The Big Barbecue
… in which dinnertime arrives, almost.
Last winter, Elmore Rogers had fallen three stories. He slammed violently onto the brick-hard, red-clay foundation of Mr. Wood’s castle, still under construction. He broke ribs. He bruised black from face to foot. He shattered teeth.
This solstice, Elmore fell 35 feet from the high garret of the Personality Shop.
His luck had gotten better. Or did practice really make perfect?
He plunged back-first, wildly windmilling his arms, into the middle of a gigantic chicken-wire-and-paper peanut on a holiday float.
His weight cratered the peanut sculpture, and Elmore’s body banged to a stop against the wooden bed of the parade float. The chicken wire made a prickly sort of cushion, and Elmore only had his breath knocked out. No teeth. No senses.
Another attack threatened far worse.
The four Lafayette beauty queens atop the float, last year’s and this year’s Miss Peanut and Miss Bronze Peanut, and two emeritus beauties, both white, both in their 70s, avalanched off their pedestals on the steep sides of the peanut crater and tumbled, in a perfumed jumble, onto Elmore.
One moment, he lay deep in wire and painted paper, gasping for life-giving oxygen. He hadn’t filled his lungs … not yet … but already he thanked his bright lucky stars gleaming straight overhead in the frosty night for the warm life he still felt throbbing in his body.
The next moment, four yowling Lafayette women caved in on him, a smothering tangle of frightened beauty queens that scratched for rescue like cats in a sack.
Now, Elmore believed he would die.
He couldn’t catch his breath. He couldn’t move arms or legs under the crush of female bodies. He struggled, weakly, to wrestle himself up to a breathing position.
Elmore watched those lucky white stars overhead fade, white to black, then pop like bubbles.
Would hysteria be the last sound he heard in this world?
“Lord, we all gonna die! He’s Satan! Satan!” wailed a beauty, red lipstick smeared across her face.
Elmore may actually have blacked out. He felt himself draining down a funnel into unconsciousness.
Then, another beauty saved him.
Kelly’s face was directly over his own. Full moonlight silvered her cheeks and hair. She appeared like an angel of salvation.
“Keh … Keh …”
Elmore opened his mouth, but no words followed. He couldn’t speak even when he felt Kelly’s hands grab his shoulders and lurch him forward, with all her might, toward the edge of the parade float.
One beauty queen rolled free of Elmore’s chest, and he immediately sucked up the air of the icy night. He filled his lungs with shameless, noisy gasps.
The unearthly noises scared the Lafayette beauty queens even more, and now all four clambered in wild panic to scale the torn golden sides of the cratered peanut and escape. Fighting to be first over the rim, the two emeritus queens, wrinkled as bulldogs, fiercely battled with kicking high heels and slicing sharp fingernails.
Kelly yanked Elmore again, mightily, and he slid all the way to the edge of the parade float, his shoulders dangling over Main Street. He found some strength, rolled himself onto his belly. In another second, Kelly helped ease him down, wobbly, and he found his feet on the pavement of Lafayette.
A dying Dick Wragg stared him in the face.
The fire chief looked upward — at least his face did. His body, however, lay twisted at an awkward angle. It sickened Elmore to see a body so completely broken.
Wragg’s top lip oozed blood. So did the fire chief’s ears and nose and mouth. The man seemed to have exploded inside.
“Call the fire chief!” yelled someone. “Call paramedics!”
He is the fire chief, Elmore thought bitterly. He is the paramedics.
The downtown crowd stood back, aghast, at a respectful distance from the dying man. Some Lafayetters huddled behind an accidental fence — the toppled fire escape. The dangerous falling metal had crashed down into the street in a way that naturally separated gawkers from the dying man. A few Lafayette High School band members in back of the peanut float struggled to lift the twisted fallen ladder off the trapped legs of a comrade, a chubby kid with shocked blue eyes who kept babbling, incomprehensibly, Whip it … Whip it good … Whip it good …
Elmore filled with fury again, and he took a menacing step toward Wragg, but he stumbled and almost went to a knee. Kelly lifted him by his arm.
Wragg’s eyes remained fixed on Elmore. The fire chief opened his mouth and croaked a few sounds through his furry top lip.
Was it possible? Wragg seemed to gloat over something. Even now, at the moment of his death.
“Them … Will and Mary,” he finally managed. Wragg stopped to swallow, but wasn’t able. A red bubble appeared at his nostril and popped. “Mr. Wood. Ha ha ha ha ha...”
Elmore took a new rough step forward, raising his work boot high to stomp the final spark of life out of Dick Wragg. But Kelly grabbed his arm once again and jerked him back to reality.
“Elmore, he’s not there anymore,” she said. “Don’t even touch him.”
Wragg’s breath had made a vapor plume, weak and white. It stopped abruptly. The man in the middle of Main Street stared at the moon without blinking.
Elmore turned to Kelly. Her eyes were different than he’d seen in a long, long time.
Wragg might not be here, but Kelly was.
Kelly was home.
Elmore now noticed a long, blood-red mark, almost a burn, streaking her right cheek.
The noise of Lafayette faded.
He reached fingers to examine the face wound, but Kelly caught his hand.
“Sort of.” Wryly, Kelly added, “I reckon I’m faster than a speeding bullet.”
“Thank goodness, Kelly.”
“Will and Mary,” she answered.
They ran. Elmore, still dazed, moved with lurching, but surprising speed. He stopped a moment over Wragg’s body, avoiding the now all-knowing stare of those open eyes. Elmore could have sworn he saw the curious top lip move, like it might utter just one more sneering thing.
“Hey!” a person yelled in the crowd. “That feller’s robbing a dead man!”
Elmore ignored the shouts of alarm that followed. He roughly pushed aside a black leather bandolier of ammunition Dick Wragg had strapped across his chest. Several bullets were missing.
Clink. Clink. Two more bullets slipped loose and fell onto Main Street as Elmore patted the pockets of Wragg’s military jacket. The dead man’s head nodded creepily, yeah, yeah.
Elmore found the thing he wanted.
The face of Wragg’s cell phone had totally shattered. Elmore pressed the black button on it anyhow.
The device’s screen glowed, flickered to life.
Elmore saw Wragg’s last call, 10 minutes past.
* * *
The Epicureans had gathered.
Mr. Wood passed big Stefan and lithe Ronaldo two fully set antique silver trays, and the gentlemen’s gentlemen shimmered away to serve their masters.
Stefan’s tray tinkled musically with two dozen, plus one, tiny, elegant, crystal glasses. These held a thick purple liquid. Ronaldo’s offered a presentation of bite-sized round wafers, white as full moons, artfully arranged in a circle.
The Epicureans stood happily warming before Mr. Wood’s gigantic fireplace. Its stones fit precisely without mortar, the magic of master Irish stonemasons. Twin andirons wrought in the shape of gape-mouthed black serpents held a roaring fire on their backs – the andirons had been hammered by artisans out of molten steel straight from the 19th-century blast furnaces of Bessemer.
Mr. Wood’s stone hearth crackled merrily with splinters of heart pine and long hickory logs, one as thick as a wagon wheel.
A log like that would burn for days.
The feasting room lay at the very heart of Mr. Wood’s castle, a chamber far from the surface of the earth, inured from distractions or interventions by the outside world. The Epicureans reached the space by trooping down multiple stairways of ornately carved yew, these salvaged from an Irish abbey. On their last leg, the guests passed single-file, like monks, through a long tunnel to a wooden door.
They emerged from moody darkness into the bright and cheerful chamber. Its dark-honey mahogany walls gleamed with cozy warmth, and a dozen old-fashioned gas lights flickered nostalgically along the walls. A huge, round mirror framed with ornate gold filigree reflected the whole room, doubling its light and warmth.
A single wooden table, rough with age but made to last, ran the length of the fireplace. (Mr. Wood had purchased the 700-year-old banquet bench from a mead hall in Norway where Vikings once feasted.) White butcher paper covered the table’s rustic surface, and an anomaly – plump rolls of everyday white paper towels – sat every few feet, alongside small white plastic baskets holding hot sauces and condiments for meat dishes.
The stainless steel doors of a kitchen gleamed across the room opposite the fireplace. The kitchen’s porthole windows wore cataracts of steam.
As Stefan and Ronaldo served every Epicurean a libation and a wafer, Mr. Wood cleared his throat. He would need to project his voice now. He usually addressed one or two men confidentially in a small room, not two dozen in a banquet hall.
“Howdy again, folks. We welcome y’all a second time to Sweet Comb. And to re-repeat what you heard on the bus ride, we’re gonna do things a little different this winter soltis … I mean solstice …”
Mr. Wood stopped and addressed the group more intimately.
“Damn it! Winter solstice. That’s a hard word to say, ain’t it?”
A row of big smiles flashed sympathetically. The Epicureans glowed tonight with bonhomie.
Mr. Wood saw Dieter, last year’s host, hug his fräulein. He took note of the big Russian, who always, every gathering, kept his heavy coat on. Mr. Wood noted the African warlord with those filed teeth, the preening gold-haired Japanese businessmen from Nagasaki, Don Sacco and his stunning wife. The Brazilian arms merchant, the Argentinian soccer star, the Dutch art-dealer sisters, all the rest of his guests.
Tonight, they wore the look of love, these Epicureans. Their faces were flushed and bright from the warmth of the room, the fireplace, the drinks on the long flight.
From mouth-watering anticipation.
“You are quite right, Wood! That blasted word is deucedly hard to pronounce!” The tall, lion-headed British Duke held forth in a splendid baritone. “At Albemarle Abbey, we simply refer to it as Feast Night!”
A smile cracked the ghastly face of the Duchess, draped on his arm.
“My lovely man from Albemarle,” she burbled, “always knows exactly what is meant when we speak of Feast Night.”
Mr. Wood saw a sudden mental image of the Duchess flossing human flesh from her teeth at the boozy end of the evening.
He hated these people.
All people. But especially these. These Epicureans.
They deserved what was about to happen.
“It’s a very good home you have here, Mr. Wood, very good.” Dieter the German gave a slight bow with his compliment.
Mr. Wood gathered his drifting thoughts and returned to the moment. He must keep up a companionable front, at least temporarily, as he hosted this grand occasion.
“My home tonight is your home,” Mr. Wood purred. “I trust y’all enjoyed our little bus ride?”
The Epicureans laughed.
“I didn’t tell you on the way in,” Mr. Wood shared with them in a conspiratorial voice, “but that yellow school bus once belonged to The Beatles. Ringo Starr rode on top of it in one of their movies.”
It was a lie, but Mr. Wood knew it would get a certain response.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah!” chimed the two Japanese businessmen, together as if on cue. Their unexpected … and excellent … harmony on the last yeah brought a gale of laughter.
Stefan and Ronaldo completed the first service. Mr. Wood tipped his cowboy hat to say thanks, then raised his thimble-sized wine glass and lifted his white wafer.
“Tonight I’m gonna show y’all how we hold a warm special occasion here in this part of the world. Down South.”
Here! Here! cried The Epicureans.
“First,” announced Mr. Wood. “To preface our solstice feast, I want to offer a few brief words.”
The Epicureans lifted high their glasses, engaged, listening.
“You have a rich and long tradition, you anthropophagites.”
Mr. Wood watched every face. As expected, a few quizzical expressions appeared, brows knit, mouths puckered. Not everyone spoke native English, or knew the technical term he’d used.
“You are cannibals,” Mr. Wood clarified. “That’s the familiar term.”
The word shocked and offended, as Mr. Wood expected. It sounded so … vulgar.
The mood in the room changed instantly.
Mr. Wood didn’t give a damn. He would enjoy the next 15 minutes so much.
So very much would change. So many lives.
“Cannibals,” he repeated. “Can-ee-bulls.”
Several of the Epicureans flinched, and all their smiles disappeared.
“Yes, sir, you cannibals can point to a long and rich tradition,” continued Mr. Wood. “You’re embedded in the ages. Human mythology is engorged with cannibalism. You live in fairy tales and sagas and bedtime stories. Best of all, you have an actual, factual, timeline all through history. Did you know? Neanderthal caves littered with gnawed finger bones. The Donner party. The chopping board of that Dahmer kid in Milwaukee. The effing Crusaders … and Caribs … and Aztecs … and Jamestown colonists. The whale crew of the Essex. Japs on New Guinea. The Andes plane crash. The list goes on and on, fellow Epicureans. You are not alone.”
Mr. Wood went on.
“And, the way I see things, cannibalism is even at the foundation of a whole by-God religious faith.”
Mr. Wood raised his wafer and glass.
“Here, my friends – this is my body. Eat. This is my blood. Drink. Remember me.”
The roomful of faces stared at Mr. Wood like stones.
“Oh, come on, brothers and sisters of the stock pot,” Mr. Wood chided. “You folks play along here. It’s our solstice, our 25th. We did things your way in the past, all those years. Let’s do things the Wood way tonight.”
He raised his glass higher. A challenge. Mr. Wood dared them.
“Cheers! Skoal! Salud!” Mr. Wood spoke loudly now. “To your place in history. To your very special tastes!”
Mr. Wood placed a white wafer on his own tongue, grinned, tossed back his shot of dark liquid.
Slowly, The Epicureans followed. All of them. Mr. Wood studied the room to make sure. Some made peculiar faces after the tasting.
The Epicureans waited now, deathly quiet.
Mr. Wood studied every Epicurean, going one by one, face by face. Then, he greatly surprised his guests by noisily spitting out what he’d just ingested. Wafer and potion. An ugly red mass plopped onto the varnished wood floor between his fine cowboy boots.
Now a new feeling, suspicion, filled the room. Mr. Wood could read their faces like 24 open books.
Good, he thought. That just makes it better. Fear is highly flammable.
“Mr. Wood,” said Don Sacco, who knew every nuance of English, “you are a … cannibal … too. One of us. Are you not?”
“Oh yes,” the host agreed. “Most surely, I am. But, my friends, I’m much, much more than that...”
Mr. Wood tossed his empty crystal thimble into the roaring fireplace.
“Much more. And so…,” Mr. Wood resumed, “thank you tonight, this solstice, for your foolish trust. And while my ‘body and blood’ do their wicked work on all of you, I’ll step out now for a breath. All the rest of my breaths, in fact.”
Mr. Wood gave a lopsided smile, his face leering like a Halloween pumpkin.
“Did I mention we’ll have a big barbecue tonight?”
Like a signal, the giant hickory log in the fireplace popped out a burning ember. Mr. Wood strode right over the glowering coal on his way to what appeared to be a blank wooden wall.
He touched a spot and quietly spoke, and a doorway slid open.
Mr. Wood turned briefly back to eye The Epicureans. He gave a deadly baleful stare.
“In a few heartbeats,” he announced, “you will begin to hallucinate. Violent, terrible hallucinations. The wafer and host you just consumed were made from my own human waste, and I mixed that, for your dining pleasure, with a highly concentrated psychedelic drug that pops up like mushrooms in our cattle fields here in Alabama. In the reeking shit of the cows you all eat when you’re not busy chewing something more savory.”
Mr. Wood stopped a moment to enjoy the utter consternation on the fire-lit faces of The Epicureans.
“The truth about me? About Mr. Wood?”
He confessed to them.
“I love murder. More than feasts. More than flesh. More than money. More than anything you love or ever loved. So, tonight … I am giving myself, Mr. Wood, a solstice gift. I’m taking the lives of each and every one of you in this room. Say your farewells, my dear god-damned Epicureans. You have exactly three minutes.”
The fringe on the back of Mr. Wood’s western jacket shivered as he disappeared through the secret opening and the door slid shut behind him.
* * *
Kelly tore open the driver door of Lafayette’s police car. Elmore toppled into the passenger seat. Kelly somehow had keys to the squad car. Elmore didn’t let himself think of her rifling Dan Neeley’s pockets for them.
“Elmore,” Kelly said. “We’re gonna find them. We are.”
“I love you, Kelly.”
Elmore said it like a universal truth, a thing a man would tell about how he knew gravity existed or that the sun would rise the next morning.
Gripping his hair, Kelly pulled Elmore’s face to hers. She kissed his mouth and simultaneously twisted the key in the cruiser’s ignition.
The late Dan Neeley’s police car may have been 10 years old, but the powerful engine still blasted energy to its four wheels. Kelly’s foot stomped the pedal, and the cruiser screamed and smoked and slung parking-lot gravel like shrapnel back over The Jolly Holiday parade and Main Street.
Neither Kelly nor Elmore knew which switch worked the blue cop light or wailed the siren, but why would they run those anyway?
The last thing they needed was for Mr. Wood to see or hear them coming.
Did the billionaire hold Will and Mary hostage? Why? What did Dan Neeley mean? And Wragg, with his dying, taunting breath?
Kelly vaulted the police car right over the sidewalk on the first turn off Main Street, and the cruiser lanced through the dark streets of Lafayette.
They hit 90 mph on the way to Mrs. Mock’s home. They screamed to a stop on the fine lawn. Elmore kicked in the witch’s front door after he got no answer to his pounding knocks and frantic doorbell rings.
He found the lights left on, but no one in the house. No kids. No socialite.
Kelly topped 120 mph on Highway 11 headed toward The Castle.
Minutes felt like centuries. Eternities.
Danger didn’t matter. Kelly and Elmore feared the thing Will and Mary faced was far riskier than high speed in a vehicle.
Elmore put his hand on Kelly’s as she gripped the steering wheel.
“Faster. Go faster.”
* * *
Mr. Wood cracked an ammonia capsule between huge fingers and stuffed pieces into one nostril of each Rogers twin.
The children spasmed to life immediately.
Mr. Wood chuckled. Will and Mary Rogers looked like two frowsy, roosting chickens hit with a bright light.
The magnate jerked them from their big red pillows to their feet. Dazed, the twins teetered as Mr. Wood spun them to stare through a round viewing space in one wall of his control room.
A hazy gaggle of people, some walking, some waving arms, filled the window.
“You young’uns ever look through a one-way mirror before?” Mr. Wood asked amiably.
Too groggy and stunned to speak, the twins simply blinked.
“Didn’t think so,” said Mr. Wood. “Folks ain’t got a lot of reasons to own one-way mirrors here in Lafayette.”
“Mommy mirrors,” mumbled Mary senselessly. Will still just blinked.
Ah. Mr. Wood now knew the twins could see and hear through their stupor.
Good. He wanted Will and Mary to remember the next fine moments. He wanted tonight burned into their memories.
Just for the hell of it.
The magnate indulged himself for just a moment, reaching out his heavy hand to squeeze Mary’s little neck and Will’s bicep. Her softness and his unexpected musculature at age … what … 7, 8 now? … delighted Mr. Wood.
He felt their young lives pulsing in their bodies.
It filled him with anticipation.
Like cheeses, these two would grow better with age.
They’d be ripe in no time. Teens. Bursting.
Disgruntled noises sputtered through Mr. Wood’s speakers. He turned back to his business.
The Epicureans had gathered.
His heart pounded.
He’d never killed so many people at once, even in Vietnam. Seven or eight at one time there, maybe once a dozen. A blast of napalm. A booby trap with mines and grenades.
But 26 at one blow? Two dozen Epicureans, plus Stefan and Ronaldo?
This would be a solstice to remember.
“Don’t think of me as evil or good,” Mr. Wood told the twins in his fondest voice. “This is just what I do.”
Mr. Wood fingered a red button.
He glanced to find the twins watching him with dead eyes.
“Your parents will be coming for you,” Mr. Wood reassured them. “And then I’ll be coming for you. But lots will happen first.”
On the far side of the one-way mirror, The Epicureans milled and moiled, clearly uncomfortable.
Atomized in little animated groups all over the banquet room, they searched for possible exits. A knot of men purposefully worked on opening the thick sealed door where they’d entered. Another three or four Epicureans explored the wall where Mr. Wood had vanished. These folks ran their hands over the smooth mahogany, testing to find a secret lever or button, and they chanted the words they thought they heard Mr. Wood say to make the door slide wide open.
All moved very slowly, erratically, clearly now under the influence of the hallucinogen. Mr. Wood watched the big Russian flail at something invisible that flew in circles over his head. The ugly Duchess stood with both red shoes in one hand and the lifted hem of her designer dress in the other, afraid to wade into some fantasized pool she saw in front of her.
Mr. Wood made a tut-tut noise with his tongue.
“Barbecue!” he whispered to the twins.
He pressed the red button.
The Epicureans didn’t go to hell.
Hell came to them.
Twelve long blue tongues of superheated flame spewed from nozzles set behind the antique gas lights along the banquet room walls.
Blasts of fire jetted out 30 feet from a row of massive burners hidden inside the friendly hearth.
The sealed doors of the kitchen burst wide, and a pair of full-throated flamethrowers violently hosed plasma flames onto The Epicureans.
In the one-way mirror, Mr. Wood watched his privileged guests drift through an orange and white fantasyland. He closely studied their deaths. They first walked resolutely, hair and shoulders and clothes on fire, then they slowed, and they finally stopped completely. Individuals then writhed and twisted and convulsed in agony until they dropped.
The African warlord’s colorful dashiki turned into a gown of flame. The two Dutch sisters were twin torches, feebly waving their bejeweled arms. The two Japanese businessmen embraced.
“Nagasaki’s finest,” Mr. Wood said quietly.
The magnate’s eyes reflected a wall of fire with small black silhouettes.
Will and Mary simply stared. Neither child spoke. Mr. Wood wasn’t even sure they could speak by this point.
“Look at ’em!” Mr. Wood urged, in a near sing-song. “Just look at that, would you!”
One stubborn Epicurean ghost-walked through the inferno all the way to the one-way mirror. Mr. Wood could barely recognize Stefan, the bullish waiter. He somehow reached the glass and pressed his blazing face against it, as if trying his best to see who stood on the other side.
When Stefan fell, he left a smear of melting skin and oil down the glass. It bubbled away almost immediately.
Mr. Wood couldn’t know, but Will and Mary did have thoughts about the fire and screams and reek of burning flesh.
It’s an aquarium, thought Will. An aquarium full of burning people.
Where’s some water hoses? Mary thought. We can put out the fire and save them if we get some water hoses...
The unlikely trio in the control room watched The Epicureans burn. They sat until the last body that lay on the floor and leaned against the wall had charred completely black and its charcoal pieces had crumbled away into the sea of flames.
Satisfied, Mr. Wood now pressed other buttons.
Video cameras showed different rooms in vast Sweet Comb. All were on fire now, the whole mansion. Drapes danced, burning, writhing. Couches and chairs blackened. Beds in guest rooms and the master suite transformed into lakes of fire.
One video screen showed a tiny black-and-white car coming hard down a long thread of driveway. Smoke poured from its engine. Maybe it was on fire, too? Around the police cruiser, the Sweet Comb grounds shone bright as daytime.
Mr. Wood smiled.
Good. All going just as planned.
A small geyser of black smoke suddenly boiled up from the acoustic-tile floor of the control room.
“Mary and Will? Y’all seen enough? Hope so. This smoke here is our sign to be moving along.”
Mr. Wood issued a belly laugh.
Will and Mary remained in a spell, unable to move or speak.
“Cat got those tongues? Well, here. Take this.”
Mr. Wood fished in one pocket of his western jacket. He drew out a paper napkin carefully folded around a surprise.
“Here you go,” Mr. Wood told the twins. “How about another delicious cookie?”
They fell asleep again immediately, collapsed on the red pillows.
Mr. Wood easily lifted Will under one arm and Mary under the other. He made his way through the control room’s access door and through underground passages of his vast house toward the solstice night.
He didn’t glance back even once. And when finally outside in the bracingly cold night, neither did Mr. Wood look back to see the inferno spreading at the speed of fire through every floor of Sweet Comb and high above the roof.
He carried Will and Mary a safe distance from the conflagration. He stopped when he reached a Special Services field pack, carefully provisioned days before, and two brown paper sacks with grease stains showing through the sides.
The roaring of the mansion in flames rivaled an erupting volcano now, and the fire drew a cold wind rushing to feed it. Incandescent tongues and fingers leaped a hundred feet above the highest gables, and the solstice night in this part of Alabama turned to flickering day.
Mr. Wood kissed Mary on the mouth. He kissed Will on the mouth. Then he nestled the two sleeping children gently down in deep grass. He lifted and unrolled a thermal blanket from beside his field pack, and he deftly spread it over the kids.
He left one of the grease-stained paper sacks by Will and the other by Mary. They held full racks of Champion’s barbecue ribs made on special order for the winter solstice.
“Enjoy the souvenirs,” said Mr. Wood. “Pleasant memories … and see you later, alligators.”
Mr. Wood briskly strode away in the direction of the jet that brought the Epicureans to Lafayette.
He didn’t look back this time, either.