Drawing: Gingerbread house. Caption reads: "That can't be what it looks like."

Gingerbread short story by Iris Carden

Five storeys below Brisbane’s Roma Street Police Station, is the headquarters for the Human Defence Unit. Its members are drawn from among the highest performing members of military, intelligence, and police forces throughout Australia, along with select highly specialised members of the civilian population. The Human Defence Unit and its elite staff are neither police, military nor intelligence. They do not exist.

HDU Senior Agent Jo Burns was sitting across the desk from Inspector David Webber in his office.  

“I don’t know,” he said.  “This could be one of yours, or it could be a run of the mill psychopath.  I think I need you on board, just in case.”

“What’s the case?” Jo asked.

“The Gap’s a relatively affluent suburb, not much crime, except for white collar.”

Jo nodded.

“It’s usually considered safe enough that kids can walk or ride their bikes to school. But yesterday, two children didn’t get home.  The day before, a girl told her parents a strange woman in black with a funny hat had tried to grab her, but she’d kicked the woman up the shins and ran away.”

“Quick thinking.”

“This morning, another kid left home for school and didn’t make it there.”

“So we have three missing kids?”

Jo took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  She and David both knew first-hand the horror of a child going missing. 

“So your people are going door to door in the area?” Jo asked.

“Yes.  So far no-one’s seen anything, but we’re door knocking anyway.  Will you get your team involved?”

“Of course.  I don’t know what we’re looking for, but we’ll go search the area.  I presume you’ve got the routes the children normally travelled to and from school.”

David handed her the file.  “This is your copy.  You know everything we know.”

“Thanks.  I’ll grab a couple of agents and head out now.”

“What exactly are we looking for?” Trainee Agent Harry Smythe asked.

“Anything that doesn’t belong or doesn’t seem to fit in,” Jo answered.  All three kids routes to school meet up at this point, so they were probably taken somewhere between here and the school.  From here they turned from Waterworks Road to Settlement Road, and then it’s only a block or so to the school. Somewhere in these last couple of minutes of walking, they disappeared. So while the police are going door to door, and our other agents are searching the wider area, the three of us are walking where these kids walked, and seeing what they saw.”

Jo, Harry and Agent Marissa Tyler walked in silence.  There was an independent supermarket on one corner, of the intersection, a park and ride carpark beside the bus stop on another, a house on another, and the fourth had the corner of the school grounds. From this turn, they were walking on Settlement Road, on the opposite side of the road from the school. Before reaching the pedestrian crossing across the busy road, there was a smaller, three-way, intersection, where Bromwich Street ended at Settlement road.

Between Bromwich Street and the pedestrian crossing was an empty yard.  “I think the house that used to be here burned down a year or so ago,” Marissa said. “Looks like the owners have decided not to rebuild.”  She pointed to a real estate agent’s sign.

“Is this what it looks like?” Harry asked.

“It looks like an empty yard with a for ‘sale sign’,” Marissa said.

“Can’t you see it? It’s right there!” Harry seemed confused.

“What can you see?” Jo asked.

“You can’t see it either?” Harry answered.

Out of nowhere, sounding as if it was coming from a long distance away, Jo heard the voice of her deceased daughter: “Handsel and Gretel found a gingerbread house.”

Suddenly she could see it.  “It’s a gingerbread house,” she said.  

“It’s a what?” Marissa asked.

“Harry saw it because he’s younger than us.  He’s closer to being a kid.  I can see it now, because Katie helped me.”

“Katie helped you?” Marissa sounded worried.

“I’ll explain to you later.” Jo continued.  “Here’s what you can’t see: It’s a gingerbread house. There’s jelly beans on the stair risers.  The door is red and white striped like a candy cane, and there’s candy canes along the back fence.  The flowers in front are lollypops, wiith spearmint leaves lollies for leaves.  There’s a tree which seems to be a liquorice strap, with more spearmint leaves. Curtains in the windows look like red and white gingham, but I think it’s more of the same type of lolly as the candy canes.  There’s other lollies and white icing decorations.  The front stairs and the edges around the door and windows are chocolate. The roof seems to be drizzled white icing.”  Jo walked around the strange house.  “There’s no other walls,” she continued.”  It’s a single house-sized gingerbread biscuit. It’s a gingerbread house, directly across the road from the school.”

Harry picked up a lolly from the lawn.

“Don’t eat that.  Don’t eat anything,” Jo instructed. “Harry, you’re with me.  Marissa, call for backup.  Get any young agents, clean up crew, anyone under thirty here.”

With Harry beside her, Jo knocked on the hard, but slightly sticky front door.  

As the door started to open inwards, Jo pushed against it, and forced her way in.

An old woman in a long black dress and pointy black hat was pushed inside and the two agents followed her in.

They were inside a single large room, with a bench and a pot or cauldron hanging over a fire in an old-fashioned fire place, fire pokers and other implements on a rack beside the fire, cooking implements on a bench nearby and a large wooden table with one wooden chair.

“Good morning madam, we’re looking for some missing children.  Have you seen any smallish people around here?”

“You can’t just push your way in here!” the old woman yelled.  “Do you have a warrant?”

“I don’t need a warrant.  Turn and face the wall. Put your hands up against the wall.”

The witch screeched, and began to make some strange movements with her hand. Jo picked up a fireplace poker and brought it down hard on the woman’s arms. 

“Just in case you use hands for spells,” Jo said.  The woman, with injured, possibly broken, arms, was whimpering.  Despite the injury, Jo handcuffed her, and pushed her up agains the wall. 

“If she moves at all, shoot her,” Jo told Harry.  “We don’t know what she’s capable of.”

Jo ran up the stairs, and found, on the next floor, another big open room.  This one contained six cages, like giant budgerigar cages.  Three of them were occupied by small children.  A large key was hanging on a nail on the wall.  Jo used it to release the kids.  She was about to lead them down the stairs when she heard a yell and a shot. 

“Wait here,” Jo instructed the kids.

Downstairs she found the witch bleeding out.  Harry was holding a gun, looking pale.  Behind him were three HDU agents, one of whom now seemed to be turned to stone, or at least a gigantic boiled lolly. 

“Harry, give me the gun,” she said.

Harry, shaking, handed it to her.

She pointed to the transformed agent.  “Take her outside.  I think the magic only works in here.” She hoped the magic only worked inside the house.  Two agents carried their colleague outside.  Jo looked around, found a table cloth and threw it over the witch’s corpse.

She went back and had the children follow her down the stairs.  There, she took the shaken Harry by the arm, and led everyone outside. 

In the yard, was a sugar statue.

David was there already, and Jo handed the children over to him.  

“Katie helped again?” he asked quietly.

“Marissa told you?”

“Yeah.  This is getting weird.”

“Tell me about it.”

She looked back at the gingerbread house, and saw it was fading. As it faded out of existence, the agent who had been transformed slowly seemed to fade back into humanity.

“What just happened?” Harry asked.

“You killed the wicked witch. Her spells must be dying with her,” Jo said.

Human Defence Unit Stories

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By Iris Carden

Iris Carden is an Australian indie author, mother, grandmother, and chronic illness patient. On good days, she writes. Because of the unpredictability of her health, she writes on an indie basis, not trying to meet deadlines. She lives on a disability support pension now, but her ultimate dream is to earn her own living from her writing.


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