The Gingerbread Men
…in which a questionable lady comes bearing gifts.
Mr. Wood saw Mrs. Mock to the door, patted her on the fanny, and closed it behind her.
She’d had a big time. She’d gotten a big reward. Now, she had a big assignment.
Mr. Wood pulled out his lap drawer. He withdrew a black remote studded with multicolored buttons. He pressed a big red one in the center.
A wall of finely polished wood paneling silently and smoothly parted in the center. Underneath glowed a large electronic panel. It displayed a dozen video surveillance screens, some static, some filled with moving figures and vehicles and time codes.
Mr. Wood didn’t care for television or periodicals. He got the only information he needed from this electronic wall.
Every electric wire and cable that made up his own personal world wide web met here. He could see the factories in Camden and Verona and Minsk. He could watch the corporate offices in Bonn and London and Shanghai. He could study the faces of ship captains and pilots and managers and shift workers. Or he could watch total strangers, anonymous vehicles, private sanctuaries.
Mr. Wood was everywhere. He knew everything.
His big index finger pressed a button. A surveillance camera view zoomed to fill the screen, the quality of the color video so exquisitely sharp that Mr. Wood could count the number of sticks the Rogers kids and that little Wragg boy used to construct all four sides of their little fort in the woods. If he zoomed in, Mr. Wood could count every single leaf in the thatching that the pretty little girl, Mary, had reverently placed on its roof.
That video camera suddenly fuzzed and went blank. Real-time, something seemed the matter.
Mr. Wood reversed the video, finding a number of blank spaces and lapses. He would have to dispatch a man to get it working right.
This annoyed Mr. Wood greatly. He dealt with his frustration by pulling a cigar from his white jacket, breaking its band, carefully cutting the end, and blazing it with his gold lighter.
The smell of rich burning Cuban tobacco mingled now with the female smell Mrs. Mock had left behind.
Mr. Wood explored the video. He found a viewable section and stopped it at exactly the instant Mary Rogers stretched on tiptoes to carefully position pine branches on top of that little stick house. He watched with interest as Will, that fine young man, abruptly muscled her aside to rearrange the boughs in the configuration he preferred. Mr. Wood paused the video and studied the two youngsters for a long time.
Then, he reversed the video in time, fast speed, to magically watch the children deconstruct the fort, pole by pole, its sides coming down like pick-up-sticks, the kids moving in ghostly blurs, backward, always backward, speeding toward the past.
Toward that hot goddamned car. Toward the day they were born.
Of course, Mr. Wood knew about the car. Everybody in Lafayette knew about the car. Mr. Wood also knew about Kelly Rogers’s struggles afterward. Everybody in Lafayette knew that gossip too.
This prompted a thought, and Mr. Wood hit a new button.
The view from a different surveillance camera enlarged and filled the screen. This lens scanned from some placement at a height directly down onto a wooden train trestle. It was night, last night, according to the time code, and lightly raining.
Mr. Wood played with the console until a green Volkswagen bug magically puttered onto the screen. He turned on the sound now, and he watched through his famously hooded eyes as Kelly Rogers, dressed to kill, stepped from the automobile showing a lot of leg and walked to the edge of the trestle… then kept walking.
She didn’t slip on the wet crossties. There was no question about that.
He clicked to another camera, another trestle view. Even through the rain-speckled lens in that gusting storm, Mr. Wood could see Officer Jess Turnipseed pull the cord of the outboard motor on his little launch. He left the near bank of the Black Warrior and arrowed toward a black whirlpool in the night where Mrs. Rogers had gone down.
Good. Very good.
Sheriff Neeley had assigned Officer Turnipseed to a night watch of the river for months now. Their vigilance had been rewarded.
The bow of the little boat tipped far up in the air with Officer Turnipseed in the stern.
Turnipseed may be morbidly obese, Mr. Wood thought. But the officer did his duty. He dove in without a second thought.
Mr. Wood surprised himself. He felt a kind of unexpected sensual thrill when Officer Turnipseed appeared above water again, towing a limp woman in a black dress by her black hair. At boatside, the officer submerged like a walrus, burst upward, hoisted Kelly Rogers on his back, and dumped her ungracefully into the boat. The woman looked unconscious, though Mr. Wood saw her move a pale hand once, like she was reaching for something solid to hold onto.
Mr. Wood opened the eye of a new video camera. This one peered down into the depressing mayhem of Lafayette General Hospital’s emergency room.
The camera, truth to tell, was Mr. Wood’s guilty pleasure. He sometimes watched Chief Wragg’s paramedic crews bring in the Saturday night miserables. In the past week alone, he witnessed the sloppy unloading of two entire families turned mostly to hamburger meat in a head-on collision. He saw the paramedics lug in a dripping stretcher that held a would-be shoplifter of the Zippy Mart, shotgunned about in half by the night clerk. Mr. Wood watched in fascination as Dan Neeley himself lugged in three heavy-duty black plastic bags holding the pieces of a crack addict who passed out on the railroad tracks after lighting up a pipe.
Mr. Wood rewound the video until he found the piece of footage he wanted.
Mr. Wood watched Officer Turnipseed wrestle a sodden sleeping beauty out of the cage of his police car. Chief Neeley walked out of the hospital doors to help. Kelly Rogers’s pale arm dangled down. Her red fingernails dragged the white tile floor as the hospital staff rushed her to the emergency room.
Now, a secret camera inside the ER showed nurses, two male and two female, cutting off Kelly Rogers’s clothes. Again, Mr. Wood felt something, a stimulation, as he watched the legendary beauty’s livid skin burst from a black tight sheath of evening gown. Mr. Wood briefly wondered what must have gone through Kelly Rogers’s head as she chose this apparel for her last night out on the town.
He stopped the surveillance camera again. He studied a still frame. Kelly Rogers lay without clothes on a gurney.
She made his mouth water.
Oh yes. Mr. Wood knew Kelly had survived. He knew she would probably stay alive in Lafayette General, no matter how much she didn’t want to. He knew her exact location in the hospital and the doctors on duty and the drugs she’d been administered and even the numbers on the machines the staff monitored for her 24/7. Kelly Rogers would never be alone again, after this latest incident. Mr. Wood would arrange that. He had a nice, quiet place in mind, with all the comforts of home.
Mr. Wood also knew exactly where Kelly Rogers would be this winter solstice. Delicious Kelly and her delicious kids, too.
Mr. Wood was everywhere. He knew everything.
He pleasured himself, sitting alone at his desk.
He studied Kelly in ultra slow motion as she lay uncovered on the steel gurney. She turned her head slightly to one side, and her black hair spilled into her face, and her lips opened to breathe. Her incandescently pale chest rose and fell, her breasts rising up and down. For one stunning moment, the long lashes of her eyes opened, staring straight at the video camera, her frightened wide pupils the color of the black river she’d done her best to swim down forever.
Mr. Wood grunted.
He waited for the thick drumbeat inside him to slow.
His hand sticky, he clicked another video view.
Elmore Rogers’s driveway down Highway 11 appeared onscreen. A car slowly pulled up the rutted driveway. The old silver Chrysler must have been elegant at one time. It had a quiet gleam on a moonlit summer night like this one.
It stopped behind the panel truck and turned off its lights.
Mrs. Mock stepped out. Mr. Wood zoomed in on her with deep interest.
What was it about these women and their after-dark dresses? Did the full moon trigger some seductive instinct?
Mrs. Mock wore the same provocative red dress she had teasingly taken off and left heaped by the desk an hour ago.
She called it her money-maker.
Mr. Wood watched the lady in red open the back door of her Chrysler. She drew out an oversized wicker picnic basket with a happy-colored checkered cloth flapping down its sides.
Mr. Wood turned up the sound.
He watched… and heard… Mrs. Mock attempt to ring the doorbell. Of course, a doorbell didn’t work on Elmore Rogers’s rental house. She tried three times. Then, Mrs. Mock knocked very hard, her tough little knuckles bunched, on the front door.
The door cracked. Elmore Rogers stood in his sock feet, surprised. Those tasty twins peeked out, one on each hip.
The world’s best technology, a spy camera tiny as a dragonfly and a hearing device that could listen to ants arguing, peered down from the splintery top of the creosoted telephone pole by Elmore’s driveway. With toys like this, Mr. Wood could practically see and hear through walls, whenever… wherever… he wanted.
He zoomed in on Mrs. Mock. His female emissary pleased him greatly just now, all dressed in red with her big cookie basket. Adult Red Riding Hood.
“Why… uh… hey, Mrs. Mock.”
Very clearly surprised, Elmore started and stopped. Mr. Wood had to check twice to make sure this surveillance device didn’t have technical troubles, too.
It was Elmore. Stammering.
Mrs. Mock smiled so big. She could really smile, that one.
A different look came on Elmore’s face. Mr. Wood knew it exactly. Suspicion.
Elmore Rogers must have vividly remembered the last time he and Mrs. Mock faced each other through a doorway. Last Christmas in the snow. He had stitches and a broken rib. She had someplace else to be.
“What’s your business, Mrs. Mock?” Elmore asked curtly.
Mr. Wood smirked. Elmore Roger’s pronunciation had improved so very much in these last months.
“Elmore, you don’t believe this, I know… but I’ve been missing these adorable children. Hey, Will! Hey, Mary!”
Mrs. Mock’s voice trilled.
Mr. Wood couldn’t believe how much he despised the woman. But she would get him what he needed.
“You miss… Will and Mary?”
Clearly, Elmore didn’t buy it. He didn’t crack the door one inch wider. Neither kid spoke or moved.
“Yes, I do,” Mrs. Mock continued. “I wanted to bring over some things I baked for y’all just this afternoon!” She pointedly looked at each child, and added. “Some goodies!”
“Well, Mrs. Mock…”
“Y’all keep the basket,” she interrupted cheerily, extending the entire bulky thing. “I can get it when…”
Elmore didn’t reach out his hand. And he didn’t invite Mrs. Mock to finish her sentence.
She finished it anyway.
“…when school starts back in September, and you bring the kids back to stay with me in the afternoons again.”
Good girl, thought Mr. Wood.
Stony Elmore just stared.
“I mean it, El. I want to invite Will and Mary over after school on Fridays while you work. I’ll get them off the school bus, and we’ll have tea and cookies and play imagination games. Just like we did before Christmas.”
Mr. Wood found a big smile spreading across his face. This woman was good. Really good. Why, whether he despised her or not… if Mrs. Mock showed up with a picnic basket at his office with that dress and sing-song and that big pretty smile…
Elmore still hadn’t moved a muscle. But young Will spoke up. Headstrong little fool.
“What kind of cookies?”
Mrs. Mock raised her painted eyebrows, pursed her lips, leaned her head to one side coquettishly. She flipped up one side of the cover on the picnic basket, then stooped to be at Will’s eye level. Her tight red dress slipped upward more than a little over her silk-stockinged thighs.
“Well…” she began, slipping a hand into the basket. “I can feel… peanut butter… and oatmeal raisin… and chocolate chip… and… and… two gingerbread men!”
Like a magic trick – shazam! – Mrs. Mock produced those last oversized cookies. She’d baked them in the shape of tiny humans. She lifted them like a magic trick, waving one in front of Will and one in front of Mary.
“Have you children ever tasted real gingerbread men?”
Mr. Wood nodded at his desk. He approved.
This was Mary, looking up. “I never tasted a gingerbread man. Did I?”
Elmore stood still as the house for another long moment.
What makes him tick? Mr. Wood wondered. This cat’s not your normal redneck daddy, that’s for sure.
“Let us taste a gingerbread man, daddy?” Will chimed in now with his sister.
Mrs. Mock stood again, smoothed down the front of her dress with the backs of her palms, the gingerbread men moving up, then down with their little raisin eyes wide.
“Three against one, Elmore Rogers…” Mrs. Mock lifted her gingerbread men in front of Elmore’s eyes now, and made them dance in unison, side to side, like silly cartoon characters.
“Plus,” she added teasingly, “there just might be some other tasty surprises in with the cookies, too…”
The man with the lean, hard, handsome face extended his arm and took the handle of the picnic basket.
“Thank you, Mrs. Mock,” Elmore said. “The kids can try these cookies, and we’ll get the basket back to you in a couple of days.”
“Oh, Elmore, y’all don’t worry a fig about that,” Mrs. Mock fluted. “I’ve got lots of baskets. And I want you to know one more thing.”
Elmore waited, basket in hand, still not inside the door.
“These gingerbread men were your dad’s very favorites. He loved for me to make these for him so he could eat them with my homemade lemonade while he watched football games on Sunday after church.”
Mr. Wood couldn’t read anything at all in Elmore’s stony expression.
Unfazed, Mrs. Mock returned to her mission.
“So, Elmore, let me do the after-care on Fridays again this fall? The kids will be welcome. We’ll have fun. They’ll be safe. I promise.”
Elmore took a noncommittal breath.
“This little family will certainly talk it over, Mrs. Mock. We appreciate the offer. And the cookies.”
As soon as Mrs. Mock turned, Elmore closed the door firmly.
Even so, the listening device on the power pole could pick up a few excited words from inside the Rogers house: gingerbread… me first… lots of them… what’s that one…
Then, a voice rose – a child’s voice. It sounded surprised and thrilled.
“What’s that, sweetie?” The adult voice sounded so world-weary.
Mary sounded so excited.
“A cheerleader suit!”
Will’s little-man voice yelled out, too.
“And – wow! – it’s a snow dome, daddy! The biggest one ever! A giant snow dome with a Frosty the Snowman inside!”
Mr. Wood watched as Mrs. Mock yanked down her tight red skirt before she tucked herself back under the wheel of the Chrysler.
The surveillance camera above her perfectly coiffed head distinctly revealed a wide, satisfied smile.