. Jennifer followed her, and was ready to start shouting, when she realized that the woman was muttering at the countertop while she wiped it. “You don’t wanna say that name too loud around here,” she said.
“Why?” Jennifer asked, hunching over the counter in kind. “Who is she?”
“A leech,” the woman said. “A bloodsucker attached to the neck of this town.”
“I hope that’s not all you have to say,” Jennifer said.
The woman gave her a sharp look, then turned her head back down toward the counter. “You know how they say half of all marriages end in divorce? In this county, it’s more like ninety percent, and Jezebel is why. She’s got that thing, the thing you only see from women on TV. She drives the guys crazy. Literally crazy, sometimes.”
Ninety percent sounded like an exaggeration, but even so… “That’s a lot of outraged women,” Jennifer said. “And this is NRA country. No one’s ever showed up at her house with a gun?”
“You don’t get it,” the woman said. “When you see her, you realize that you deserved what she did to you. You just let her have her way, let it go, move on.”
“So why would Jezebel care about me? I’m single.”
“Hell if I know,” the woman said. “You’re chippy enough, maybe she thinks you’re competition. Now get the hell outta here. Billy and Jez had a thing.”
Jennifer took a step back, looking up at the kitchen. Billy was in the back, washing dishes, not looking at them. But Jennifer had hardly been paying attention to him over the entire conversation. During her meal, she hadn’t even bothered to take note of what he looked like.
She turned, went out to the car, and started it. But where to go?
Jennifer realized that she was about to have a problem. Assume this Jezebel woman was involved with what happened last night. That meant she knew where Jennifer lived, and she had something (Jennifer assumed a Taser, or something crazy like a tranquilizer dart) that could knock her out without her seeing it coming.
The Handlers would have been ideal, as no one in town would know them either, but Jennifer had blown her chance there. She did not have a safe place to sleep tonight.
Go to Branson, get a hotel. Come back tomorrow morning, find this Jezebel, and fuck her up.
But she would be recognized in Branson, for sure. Hell, it had almost just happened in the diner. She was pressing her luck anywhere but the cabin. And also—
(the ghost of a gentle tug on her lower lip)
—she didn’t want to be pushed off of her own property. She decided she would return to the cabin now. And prepare herself for the coming evening.
Jezebel’s house was a simple one-story ranch-style, three blocks away from Route 52 on a dirt road that had long been called Elm Street. The irony of this name was lost on Jezebel, who had last watched a popular movie in the year before Bogart and Bacall had married.
Like most homes here in tornado country, Jezebel’s house had a actual basement: dug into the ground, lined with concrete, and split into two rooms by a load-bearing wall like any other space in the house.
The main room of the basement had only one piece of furniture in it: a round end table, about two feet in diameter, that sat square in the middle of the room. On this table sat a large stone, obsidian black in color. Any geologist who viewed that rock, should his sanity remain intact afterward, would judge it the most revolutionary find in the history of his science.
There was a fair amount of blood in the room. A large splash on the floor, bigger than the vinyl records on which Jezebel had first discovered music, stood between the table and the stairs leading up to the house proper. Then, a trail of blood, like an obscene parody of the Yellow Brick Road, emerged from the splash, curved around the table, and led into the basement’s smaller room.
Jezebel emerged from the smaller basement room. Her black dress carried no noticeable stains, though her hands were red to the elbows with blood. She carried a kitchen knife whose blade was six inches long and an inch-and-a-half wide at its widest point. The knife, like her hands, was covered in blood.
Jezebel wrapped her free hand around the knife blade, feeling the cut that she was making, letting her own blood mix with the blood on the blade. Then, she placed her hand on the stone. She closed her eyes and began to whisper, three sentences over and over, in a bastardized Welsh dialect that was older than Stonehenge.
She stood there, repeating the phrases, for twenty minutes by her kitchen’s clock. Then, a gravelly voice said, loud enough to fill the entire room:
Five seconds after the voice had died out, Jezebel opened her eyes. “Damn,” she murmured.
There was much that she did not understand about the Dark One, but one thing she did know: communicating with him was difficult. Even the first time they had spoken, when He had laid out the details of their Agreement, he had not been talkative, and now she was lucky to get three words from Him in a month. She could not ignore the effort of two words now. The Dark One did not want the girl to die.
Jezebel smiled. It had been a long time since she’d needed to improvise.
Although she had been told that the cabin was well-hidden and untraceable to prying journalistic eyes, that did not mean that Jennifer had skimped on security. The land line that would have been used for phone service instead was dedicated to send an emergency call to the security company if the alarms were triggered, so she was not completely without the ability to call for help. Every door had a lock, every window had a sensor, and she had been told they were all the highest state of the art.
As soon as she arrived at the house, with several hours of sunlight remaining, Jennifer locked every door and turned off every light. She stripped the covers off the bed and laid them out on the floor, in a narrow space between the bed and the bedroom wall, a place where no one walking past the window would be able to see her. She laid down with some bottled water, the last of the granola bars that she had packed for her car drive, her Mace, her phone, and her knife.
The knife was an Emerson folding knife, gifted to her by the tough ex-Marine who had once been her bodyguard. He hadn’t taught her a lot about self-defense, because doing violence to other people was supposed to be his job. But he had taught her the basics, just in case she was caught in a tight spot with a psycho fan, and she was sure that a small-town sex tyrant like this Jezebel wouldn’t even be ready for the basics.
Jennifer laid down while the sunlight outside was still bright and strong. Her plan was to sleep during the afternoon as much as she could, so that she could stay awake well into the night. Last night this Jezebel had struck right after sundown, so she thought that by midnight, either she would have triggered the alarms and called in the authorities, or Jezebel wasn’t going to try anything.
Her plan had just one flaw: she was so nervous that it was impossible to get any sleep in the afternoon. She was thinking about her phone, which she had checked right before lying down: still no signal. How was that possible? How could any place within an hour’s drive of a place like Branson have no cell service for an entire day?
She first lay down at 2:47pm by the phone clock; she might have napped a little around 3:30, but she was wide awake by 4, and from then until sundown. As the light outside grew less and less, one thought dominated her mind more and more: this may have been a really terrible idea.
Shortly after checking her phone at 7:03 p.m., the sun clearly down judging from the lack of light, Jennifer heard a woman’s voice say, “Jennifer.”
She started, nearly jumping out of the makeshift bedroll she had made for herself. The voice was loud, as though it were right outside, but she had heard no one moving. Had this been how it had started yesterday? Something about that voice seemed … familiar.
“Jennifer,” the woman said. “I know you’re there. Won’t you speak to me?”
Although the voice was low and mature, if it was Jezebel’s, she didn’t sound to Jennifer like the sort of man-eater type that had been described. This woman’s entreaties sounded lonely, plaintive, even pathetic. Maybe I should go out there and talk to her, Jennifer thought. Maybe that’s the best way to find out what happened last night.
She shook her head violently. What the hell are you talking about?! her voice of reason hollered. If there’s one thing you know happened last night, it’s that you decided to leave the cabin!
“Jennifer, please,” the voice said. “Come to me.”
The first thing she was going to do was, she was going to figure out who exactly this woman was, and how much help she had. Jennifer left the makeshift bed, crawled on her hands and knees out of the bedroom, across the living room to the security panel by the back door, and slapped the oversized button labeled LIGHTS.
Jezebel felt good. The gift of Lucretia had smothered the pain in her head. It hadn’t completely gone away — she had a knot at the base of her skull, like a muscle cramp, except it was in a place where no one ever cramped up. She also felt good because she was sure the girl was in the cabin. That was the power of the Kiss: it had linked the girl to her in ways that were not so easy to get away from.
The only problem was, she could not use any spells, not without bringing His wrath back twice as strong. She knew it intuitively: Lucretia had not been payment enough for that. Without spells, it would be impossible to get through the locked doors. She should have brought Talbot along for that, but she hadn’t expected the girl would be resistant enough to hide.
A set of lights on each corner of the cabin blazed to life, turning the entire forest around the house bright as mid-day. Jezebel hissed and shrank back into the shadows, behind the giant pine she had used the night before.
The lights were too bright to see anything beyond them: too bright to see through the windows into the house. The girl was counteracting the Touch perfectly, almost as if she knew how it worked.
Jezebel set her jaw. This would require some finesse.
Jennifer peeked her eyes over the edge of the patio door’s window. She’d been told that the lights were so bright, she could be standing in front of the door and no one outside could see her, but she was taking no chances.
She saw the clearing which she thought of as the cabin’s “backyard,” the first few stragglers of trees at the backyard’s edge, and then the darkness of the forest beyond. She saw no people, no sort of vehicle that might have been needed to haul her unconscious body, nothing.
“Jennifer, come to me,” the voice said. The voice still had that presence, that gravity, as though the speaker was standing right next to her. But she could see no one, no tracks, and no shadows.
Jennifer crawled across the living room and kitchen to the front door, and peeked there. That area was just as well-lit: she could see her car, and the tracks leading from the spot the Handlers had parked in earlier that day. Nothing else. She considered the car, but that would expose her to—
—whatever the woman’s secret weapon was.
“Jennifer, won’t you come to me? I need you,” the voice said. It was definitely out behind the house, somewhere near the backyard, if not visible from the patio door.
Jennifer crawled back to the security panel by the back door, and sat with her back to the wall, thinking. Gotta calm down. Gotta think. What exactly am I afraid of here?
She didn’t know. Nothing had activated her memory; she couldn’t prove that this woman was in the woods last night. But something was not right. That plaintive “I need you” had felt weird, even weirder than the most stalker-ish fan mail.
What do I do about it?
She could trigger the alarm. But any response could take forever to get out here, giving this woman (and any friends she might have) plenty of time to get away. She would have no evidence that they had actually—
(the lingering ghost of a tug on her lower lip)
—done anything to her.
“Jennifer, come to me,” the voice said.
So maybe you give her something. Go out there and go along with her. Just to get some evidence.
The idea sounded so good that Jennifer had turned and put her hand on the door handle, before remembering that she herself had locked the door from the inside, and then realizing what she was doing.
“Damn it!” she said, letting go of the door handle as though it had turned red-hot. Why did she keep thinking she could be safe out there? It was safe in here!
Okay then, Jennifer thought. Wait her out. She doesn’t want to come into the light, which means you’ve got a 10-20 yard safe zone, plus the house is locked up like a tank. Make her come up here and touch something, set off the alarm, at which point you’ve got all the evidence you need.
Honestly, it made as much sense as any plan she could come up with. What, exactly, could that woman do from fifty feet away? Not a damn thing.
She crawled back into the bedroom, peeked out of each of the windows to make sure that the voice’s owner was not standing outside them, then crawled back under her blanket.
“Jennifer,” the voice said. It still sounded like it was in the backyard. The lights were doing their job; she didn’t know what room Jennifer was in, and she was staying in the same place rather than reveal herself. “Won’t you see me? I’ve come so far, and I need rest.”
Oh, isn’t that just too fucking bad, Jennifer thought.
“Jennifer, I can’t be here all night. I need rest.”
Jennifer stretched out her legs, feeling satisfied. She’s going to go with her sad-sack act because she has nothing left. This is working.
“Jennifer, it’s so late and I’m so tired. I need rest.”
Lying on her back, head pointed up at the ceiling, Jennifer smiled. Come on, she thought. It’s not that late. I live in L.A., we go on and on to the break of dawn.
“Jennifer, please. It’s so important to rest.”
Her voice sounds further away, Jennifer thought. She’s retreating. I got all freaked out over nothing. I’ll be fine. I can rest.
“Jennifer, I know you understand. It’s so late and we need our rest.”
Maybe we’ve been at this a while after all, Jennifer thought. It feels late. I need some rest.
“Please, Jennifer. I just want to feel warm and safe and ready to rest.”
Well, too bad, Sister, ‘cause that’s where I am. Warm and safe and ready to rest. Jennifer closed her eyes.
“Warm and safe and ready to rest.” The voice was fading away, deeper into the backyard, becoming background noise in Jennifer’s mind.
Yup, warm and safe and ready to rest.
“Warm and safe and ready to rest.”
Warm and safe and ready to rest.
“Warm and safe and ready to rest.”
Warm and safe and ready to rest.
“Warm and safe.”
“Ready to rest,” Jennifer murmured aloud. Her closed eyelids never moved.
Jezebel walked around the house, repeating the phrase “warm and safe,” each repetition followed by a breathing cycle. She finally stopped by one of the bedroom windows, where she felt, as much as heard, a voice inside saying, “Ready to rest. Ready to rest. Ready to rest.”
She looked into the window and saw no one. The voice seemed to be coming from the floor. She was hiding behind the opposite side of the bed, or on the floor at this side of the bed — either spot would be at an angle where she could not be seen from the windows. Again, Jezebel was struck by the fact that this one was evading the Touch as though she knew how it worked.
She could suggest that the girl get up and walk outside, but that was risky. Hypnosis was not as reliable as the Touch, and that much movement could wake her up. Jezebel had another plan.
“Jennifer, it’s so important to be deeply and completely at rest,” she said. “Are you deeply and completely at rest?”
“I need to leave soon. You never came out of the cabin, and I left. That’s what happened tonight. Do you understand?”
“Good. Tomorrow, you’ll find yourself wanting to have lunch at a bar in Cedar Grove called the Silver Kettle. It’s a public place, so you know that it is completely safe. Do you understand?”
“In a moment I’d like you to count down, out loud, from ten to one. Each number will make you more and more drowsy, and at one you will be in a deep, normal sleep…” Jezebel smiled wickedly, “…where you will dream of my Kiss. Do you understand?”
“Where will you have lunch tomorrow?”
“What will you dream about?”
“Very good. Start counting now.”
Jezebel wanted to leave early. After all, if she could not turn herself into mist then she was going to have a long walk ahead, as long as it had taken her to get here. But instead she listened to the entire countdown, and then waited long enough to make sure that the security lights shut off by themselves.
With this girl, she decided, it could not hurt to be too careful.
TO BE CONTINUED