It was the middle of a hot and humid summer's night. Virgil Kane eased his way into the bushes. He moved carefully, his breathing shallow and controlled. A mosquito buzzed his face; Virgil did not blink or flinch. The last thing he wanted to do was alert the occupants of Route 3, Box 9, Ryerman County, that they had a trespasser lurking in the lilacs.
Virgil did not think of himself as a trespasser, though. He was a righteous man who attended church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night. He mostly avoided strong drink, diligently studied the Bible, did not take the Lord's name in vain. He did not spare the rod and thus did not spoil his nine-year-old son. Or his wife, for that matter, who sometimes forgot that God commanded her to obey her husband. Virgil Kane prayed regularly, tithed ten percent to the church, and went to prayer meetings when they did not interfere with watching afternoon football on TV.
Virgil also made it a regular part of his Sunday church attendance to point out those who were backsliding into sin. Audra Lou Higgins and her husband's S&M games (Virgil had surveillance photographs, and he had thoughtfully used a black magic marker to ink out the shameful anatomical parts). Quinnie Dexter's drunken orgy down at the Kickapoo roadhouse one Friday night. Sam Lowry's pornography collection. Caleb Wheeler, the bigamist with wives in two states. Dr. Jackson's drinking problem, and addiction to prescription pain killers. Lulu McCutcheon's abortion. There was no secret that Virgil could not uncover. He was the duly elected sheriff of Clearwater, and liked to think of himself as a shepherd guiding his sometimes wayward flock.
As Virgil saw it, his duty was to serve God, provide a role model for his fellow citizens, and root out any sin or crime that might besmirch his little domain. Which was why Sheriff Virgil Kane was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, squatting in the lilac bushes outside the old Dodd house on Route 3, trying to catch a glimpse of the two women who had bought the place.
Virgil knew they were from New York City (the modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, as far as he was concerned). They had money enough to be self-supporting, and that made him suspicious. He thought that Edna May Dodd had mentioned they were artists of some sort (but Edna May had not been right in the head since that last stroke, bless her heart, and she was a tad confused these days). Had Virgil known that Edna May was planning to sell the house, he would have consulted with her in the spirit of Christian charity. Pointed the poor old lady in the right direction, helped her steer clear of strange Yankee women who might, God forbid, be setting up a drug laboratory under his very nose. He would put nothing past New Yorkers - not drugs, or gun running, or gang banging, or white slavery - and artists, in his opinion, were just revolutionaries and probably Communists, too.
The sheriff of Clearwater had a clear and certain duty to keep an eye on potential troublemakers. These two women looked like they could have invented the term.
So Virgil had watched the women as they went around Clearwater. He had made it his business to know their business. One of them was a tall, lanky blonde with a multitude of piercings in both ears. Her name was Lorelei. No last name, just Lorelei. She was reticent, soft-spoken, rarely pushing herself forward. She seemed mannerly enough. Minded her P's and Q's in a way that told Virgil that the girl's momma had beaten some politeness into her. From her accent, she was not a Yankee born and bred, but he could not quite place her origin. Somewhere in the South, he suspected, from the elongated vowels and almost slurred sentences. Yet she had definitely lived in New York City, and that was a big black mark in Virgil's book.
The other one was far tougher - a small red-head with a swaggering way about her that rubbed Virgil the wrong way. She had weird tattoos from wrist to shoulder, and the Lord God only knew where else. Her name was Liddy Cox. Virgil could smell a wrongness in her that made his hackles rise. Liddy was hardly ever rude, but she verged on insolence at times, and that could ignite into full-blown defiance. In fact, she had caused a scene in Woolworth's last week that still made his blood pressure spiral towards the ceiling. Liddy had threatened lawsuits and restraining orders unless he stopped harassing her.
Virgil had been downright flabbergasted. How dared that sawed-off little New York City artist - who was probably a card-carrying member of the Communist party, and a minion of Satan, at that - question his authority in his own town? He had every right to protect the citizens of Clearwater from evil influences like Republicans and the ACLU. Virgil had merely wanted the answers to certain questions, like why she and Lorelei never left their house during the daylight hours, and how come they never went to church when he knew for a fact that Pastor Threadgood's wife Myra had invited them both and even brought them a home-baked cake?
Why had they come to Clearwater at all? Surely there were other places that would have welcomed a pair of New York City women who dressed like Jezebels, and whose refusal to respect his duly appointed (and God-given) authority was surely a sin worthy of smiting in the Old Testament fashion. He was certain that there were drugs involved. Possibly pornography or cult activities. Pastor Threadgood preached that the Devil was always at work, seeking to drag souls into hellfire and damnation. It was a Christian's moral obligation to protect himself and his family from Satan's works. In Virgil's case, he extended that protection to include everyone in Clearwater, whether they liked it or not.
There were those, Virgil thought darkly, who had lost their way, and turned from the path of righteousness. Lorelei and Liddy Cox were such a pair. If they thought he was going to permit them to corrupt his town, well... they had another think coming. Sheriff Virgil Kane, pillar of the community and servant of the Lord, was not going to allow Clearwater to sink into depravity. Ever since the women had come to town, things had been changing, no doubt due to their bad influence.
He had sat up and took real notice earlier today, when he returned from a two week law enforcement conference in Atlanta to find the town virtually deserted. Telephone calls to various people - including his deputy, Dempsey Hayes, a boy as dumb as a sack full of hammers - revealed that Clearwater's citizens had not been snatched up bodily into Heaven (Virgil was relieved that The Rapture had not left him behind) but were merely keeping strange hours. Sleeping during the day, active at night, just like those Yankee Jezebels. Nobody was willing to tell him why. Their doors remained bolted, windows locked, shades drawn. Phone conversations were all well and good, but the face-to-face confrontations he wanted were refused. Politely in some cases, rudely in others, but refused nonetheless.
Even that old biddy, Ruby Lee Abernathy, who was usually to be found spreading gossip at the Curl Up n' Dye hair salon, stayed barricaded in her house while the sun was high. This was a complete reversal of the natural order of things. The clincher was his wife's attitude when he had spoken to her on the phone this afternoon, to let her know he would be late for dinner. She had cursed him, ordered him to stay away from her, and threatened to kill him if he so much as touched a toe to the front lawn of his own home.
His sweet obedient wife, using language that would have brought a blush to a sailor's cheeks! As soon as he eliminated the cause, Virgil would turn his attention to chastising her. After all, it was his duty as a good husband to be sure his wife stayed in the place that God had designed for her.
Yes, things had changed in Clearwater, and Virgil did not like it. There was something evil afoot. Virgil intended to dig it out this very night, root and branch. Whatever was wrong, he was sure the Jezebels had something to do with it. All he needed was an excuse to get rid of them. Any excuse would do. If he could not find one, he would make one up. A sheriff had his prerogatives. As soon as they were gone, things would return to normal; he would make sure of that.
So Virgil had driven out to Route 3, a paved road that petered out to gravel, then to hard packed dirt. The Dodd place was at the end of the line, just within Clearwater's city limits. Once there, he had stoked himself up on Coke and bourbon while sitting in the patrol car, waiting until dark. He had learned early on that people thought the darkness was safe, a time when inhibitions and self-control were shed to reveal the truth beneath. Ferreting out secrets and shame was best done by moonlight.
"Be sure your sin will find you out," Virgil whispered now, sitting up so that he could peer more closely through the window.
He had a good view of the living room, which was still filled with the Dodd family's old furniture. Heavy solid pieces that had survived Sherman's March and the destructive capabilities of several generations of small children and pets. There was, he recalled, a swaybacked sofa pushed under the window. Virgil had sat on that sofa many times while paying calls to Edna May's late husband, Earl Dodd. It leaked horsehair from sprung seams, was hard as a granite bench, and tended to smell funny in wet weather.
The two Jezebels from New York were sitting on the sofa, their backs to him. If the window had been opened more, Virgil could have reached out and touched their hair. As it was, the window was merely cracked open an inch, but that was sufficient to allow him to overhear their conversation.
"Are you hungry?" Lorelei asked diffidently.
Liddy put her arm around the blonde's shoulders. "I could work up an appetite." She turned her head, so that Virgil saw her profile. The one brown eye that he could see was a-glitter with some emotion. Greed, he thought.
Lorelei sighed, reached up and toyed with Liddy's fingers. Stroking them up and down in a way that Virgil found very suggestive. "I'm afraid there's not much for dinner."
"You smell good." Liddy nuzzled Lorelei's neck. "Good enough to eat." Her voice was muffled, but Virgil caught the meaning well enough.
"Oh, you don't want to eat me," Lorelei said. She kissed Liddy's hand, sucked lightly on the fingertips. Ran her tongue across the other woman's knuckles. "I'm too tough."
"You're juicy and succulent." Liddy sat up, pulled off her shirt. Virgil's eyes widened when he saw her bare shoulders, caught a glimpse of her small, firm breasts. "Absolutely delicious."
"Are you sure you want to eat me?" Lorelei asked coyly. Virgil was certain that she was flirting. Flirting with another woman!
"Oooh, baby... I sure do. I want to devour you. I'm going to gobble you up until you scream." Liddy cupped her own breasts, shook out her flame-red hair. She knelt up on the sofa, wriggled out of her high-cut denim shorts. Virgil got eyewitness proof that the woman was heathen enough to wear nothing beneath her clothes. Disgusting!
The more Virgil heard and saw, the more outraged he became. He was positively swollen with indignation. Virgil did not know if they were card-carrying Communists, or Republicans, or pornographers, or white slavers, or drug pushers. He did not have any proof (except for poor old Edna May Dodd's faulty memory) that they were even the artists they claimed to be. However, he had discovered something about the Jezebels that made his hair crawl upon his scalp. The situation was far worse than he feared.
They were lesbians!
Virgil backed out of the lilac bushes, stood, and hoisted his belt up. There were some things that simply could not be tolerated in Clearwater. He remembered the time when he had caught George Bullard Jr. and Toby Ingram behind Bullard Senior's barn, performing what could only be described as a profoundly unnatural act. He had been shocked to the core, especially since George Jr. was the high school football team's star quarterback. Virgil had given both boys a good whipping with his stout leather belt, then hauled the teenagers to a meeting with their respective fathers. It had not ended there, of course. The following Sunday, Virgil had condemned George Junior and Toby in front of the church congregation. What a ruckus that had caused! Especially when that little coward Toby (one of the white trash Ingram tribe, so no great loss there) hanged himself. George Junior was sent to military school, which was surely the best thing for him.
Sin had to be dug out, root and branch, or the whole world might as well go to Hell in a handbucket. No wonder Clearwater was going to rack and ruin! New York lesbians had invaded his town! Virgil could not quite figure out how these two females had worked such wickedness amongst the population in so short a time, but he could find out. Some drug in the water supply? He made a mental note to look up the symptoms of LSD tomorrow. Right now, immediate action was required.
The Lord had called, his duty was clear, and Virgil Kane would not be found wanting. He marched up to the porch, pounded on the front door with his fist. He kept his free hand on the butt of his gun.
After a moment, he heard someone calling, "Come in." Much to Virgil's consternation, the voice sounded like his wife, Sally.
Virgil settled his hat more firmly on his head. The situation with Sally would need to be rectified sooner than he thought, but no matter. If she had indeed taken up with the Jezebels, her correction would need to be as harsh as all get-out. Lovingly harsh, of course, but wasn't it better to suffer in this life than suffer the flames of hellfire for all eternity? She would be grateful later, when she realized that Virgil had saved her from a fate worse than death.
He opened the door, walked inside, and stopped in his tracks.
Ruby Lee Abernathy was perched on a chair, next to Doc Johnson and Caleb Wheeler. Standing in a group were Audra Lou Higgins and her husband, Pastor Threadgood and his wife, Edna May Dodd, Lulu McCutcheon, Quinnie Dexter, Sam Lowry, a whole host of the white trash Ingrams, and others. Deputy Dempsey Hayes had an arm around his own wife, Sally. A fair portion of Clearwater's population was stuffed into the parlor. Virgil could have sworn the room was empty except for the women he had come to spy on.
The two lesbian Jezebels were still sitting on the swaybacked sofa, naked as the day they were born.
Everyone was grinning at him like raccoons chewing barbed wire.
"What the damnation is going on here?" Virgil demanded, fingering the butt of his gun to remind everyone of his authority. His blood pressure, already sky high, was shooting towards Mars.
"We've been waiting for you, sheriff," Liddy Cox replied. She stretched and yawned. Virgil turned his eyes away from the indecent sight of her unclothed flesh. "I thought you might come over tonight."
"I want some answers!" Virgil said angrily. "What have you done to these God-fearing people? Why are they here? And what have you done to my wife?"
Sally sneered. He had never seen that expression on her face before, and his hands itched to slap it off. "I'm not your wife anymore, Virgil. You'll never lay hands on me or my son again."
"What?" Virgil turned to confront the others. "Pastor Threadgood, do something!"
"I intend to," Pastor Threadgood said in a friendly way, but his eyes gleamed.
All their eyes were gleaming with the same greedy expression that Virgil had noticed before.
"You've changed these people," Virgil accused Liddy. "New York Communist lesbian artists, seducing them with your wiles, leading them down the road to Hell. You've changed them all!"
"Oh, yes," Liddy said, "they've been changed, all right. In ways you can't possibly understand."
"But you will," Lorelei added slyly.
"Well, I won't have it!" Virgil thrust out his jaw pugnaciously. "You hear me, Jezebels? I won't have it!"
"I think you will." Sally took a step forward. "We're sick of you, Virgil. Every last one of us. You're a small minded, mean, miserable, self-righteous little son of a bitch. You're going to get what's coming to you."
Virgil's eyes bulged. "Shut your hole, woman!" he squealed, raising a fist.
They all smiled, showing elongated canines that looked razor sharp.
Abruptly, Virgil realized that the expression he had seen was not precisely greed. Nor was it desire.
It was appetite, pure and simple. A voracious appetite that could be quenched by only one thing.
"Won't you join us?" Sally asked, a line of drool snaking down her chin.
"Join us for dinner," said old Edna May Dodd, licking her chops.
Virgil took a step backwards, preparing to run for his life. The situation was far, far and away more terrible than he could have imagined. He began to scream.
The Jezebels weren't just New York Communist lesbians. They were vam--- !
A blur of motion, like a pack of starving wolves falling upon a single helpless prey, and the screaming was abruptly cut off.
However distasteful Sheriff Virgil Kane may have been before this night, the newly changed citizens of Clearwater found him rather appetizing in the end.