Jennifer woke the next morning to considerable pain. There was no position in her makeshift bedroll where she could avoid the aching soreness between her hips. After a few minutes of trying to process the pain, she realized that her panties were soaked through, and that she had done this all herself, masturbating.
She was puzzled. She had never in her life masturbated with such force that she had felt pain. She tried to recall the dream she’d had which had turned her on so intensely, but she could not quite remember—
(a tongue, firmly exploring every inch of her slack lips)
—what it had been about.
Jennifer walked gingerly into the shower and cleaned up. As the water poured down onto her, she made her plans for the day. She thought that she might be able to get some writing done, because it had become clear to her that the strange woman in the woods last night was all bark and—
(the tug on her lower lip, pulling her forward on legs growing increasingly weaker as her hips bucked with the force of the orgasm)
But, the more she thought about it, the more she thought that she should go to Cedar Grove that day. She wanted to know more about Jezebel. The woman at the diner had seemed to suggest that many people — possibly every single woman — in the town had been wronged by her in some way. Jennifer still did not understand how such a woman could bring about so much resentment and not eventually be forced to leave town.
She would have lunch in town, and she what she could see about this Jezebel. The woman could do nothing to her, or else she already would have tried it last night. What could go wrong?
Driving past the gas and grocery, Jennifer wondered if it would not be wiser to buy something and take it back with her to the cabin. Why continue to risk being recognized by someone?
She couldn’t say. But she wanted to have lunch in town. Someplace public. Jezebel was still out there, and it might be useful to eat lunch in a public place, where she would be—
(safe and warm and ready to rest)
—seen by other people.
She passed by the diner, assuming the proprietor would still be hostile after asking her for information the day before. Instead, she drove down the meager highway that served as Cedar Grove’s main street, looking for inspiration. And she found it in the form of a sign which proclaimed The Silver Kettle Bar & Grille.
The building looked dire. It was the saddest mini-mall that Jennifer had ever seen, and growing up in this region she had seen a lot of sad mini-malls. But The Silver Kettle was a decent-sized bar, and she could see people inside though the pane-glass windows, so she assumed it was open. She wasn’t going to do much better than this.
Entering the bar, Jennifer saw that the space looked even bigger than it seemed from the outside. There was a bar, a smattering of tables, and a back room with more tables and booths. Best of all, the televisions were off, so even if Sapphire was in the news she felt like she could hide here. Jennifer went to that back room, picking a corner booth out of sight, but she saw that she didn’t have to worry. The back room was empty.
Jennifer had not eaten in a bar in years — basically, since that first year in L.A., before she had been able to get her demo made. Now, she had a strict diet and a personal chef to maintain her dancer’s body, and bar food was not a part of the plan. But she didn’t mind cheating; what was this trip, if not a chance to let go of her standard rules?
That was what she was thinking when she saw a dark-clothed form enter her peripheral vision and slide into the opposite seat of her booth. She looked up to see a striking older woman, pale and dressed entirely in black. Jennifer noticed that her hair and her eyes were the same color: a dark brown verging on black, with impressive flecks of a warm, natural red.
“Don’t order the chicken fingers,” the woman said. She had a full, mature voice, and pairing that with her regal posture, Jennifer might have put her age near fifty. But there was not a single age line on her face. “It’s as likely to be mouse as bird.”
“Excuse me,” Jennifer said, “do I know you?” She spoke the words with a tone that said, I don’t really give a shit if I do know you, I don’t appreciate you getting in my space like this, especially with that really disgusting little factoid.
“I don’t know,” the woman said. She slid her hand across the surface of the table and touched the tip of her index finger to the tip of Jennifer’s index finger.
Jennifer felt a wave of pleasure galvanize her body. Her entire torso below the belly button was ignited, not just warm but hot, as hot as she’d been the first time she’d made out with a Hollywood actress. Then the wave of heat seemed to change, to grow and move with a purpose, up her spine with an electric tingle that caused her to shudder all over. She gasped for breath, stopping herself from moaning only by thinking over and over, there are people at the bar there are people at the bar there are people—
The woman withdrew her hand a few inches, breaking the contact as she said, “Do we know each other?” The pleasure tailed off, becoming less of a full-body wave and more a pulsing warmth in her crotch.
The woman looked at Jennifer as though the question were not rhetorical. As though she expected an answer. “My God,” Jennifer said between gasps. “Who are you?”
“My Kiss can make the mind forget,” the woman said. Her voice was low and even, and she said the word Kiss in such a way that even Jennifer seemed to understand its proper-noun status. “But the body never forgets.”
Jennifer remembered what the woman at the diner had said. She’s got that thing. “Jezebel,” she whispered. She half-remembered the rage that she had once aimed at this woman, but could not make an emotional connection to it, not after the unbelievable burst of pleasure that had just happened.
“Ah,” the older woman said. “You do remember after all.”
“We’ve met before?” Jennifer said. She shifted in her seat, the warm tingle in her pussy so pleasurable that she was afraid to get too comfortable with it.
Jezebel moved her hand forward, touching the finger tips again. Even though she had felt the pleasure already, just seconds before, Jennifer was completely unprepared for how strong it was the second time. Her hips convulsed, and she felt a warm wetness on her legs and panties. She rolled her shoulders as the pleasure arced up and down her back.
“Does that feel like the touch of a stranger?” the woman said. She smiled, seductively, and Jennifer found herself wondering what it would feel like—
(knees getting weak as the lips pulled on her lower lip)
—to be kissed by this woman.
“I … ahhhh …” There are people at the bar! her mind screamed, trying to keep the cries of pleasure trapped inside her throat. “I’ve never seen you.”
“Someday I’ll allow you to remember,” the woman said. “Right now I think it may be too much.”
She broke the contact of their fingertips, and Jennifer slumped in her seat. The soreness in her crotch was returning, but it was coupled with a warmth so pleasurable that it was hard to distinguish between it and the pain.
Think! Jennifer told herself. While she’s not doing whatever she’s doing. Think! “What did you do to me the other night?” she said. She wanted the words to come out strong, forceful, even outraged. Instead, it was all she could do to keep the question from sounding like a whimper. “They found me unconscious in the forest.”
The woman’s seductive smile vanished. “Who?” she said. “Who found you?”
Jennifer cursed herself. The pain had caused her to forget that she had not intended to introduce the Handlers to this, even though she still didn’t quite understand what this was. “What did you do to me?” she repeated.
She saw Jezebel move, and wanted to pull her hands back, hide them under the table or some such. But her arms were weak and exhausted, just like the rest of her body, and there was never any chance. This time Jezebel put her entire hand over Jennifer’s entire hand. Jennifer instantly snapped out of her slouch, sitting bolt upright, a soldier at full attention. The pleasure was everything in the world. It was as if every square inch of her skin was a labia, and every one of those labia were being kissed, slowly and firmly, by someone who knew just how to do it right. Over and over she tried to catch herself from crying out with passion, such that instead she began to whine, a small sound with no self-consciousness whatsoever.
“I’m sore,” she gasped between whines. Her loins felt like her calves would feel after a particularly long and punishing dance rehearsal. “Please, so sore…”
“Who found you?!” Jezebel wasn’t quite angry, not yet, but she was on her way there. For this little wench to take the pleasure so willingly, yet withhold the information that Jezebel needed for her satisfaction? The nerve!
“Nnnnnn,” Jennifer said. Even a simple denial was nearly impossible amidst the waves of pleasure rocking her mind, overloading her entire nervous system. “Nuhhhh…”
Abruptly, Jezebel took her hand away and instead focused her Touch. “Look at me,” she said quietly.
To Jennifer’s ears, the words sounded like a shout, booming through the entire room and echoing off the walls. She could not deny them. Her gaze went to Jezebel’s face and became lost in those eyes, sinking into the dark, with red embers whirling all around her. The pleasure was forgotten; her body might as well have gone numb.
“Who found you?” Jezebel said.
“The Handlers,” Jennifer heard herself say, miles away.
Jezebel took this answer to mean the handlers that this girl would need as a singer, her assistants or whatever the Hollywood types called them. “How many are they?”
“How often are they around you?”
Jennifer’s brow furrowed slightly, which Jezebel knew to be massive confusion on a non-tranced person. “They aren’t around me,” the girl said. “Their cabin is five miles away.”
Jezebel wanted to push deeper, but she sensed the approaching waitress before she saw her. “Excuse me,” the waitress said, and Jezebel broke the Touch. Jennifer slumped forward, forehead nearly touching the table, gasping for breath, completely disoriented. The sharp turns her mind had just taken, from uncontrollable passion to deepest peace to normalcy, left her unable to think clearly.
“Do I need to call someone?” the waitress said. “Because she does not look well.” Her tone was hostile, suggesting that Jezebel was doing something wrong. That was how it always went, when she used the Touch in public. Somehow they could always sense the quintessence of the Dark One, and the wrongness of being so close to even a tiny part of Him. When they confronted her about it, they treated Jezebel with the most insolence that anyone could possibly manage in her presence.
“Yes, you should call someone,” Jezebel said. “My friend is quite drunk. She came to this bar for more, and I came here to stop her, but she’s not in any state to listen to me. You should call the sheriff.”
The waitress hesitated, for half a second. Something wasn’t quite right here. She’d seen the younger woman come in, and she hadn’t looked so plastered that she would be unable to sit upright. The waitress knew for a fact that she had not even ordered a drink yet. But to question the older woman would start an argument, and the waitress decided that it was not a fight worth having. The younger girl was clearly messed up. It was best to do as the older woman said.
She went to the phone to call the Sheriff.
Jennifer needed several minutes just to understand where she was. She remembered talking with Jezebel amidst the waves of unbearable pleasure, but at some point everything had become a blur. Had she passed out momentarily? It seemed possible.
She only came back to herself fully when a shadow fell over her. She looked up to see Talbot standing there. “You look like you’ve had a few too many, miss,” he said.
“Take her to her cabin,” Jezebel said. “Then come back to my place. We need to talk. Privately.”
Talbot gave her a look, although Jennifer was too disoriented to sense the dynamic—
(Don’t give me orders in front of other people. I’m the Sheriff here, damn it)
(I’ll command you however I choose, and you’ll enjoy it)
—that passed between them in that moment. Rather than voice the thoughts he was having, he grabbed Jennifer by the arm, just above the elbow. “Let’s go.”
“No,” Jennifer managed. “No...”
“Relax,” Talbot said. “You’re not under arrest. We just need to keep you from making a scene.”
The walk to the police cruiser was the worst part of her entire trip to the bar. Jennifer’s entire lower body ached, and the Sheriff’s grip on her arm was unsympathetic, so her journey from the back booth to the back seat of the Sheriff’s cruiser was equal parts walking under her own power, stumbling, and being dragged. She could feel every eye at the bar on her, and could almost taste their indifference: even those among them who had some inkling about Jezebel saw this as typical town business, and not a one among them would raise a finger or a voice to help.
Finally, Jennifer was dropped in a heap in the cruiser’s back seat. When the Sheriff had climbed behind the wheel, she said, “What is she?”
“What do you think she is?” Talbot said, as he started the cruiser. “Friend, lover, home wrecker, witch... she’s claimed to be all of those things at one time or another, and nobody in town disagrees.”
“Witch?” Even after everything that had just happened in the bar, Jennifer still found the implications of that word hard to process.
“I tried to warn you,” the Sheriff said. “There is shit in these hills so scary that you’d hardly believe it.”
“Pro tip,” Jennifer said. “The mental image of a gang of murderous meth-heads is not a good warning.”
Incredibly, the Sheriff laughed. It was the long, healthy laugh of someone watching a good stand-up comedian. “I’ll keep that in mind,” he said after he was done.
“My car,” Jennifer said. “If you want me to leave town, I’ll need my car.”
“Oh, it’s too late for leavin’,” Talbot said, and his tone — casual, almost offhand — sent a of pure horror down her spine.
As the cruiser passed through the intersection of 52 and 17, Jennifer opened her mouth to vent her outrage. Just what the hell do you mean by THAT?, she might have said, or something similar. Instead, her body was galvanized again, but not by pleasure.
This time, there was only pain.
Every kind of pain she could imagine, described by every adjective she had ever used: stabbing, burning, lancing, grinding, and hundreds more that she had never before considered. The worst pain in her entire life up to that point — an ankle sprained so badly that the paramedics had thought it broken, which had forced her to do shows in a walking boot for a month — was insignificant by comparison. She yelled, an incoherent expression of raw animal pain.
“Ah, there she goes,” Talbot said blandly. He did not slow the car down, or even turn in his seat to look at her.
“What is this?!” Jennifer shouted. She writhed in agony in the backseat, wanting to curl up into the fetal position but feeling her entire lower torso explode in pain if she tried to move her legs.
“It’s what she does,” Talbot said. “Never seen it with a woman before. With me, hurt so bad I wanted to rip off my own dick.”
Jennifer groaned, half in agony and half in disgust at his vile imagery.
“Tried to tell you,” Talbot said. “Scariest shit I ever seen in these hills.”
“What does she want?!” Jennifer shouted. The pain went on and on. There seemed to be no bottom.
“Hell if I know,” Talbot said mildly. “Told you I never seen her treat a woman like this before.”
“How,” Jennifer said, the agony drawing the word out and turning it into a horrific groan: Hoooouuuunnngghhh.
“Couldn’t possibly be that she’s a witch,” Talbot said, displaying more of a light touch with his sarcasm than she would have given him credit for.
Minute after painful minute crawled by, until finally the cruiser pulled to a halt. Talbot turned in his seat and looked back at her for the first time.
“I’m gonna tell you how it is,” he said. “If you listen close and pay attention, I’ll carry you inside. If you give me shit, I’m gonna pull you out of that seat, and leave you in the gravel t’crawl your way in. Do you understand?”
In her right mind she would have showed him some snark, but the pain had so blinded her that she could barely remember her own name. “Yes,” she gasped. “Yes, yeah, uh-huh, yes.”
“Something special is goin’ on with you,” Talbot said. “Most of the time, when a hot little chickie shows up from outta town, she’s never heard from again after that first night. I don’t know what Jezebel does with ‘em, an’ I don’t wanna know. But you’re still here, which means you got something she needs. You understand?”
Jennifer was in too much pain to be chilled by the idea that she should not have survived that first night. She was in too much pain to react angrily to the phrase hot little chickie. She gritted her teeth and nodded.
“Plus, I’m not racist or nothing, but Jez doesn’t tolerate the darker peoples. You understand that?”
Jennifer, who had long ago started expecting ugly statements to follow the phrase I’m not racist or nothing but, nodded.
“So you should think about that. Think about how easily you could be dead right now, and what it means that you aren’t. Then, when Jezebel comes and asks for whatever she wants, you should give it to her. Because as bad as you’re hurtin’ right now, this is not the worst it can get. Do you understand?”
Jennifer tried to compose herself as best she could. The pain did not make it easy. “Yes,” she said in a low voice.
“Okay,” Talbot said. Then he got out of the car, came over to the seat closest to her head, and pulled her out gently. He carried her to the door in his arms, like a newlywed husband carrying his wife to the threshold.
As he stepped up onto the front porch she said between gasps of pain, “She hurts people … like this … a lot.”
“All the time,” Talbot said. “Just about every man left in town has felt just like you do now.”
“And she … makes women … disappear.”
“For years,” Talbot said, stepping through the door and into the cabin’s living room.
Jennifer took as deep a breath as she could mange, gathering herself. “And you just sit in your car and let it happen,” she said, not gasping between words, letting her contempt fly free and whip across his face. “You fucking coward.”
He stopped in place. For a moment they stared coldly at each other, their faces not a foot distant. Then he dropped her onto the hardwood floor.
The fall was about four feet. When she hit the floor it felt as though a bomb went off inside her pelvis. She screamed, but the pain had taken so much out of her that she did not sound like a horror-movie banshee. She sounded like a dying animal caught in a trap.
“You’ll live,” Talbot said. His face was a block of stone. “She’ll make sure of that. She’ll let you live long enough to give you an order, and you’ll do it, no hesitation. And here’s the thing: you won’t do it because you’re afraid of the pain. You’ll do it because, if she has the power to hurt you, that means she’s already made you cum.”
Through the pain, Jennifer reflected how some people talked about an orgasm and you could tell they were thinking the word come, and others could talk about the same orgasm and you knew they were thinking of cum.
“You’ll think about how she made you cum,” Talbot said, “and it will be the most important memory you’ll have in your life. It will be the last light in your brain at the moment before you die. You will do anything, anything, to cum like that again. At that moment you’ll be every bit the coward I am, and more. Enjoy it.”
He turned and left, not even bothering to close the front door behind him. A moment later she heard the cruiser growl to life and drive off.
Jennifer lay on the floor, trying to be as still as humanly possible, hoping that would help the pain go away. It did not help. The agony went on and on, a train crossing the flattest part of Kansas at a steady speed that it could maintain for hours.
“Hours,” Jennifer said aloud. “God help me.”
She stretched out her arms, placing the palms flat on the hardwood, and pulled herself across the floor. She did not think of what she was doing as crawling, because you needed your legs to crawl. She tried to keep her legs as still as she could, but even so, the motion of pulling herself across the floor caused the legs to stretch out and flex. The agony that roared through them as a result made her think, this is what it must be like to crawl over broken glass.
She had no idea how long it took her to reach the kitchen island. It was another long, arduous process to use the handles of the drawers and cabinets on the kitchen island to pull herself up into a fully standing position. But then she was finally there, balanced on legs that felt like burning stilts, looking at her phone in the cradle.
No fucking bars.
Apparently she’d had signal at some point that day, because there was a notification of a new text from Karen. Instead of looking at it, she said in a croaking voice, “Siri, dial nine-one-one on speakerphone.”
“DIALING NINE. ONE. ONE,” the digital assistant said.
Jennifer waited for an unbearable minute, trying to make a plan through the pain. The accusation would be kidnapping, and she would tell the operator Talbot was in on it. And if it happened to be a local operator who was on Talbot’s side? She would offer them bribes, concert tickets, backing vocals on the next goddamn album. She would talk her way from operator to operator to the State Police to the FBI to the fucking orange President, if that was what it took.
Then the blaring, irritating beep came out of the phone’s speakers. Somehow, 911 was a dead line.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Jennifer croaked. And then, because she could not think of anything else to do: “Siri, read me the text from Karen.”
“KAREN WRITES. GREAT NEWS. EFF BEE EYE MADE AN ARREST ON THE TROLL THING. THIS LOSER IS GOING DOWN. THUMBS UP EMOJI.”
“Fantastic,” Jennifer croaked, and then her vision washed over with gray. She managed to grab hold of two of the kitchen island’s cabinet doors, guiding herself to the floor as her legs gave out and the darkness came over her.
Jim Talbot thought that the strangest aspect of his relationship with Jezebel was that, even now, he still treated it like … well, like a relationship.
He still started off by kissing her on the lips, even though it felt like kissing a dead fish. He still nuzzled her neck and her breasts, trying to bring forth a hickey, although her skin had never had a mark on it in all the time that he had known her. He still undressed her and allowed her to undress him, although they had done the deed fully clothed when they first met. Afterward, he still lounged in her bed as though he had accomplished anything at all with her, as though she had not been the one punishing him for hours.
Lying in bed together, Jezebel said to him, “The girl has handlers. People who live in a cabin five miles up the road from hers. Do you know them?”
Talbot felt his heart sink. He did indeed know who she was talking about, and it pained him to think of how this woman would ruin those perfectly decent people by the time she was done.
“Yeah,” he said. “A married couple, Dan and Donna Handler. But their cabin is just over the county line, Jez. Outside my jurisdiction.” It was a true statement, but he could already anticipate Jezebel’s response, and it would be true also.
“You’ve gone outside your lines for me before,” Jezebel said.
“That doesn’t mean I can do it every time you ask, Jez,” Talbot said, trying one more time even though he knew it was futile. “I got masters just like you do.”
Under the sheets, she gripped his member with one hand. He was instantly erect, with such intensity that he squirmed under her touch. The only reason he did not ejaculate on the spot was because he deeply accepted her control over that. “Do not speak of Him again,” she said. “I want these Handlers. You will help me.”
It was exactly as he had said to the Jones woman. If he said no, or equivocated further, Jezebel could cause such agony in his penis that no living man could possibly imagine. But it was not fear of that pain which made his decision. It was the knowledge that, after he agreed with her, she would draw a climax from him which would eclipse any other he’d ever had. “Yes, Jez,” he said.
“Good,” Jezebel said. She rolled over until she was on top of him, somehow never losing her grip as she did so. He felt a surge of adrenaline, as he always did with her, the sensation that something amazing was about to happen.
“I’ll have to be quick,” Jezebel said. “Billy from the diner is coming over.”
In normal circumstances, acknowledging that he was sharing her with half the town might have killed the mood, made him instantly soft. Instead, Talbot finished to his satisfaction. And indeed it was a finish to remember.
“Sapphire! Jennifer! Can you hear me!?”
The thumps were slaps on her face. Well, not slaps exactly, but someone was touching her face with more force than you used for friends or family members. Thump-thump-thump, went the hand on her cheek.
Then Jennifer felt something small touch her on the forehead, and everything changed.
There was a surge of energy all through her body. Her legs kicked on the hardwood floor, the pain which had followed her into unconsciousness now just a memory. Her hands, previously too heavy to bother with, flew to life and—
(Flash of memory: six years old, watching television, singing along with the commercials, “THE BEST PART OF WAKING UP”)
—knocked away the hands that were patting her face.
“Whoa!” Jennifer yelled, her eyes flying open.
Donna was on her knees, a few feet away, holding her hands out in front of her. “Jennifer! It’s okay! It’s Donna!”
Jennifer took a few seconds to re-orient herself. She was lying on the floor next to the kitchen island in her cabin. She could remember checking her phone, and the dead line from 911. The light outside was dimming; she had been unconscious for five hours or more.
“Donna?” she said, sounding like an idiot to her own ears. “What are you doing here?”
“I told you,” Donna said, “I was going to come back.”
Oh, right, Jennifer thought. It seemed like that conversation had happened months ago, but it had only been a couple of days.
“And it’s a good thing that I did come back,” Donna said. “Your car is gone and I found you on the floor like this. What happened? Did someone rob you?”
The weight of what had happened was beginning to settle onto Jennifer’s shoulders. She tested her hips and legs, twisting them until she could sit upright. There was no pain.
“Please,” Jennifer said. “Tell me you have signal on your phone.”
Donna, to her credit, did not hesitate. She yanked out an Android phone and checked the screen. “No,” she said. “I have zero bars. But we can dial nine-eleven anyway.”
“Don’t bother,” Jennifer said, but Donna had already dialed.
“What do you mean, ‘don’t bother’?” Donna said. “I thought you wanted me to call for—“ She broke off, as the obnoxious dead-line tone played from her speakers. Donna stared at her phone, dumbfounded. “What the hell? How is that possible?”
“Donna,” Jennifer said. “I need you to listen. Something is happening to me, but it’s not what you think. It’s going to sound insane, but I swear to you, it’s not mental illness, it’s not a cult thing, it’s not a delusion or whatever else you thought the other day. This is happening. I need you to believe that. Can you believe that?”
Donna took a moment to answer, but when she said, “I’m listening,” there was no doctor-patient patronizing tone. Jennifer decided this was the best she could hope for.
“There’s a woman in Cedar Grove,” Jennifer said, “named Jezebel. She’s got some kind of hold on the town. She’s fucking all of the guys and none of the women try to stop her, even though she’s stealing their husbands and boyfriends. Even the Sheriff, she’s got him wrapped around her little finger.”
Donna winced slightly at the curse — that Midwestern squareness which had driven Jennifer so crazy as a teenager — but she still looked open to believing the story. “So what does she want with you?”
“I’m not sure,” Jennifer said. “I think she wanted me dead, that first night. She left me in the woods, passed out, and it was just luck that you found me. But now she wants me alive. Maybe to kidnap me or something, I don’t know.”
“So we go to Columbia and get the State Police,” Donna said. “She can have the whole county working for her, and they’ll still have her outgunned.”
Her tone was so reasonable, playing rational problem-solver in exactly the same way that she might do during a stint in the emergency room. Jennifer knew that Donna was not ready to hear the next part, but she had no choice now.
“It’s not that simple,” Jennifer said. “Jezebel has ... powers.”
“Powers?” Donna said, furrowing her brow.
“The Sheriff said she was a witch,” Jennifer said. “I didn’t believe it, but then she caused this incredible pain in my body. That’s why I was passed out on the floor. No one attacked me, she did it from miles away. With her mind.”
“With her mind,” Donna echoed.
Just hearing her tone made Jennifer’s heart sink. “I know how it sounds,” she said.
“It sounds impossible,” Donna said. “Because it is.”
“But it happened. I wasn’t passed out on the floor for no reason. It was the worst pain of my life.“
“So she drugged you.”
“No, that can’t be it,” Jennifer said. “She did it before I actually ate or drank anything.”
“Well, maybe she’s drugging this whole cabin,” Donna said. “Like, with gas.”
“But you and Dan spent a night here, and you’re fine, right?”
Donna shrugged, helplessly. “What about hypnosis? That can seem like magic to people who don’t know how it works.”
Jennifer hesitated, realizing that this was a possibility which she could not—
(look away from those eyes, sinking deeper into their darkness with every step deeper into the woods, her arms leaden, her mind a blank chalkboard)
—dismiss out of hand.
“It’s not impossible,” she said slowly. “I mean, I have gaps in my memory, and my assistant — she used hypnosis to quit smoking — she told me that she couldn’t remember the details of her session. But she remembered that there was a session. She remembered consenting to the session, and that he used a metronome to put her under. I don’t remember anything. It’s completely different.”
“But possible,” Donna said, and Jennifer was dismayed to see how eagerly the other woman would jump for any rational possibility. This was never going to work.
“Not the way you’re thinking,” Jennifer said. “Hypnotizing me so fast and so deep that I don’t even remember meeting her? No normal person can do that. We’re back to magic again.”
“It cannot be,” Donna said. “If it were possible, nothing about my job would make sense any more.”
Jennifer doubted that — it was not as if Jezebel was going around Cedar Grove curing cancer — but arguing about it would get well past the point of this discussion. “So,” she said instead, trying to feel her way toward a story on which she and Donna could agree, “let’s say this woman isn’t a witch. There’s no question that she’s crazy, and fixated on me. She wants me to stay here, and she’s got something — drugs or hypnosis or the Traveling Pants or whatever — that causes me unbelievable pain when I try to leave. What are we going to do about it?”
“I go to Columbia,” Donna said. “Get the State Police. Tell them that a crooked Sheriff in Cedar Grove is holding a woman against her will.”
“And what happens when they ask you for proof?” Jennifer said.
“Well, I call you,” Donna began, and immediately understood the problem. “Crap,” she said.
I could trigger the alarms, Jennifer wanted to say, and then had an awful realization. “Wait a minute,” she said. “How did you get in here?”
“The door was standing open,” Donna said.
Jennifer remembered it, though vaguely, and through a haze of pain. “The Sheriff carried me in here,” she said, “and he didn’t ask me about the alarms. I didn’t even think about it, because of how much pain I was in. That alarm should be blaring full-on, and every cop and fire department in the state should know something is wrong here. It isn’t, and they don’t.”
“So what does that mean?” Donna said sardonically. “She shut off the alarms with her magic?”
“Either it’s magic or she’s got some guy in town who’s a hacker,” Jennifer said impatiently. “Call it whatever you want. The point is, not only can I not leave, but I can’t call for help, either.”
“I refuse to accept that,” Donna said. “How about this: on my way to Columbia I call your assistant, your people, whatever you have in L.A. They call the State Police, tell them you came to Missouri and haven’t called or texted for days. Then when I go to the State Police, I’m just backing up the missing-person report they already have.”
Jennifer turned it over in her head. “That might work,” she said.
“It’s still going to take you time to bring them,” Jennifer said. “I think, by the time you get back, I won’t be here. Or anywhere else that you can find me.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Donna said.
Jennifer could only shrug. She had no idea. It was just her intuition.
“Then come with me,” Donna said, imploring her. “There is no magic keeping you here. Walk out of the door and get in my car and we go to Columbia together.”
Jennifer shook her head. There was simply no way to explain the pain to Donna. She would never understand it unless and until she could feel it for herself. “No, you go,” she said. “I’ll give you Karen’s number. It’s the best chance.”
And write down the number she did — on a pad of paper because, at that point, she did not trust a single piece of technology in the entire county. Donna took the paper, and gave her a look that said, Are we really just doing this?
“Go now,” Jennifer said. “Get Dan and drive all night. Don’t stop to sleep. If the Sheriff tries to pull you over, just keep driving, make him call in the state cops. And if you see a tall woman with long black hair that has a little red in it, don’t talk to her. Don’t even fucking look at her. Just run.”
Donna took this in, then reached under her shirt and took off some sort of necklace. Jennifer saw a small blue stone on a leather strap. “This was my mother’s,” she said. “She said it was good luck. I never really believed, but I guess a couple weeks after I got it, I met Dan. Maybe it works.”
“Magic?” Jennifer said dryly.
“Can’t hurt,” Donna said. She walked out without another word.
Thinking that she had done all right the night before, Jennifer went through the house, locking all of the doors and windows, turning on the safety lights outside, and turning off all the lights inside. She moved her makeshift bedroll to the floor on the opposite side of the bed, just in case Jezebel had somehow known where she was hiding.
Finally, when there were no other preparations to make, she looked at her phone. 8:15 p.m. The phone still had no bars. If it had, she would have called Karen in an instant.
Perhaps, if she could have some luck for once in this nightmare, by noon tomorrow it would be all over. The question was, would Jezebel make her move before then? Jennifer honestly did not know if she could fight through the same level of pain again.
Thinking of the pain reminded her of what Talbot had said: At that moment you’ll be every bit the coward I am, and more. “Go fuck yourself,” she whispered.
She walked over to the kitchen island, to plug the phone into the charger, when something caught her eye. It was a soft blue light, that she might have confused for a digital readout from one of the appliances. Except none of the appliances had blue readout lights.
It was the necklace Donna had left. The blue stone was glowing.
For a moment Jennifer was shot through with terror. Had this been Jezebel’s play all along? Use Donna, somehow without the other woman’s knowledge, to deliver this item into Jennifer’s home and manipulate her with it?
No, that couldn’t be. Jezebel had no need for such roundabout methods. The blue stone wasn’t her. This was something else.
Jennifer stood, a foot from the glowing stone, unsure what to do. The stone wasn’t a sapphire; Jennifer supposed that would have been too easy. In fact she had no idea what type of stone it was, because turquoise wasn’t crystalline like this and she had never seen an opal glow in this way. Topaz, maybe? She’d never seen one…
With her mind wandering on the various types of blue gemstone, she wasn’t aware that her own hand had reached out to the stone until her fingers closed around it. She had a moment—
(THE BEST PART OF WAKING UP)
—of realization of what she had done, before she tumbled away into endless blue.
Donna had never driven as carefully as she had on the way back to her cabin. With typical Midwestern naiveté about corrupt police, she thought that if she gave the Sheriff no reason to pull her over, there was nothing he could do to her. Jennifer would have had a lot to say to her about this attitude, but with the Jezebel threat looming, they’d never had time to proceed to a discussion of race and policing in America.
There were two stop signs along the way, and at each of them, Donna checked her phone for an opportunity to call Sapphire’s assistant. Zero bars, both times. The lack of signal, every single time when it would have been important for her to have it, gnawed at Donna. Everything seemed to be working in this Jezebel’s favor, and Donna had never had such a run of bad coincidence in her life.
With these thoughts distracting her, Donna did not notice until far too late that there was a new car parked at her cabin.
A Sheriff’s cruiser.
“No,” she said aloud. She didn’t even know what idea she was trying to deny or negate. Just … no. Whatever Jennifer had been afraid of, it couldn’t be. Not now.
Never for a moment did she consider driving on. She believed that something dangerous was happening here, and there was no way she was leaving Dan behind without warning him about it. She loved him, as much for the moments when he could be a goofy buffoon as when he was serious and sincere, and she could not conceive of a force on God’s earth which could change her mind about that.
She pulled into the driveway and walked into the cabin, head high, posture erect. I’m unarmed and I’ve done nothing wrong, she thought.
“Dan?” she called as she came through the door. Their cabin was much smaller than Jennifer’s: a half-sized kitchen with a tiny dining area, a bathroom, and a bedroom. The Sheriff was standing in the dining area. She noted that his gun was in the holster, his hands nowhere near it. She could not see into the bedroom; it was around a corner.
“Is something wrong, Officer?” she said, hoping that she was giving nothing away. “Where’s my husband?”
“It’s Sheriff, ma’am,” Jim Talbot said. “Your husband, he’s … indisposed.”
“Indisposed?” Donna said, her heartbeat quickening.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a dark shape come from round the corner where the bedroom door was. She had just enough time to register the dark hair when a woman’s voice said, “Donna, look at me.”
The voice was that force on God’s green earth of which Donna could not conceive. There was no denying its commands. She looked into the woman’s eyes and was lost there, falling into their warm liquid darkness, feeling herself become insignificant.
Talbot sat heavily in one of the dining chairs as Donna Handler walked into the bedroom, to join her husband and Jezebel. He looked at the floor for the next several hours, as he tried not to hear the sounds which followed.
TO BE CONTINUED