Chapter Eighteen

The crowd parted to allow the ambulance through. It stopped ten feet from the ladders, from the man hanging by his feet and his would-be rescuers. Two medics and a fireman jumped out, removed the ladders, shooed back Frohmeyer and his cohorts, then one of them drove the ambulance carefully under Mr. Krank.

"Luther, what are you doing up there?" Nora yelled as she rushed through the crowd

"What does it look like?" he yelled back, and his head pounded harder.

"Are you okay?"

"Wonderful."

The medics and the fireman crawled up on the hood of the ambulance, quickly lifted Luther a few inches, unraveled the cord and the rope, then eased him down. A few folks applauded, but most seemed indifferent.

The medics checked his vitals, then lowered him to the ground and carried him to the back of the ambulance, where the doors were open. Luther's feet were numb and he couldn't stand. He was shivering, so a medic draped two orange blankets over him. As he sat there in the back of the ambulance, looking toward the street, trying to ignore the gawking mob that was no doubt reveling in his humiliation, Luther could only feel relief. His headfirst slide down the roof had been brief but horrifying. He was lucky to be conscious right now.

Let them stare. Let them gawk. He ached too much to care.

Nora was there to inspect him. She recognized the fireman Kistler and the medic Kendall as the two fine young men who'd stopped by a couple of weeks ago selling fruitcakes for their holiday fund-raiser. She thanked them for rescuing her husband.

"You wanna go to the hospital?" asked Kendall.

"Just a precaution," said Kistler.

"No thanks," Luther said, his teeth chattering. "Nothing's broken." At that moment, though, everything felt broken.

A police car arrived in a rush and parked in the street, of course with its lights still flashing. Treen and Salino jumped out and strutted through the crowd to observe things.

Frohmeyer, Becker, Kerr, Scheel, Brixley, Kropp, Galdy, Bellington-they all eased in around Luther and Nora. Spike was in the middle of them too. As Luther sat there, nursing his wounds, answering banal questions from the boys in uniform, practically all of Hemlock squeezed in for a better view.

When Salino got the gist of the story, he said, rather loudly, "Frosty? I thought you guys weren't doing Christmas this year, Mr. Krank. First you borrow a tree. Now this."

"What's going on, Luther?" Frohmeyer called out. It was a public question. Its answer was for everyone.

Luther looked at Nora, and realized she wasn't about to say a word. The explanations belonged to him.

"Blair's coming home, for Christmas," he blurted, rubbing his left ankle.

"Blair's coming home," Frohmeyer repeated loudly, and the news rippled through the crowd. Regardless of how they felt about Luther at the moment, the neighbors adored Blair. They'd watched her grow up, sent her off to college, and waited for her to come back each summer. She'd babysat for most of the younger kids on Hemlock. As an only child, Blair had treated the other children like family. She was everyone's big sister.

"And she's bringing her fiance," Luther added, and this too swept through the onlookers.

"Who's Blair?" asked Salino, as if he were a homicide detective digging for clues.

"She's my daughter," Luther explained to the uninformed. "She left about a month ago for Peru, with the Peace Corps, not going to be back for a year, or so we thought. She called around eleven today. She was in Miami, coming home to surprise us for Christmas, and she's bringing a fiance, some doctor she just met down there." Nora moved closer and was now holding his elbow.

"And she expects to see a Christmas tree?" Frohmeyer said.

"Yes."

"And a Frosty?"

"Of course."

"And what about the annual Krank Christmas Eve party?"

"That too."

The crowd inched closer as Frohmeyer analyzed things. "What time does she get here?" he asked.

"Plane lands at six."

"Six!"

People looked at their watches. Luther rubbed the other ankle. His feet were tingling now, a good sign. Blood was flowing down there again.

Vic Frohmeyer took a step back and looked into the faces of his neighbors. He cleared his throat, raised his chin, and began, "Okay, folks, here's the game plan. We're about to have a party here at the Kranks', a Christmas homecoming for Blair. Those of you who can, drop what you're doing and pitch in. Nora, do you have a turkey?"

"No," she said sheepishly. "Smoked trout."

"Smoked trout?"

"That's all I could find."

Several of the women whispered, "Smoked trout?"

"Who has a turkey?" Frohmeyer asked.

"We have two," said Jude Becker. "Both in the oven."

"Great," said Frohmeyer. "Cliff, you take a team down to Brixley's and get his Frosty. Get some lights too, we'll string 'em along Luther's boxwoods here. Everybody go home, change clothes, grab whatever extra food you can find, and meet back here in a half hour."

He looked at Saline and Treen and said, "You guys head to the airport."

"For what?" asked Salino.

"Blair needs a ride home."

"I'm not sure if we can."

"Shall I call the Chief?"

Treen and Salino headed for their car. The neighbors began to scatter, now that they had their instructions from Frohmeyer. Luther and Nora watched them disperse up and down Hemlock, all moving quickly, all with a purpose.

Nora looked at Luther with tears in her eyes, and Luther felt like crying too. His ankles were raw.

Frohmeyer said, "How many guests are coming to the party?"

"Oh, I don't know," Nora said, staring at the empty street.

"Not as many as you think," Luther said to her. "The Underwoods called and canceled. As did Dox."

"So did Father Zabriskie," said Nora.

"Not Mitch Underwood?" queried Frohmeyer.

"Yes, but he's not coming."

What a sad little party, thought Frohmeyer. "So how many guests do you need?"

"Everybody's invited," Luther said. "The whole street."

"Yes, the entire street," Nora added.

Frohmeyer looked at Kistler and asked, "How many guys in the station tonight?"

"Eight."

"Can the firemen and medics come too?" Vic asked Nora.

"Yes, they're all invited," she said.

"And the police as well, added Luther.

"It'll be a crowd."

"A crowd would be nice, wouldn't it, Luther?" Nora said.

He pulled the blankets tighter and said, "Yes, Blair would love a crowd."

"How about some carolers?" Frohmeyer asked.

"That would be nice," Nora said.

They helped Luther into the house, and by the time he made it to the kitchen he was walking unassisted, but with a severe limp. Kendall left him a plastic cane, one he vowed he wouldn't use.

When they were alone in the living room, with Trogdon's tree, Luther and Nora shared a. few quiet moments by the fire. They talked about Blair. They tried in vain to analyze the prospect of a fiance then a groom, then a new son-in-law.

They were touched beyond words by the unity of their neighbors. The cruise was never mentioned.

Nora looked at her watch and said she had to get ready. "I wish I'd had a camera," she said, walking away. "You up there hanging by your feet with half the city watching." And she laughed all the way to the bedroom.

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