…in which Mr. Wood doles out “gifts”.
Sheriff Neeley and Fire Chief Wragg showed up on time. Precisely.
Just the way the boss liked it.
On the video wall, one of his empire’s countless surveillance cameras had recorded their entry into the lot of the lumber yard eight minutes early.
Mr. Wood watched them kill time. Sheriff Neeley checked his wristwatch several times. Chief Wragg leaned against his car door and smoked a Marlboro. The black-and-white monitor made his face look weirdly illuminated each time he took a drag. Once, Wragg pantomimed the actions of a hunter, shouldering an invisible shotgun and tracking a duck or quail across the sky.
Neeley entered first, after a knock and Mr. Wood’s invitation to come in.
Two expensive Aerons sat conspicuously empty in front of the desk, but Mr. Wood didn’t offer the men seats. He got down to business.
“I know everything,” Mr. Wood said. “I’m everywhere.”
He let the words sink in.
“Now. Answer a few questions.”
Mr. Wood watched the faces of his visitors. Dick Wragg breathed differently, repositioned his feet. Some Navy S.E.A.L. He played so buff and tough, but Mr. Wood could smell weakness rising from him, the way a dog smells fear.
Dan Neeley’s ruddy features never flickered.
He’s a cool one, Mr. Wood thought to himself. And he’s the one with the secrets.
Mr. Wood said nothing more, let him squirm.
“Do you feel it represents the values of the Lafayette Fire Chief in the best possible way for our paramedics to dump an accident victim off a Greene County Fire Department stretcher and then load him onto one of ours?”
The fire chief turned fire-engine red.
“Mr. Wood, sir!” Wragg stammered. “That ambulance may have reached the wreck first, but those two cars wrecked in Lafayette County. On this side of the county line. Those EMTs were poaching our patient, sir.”
Mr. Wood’s hooded eyes did not blink.
“Sir,” Wragg stammered on, “we make money toting patients. You know how it works. We’re running the fire department like a business. Like you instructed, sir.”
Mr. Wood’s chair squeaked slightly. He swiveled to Chief Neeley.
“And you, Sheriff Neeley. One question.”
Somehow, a fly had entered the office with the two men, and it now circled Neeley’s red crew cut in a bright green halo. The policeman never blinked or showed annoyance.
Mr. Wood drummed his big fingers once on his fine wood desk.
“Two days ago, you and Officer Turnipseed confiscated some unusual contraband from the back of Mr. Hutchinson’s print shop.”
Somehow, Neeley kept his face from showing what flashed into his mind: How the devil does Mr. Wood know about that?
“Turnip seized a three-ounce square of red hashish folded up in Reynolds Wrap,” Neeley reported. “We think the drug came from Lebanon. Mr. Hutchinson said it fell out of a shipment of fine press printing papers. I believe that sir. He reported it himself – the man’s a teetotaling Boy Scout.”
“And what happened to a confiscated square of red hashish from Lebanon?”
The short silence confirmed something for all three men: Each one knew the truth.
“We donated it to the fire department, sir. At Chief Wragg’s request. To be incinerated, sir, with other seized contraband items they possess. At his personal request.”
Chief Wragg looked as if he might turn inside out.
“And,” said Mr. Wood, swiveling the leather chair again, “was this red hashish from Lebanon incinerated, Chief Wragg?”
“Sir, it was,” gulped the fire chief, a lump in his throat. “Absolutely incinerated, sir.”
Mr. Wood said nothing more, letting Wragg twist. He turned again to Neeley.
“Sheriff,” Mr. Wood said in a measured tone, “tell me why you visit Kelly Rogers. Used to be Kelly Bellisle.”
Chief Neeley didn’t blink.
“She’s an old friend, sir.”
“In high school, sir.”
Mr. Wood waited. Cruelly.
“That was then.”
“That was then,” Mr. Wood repeated.
“She preferred Elmore Rogers,” Neeley explained simply.
Mr. Wood let the clock tick.
“Elmore Rogers,” he finally said.
“Yes, sir. Wounded warrior. We were in Iraq together. You’ve seen him. Elmore worked on your construction crew last year. Helped put the roof on Sweet Comb...”
“Fell off the roof drunk,” Mr. Wood finished with an edge. “Couldn’t get his poop in a group. Works for Rankin now. Doing better. Sheriff Neeley, I know everything about him and a lot of other losers in Lafayette.”
Chief Neeley broke protocol for the first time, looked directly at Mr. Wood. He started to speak, but didn’t.
“I’m everywhere,” Mr. Wood said again. “I see everything.”
“Yes, sir. Understood.”
Mr. Wood leaned back in his chair. His gigantic head looked bigger than his chest. His smile oozed.
“And you visit Mr. Rogers’s wife… why?”
Chief Neeley seemed uncomfortable, finally.
“She’s in a recovery program, sir. She had that thing with their kids. We check to make sure she’s following the judge’s orders.”
Mr. Wood drummed his big fingers.
“My… ah… sources tell me,” Mr. Wood finally said, “that Elmore Rogers has recently taken up a habit that might not actually be legal in Lafayette County.”
Sheriff Neeley didn’t let his surprise show. Or his disbelief. Elmore? A habit?
“Isn’t that right, Chief Wragg?”
Neeley waited for an elaboration. He got nothing.
To his left, Wragg grinned, greedily. He looked like a balloon about to burst.
“We needn’t say more at this time,” Mr. Wood finished. “But if Elmore Rogers keeps up his illicit activity, the day will come when Lafayette County Law Enforcement will need to run him in. Sheriff Neeley, do you understand?”
“Yes, sir…, but sir…”
“You wouldn’t let a personal friendship stand in the way of doing your duty for our good citizens in Lafayette, would you, Sheriff?”
Neeley stood straight.
“No, sir. I would not.”
“Even if you once saved the man’s life in that Iraq mess?”
“No, sir. The law is the law, sir.”
The tone of that answer gave Mr. Wood no reason to doubt.
“And… this is very, very important,” Mr. Wood said, again swiveling his huge head to Chief Wragg. “You, Mr. Wragg, are not to mention one word of tonight’s conversation… or take any action into your own hands… or conduct any sort of investigation AT ALL… against Elmore Rogers, your fellow veteran of foreign wars and your next-door-neighbor. Do you understand this, loud and clear?”
Chief Wragg seemed to screw into himself, coiling in pleased embarrassment. What was going on here?
“Repeat your answer, Chief Wragg? I want this crystal clear. You do NOTHING on your own in any regard to your neighbor, Elmore Rogers. No matter how bad you want to get even with him for knocking the shit out of your silly drunken face last Christmas Eve afternoon right in front of your boy.”
Chief Wragg bristled now, every S.E.A.L. muscle pumped, his body tense. He looked like a snake coiled to strike… but a snake with no fangs.
He barely whispered the answer.
“Now,” Mr. Wood announced. “Down to business.”
He reached into his desk’s lap drawer and produced a single page of typing paper. It held a short list of hand-written items.
“I want something special next Christmas in downtown Lafayette,” Mr. Wood announced. “Something extra special.”
He gave his frightening smile to the two constables.
“This here’s my outline for Lafayette’s first annual Jolly Holiday celebration,” Mr. Wood said. “Read my list.”
The magnate switched the paper around for Neeley and Wragg. The five main points were spelled out in simple block letters, like first-grade writing:
All merchants open till midnight, with special sales
Concerts/choirs from all county school bands/churches on courthouse square
Dress-up contest for Santa and Mrs. Santa, with prizes
Hero Ceremony to honor veterans/active military
Giant night parade, with Santa
Mr. Wood slid the paper over to Sheriff Neeley for safekeeping.
Neither of Mr. Wood’s constables spoke.
“This will happen on December 21. A Saturday night. The winter solstice.”
Neither officer asked what on earth a solstice was.
“Wood, Inc., will underwrite all costs,” said Mr. Wood. “But… and this is important… I do not want my name mentioned in any way, at any time, not even once, in association with this celebration. The city of Lafayette pays for this. Let’s spend a million dollars. Clear?”
“Yes, sir.” Neeley and Wragg spoke simultaneously.
“Very good. Sheriff Neeley, you let the mayor know tomorrow. He’ll be very happy to take credit. He has exactly six months to get this right.”
Mr. Wood pulled out his desk drawer again, this time producing three envelopes. He laid them on the shining desk.
“This is for you, Sheriff Neeley.” Mr. Wragg pushed the envelope over. He gave a second nod to Wragg. “And for you too.”
The two men picked up the white envelopes.
“Open them. Go ahead.”
Mr. Wood acted jovial, leaning back with his big fingers laced behind his big head. The fringe on his western jacket sleeves shook.
Each officer pulled out three $100 bills.
Ben Franklin never looked fatter and happier.
Sheriff Neeley remained a picture of professional comportment. Fire Chief Wragg gave away his glee with a lopsided grin.
“Thank you, Mr. Wood,” Neeley said. “Very much.”
“Yes, SIR! Thank you, SIR!” Wragg echoed.
Mr. Wood spoke just once more.
“Christmas comes early. I appreciate the work you’re doing … and that you will be doing,” he said. “You’re dismissed.”
Mr. Wood listened to their footsteps loudly descending the stairway. He flicked on the remote camera over the front door of his office.
The two black-and-white figures exited and parted without speaking, headed for their private cars – Mr. Wood never wanted official vehicles on his properties. Sheriff Dan Neeley moved briskly, on a beeline. Fire Chief Wragg weaved a bit, counting his three one-hundred dollar bills more than once as he walked.
The two cars disappeared from his camera.
Mr. Wood turned off the camera system.
He now lifted the third envelope off his desk and carefully opened it with his 20-karat pocket knife. He always carried a pocket knife. He always carried a handkerchief. Alabama gentlemen did.
Mr. Wood lifted out a special check… spelled cheque in green print… from a special bank.
In fact, this institution only managed the accounts of 10 men in the whole world. All men. All anonymous. Not even the top bank executives had access or privilege to the accounts. Those representatives were highly paid to be ignorant.
Mr. Wood counted the string of zeroes after the first number, a slender “1.”
Nine. Nine zeroes. One billion dollars. Ten million fat and happy Ben Franklins.
Mr. Wood would have a large portion of his wealth completely hidden now, buried like a pirate treasure, though legally, institutionally. And only two people on Planet Earth knew where and how much.
After the winter solstice, a billion should be plenty.