Nothing Like a Christmas Cookie
… in which a holiday treat turns nasty.
Mrs. Mock turned her head and drew a quick breath against the blast of heat as she lifted an aluminum baking pan from the oven. Oversized oven mitts shaped like two puffy snowmen protected her hands.
“There’s nothing like a Christmas cookie!” she said aloud.
She slid a spatula under three rows of silver-sprinkled stars, reindeer, and holly leaves. She dropped the cookies in green linen cloth that lined a new picnic basket. The aroma of baked sugar dough filled her whole house.
Outside, a plane flew past, low and fast, rattling Mrs. Mock’s windows.
“My goodness,” she said aloud to herself again. “The mayor has jets overhead for the Jolly Holiday! Just like at the Super Bowl!”
Lafayette, she thought proudly, was really getting to be something.
Mrs. Mock carefully checked the cookie recipe for the dozenth time. Mr. Wood had given it to her the previous Friday, at the end of their last hot rendezvous. Along with a smile on her face and fresh new bills folded in her blouse, Mrs. Mock brought home the wicker basket with the green cloth, heavy with all the cookie ingredients except butter and egg nog. Mr. Wood included his “secret” cookie recipe, tucked into the assortment. Someone – she supposed Mr. Wood – had typed out the recipe, precisely centered, on nice 20-pound bonded paper from one of his mills.
Mr. Wood was very stern with instruction on two points:
She must never, ever, share his secret recipe.
She must meticulously follow the recipe, every instruction, from the first line to the last.
Mrs. Mock had made plenty of cookies in her lifetime. Some of the society ladies declared that her key-lime-and-ginger fingers made them never want to bake a pan of their own cookies again.
But Mrs. Mock didn’t know two ingredients in Mr. Wood’s recipe. They came in twin vials, one white crystals, one a soft yellow dust. Were these a kind of baking soda? Cream of tartar?
But after she read the instructions to the end, she didn’t ask anymore.
She followed his directions precisely. Mrs. Mock poured all ingredients into her mixing bowl and added fresh butter and egg nog and stirred the batch into a dough, andvoila! The last cookies you would ever want to eat, as Mr. Wood put it on his note.
Mrs. Mock did not sample the cookies, not a single one. After closing them up in the basket, she carefully washed her hands … though she had only lightly touched the green cloth that nestled them.
She didn’t know what Mr. Wood had in mind for the Rogers family, but she would certainly help him this holiday season.
He’d been good to her.
Before she left the house, as instructed, Mrs. Mock put a kitchen match to the secret recipe and dropped it, flames licking the air, into the sink. She watched it turn to black ashes, then she washed those down the drain.
Off she went to her car, the basket under her arm.
With school out for the holidays, Will and Mary returned to Fort Rogers. The weather had turned too cold for cottonmouths. Even so, the twins stayed close to the little cabin instead of venturing further to Snake Creek.
Though abandoned the past six months and a little overgrown, their little wood-and-vine structure had held up pretty well. It pleased Will.
“That means we built it good,” he told Mary, dragging a fallen pine branch off the top. “Right and tight.”
“I tied the sticks,” Mary said proudly. After a month, she had stopped limping from her snakebite, and now two little white scars on her ankle were all she had to show for her near-death experience.
Plus those weird memories.
The twins half expected Timmy Wragg to barrel up on his bike, but he turned out to be a no-show. They played through the afternoon alone. Will told his sister that he bet Timmy had gone to Lafayette for a ride in the parade on the fire truck with his dad.
“Timmy better throw us some candy!” Mary declared. “But not licorice.”
The afternoon passed dreamily. Mary spotted a hawk not too far away in that big pine tree. Will found part of something out in the woods that looked like a little smashed TV camera. He showed the broken pieces of glass and twisted, camo-colored metal to his sister and acted important.
“Look at this!” he announced. “It’s a sure mystery!”
Mary seemed skeptical. “It could of been a hunter, but one that hunted with a camera,” she suggested.
Will gave her a look, but he had stopped calling Mary “igmo” and “dumb bunny” and other bad names after the snakebite. He loved his sister.
“It might of been a hunter,” he told her. “But it might of been some important part of an Army helicopter or airplane that fell off, too. Let’s keep it secret.”
They played inside the fort, cozy under this season’s leaf fall, the world red and gold over their heads as the day waned. Will got hungry first, as usual, and he complained just a little because Mary had forgotten to bring along two banana sandwiches he’d made.
“I put extra mayonnaise on ’em,” he reminded her. “The way you like.”
“Well, you could have brought them as easy as me,” Mary said.
“But I made them. I have to do everything?”
“You have to tell me you made them,” Mary insisted. “Or I don’t know.”
“I put them by your blue sweater,” Will said. “Right beside the back door.”
Mary looked confused, but only for a second. “That’s Mama’s blue sweater, Will. Mine’s not that big.”
A sudden laugh on the other side of the fort wall scared the daylights out of both of them.
Kelly Rogers stepped into view through the cabin doorway, the sun behind her. She wore a blue sweater.
“Mary’s right. That was my sweater, Will.”
“Mama! You scared us to death!”
Their mother looked very happy. She smiled so big. The sun shone in her hair.
“Well, y’all won’t die of hunger. Here you go.”
Their mother held out two banana sandwiches, each wrapped in a leftover Milky Way napkin.
“Y’all snack on these, then we’ll go back to the house and get ready for the parade. Warm clothes — it’s gonna be really cold. I haven’t heard from your daddy, but he should be home any time.”
Mary jumped up and down in the late light.
“Mama, where can we catch the most candy?”
Kelly kissed Mary on top of her red head.
“We can stand on the corner where the floats turn to go up to the courthouse. They slow down right there, and I bet we can catch a ton of candy.”
“But not licorice!” Mary made herself clear. “I’m giving the licorice to daddy.”
Will, too hungry to talk, wolfed his sandwich in three bites. Mary carefully stripped the crusts off all four edges of her sandwich and fed those to her brother too. She tasted her own sandwich between thoughtful chews.
“Have you ever been in a parade, Mama? I mean, like riding on a float?”
Kelly briefly squinted into the sun, then looked back at the twins. The day’s late breeze blew down a few colored leaves around her.
“Did y’all know,” Kelly answered instead, “that fairies ride falling leaves like horses all the way to the ground?”
Mrs. Mock’s fine but aging car glided to a stop in front of the Rogers house. She turned off her headlights. The twilight overtook her.
Out of the vehicle, she pulled her dress seams straight – she’d chosen Christmasy red with a warm mantle for this visit. She lifted her basket in the crook of one arm. The cookies smelled so good.
She knocked. Feet thumped fast toward the door, and excited voices rose.
That beautiful little Mary flung the door wide. She had a dab of something white – mayonnaise? – on one corner of her mouth.
The child couldn’t hide her disappointment.
“Well, hello there, Miss Mary,” purred Mrs. Mock. “Merry Christmas!”
“Merry Christmas, Miz Mock.”
Mary turned her head and yelled back into the house.
Will skated into the front room, one sock on. He took a quick look at the visitor, realized who it was, and disappeared like a phantom.
Kelly Rogers switched on the porch light and spoke politely, but she didn’t invite Mrs. Mock inside.
“Happy holidays, Kelly,” the older woman cheerfully announced anyway. “I brought some Christmas goodies for the children and you and Elmore!”
The basket changed hands. Kelly showed a smile, demonstrating to her daughter how a polite person should always act.
“Merry Christmas to you, too, Mrs. Mock. Do you have any big plans for the holidays?”
Mrs. Mock did have plans. Exciting plans.
“Well, first I’m headed to downtown Lafayette tonight like the whole world seems to be. Then, I might just disappear for a while. Santa’s been good to me this year. I might drive down to that Indian casino in Wetumpka and see if I get lucky. Win some wampum!”
“I hope you do,” said Kelly.
That was all.
“Well...” Mrs. Mock waved a hand, an elegant red glove over it. “Y’all have a jolly holiday!”
“We sure will,” said Kelly evenly. “Thank you, and happy holidays.”
“Y’all enjoy those cookies! Don’t they smell good?”
“Delicious,” Kelly answered, and her answer was sincere.
Mary was peeking from under the green cloth, her eyes wide. Mrs. Mock winked with approval.
The older woman switched on the engine and turned on the headlights of her car, then slowly backed down the long Rogers driveway. She reached the end, but didn’t go further. Instead, she turned off the ignition and the lights. Then, she waited.
After five minutes, she restarted the engine and flicked the heater on high. With the sun down, she felt the first iron bite of winter cold.
Mrs. Mock also felt cold for some other reason.
She slowly glided the car back up the drive, stopping with the headlights directly on the Rogers front door. She got out of the car, leaving the comfortable warmth of the heater, the cookie smell.
The doorknob on the cheap Rogers rental house rattled as it turned, and the plywood door swung open, unlocked.
Three people inside lay still. Kelly’s head lolled in the crook of her elbow at the kitchen table. Her hand held half an uneaten cookie.
Will and Mary lay heaped side by side on the floor. Their shapes made Mrs. Mock think of dirty laundry dumped from a hamper.
There’s nothing like a Christmas cookie, she thought.
Mrs. Mock lifted Will first, hands under his armpits, and dragged him out the door and all the way to her car. His feet trailed two paths through the fallen leaves. She dumped him in the back seat.
After she caught her breath, Mrs. Mock brought Mary out, a much lighter load.
“There,” she said aloud. “That’s that.”
Mrs. Mock looked back through the open door. She caught a glimpse of Kelly inside slumped on the table and fought back a sudden, impetuous desire.
Why, I’ll search the house and find some scissors and whack off that head of thick black hair. Or I can just use a butcher knife…
But there wasn’t time for that deed — for all she knew, Elmore Rogers would drive up at any second.
But taking a risk, she did go back inside for a moment.
She crammed another whole Christmas cookie, a star of Bethlehem, into Kelly’s unconscious mouth.
And then stuffed cookie crumbs tightly up her nose.
After that, Mrs. Mock drove the children, smelling delicious as cookie dough, into the night.
Atop the utility pole by the Rogers driveway, a miniature video camera ogled everything.
Good. Good girl. Mr. Wood almost smiled. You’ve earned your final reward, Mrs. Mock.
Deep inside Wood Castle, the magnate nodded confidently and switched off the Rogers screen. His plan, so far, was flawless.
He felt sure things would continue just that way until completion. He’d designed a Swiss watch of a plan.
Mr. Wood turned to a new screen, one of a dozen illuminated panels in the control room. Dozens of other screens stared, dark and silent as put-out eyes.
He focused on one with a white superscript: Lafayette.
Downtown looked as festive as Mardi Gras. The throng he imagined had showed up — Mr. Wood guessed 20,000 people lined the parade route and mobbed the courthouse square. Confetti flew, and little bottle rockets whistled skyward and popped.
Every eye in the world would be on the Jolly Holiday tonight.
He glanced at another screen: Landing Strip.
It looked for all the world like the long fairway of the first hole of a private golf course. No one had ever clubbed a dimpled ball on his grounds, but the disguise worked perfectly. In 17 minutes, a badass little private jet would scream down out of the heavens and purr to a stop. A gliding door would yawn wide on its side, and it would thrust out a gangway staircase like a black tongue that smoothly motored down until it touched the grass.
Mr. Wood switched off that screen, too.
It was time to pick up certain sleeping children. He had something to show them tonight, plus a promise to make.
Mr. Wood visualized again the Epicureans stepping out of the airplane, their noses turned up, sniffing the strange smells of Alabama. A paper mill. A vast turpentine sea of pine trees. He thought of their faces, the puzzlement in their eyes.
God, he hated some things about this world.
Mr. Wood glanced at one last screen before his departure.
Ah. There it was, all over again.
That loser Elmore Rogers stood in the same cell, in the same bright orange jumpsuit, as six months ago. Tonight, accompanied by the distant background hubbub of a crowd and the warm-up blare of a marching band, Mr. Wood’s prisoner once again gripped the bars with his restless hands.
Mr. Wood nearly snickered. Who’s watching your kids tonight, Rogers? Who’s keeping them safe from the big bad wolf?
Mr. Wood didn’t need to turn up the audio to know how Rogers was pleading, pleading, with Dan Neeley. Pleading innocence. Pleading that the hashish in his glove compartment had been planted, how it belonged to someone else.
Mr. Woods saw Police Chief Dan Neeley ignore his prisoner, focusing on some meaningless paperwork atop his desk.
Mr. Rogers’ old friend had turned out not to be such a friend after all.
Amazing what a sense of duty could do to a man.