"Where are we going?"
Jackson "Jax" Belamy struggled to keep up with Kylie Thomas as she pulled him through the crowded fairgrounds. It was Sunday night and the last night of the Tri-County Fair, and Kylie was just hitting her stride. She worked the swing shift at the Chew Brew & Pit Crew Truck Stop, and for her it wasn't even lunchtime. Jax had been up with the sun, however, and was dragging ass by 9pm.
"You'll see!" Kylie said with a laugh, throwing the words and her gorgeous smile over her shoulder at him.
It was enough to spur Jax on, bringing himself even with her as she drew them up to the Karaoke tent. Jax smiled. He loved to hear Kylie sing, and she hadn't had much occasion to sing lately.
"I called in a favor," she shouted as she wove through the people crowding the entrance to the tent, heading toward the stage. Jax was glad she kept hold of his hand, or he was pretty sure she would have lost him. "Alice already put my name on the list."
Sure enough, the MC was at the microphone. "Last call for Kylie Thomas. Kylie Thomas, get your ass up to the stage to sing!"
The locals in the crowd whooped and hollered as Kylie threw up her free hand. "I'm here!" she shouted.
That was enough to cause the crowd to part and let her through, and Jax followed in her wake. Laughing, she only released his hand after he helped her hop up onto the front of the stage. He stood, looking up at her as she walked with purpose and confidence to the microphone.
The MC stepped back and fiddled with the equipment until the first keyboard notes and cymbals of Katy Perry's "Firework" rang out, lulling the voices in the crowd as people got ready to listen.
The other ranch hands out at the Lazy J gave Jax grief for listening to Katy Perry while he worked in the barn, but this right here was the reason for it--it had nothing to do with some glittering star in a studio and everything to do with this country girl who had been the center of his world for as long as he could remember.
Kylie had star quality, Jax was sure of it. She worked the microphone with an easy level of comfort, and worked the crowd just as well as any video queen. He lost himself in her performance as she sang about letting inner light shine like fireworks.
Kylie was her own light show, a display of confidence and inner beauty that had everyone in the crowd calling out "Ah, ah, ah," in time with the song.
Jax knew he was bouncing up and down like an idiot, staring up at her with bright admiration, but he didn't care. He lived for moments like these.
When the song ended the crowd roared with as much appreciation as Jax had heard coming from the main stage where some tired old band from the 80s was yukking it up, and people started calling for more.
"Give it up for Kylie Thomas!" the MC said, lifting Kylie's arm above her head as if she had just won a prizefight. "I think she gets the popularity award for tonight. What do you say, folks? Do you want to hear one last song from Kylie before we take a break?"
Jax shouted as loudly as the people behind him. "One more, Kylie!"
Kylie smiled, her teeth flashing in the bright stage lights, and leaned in close to the MC to say something. Then she bent down and held her hand out to Jax. Without hesitation, Jax took her hand and hopped nimbly to the stage, knowing exactly what was coming next and happy to join in.
"Hey y'all," Kylie said, vamping up her country girl twang. "My friend Jax and I are going to sing our favorite duet for ya. Feel free to join in if you know the words!"
That was part of why the local crowd loved Kylie. She didn't just mug the microphone and shine in the stage lights, she invited everyone to take part in the joy that was Kylie singing. She had a great voice. She had an even better stage presence.
As the simple notes of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" sounded in the tent, the crowd laughed and Jax happily slipped his arm around Kylie's waist--the only time she let him make such an intimate gesture.
Jax glanced nervously out at the crowd--it was bigger than he'd ever been in front of before--but as Kylie started to sing, she put her finger under his chin and brought his gaze back to her green, green eyes. Her knowing smile calmed his bout of nerves enough so he could sing his part, then join in with her for the tag line: "I got you, babe."
They weren't really singing alone. Several people in the crowd joined in, and it became a drunken chorus, ending with shouts of laughter and plastic solo cups raised in salute. Kylie took a bow, forcing Jax to do the same, then laughing, they headed for the steps that led down to the side of the tent away from the bar.
'That was so fun!" Kylie said with a laugh, and he leaned in close--in part so he could hear her better, but mostly as an excuse to be close to her. "Alice says they're having a popularity contest, and I guess that encore means I get to come back," she continued. "You going to hang around?"
Jax pulled on her hand to turn her to face him. "I gotta work tomorrow."
Jax tried to imagine her smile faltered at least a little bit, but he wasn't really sure. Kylie was so independent--and so blind to the way he felt about her--that he couldn't quite convince himself she was sad to see him go.
"You're such an old man!" she said with a laugh, giving him a punch on the shoulder.
"Says the girl who didn't get up until noon!" he said in his defense. "I was up at daybreak, and I will be again tomorrow. Besides, I'm only two years older than you."
"Old," she teased again. But before she could go on, Jax noticed a woman in a business suit waiting patiently for them to notice her.
"Sorry," he said, tugging Kylie's hand to pull her to the side of the tent. "Are we blocking your way?"
"Not at all," the woman said. She was obviously out from some east coast city, judging by her accent and the power suit that was just about as out of place as could ever be found in Syracuse, Kansas. "I was hoping for a moment of the young lady's time."
Kylie turned to the woman, gave her a once over, then stuck out her hand. "Kylie Thomas," she said formally. "What can I do for you?"
The woman shook Kylie's hand with just the tips of her fingers, as if the gesture was somehow distasteful.
"Beverly Andrews," she said, unruffled and cool. Jax thought she could be pretty, if she let her hair out of the tight bun she'd pulled it into, and loosened herself up a couple turns counter-clockwise. "I'd like to have a word with you. You see, I'm with Country Pride, a new talent show that we're putting together for next season, and I'm out here looking for hot new talent. Ms. Thomas, would you like to share your talent with America?"
Kylie stared at the woman in the power suit, not sure that she'd heard her right. "I'm sorry," she said. "Did you say you were with a talent show?"
"That's right. Country Pride. It's a new show that will air this winter. I'm scouting talent, and I've been looking for someone just like you...."
Excitement thrummed in her ears, drowning out what the woman was saying. A talent scout? It was as though someone had trotted her most secret dream out into the lights of the midway, waved a magic wand, and granted her wish. She'd always figured she would have to leave town to be 'discovered,' yet here a talent scout was standing in front of her, asking her to....
"I'm sorry, what?" she brought her attention back to the woman's words.
Ms. Andrews smiled as though she got that reaction a lot. "I was hoping you would join me someplace quiet, where I can explain to you about the show, give you some of the literature, and maybe meet your parents and see about getting their permission for you to audition."
"Oh, I'm eighteen," she said quickly.
Jax tugged on her elbow, trying to get her attention. She turned to him, unable to hide her elation. "A talent show, Jax!" she all but crowed.
"I heard," he said. He looked skeptical about something.
"Well thanks for the vote of confidence," Kylie said, thumping him on the shoulder. That got a smile out of him.
"You know I think you're the tops, Kylie," he began, but his gaze was drawn back to the woman.
"We'd like you to audition too, young man," the woman said. "You know how these kinds of shows go. Two good looking young folks who are obviously in love...."
Kylie laughed again. "Oh, we're not in love," she said.
The woman looked between her and Jax, and just gave a knowing smile. "Very well, two good looking young folks who have great chemistry--you will go far on the show, I'm sure. What do you say?"
"I don't know," Jax began, and Kylie resisted the urge to smack him.
"Let's just hear her out. Where did you have in mind, ma'am?"
"If we can go out to the parking lot, maybe?" she suggested. "It's quite noisy on the fairgrounds."
Kylie had to agree. "We can walk to my work," she suggested. "The truckstop. It's just across the highway from the entry gate."
"Sounds like a plan," Ms. Andrews said, gesturing for the two of them to precede her out of the tent.
Jax hung back, so Kylie grabbed his arm and pulled him close to whisper in his ear. "It's just a walk, silly. This could be a big break for me. For us. Haven't you ever wanted to get out of this town?"
He looked like he wanted to protest, but instead he just shook his head and walked with her. She smiled to herself. She could always count on Jax to support her every whim. In her excitement, she grabbed his hand, squeezing whenever the excitement became too hard to contain.
Walking beside them the short distance to the gate, Ms. Andrews picked her way through the crowds and the detritus of several days of fair excesses.
Jax leaned forward so he could address her across Kylie. "How come you stopped way out here, ma'am?" His tone wasn't exactly rude, but it did sound more like an interrogation than mere curiosity.
"We scouts work in teams," she said, stepping gingerly over a largish puddle leftover from the rain they'd had that morning. "This show is different from the older scenarios where they held huge auditions and people come from all over to try to get on the show. With Country Pride, we each get to pick where we want to look for talent. It's as much a competition for the scouts as it is for the performers. I've always had the best vibes about small out-of-the-way towns. Carrie Underwood was from Checotah, Oklahoma. Nobody even knew where that was before she showed up on American Idol.
"Country Pride will do a little back story for you two. My assistant filmed you and several other performers with her cell phone. It's all very organic. If you agree to do the show, we'll go back with a small crew to film a little more before the karaoke tent closes for the night, then we'll film some interviews in the morning. Your folks and such. By the end of the week, we'll head out for Nashville and you two will be on your way to becoming big stars."
They were approaching the gates now, and Kylie turned to Jax, unable to keep a little skip out of her step. "Can you believe it, Jax?"
Jax smiled, but his words sounded doubtful. "Seems she's moving awful fast."
"Just the words, Jax. It's not like she's going to whisk us away tonight or anything, right, ma'am?"
She turned to address Ms. Andrews, but the woman wasn't there. Frowning, she searched the crowds streaming out the gate. They were urged along and out into the parking lot with many fairgoers who had called it a day.
"Where'd she go?" Kylie asked, turning back to Jax.
They were already several yards away from the gate before the woman approached them from behind. "Sorry," she said with a laugh. "I got caught behind the stampede. Listen, I'd like to show you how serious I am, how serious the show is. My assistant went back to the office in our RV to download the footage she shot, and she's been working on it already. Won't you come see?"
She gestured to a very large RV parked just a few spaces away. It was dark-colored, with no designs, but Kylie could see a light on behind the window shades.
"How come it doesn't say who you are?" Jax asked suspiciously.
Ms. Andrews laughed pleasantly. "I told you, we are different. We don't want to be plagued by people with no talent banging on the doors, trying to get auditions. But if you're nervous, we don't have to go now."
"Jax!" Kylie hissed, trying to contain her frustration with him. "What's wrong with you? This is a big deal."
Jax shrugged in the face of her fierce gaze. "I'll come with you if you want to go."
Kylie turned her smile on Ms. Andrews. "Yes, let's go look, please."
Ms. Andrews smiled. "Right this way."
They approached the RV, and the woman opened the door and again gestured for them to precede her. Kylie let go of Jax's hand and stepped up the stairs, turning the corner to see a very plush interior lit with soft lights reflected in several mirrors. The mirrors confused her so she couldn't immediately tell what she was looking at. She took another three steps forward and heard Jax climbing up behind her.
By the time it registered what she was seeing, she was several steps into the RV.
There, seated on a side bench behind a table, two girls looked at her with terror in their eyes. They wore only underwear, and duct tape covered their mouths and bound their wrists and ankles together.
Kylie turned quickly, intent on getting both her and Jax off that RV. There was only the woman to get past before they could get outside. She could send the sheriff after them once they were clear.
But it was too late. There was a sickening crackle, and Jax slumped to the floor, Ms. Andrews behind him holding a taser that she had just discharged into Jax's neck.
The woman flipped a lever to close the door, then stepped toward her over Jax's twitching body. Kylie couldn't take her eyes off her friend.
"What?" Ms. Andrews said in a sultry purr. "Did you think that only girls got taken for the sex trade?"
Kylie rushed at Ms. Andrews, reaching for the hand that held the taser. She got her hands on the woman, who just laughed as Kylie fought with her.
Before she could wonder why the woman didn't seem at all concerned, Kylie heard the crackle of another taser, and seconds later felt the stinging bite of of a million volts of electrical current blasting through her body.
She tried to hold on, but blackness took over.
So tell me, what do you think?