… in which a rich man entertains a well-dressed guest.
The desk phone rang once.
Mr. Wood knew the signal. He’d waited for hours, working very late in his office, passing the time.
The fringed arm of his jacket stretched across a vast executive desk, its surface a polished mirror. The reflection of a gold-nugget button on his sleeve flashed somewhere deep in the dark walnut.
The glint of a firefly.
His huge right hand pressed a button.
Her voice sounded odd, distant, on this snowy night. A wasp trapped in a bottle.
“Why, Mr. Wood. What a nice surprise on this cold, snowy evening…”
He gave precise instructions, no small talk.
The phone clattered back onto the cradle, ringing a little as it settled. A hurt sound.
The enormous hand returned to its place on the desk. Thick fingers. Sticks of butter. Slight smudges on the fine wood where they drummed.
For 20 minutes, he rhythmically tapped his fingers on the desk. He thought of some things, and of nothing.
At last, a soft hand patted the door.
“It ain’t locked.”
Mr. Wood’s voice was distinct. Cracker South.
Heavy oak creaked on brass hinges. Perfume entered the room an instant before the woman.
Thick fingers vanished beneath the desk.
Mrs. Mock wore a long mink coat, buttoned to the top – a gift from Mr. Wood a few months ago, when they first started, as the first cool nights of October came. She shimmered into the room, charging it with her femininity. She undid from her head a yellow silk scarf, another of his gifts, this one arriving in an unmarked box from Europe just last week.
She wore her hair back – remarkable hair for a woman of her certain age, thick as mare’s mane. It gleamed in the soft office lights, revealing every lovely color that can hide in chestnut brown. Her bare legs showed beneath the hem of the mink. On her feet she wore – oddly – some sort of white shoes. Mr. Wood wondered if she’d put them on for her canasta party that never happened. Her lipstick looked fresh, moist, a cheery holiday red. The rest of her makeup may have been a little heavy, but Mr. Wood understood why Mrs. Mock might want to hide a few lines.
She looked make-believe pretty now, this time of night, all in mink under his soft office spotlights.
If Mrs. Mock were nervous, Mr. Wood could not tell. She gave absolutely nothing away in the telltale spots where Mr. Wood easily read the emotions of most people. The corners of her mouth remained motionless. The nostrils of a fine interesting nose kept a normal rhythm. The color in her high cheeks stayed the steady pink one sees in rose marble, no deeper visible blush of nerves or embarrassment. Or shame, for that matter.
She was eager now, he perceived.
She liked it.
Mr. Wood had grown accustomed through the long years in this office to tremblers, beggars, snivelers. Occasional weepers, the pleaders.
Mrs. Mock seemed … what was the word?
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
Her voice always surprised him. She drawled like he did. A husky smoker’s alto. She had the tone of a pure country girl who knew how to use what she has to get what she wants. She did that with her brain-dead husband, Mr. Wood thought. She got her status. Lafayette Garden District. Money … though like her looks, the money wouldn’t last forever.
She appeared to Mr. Wood like exactly what she was.
He shifted heavily in his big leather chair with the high back. The Throne, he overheard a cleaning lady call it a few months back. He fired her on the spot. He allowed himself a good chuckle later on.
“Light one for me, too,” he ordered.
He reached into his desk drawer. In his big hand, he showily flourished a gold and mother-of-pearl ashtray. It slid over the polished desktop, and the fireflies sparked again where Mr. Wood’s gold button caught the light.
He expected Benson & Hedges. But Mrs. Mock tapped out a pair of Camels, no filter. He knew that her red plastic lighter cost a buck at some 7-11. She offered it to him with the cigarette.
“I’ll light my own, thank you.”
He reached, and the snap of his 20-karat lighter sounded unusually loud in the small room. Like a small bone breaking.
The tip of her smoke glowed. He thought of a little red soldering iron. It briefly lit Mrs. Mock’s face.
Those cheekbones, a few years back, could have gutted a man, decided Mr. Wood. He noted the way Mrs. Mock’s lips pursed and nearly disappeared when she took a drag. She showily exhaled, waving the smoke, her red claws on full display.
The corporate office sat isolated in the sprawling central lumber yard of Wood Industries. Miles away in the snowy Alabama night, a train moaned with its heavy holiday load. Through his plate glass window, Mr. Wood could see a nearly full Christmas moon rise over stacks of treated lumber and pick-up-stick mountains of raw logs waiting to be milled. Around the office and lot, snow fell on 30 square miles of land that belonged to him. Every tree. Every acre. Every animal and stream and stone. He owned other lands beyond these too, and more buildings, and telephone company networks, and on.
“So.” She breathed out a plume.
Did he imagine the cigarette smoke formed the letters S and O in the air?
“So here we are.”
“Merry Christmas,” he offered, “and all that.”
She kissed the cigarette again, blew smoke through her nose. She stared at him from the cloud. Hard.
Did she ever blink?
“And you know why I’m here?”
“I do. And you do too.”
“My little Christmas present, Mr. Wood.”
“After I get mine.”
She grimaced slightly at that, picked tobacco from the tip of her tongue with a long fingernail. A nail precisely painted, sculpted. They must be troublesome around the Rogers twins. Or while she poured multiple crystal glasses with sherry-brown rivers night after night.
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Mr. Wood knew every detail of Mrs. Mock’s life.
He had eyes everywhere.
“A thousand dollars is a lot of money, Mrs. Mock.”
“It’s Jennifer, Mr. Wood. I’m Jennifer for you tonight.”
She gave a quick blink. He made note.
“Jennifer. Like a high-school cheerleader Jennifer.”
“I understand. A Jennifer.”
He shifted. The leather seat complained under him. He felt an unusual excitement.
Her eyes blinked again, just once.
“All right. I’ll show you, big boy...”
She stood. She reached for the soft buttons of the mink.
The heavy fur coat fell open.
Blue-and-white Lafayette high school colors. A play-toy blue cardboard megaphone on a strap. Those little white shoes. The works.
Her body looked petite. Soft.
“I’m impressed. You’ll show me more?”
Those words came from deep in his throat.
She maintained eye contact. A strand of loose chestnut hair dangled onto her forehead now. Her chin rose slightly, enough to cast her face at a surprising, sensual angle in the office’s track lighting. The chin came quickly down again.
A single nod, yes.
His heart beat hard.
Mr. Wood leaned forward, bearish, and rose with some effort. He was an enormous man. He had enormous appetites.
She stared straight at him now with unblinking eyes. Animal eyes.
“Place your palms on the desk.”
She took one last drag of her cigarette, stabbed out the fire in the lustrous mother-of-pearl tray. She threw back her heavy fur, let it tumble to the floor. She slipped off her shoes too, and flexed her toes in priceless, amazingly soft Persian carpet – it was one indulgence Mr. Wood allowed himself, special carpet, for occasions like this.
Mrs. Mock reached both hands high into her hair, removed some sort of clasp. Her sweatered breasts rose in the act under the cheerleader outfit, two orbs, hidden and small and tempting.
She exhaled the last of the cigarette smoke and leaned forward, palms flat on the varnished walnut.
Mr. Wood eased his bulk through a narrow space next to the paneled wall, made it around to her side of the credenza.
She turned her head over her shoulder. She watched Mr. Wood approach through the newly loosened mass of lustrous brown.
Her bottom wagged ever so slightly.
Mr. Wood flipped up the sass of blue skirt.
He eyed the luscious white curves of her bottom as she leaned forward, on full display for him. He also noted deep lines, her age vividly mapped, on the back of Mrs. Mock’s neck, in the tan skin of both arms, the backs of her hands.
He could see her face reflected in his desk, where the wood grain and the rough lines of her skin blended.
She’ll do anything for the money, Mr. Wood thought. She’ll deliver the goods, no questions asked.
He pulled a Christmas-red envelope from his hip pocket, the same envelope he used to pay his team of construction workers in the afternoon, and he tossed it onto the desk between Mrs. Mock’s hands.
“Yours,” he told her, “in sixty minutes.”
She seemed tiny now, bending in front of him. The hair veiled her face on one side. She gave a new quick glance back over her shoulder through the tangle.
No other woman in this room had ever given him that look.
Mr. Wood had learned one sure thing about the world.
Any and every man he matched himself against in business had a price.
Every woman had a price, too.
The wife of the famous evangelist from North Carolina had her price. The hot girlfriend of the professional football player from Dallas had hers. So did the community-pillar wife of the principal at a Lafayette Elementary School.
They all did.
The fashion model from Los Angeles. The pretty woman passing through town on her way home from a relative’s funeral, encountered as she filled the family station wagon with gas. The brisk manly lobbyist for the power company in Jackson. The wife or daughter of any man Mr. Wood happened to meet and want.
When he pushed himself into her, Ms. Mock abruptly stood straight. One hand raised off the desk and involuntarily clenched her loosened hair.
Mr. Wood caught the hand, tiny as a sparrow, in his huge one.
“Did I tell you to take your hands off the desk?” he growled, twisting a finger hard so Mrs. Mock caught her breath.
He released her. She placed the hand quickly down, turned her face away.
“I want your hair just like this every time,” he said deep in his throat, taking himself out of her, pushing roughly inside again.
“Just like this, Jennifer.”
And next time, he thought to himself, the schoolmaster’s rod will bring a little discipline...