Chapter Fourteen

His second call was to the Albrittons, old friends from church who lived an hour away. Luther spilled his guts, and by the time he finished Riley Albritton was roaring with laughter. "It's Luther," Riley said to someone in the background, probably Doris. "Blair just called. She'll be home tonight." And with that, Doris or whoever it was broke into hysterics.

Luther wished he hadn't called. "Help me out here, Riley," he pleaded. "Can you guys stop by?"

"Sorry, bud. We're going to the MacIlvaines for dinner. They invited us a bit earlier, you know."

"All right," Luther said and hung up.

The phone rang immediately. It was Nora, her voice as edgy as Luther'd ever heard it. "Where are you?" she demanded.

"Well, I'm in the kitchen. Where are you?"

"I'm sitting in traffic on Broad, near the mall."

"Why are you going to the mall?"

"Because I couldn't park at the District, couldn't even get in off the street. I've bought nothing. Do you have a tree?"

"Yes, a real beauty."

"Are you decorating it?"

"Yes, I have Perry Como crooning 'Jingle Bells' in the background while I'm sipping eggnog and trimming our tree. Wish you were here?"

"Have you called anyone?"

"Yes, the Lairds and Albrittons, neither can make it."

"I've called the Pinkertons, Harts, Malones, and Burklands. They're all busy. Pete Hart laughed at me, the bore."

"I'll beat him up for you." Spike was knocking on the door. "I gotta get busy."

"I guess you'd better start calling the neighbors," she said, her hyper voice faltering.

"Why?"

"To invite them."

"Not in a million years, Nora. I'm hanging up now."

"No word from Blair."

"She's on an airplane, Nora. Call me later."

Spike's borrowed wagon was a red Radio Flyer that had seen its better years. With one look, Luther deemed it too small and too old, but they had no choice. "I'll go over first," he explained, as if he knew exactly what he was doing. "Wait five minutes, then bring the wagon over. Don't let anyone see you, okay?"

"Where's my forty bucks?"

Luther handed him a twenty. "Half now, half when the job is done."

He entered the Trogdon home through the side door of the garage, and felt like a burglar for the first time in memory. When he opened the door to the house, an alarm beeped for a few seconds, very long seconds in which Luther's heart froze and his entire life and career flashed before him. Caught, arrested, convicted, his license revoked, banished by Wiley Beck, disgraced. Then it stopped, and he waited another few seconds before he could breathe. A panel by the rear door said things were Clear.

What a mess. The house was a landfill with debris strewn everywhere, clear evidence of another successful visit by Ole St. Nick. Trish Trogdon would choke her husband if she knew he'd given Luther the keys. In the living room, he stopped and stared at the tree.

It was well known on Hemlock that the Trogdons took little care in decorating their tree. They allowed their children to hang anything they could find. There were a million lights, strands of mismatched garlands, tacky ornaments by the boxload, red and green icicles, even strings of popcorn.

Nora will kill me, Luther thought, but he had no choice. The plan was so simple it had to work. He and Spike would remove the breakable ornaments, and the garlands, and for sure the popcorn, lay them all on the sofa and chairs, ease the tree out of the house with lights intact, haul it over to Luther's, and dress it with real decorations. Then, at some point in the near future, Luther and perhaps Spike would strip it again, haul it across the street, put the Trogdon junk back on it, and everybody would be happy.

He dropped the first ornament and it shattered into a dozen pieces. Spike showed up. "Don't break anything," Luther said, as he cleaned up the ornament.

"Are we getting in trouble for this?" Spike asked. "Of course not. Now get to work. And fast."

Twenty minutes later the tree was stripped of anything breakable. Luther found a dirty towel in the laundry, and lying flat on his stomach, under the tree, he managed to work the metal tree stand onto the towel. Spike leaned in above him, gently shoving the tree to one side, then the other. On hands and knees, Luther managed to slide the tree toward Spike, across the wood floor, across the tile of the kitchen, down the narrow hall to the laundry, where the branches scraped the walls and dead spruce needles trailed behind

"You're making a mess," Spike said, helpfully.

"I'll clean it later," said Luther, who was sweating like a sprinter.

The tree, of course, was wider than the door to the garage, as all trees are. Spike pulled the wagon close. Luther grabbed the trunk of the tree, lifted it with a strain, swung, the bottom through the door and pulled the whole thing through. When it was sitting safely in the garage, Luther caught his breath, hit the garage door opener, and managed a smile at Spike.

"Why are you so brown?" the kid asked.

The smile vanished as Luther was reminded of the cruise he wouldn't be taking. He looked at his watch-twelve-forty. Twelve-forty and not a single guest for the party, no food, no Frosty, no lights strung anywhere, no tree, as yet, but one on the way. It seemed hopeless at that moment.

You can't quit, old boy.

Luther strained again and lifted the tree up. Spike shoved the wagon under, and of course the metal tree stand was wider than the Radio Flyer. Luther got it balanced, though, and watched it for a moment. "You sit here," he said, pointing to a tiny spot in the wagon and under the tree. "Keep it from tipping over. I'll push."

"You think this'll work?" Spike said, with great suspicion.

Across the street, Ned Becker had been minding his own business when he saw the tree disappear from the Trogdons' front window. Five minutes passed, and the tree reappeared in the open garage, where a man and a kid were wrestling with it. He looked harder, and recognized Luther Krank. Watching every move, he called Walt Scheel on a portable phone.

"Hey, Walt, Ned here."

"Merry Christmas, Ned."

"Merry Christmas, Walt. Say, I'm watching the Trogdons' house, and it appears as if Krank has lost his mind."

"How's that?"

"He's stealing their Christmas tree."

Luther and Spike began their way down the Trogdon driveway, which had a slight decline to the street. Luther was behind the wagon, hanging on, letting it roll slightly. Spike clutched the trunk of the tree, terrified.

Scheel peeked out his front door, and when he saw the theft with his own eyes, he punched the number for the police.

The desk sergeant answered.

"Yes, this is Walt Scheel, Fourteen eighty-one Hemlock. There's a burglary under way, right now."

"Where?"

"Right here. At Fourteen eighty-three Hemlock. I'm watching it in progress. Hurry."

Trogdon's tree made it across Hemlock to the other side, right in front of the Becker house, where now in the front window Ned, his wife, Jude, and his mother-in-law were watching. Luther negotiated a right turn with the handle, and began pulling the wagon toward his house.

He wanted to sprint before anyone saw him, but Spike kept telling him to take it slow. Luther was afraid to look around, and he didn't believe for a second that he was going unnoticed. When he was almost to his driveway, Spike said, "Cops."

Luther wheeled around just as the patrol car slowed to a stop in the middle of the street, lights flashing but no siren. Two officers jumped out as if it were a SWAT mission,

Luther recognized Salino with the large stomach, then young Treen with the thick neck. The same two who'd stopped by hawking calendars for the Police Benevolent Association.

"Hello, Mr. Krank," Salino said with a smirk.

"Where you going with that?" asked Treen.

"To my house," Luther said, pointing. He'd come so close.

"Maybe you'd better explain," said Salino.

"Yeah, well, Wes Trogdon over there let me borrow his Christmas tree. He left town an hour ago, and me and Spike here were just moving it."

"Spike?"

Luther turned and looked behind him, down at the wagon, at the narrow gap where Spike had been. Spike was gone, nowhere to be seen on Hemlock.

"Yeah, a kid down the street."

Walt Scheel had a seat on the fifty-yard line. Bev was resting, or trying to. His laughter got so loud that she came to see what was the matter. "Pull up a chair, honey, they've caught Krank stealing a tree." The Beckers were howling too.

"We got a report that a burglary was in progress," said Treen.

"There's no burglary. Who called?"

"A Mr. Scheel. Whose wagon is this?"

"I don't know. Spike's."

"So you stole the wagon too," said Treen.

"I've stolen nothing."

"You have to admit, Mr. Krank, it looks very suspicious, Salino said.

Yes, under normal circumstances, Luther might be forced to say that the entire scene was a bit unusual. But Blair was getting closer by the minute, and there was no time to back down. "Not at all, sir. I borrow Trogdon's tree all the time."

"We'd better take you in for questioning," Treen said, and unsnapped a pair of handcuffs from his belt. The sight of the silver cuffs sent Walt Scheel to the floor. The Beckers were having trouble breathing.

And Luther went weak at the knees. "Come on, you can't be serious."

"Get in the backseat."

Luther sat low in the back, thinking of suicide for the first time in his life. The two cops in the front seat were chatting on the radio, something about finding the owner of the stolen property. Their lights were still swirling, and Luther wanted to say so much. Let me go! I'll sue! Turn off the damned lights! Next year I'll buy ten calendars! Just go ahead and shoot me!

If Nora came home now, she'd file for divorce.

The Kirby twins were eight-year-old delinquents from the far end of Hemlock, and for some reason they happened by. They walked close to the car, close to the rear window, and made direct eye contact with Luther, who squirmed even lower. Then the Bellington brat joined them and all three peered in at Luther as if he'd killed their mothers.

Spike came running, followed by Vic Frohmeyer. The officers got out and had a word with him, then Treen shooed the kids away and released Luther from the backseat.

"He's got keys," Vic was saying, and Luther then remembered that he did indeed have the keys to Trogdon's. What a moron!

"I know both these men," Frohmeyer continued. "This is no burglary."

The cops whispered for a moment as Luther tried to ignore the stares from Vic and Spike. He glanced around, half-expecting to see Nora wheel into the drive and have a stroke.

"What about the tree?" Salino asked Vic.

"If he says Trogdon loaned it to him, then that's the truth."

"You sure?"

"I'm sure."

"Okay, okay, Salino said, still sneering at Luther as if he'd never seen a guiltier criminal. They slowly got in the car and drove away.

"Thanks," Luther said.

"What're you doing, Luther?" Vic asked.

"I'm borrowing their tree. Spike's helping me move it. Let's go, Spike."

Without further interruption, Luther and Spike rolled the tree up the driveway, into the garage, and grappled with it until it was sitting rather nicely in the front window. Along the way they left a trail of dead needles, red and green icicles, and some popcorn. "I'll vacuum later," Luther said. "Let's check the lights."

The phone rang. It was Nora, more panicked than before. "I can't find a thing, Luther. No turkey, no ham, no chocolates, nothing. And I can't find a nice gift either."

"Gifts? Why are you shopping for gifts?"

"It's Christmas, Luther. Have you called the Yarbers and Friskis?"

"Yes," he lied. "Their lines were busy."

"Keep calling, Luther, because no one is coming. I've tried the McTeers, Morrises, and Warners, they're all busy. How's the tree?"

"Coming along."

"I'll call later."

Spike plugged in the lights and the tree came to life. They attacked the nine boxes of decorations without a care as to what went where.

Across the street, Walt Scheel watched them through binoculars.

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