The Jolly Holidays
… in which Mr. Wood plans the menu.
Mr. Wood opened his hooded eyes.
He slept nights in the heart of the castle, a labyrinth of 100 rooms on five floors — meeting rooms and ballrooms, bedrooms and smoking rooms, grand rooms and intimate rooms. Secret rooms. Dozens of stairways and hallways and passageways connected the levels and wings and spaces like a huge honeycomb.
A man could get lost.
Mr. Donofro, the architect on Sweet Comb’s long construction, once tapped a set of scratched-over blueprints with a mechanical pencil and grumbled that Mr. Wood’s changes made the house look like “an Escher,” whatever that meant.
Ten minutes later, with a two-word call, Mr. Wood replaced the architect and personally took over the design.
When the sun pried itself from the trees and lit the upper-story windows, Mr. Wood had already been awake, brooding, heavy hands clasped behind his head on the folding military cot where he slept every night. He covered himself with a single 30-year-old army blanket.
Mr. Wood counted. Seven days stretched ahead till Christmas. Three days before the winter solstice.
He had his plan in place. An old urgent feeling ran his veins.
The Epicureans were on the way.
* * *
Mr. Wood lived a solitary life in his monstrous home.
The first day of the week, for 10 frenetic hours, he brought in all the cleaners and maintenance people and technicians and delivery folks and anyone else tasked with serving the place. They did their work all at once, getting in one another’s way, bumbling, swarming like bees in and out of doorways and windows.
Wednesday evening at 7 p.m., the big wooden front gate at the estate entrance slowly yawned wide. Mr. Wood had installed a portcullis and a counterweight system like ones he’d seen in European castles to work the thick doors. His exhausted retinue of laborers streamed back out into the world, into Lafayette.
Mr. Wood liked solitude 158 hours of the week.
He took his breakfast alone on a fifth-floor veranda with an eastern view. The bellies of morning clouds glowed light pink. Alabama fall, just days away, felt fresh.
Mr. Wood strangely thought of the sea out there, miles past the inky horizon of evergreen pines and leafless hardwoods. He thought of his faraway Epicurean friends gathering from far shores in their designated rendezvous place. Two dawns from now, they would board a stealthy jet for a long trip to his country place in the pines.
Everything was set. Guiding beams. Secret landing strip. The Upper Room. Everything.
The feast. Ready.
Mr. Wood squinted his eyes and raised his large head. The wind caught his white paper napkin, and it suddenly gusted out over the balcony and blew like a morning ghost away, away, over endless acres.
Mr. Wood remembered parachute jump training with the Airborne at Fort Benning, all those years ago. The thought of floating under a silk through an atmosphere again, setting his boots on some new place, some new world, filled him with fantasy for a moment.
The blare of a freight train, far away, brought him out of reverie.
With thick fingers, Mr. Wood absent-mindedly peeled and ate four boiled eggs, then a ruby grapefruit. He tossed the eggshells and spit the chewed, juiceless citrus sections over the balcony’s brick retaining wall.
He didn’t watch them fall.
This time of year, blackbirds flew past and out of sight, blown on the December wind like dead cinders.
Mr. Wood thought of the solstice.
* * *
Time to work.
Mr. Wood climbed down two stairways. The door to his private console room, by design, looked for all the world like an expensive paneled wall.
It opened silently when Mr. Wood placed his flat palm on it.
The smell of overwarm wiring filled the air. Video light, blue and flickering, took some getting used to.
Mr. Wood eased the door closed.
He stood at the center of a circular bank of video surveillance screens stacked six high. Scores of screens beamed their black-and-white stories, some still, some displaying small moving figures, drones of duty out there somewhere in his empire.
He could watch the concrete factory in Bangalore. The paper mill in Bangor. The Lafayette wood yards. Downtown San Francisco. Shanghai shipyards and Santiago copper-mine headquarters. Lafayette city square, where phone-company crews in cherry-pickers hung giant red and green glass balls from light poles and strung lights and draped garlands along the branches of a huge evergreen.
The tree in front of City Hall would become Lafayette’s first-ever Jolly Holiday tree.
And its last.
One video screen pictured Jess Turnipseed asleep at his desk in the police headquarters. Mr. Wood saw no sign of Sheriff Neeley.
He narrowed his eyes. He felt his police department a little untethered.
Sheriff Neeley needed supervision.
Another screen showed Fire Chief Wragg. At the fire department, the square-jawed ex-SEAL watched porn and dug his spoon into a huge bowl of Fruit Loops.
Mr. Wood was everywhere. He knew everything.
His eyes watched over nuclear plants and coal mines and landfills and television stations and corporate buildings and slaughterhouses and blazing foundries.
They also watched the flimsy little house of Elmore Rogers.
Mr. Wood picked up a small remote and pointed it.
The selected image zoomed. It dominated its section of the wall. The screen rewarded Mr. Wood with a spectacular scene of pure Americana.
Elmore Rogers came out of his front door.
He didn’t limp. Amazing.
Rogers opened the cab of that damned Rankin panel truck. He looked back at the house, laughing.
What a sound to hear.
Rogers let his two kids climb aboard, and they laughed, too. Each child held a square wrapped in cheerful bright red paper. Teacher gifts? Will and Mary were on their way to the last day of school before the Christmas holidays.
He’d described them just last week on the one and only annual conference call of The Epicureans.
Main course and dessert.
And, oh look. The video of the Rogers rental showed something new.
A fourth figure entered the video.
She wore white pajamas, hair mussed. She leaned, softly smiling, against the open door frame of the cheap Elmore house. She crossed her arms over her breasts for warmth.
Elmore blew the truck horn cheerfully. The kids waved crazy goodbye.
Even Mr. Wood begrudgingly admired the moment.
The woman’s raven hair blew in her face. She turned her face … extraordinary, Mr. Wood had to admit … and the hair came free. She tootled three fingers to the truck and the kids, and he saw their small round faces as they chugged away down the drive and away on the county road.
Kelly Rogers stood in the doorway a long time after the twins had gone, watching the place in the distance they disappeared.
Mr. Wood imagined something unholy.
He snapped himself out of it.
You made so many bad choices, Kelly Rogers, he thought to himself. But this is the worst one ever.