… in which Wragg plays with his prey.
Mr. Wood scowled at the glowing surveillance screen. A single hole had appeared in his perfect plan.
The hole in Police Chief Neeley’s head.
“You shot the wrong son of a bitch, Wragg.”
Mr. Wood spoke flatly. An open line from the microphone in his video command center picked up the words and electronically sped them to Wragg’s cell phone.
Mr. Wood had placed this call himself. A rarity.
He would take no chances now, not at this late hour on such a special night.
Three miles away, Wragg placed his glowing phone on a dirty wooden floor. The voice buzzed like a fly. Wragg ignored it for a second to peer through the scope of his sniper rifle at the open doorway of the police headquarters building across the street.
He found nothing new to shoot just now. His only targets would be the two bare hands of an unseen male dragging the body of Chief Neeley out of view.
The chief left a red smear.
The door slammed.
Wragg wiped a sleeve across his own bloody nose. Chief Neeley’s taser had kicked him like a mule. Twice.
Well, Police Chief Neeley paid for that.
Wragg lowered the rifle slightly and thought to himself.
Why, Mr. Wood, you might be a billionaire and all. But for once, you are dead wrong. I didn’t shoot the wrong son of a bitch. I shot the son of a bitch I wanted to shoot. But I’ve got plenty of rounds for your other bird, that Rogers. And then I’ll shoot that woman, too. It will be a plumb pleasure. This is personal.
A dark drop of blood fell from Wragg’s nose onto the weathered upstairs window sill of the Personality Shop. The bottom right pane displayed one fresh bullet hole, in the center of a little spider web of broken glass.
Again, Wragg wiped his nose. He readjusted the rifle, aiming it directly at the closed door of the PD. Just like Lee Harvey Oswald, he thought. Trained Marine sniper. Just like in Dallas, a parade passed below, noisy confusion.
Any moment, that door would open again. Then …
Here’s your ticket to hell, Elmore Rogers. And one for that skanky woman.
“Wragg? Answer my question, goddamn you!”
The fire chief snapped from reverie. He addressed the cell phone, not looking, his goat lip quivering.
“Yes, sir, Mr. Wood. I’ll damn sure take care of Rogers. Don’t worry. You can count on me, Mr. Wood.”
Wragg’s words flew through the cold solstice night.
* * *
Behind Mr. Wood, two sleeping children lay on giant red pillows under a broad wall of video screens.
The sole illuminated screen showed a sleek jet making a landing on a grass runway. The green strip had a thin row of lights on either side, and those clicked off, one by one, and lowered into the ground as the aircraft passed.
A yellow school bus waited. That simple old-school conveyance ought to be hilarious fun for passengers who were getting off a ritzy plane after so many hours.
Mr. Wood needed to be behind the wheel of that bus when The Epicureans emerged. He had seven minutes.
Will and Mary didn’t stir.
Mr. Wood turned again to a video screen in front of him, these images streaming from the surveillance camera in the corner of the police headquarters.
He had witnessed Dan Neeley’s death on that device. The magnate had then had watched Elmore Rogers, stunned with shock, bravely overcome a plain fear of blood and a possible second bullet to drag Chief Neeley out of the open doorway. Kelly, that gorgeous ghost, keened like a widow as she slammed the door.
Mr. Wood thought about it, and he leaned to the mic again.
“Now look out, you idiot. Elmore Rogers is coming after you.”
It alarmed Mr. Wood just a little when Elmore stood straight after a useless effort at resuscitation. And Mr. Wood felt a little more perturbed when he saw the Lafayette loser unsnap Chief Neeley’s holster and yank out the service .45.
Then, a surprise.
Elmore Rogers slowly pivoted and took dead aim at the surveillance camera, in the corner at the ceiling.
The first shot missed. But with the second, the surveillance screen went completely black.
Mr. Wood’s speaker in the control room sputtered.
“Elmore Rogers? Coming for me? My boy Timmy could handle that fucking failure. Bring it on!”
Mr. Wood could read a man’s voice. He surely detected a tinny, false note in Dick Wragg’s bravado.
Well. He wouldn’t worry about that. Not now. Not a minute more.
Still, he would keep things clean.
He clicked a switch.
Main Street zoomed to full screen. A surveillance camera perched atop the police department ran its time code, hundredths of seconds flashing at wild speed over the phantasmagorical merriment of The Jolly Holiday celebration.
An inspired distraction, if I do say so myself, thought Mr. Wood. Merry Christmas, Lafayette.
He eyed the time code. Five minutes before The Epicureans stepped off their jet on this feast night. The 25th Winter Solstice Meal.
Mr. Wood glanced back of him again.
Mary lay with her mouth open, pale lips slightly apart, her thin chest rapidly rising and falling. She looked very much like the same small child Mr. Wood encountered in the hospital room last summer, still with snakebite, eyes watery, but heart-stopping in her beauty. The little girl’s red hair looked like frosting.
Will looked delicious, too. Just delicious.
Those Rogers children. Ripening. But not quite ripe. Not yet.
Truth to tell, Mr. Wood’s tastes ran to teens. He learned that in the isolated Hmong village in the war. He confirmed it with that Asian girl who skated away with his heart, his wildest appetites, in the Adirondacks.
Even so … it was a treat to anticipate, this sumptuous Will and Mary. What a future Mr. Wood had in store for them...
He stopped, startled. A sudden raucous screech pierced the control room, so loud the microphone on his console howled with feedback. Wragg’s phone.
Mr. Wood spun to the video screen in alarm.
On the Main Street surveillance screen, Elmore Rogers burst headlong, like a running back, out the door of the police station.
“I got him, Mr. Wood,” said Dick Wragg, cool as that. “One piece at a time.”
Mr. Wood watched the heavy black pistol in Elmore Rogers’s hand suddenly disintegrate, an explosion of tiny pieces.
Wragg’s second shot of the night tore it right out of Rogers’ hand.
“Now,” Wragg said, “Rogers won’t hurt anybody but himself.”
Mr. Wood gave a grudging whistle. He expected a Navy SEAL to be an excellent shot. He didn’t necessarily expect a Navy SEAL to play with his prey before a kill.
The time code on the screen read 8:56 p.m.
Mr. Wood straightened. He turned off the Wragg phone – no need for that now. He lifted his white hat from its peg on the door, adjusted it just the way he liked. To square the hat up, he eyed himself in the black mirror of a dead video screen.
Mr. Wood carefully bolted the control room door behind him.
There wasn’t much chance the Rogers children would wake up. But why take any risk at this point?
Everything in the world would change in the next 30 minutes.
* * *
Elmore stumbled and fell to his knees when the sniper’s bullet shattered his pistol. The round left him with a handful of stinging bees and bits of junk metal.
That moment, the tuba section of the Lafayette High School marching band passed in front of the downed Elmore. The pimply faces of teens blowing big sousaphones glowed cherry red in the cold, and white tufts that topped tall black bearskin hats trembled with energy. The hundred-plus musicians swung instruments side to side and proudly high-stepped, just one block from the mayor’s viewing stand, the climax of the huge parade.
On his knees, Elmore got the fish-eye from several determined marchers forced to step around him and still hold their ranks. Little white squares of sheet music spilled from one trumpet player’s holder.
That instant, Elmore heard a bright ping, and a shot-away brass shard from a tuba bell stung his cheek.
Wragg had missed, simply shooting into the madly blowing crowd.
Elmore knew Wragg’s markmanship. He didn’t count on that happening twice.
But Wragg fired elsewhere with his next shot.
Elmore whipped his head around to catch a fleeting glimpse of Kelly in the doorway of the police headquarters. She had dashed across the opening, a ragged doll.
Wragg’s shot exploded the upper left door frame of the headquarters – head level – into flying white splinters.
Elmore exploded, too, onto his feet. He made a full-speed ,head-down sprint straight toward the Personality Shop. He knew death hovered above as he bulled through the band, sprawling a row of trombonists, scattering the flutes, their unwieldy instruments flailing, bearskin hats knocked here and there. Another shot ricocheted sharply off the pavement just beneath him.
Wragg would be shooting straight down, Elmore thought. How in the world did he miss the broad back of a man?
But he missed. And Elmore drove madly through the red sea of band uniforms, popping out past the dismayed shouts and curses and chaos, beyond 10 or so bowled-over musicians and cheerleaders and even the old, patient band leader striding alongside, keeping the ranks dressed, counting tempos for his students.
Elmore suddenly thought of a mythical story he’d heard about Mr. Wood’s father, poor devil, struck down with aneurysm and fallen unnoticed in the bleachers among the blowing, blatting, indifferent instruments one cold night long ago.
Mr. Wood. Neeley had warned Elmore. What was Mr. Wood playing at?
Elmore next careened into the crowded sidewalk like a cannonball, splitting the crowd wide open, knocking people off their feet. He felt wind leave their lungs from his collisions. Surprised chilly faces fell before him like moonflowers.
He made it to hiding, a spot under the art deco awning of the forlorn little Personality Shop.
Back in the street, the parade was totally disrupted, like red ants when a finger blurs a scent trail.
Students dragged instruments to both Main Street sidewalks. Some of the kids held their arms or legs, faces in tears, and others attended the fallen, including the old band master. Abandoned trombones and tubas and glockenspiels and puffed hats and even a few snare drums littered Main.
Behind the turmoil proceeded the next unit in The Jolly Holiday procession, a decorated float. A local consortium of farmers had pitched in to create a hugely ambitious sculpture of wire and colored crepe paper – a giant peanut. Spray-painted gold. Pretty maidens sat atop it, waving with gloved hands.
The peanut float lurched left to avoid plowing into the halted crowd. The float bounced clumsily onto the sidewalk, the big platform guided by a hidden tractor engine hard to control. Crowns fell from the heads of the beauty queens.
The float took aim at Elmore, its brakes squalling.
Jesus. Don’t let me get run over by that.
Elmore shook his head. He hurt. Like always, but now so badly. His femur, the old wound. His ruined liver. Even last year’s broken ribs.
Under the awning of the Personality Shop, he caught his breath from the sprint and scrums. Elmore saw that the shop’s door hung open, left ajar by someone, probably inside. Elmore stared through the slit opening into uninviting darkness. Some sort of dark liquid covered the floor. Or it may have been a sea of roaches.
If you go in there, you’ll die. Elmore heard the inner voice, the instinct. Wragg’s waiting.
He knew it spoke the truth.
The giant peanut float squeaked to a stop not four feet in front of Elmore. The thoroughly miffed beauty queens glared down, confused and unnerved. They wore big furry coats and breathed white vapor like dragons.
Many in the crowd on the Lafayette sidewalk shot dirty glances in Elmore’s direction. He heard voices, accusers.
That’s him! He’s the one that knocked me down!
Elmore stood on tiptoes, peered past the crowd and the helter-skelter marching band for Kelly.
As Elmore looked on, two more rifle shots passed inaudibly through the night’s pandemonium and entered the cinder-block walls of the PD. The bullets left two little peepholes where they went in and came out. Light from inside gleamed through.
Elmore wasn’t a praying man. But he prayed those murderous shots hadn’t touched Kelly.
Horror flew down at him, too.
Dan Neeley, his lifelong friend, lay in a lake of blood in that building across the street.
Elmore’s heart froze in the cold.
And Will and Mary. Mary and Will. Where in the world would he find his children? How?
Elmore had to move.
Sooner or later, Wragg would get him. Kelly. The kids. All.
If he didn’t get Wragg first.
Far down the street, past the barrier of bedlam in front of the police headquarters, other school bands and floats were forced to a halt by the logjam. But somebody back there simply refused to let Lafayette’s holiday spirit go down the drain.
A jingling band struck up a tune – “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.” The music made the middle of Main Street more surreal. Elmore saw another float in the distance, a giant set of praying hands that carried an entire church choir, men and women in red robes covered over on this frozen solstice night by padded down coats and even sweatshirts for improvised warmth. The singers shone handheld flashlights down onto the white pages of their music folders and sang “Holly Jolly Christmas” at the tops of their lungs.
Elmore felt desperate. The world, the beautiful world, could all end any instant with a thunderclap.
How did he stop a SEAL with a rifle?
And what then, what after that?
Elmore warily took a peek from under the awning. He could see straight up the front façade of the dilapidated three-story Personality building.
The Shop had long been derelict, a downtown Lafayette eyesore. Dan Neeley had once told Elmore he wanted it torn down – Neeley just hated walking out of his office every day to see that crumbling face with its one window, a rotten Cyclops eye, staring down.
The building had been built so long ago that an old fire escape still crawled its side, a first rung about six feet above the sidewalk.
The ladder ended at the window on top. The window panes had a half dozen spider webs now, and Elmore thought he briefly saw a black barrel draw back from view.
Elmore Rogers took a deep breath.
He knew what he had to do.
* * *
The first rung of the ladder snapped off in Elmore’s hand.
He twisted awkwardly as he fell, but landed on his feet, bracing an arm against the glass showcase of the building. Old newspaper had been pasted over what had once been windows, and Elmore ripped away a section as he caught his balance.
Elmore eyed the second rung. It looked as rotted with rust as the first.
The young, long-haired driver of the marooned peanut float yelled at Elmore.
“You better climb, you creep! I’m about to whip your ass!”
Elmore answered by leaping with all his athleticism.
The second rung held his weight.
Elmore performed the best chin-up of his life, grappled for the next rung higher, and caught it, too. He pulled his body up until his feet got a purchase above the sidewalk.
Ominously, the bolts of the entire length of the ladder down one side came loose. The fire escape groaned, and the lower part of it swung free.
Elmore hung on like a kid playing with a rusty gate.
“Look at him!” someone yelled, and the crowd turned its attention to an obvious madman dangling off a building face, nearly to the second story.
Wragg will see the crowd, and then he’ll see me, Elmore thought. Go, Elmore. Up. Now or never.
The next rusty rung snapped loose in his hand. Elmore just managed to catch himself thanks to his chin. It whacked hard on the next rung down, but gave him just the single instant he needed to grab the cold metal frame of the fire escape.
“Oh, my God! He’s falling!”
The cry and a new huzzah from the crowd panicked Elmore even more. As he dangled, he looked down. A huge throng of people gawked up at him, Lafayette County’s finest clustered on the sidewalk and up and down Main Street, people in heavy coats and red uniforms with gold braid and reindeer antlers and bags of gaily wrapped gifts. Kids leaped like popcorn with excitement.
I’m entertainment, flashed a thought through Elmore’s mind. I’m a Jolly Holiday sideshow.
His feet found metal steps again.
Elmore climbed, spurred by fear.
Far, far away, he made out a woman’s voice. It somehow cut through the cacophony of Lafayette’s street circus and found his ears.
“El! In the window! He’s …”
Elmore heard the quiet pop of a rifle shot, some kind of silencer on it. He saw a flash overhead. Bright crumbs of window glass sprinkled his head and shoulders.
Kelly’s voice went quiet.
Elmore’s next moments were a red blur.
Adrenalized rage drove him skyward, toward the window. The metal footings screeched beneath his weight; the ladder yawed. Elmore placed hand over hand and foot above foot in a mad scramble for the third-story window.
Many things happened at once.
Abruptly, the top section of the fire escape came free of the wall and buckled backward toward the distant street. Elmore hustled three more rungs, channeling inner primate, up, up, never mind the world below.
He reached the window at the exact moment the ladder took its final tilt.
Elmore’s head popped up to see the deadly barrel of a sniper rifle pointed directly at his face. The pale face of Dick Wragg leered behind it, squinting through the scope, that strange lip stretched in a hideous smile.
The ladder convulsed. Elmore lunged. His fist shattered glass.
Elmore reached beyond the rifle, for the wicked face behind it. His bloody fingers grabbed mouth, fabric, collar, hair, jacket lapel, skin of the neck.
Elmore held on for his life, with all his might. The fire escape screeched like a dying animal, and it teetered further from the building’s crumbling wall.
Elmore held fast like a bulldog, ignoring everything — a wild errant blast from Wragg’s weapon, a tiny dazzle of shattered glass, the terror of free-falling backward.
The street crowd screamed, a thousand voices shattering the glass night. Mass hysteria suddenly became the Jolly Holiday theme.
Hold on, Elmore told his right hand. Take him down. Get me to Kelly. Get me to Will and Mary...
The fire escape gave up its iron ghost. It fell away entirely, sudden and fast.
Dick Wragg’s head and shoulders crowned through the upstairs window of the Personality Shop. Fighting Elmore’s grip with one hand, Wragg fiercely flailed with the other to catch hold of the window mullion.
It was rotten. It gave way.
Wragg’s sniper rifle tumbled end over end toward the street.
Elmore held Wragg in a fist of steel.
He dragged the shooter free of the window and both men, one clutching a ruined fire escape, one kicking booted legs in space, hurtled down in icy air toward Lafayette.
* * *
Mr. Wood tossed down his cigar on the walk to the yellow school bus. It sparked in the wet grass, but went out immediately.
The bus looked bright and cheerful in the moonlit night, like a giant pumpkin on wheels.
The designer jet had taxied to a stop, a little early on arrival. Don Sacco must have been eager to get here.
Passengers of privilege waited for Mr. Wood’s signal to disembark.
The man in the white hat and fringed white jacket climbed aboard the school bus and rose three more steps to the vinyl driver’s seat. He turned the key, rumbled the engine to life.
Mr. Wood flashed the bus’s headlights three times.
A door slid magically open on one side of the elegant jet. A short stairway unfolded from its side, like the serrated leg of a hatching insect.
Down they bounded, free at last, laughing, hands waving, voices calling to Mr. Wood. Twenty-four of them. Twelve special couples.
“Y’all get on the bus!” Mr. Wood yelled out loudly, stepping back out of the vehicle to greet the guests. “Welcome to Lafayette! My little town!”
The Epicureans appeared very happy. The two Japanese businessmen danced jigs. Mr. Wood could smell alcohol on the whole bunch of them from 10 feet away.
Good, he thought. They’ll catch right up.
“Y’all take your seats, and let’s head in to Sweet Comb for some school fare. Anybody hungry tonight?”
A wave of confirmation swept through the assembly, hands raised, heads nodding.
“’At’s good, ’at’s good,” Mr. Wood beamed.
He showed his fine teeth in a smile.
“’Cause we’re about to have ourselves one big barbecue.”