Chapter Nine

Stanley Wiley's father had founded Wiley Beck in 1949. Beck had been dead so long now no one knew exactly why his name was still on the door. Had a nice ring to it-Wiley Beck-and, too, it would be expensive to change the stationery and such. For an accounting firm that had been around for half a century, the amazing thing was how little it had grown. There were a dozen partners in tax, including Luther, and twenty or so in auditing. Their clients were mid-range companies that couldn't afford the national accounting firms.

If Stanley Wiley'd had more ambition, some thirty years earlier, the old firm might possibly have caught the wave and become a force. But he hadn't, and it didn't, and now it pretended to be content by calling itself a "boutique firm."

Just as Luther was planning another quick departure for another sprint to the mall, Stanley materialized from nowhere with a long sandwich, lettuce hanging off the sides. "Got a minute?" he said with a mouthful. He was already sitting before Luther could say yes or no or can it be quick? He wore silly bow ties and usually had a variety of stains on his blue button-downs-ink, mayonnaise, coffee. Stanley was a slob, his office a notorious landfill where documents and files were lost for months. "Try Stanley's office" was the firm's slogan for paperwork that would never be found.

"I hear you're not going to be at the Christmas dinner tomorrow night," he said, still chewing. Stanley liked to roam the halls at lunch with a sandwich in one hand, a soda in the other, as if he were too busy for a real lunch.

"I'm eliminating a lot of things this year, Stanley, no offense to anyone," Luther said.

"So it's true."

"It's true. We will not be there."

Stanley swallowed with a frown, then examined the sandwich in search of the next bite. He was the managing partner, not the boss. Luther'd been a partner for six years. No one at Wiley Beck could force him to do anything.

"Sorry to hear that. Jayne will be disappointed."

"I'll drop her a note," Luther said. It wasn't a terrible evening-a nice dinner at an old restaurant downtown, in a private room upstairs, good food, decent wines, a few speeches, then a band and dancing until late. Black tie, of course, and the ladies tried hard to one-up each other with dresses and jewelry. Jayne Wiley was a delightful woman who deserved a lot more than she got with Stanley.

"Any particular reason?" Stanley asked, prying just a little.

"We're skipping the whole production this year, Stanley, no tree, no gifts, no hassle. Saving the money and taking a cruise for ten days. Blair's gone, we need a break. I figure we'll catch up rather nicely next year, or if not, the year after."

"It does come every year, doesn't it?"

"It does indeed."

"I see you're losing weight."

"Ten pounds. The beaches are waiting."

"You look great, Luther. Tanning, I hear."

"Trying a darker shade, yes. I can't let the sun get the best of me."

A huge bite of the ham-on-baguette, with strands of lettuce trailing along and hanging between the lips. Then movement: "Not a bad idea, really." Or something like that.

Stanley's idea of a vacation was a week in his beach house, a hand-me-down in which he had invested nothing in thirty years. Luther and Nora had spent one dreadful week there, guests of the Wileys, who took the main bedroom and put the Kranks in the "guest suite," a narrow room with bunk beds and no air conditioning. Stanley'd knocked back gin and tonics from midmorning until late afternoon and the sun never touched his skin.

He left, his cheeks full, but before Luther could escape, Yank Slader darted in. "Up to fifty-two hundred bucks, old boy," he announced. "With no end in sight. Abigail just spent six hundred bucks on a dress for the Christmas dinner, don't know why she couldn't wear the one from last year or the year before, but why argue? Shoes were a buck-forty. Purse another ninety. Closets're full of purses and shoes, but don't get me started. We'll top seven grand at this rate. Please let me go on the cruise."

Inspired by Luther, Yank was keeping a precise tally on the Christmas damage. Twice a week he dashed in for updates. What he would do with the results was uncertain. Most likely nothing, and he knew it. "You're my hero," he said again, and left as quickly as he'd arrived.

They're all envious, Luther thought to himself. At this moment, crunch time with only a week to go, and the holiday madness growing each day, they're all jealous as hell. Some, like Stanley, were reluctant to admit it. Others, like Yank, were downright proud of Luther.

Too late to tan. Luther walked to his window and enjoyed the view of a cold rain falling on the city. Gray skies, barren trees, a few leaves scattering with the wind, traffic backed up on the streets in the distance. How lovely, he thought smugly. He patted his flat stomach, then went downstairs and had a diet soda with Biff, the travel agent.

At the buzzer, Nora bolted from the BronzeMat and grabbed a towel. Sweating was not something she particularly enjoyed, and she wiped herself with a vengeance.

She was wearing a very small red bikini, one that had looked great on the young slinky model in the catalog, one she knew she'd never wear in public but Luther had insisted on anyway. He'd gawked at the model and threatened to order the thing himself. It wasn't too expensive, so Nora now owned it.

She glanced in the mirror and again blushed at the sight of herself in such a skimpy garment. Sure she was losing weight. Sure she was getting a tan. But it would take five years of starvation and hard labor in the gym to do justice to what she was wearing at that moment.

She dressed quickly, pulling her slacks and sweater on over the bikini. Luther swore he tanned in the nude, but she wasn't stripping for anyone.

Even dressed, she still felt like a slut. The thing was tight in all the wrong places, and when she walked, well, it wasn't exactly comfortable. She couldn't wait to race home, take it off, throw it away, and enjoy a long hot bath.

She'd made it safely out of Tans Forever and rounded a corner when she came face to face with the Reverend Doug Zabriskie, their minister. He was laden with shopping bags, while she held nothing but her overcoat. He was pale, she was red-faced and still sweating. He was comfortable in his old tweed jacket, overcoat, collar, black shirt. Nora's bikini was cutting off her circulation and shrinking by the moment.

They hugged politely. "Missed you last Sunday," he said, the same irritating habit he'd picked up years ago.

"We're so busy," she said, checking her forehead for sweat.

"Are you okay, Nora?"

"Fine," she snapped.

"You look a little winded."

"A lot of walking," she said, lying to her minister. For some reason he glanced down at her shoes. She certainly wasn't wearing sneakers.

"Could we chat for a moment?" he asked.

"Well, sure," she said. There was an empty bench near the railing of the concourse. The Reverend lugged his bags over and piled them beside it. When Nora sat, Luther's little red bikini shifted again and something gave way, a strap perhaps, just above her hip, and something was sliding down there. Her slacks were loose, not tight at all, and there was plenty of room for movement.

"I've heard lots of rumors," he began softly. He had the annoying habit of getting close to your face when he spoke. Nora crossed and recrossed her legs, and with each maneuver made things worse.

"What kind of rumors?" she asked stiffly.

"Well, I'll be very honest, Nora," he said, leaning even lower and closer. "I hear it from a good source that you and Luther have decided not to observe Christmas this year."

"Sort of, yes."

"I've never heard of this," he said gravely, as if the Kranks had discovered a new variety of sin.

She was suddenly afraid to move, and even then got the impression that she was still falling out of her clothes. Fresh beads of sweat popped up along her forehead. "Are you okay, Nora?" he asked.

"I'm fine and we're fine. We still believe in Christmas, in celebrating the birth of Christ, we're just passing on all the foolishness this year. Blair's gone and we're taking a break."

He pondered this long and hard, while she shifted slightly. "It is a bit crazy, isn't it?" he said, looking at the pile of shopping bags he had deposited nearby.

"Yes it is. Look, we're fine, Doug, I promise. We're happy and healthy and just relaxing a bit. That's all."

"I hear you're leaving."

"Yes, for ten days on a cruise."

He stroked his beard as though he wasn't sure if he approved of this or not.

"You won't miss the midnight service, will you?" he asked with a smile.

"No promises, Doug."

He patted her knee and said good-bye. She waited until he was out of sight, and then finally mustered the courage to get to her feet. She shuffled out of the mall, cursing Luther and his bikini.

Vic Frohmeyer's wife's cousin's youngest daughter was active in her Catholic church, which had a large youth choir that enjoyed caroling around the city. Couple of phone calls, and the gig was booked. A light snow was falling when the concert began. The choir formed a half-moon in the driveway, near the gas lamp, and on cue started bawling "O Little Town of Bethlehem." They waved at Luther when he peeked through the blinds.

A crowd soon gathered behind the carolers, kids from the neighborhood, the Beckers From next door, the Trogdon clan. There by virtue of an anonymous tip, a reporter for the Gazette watched for a few minutes, then asserted himself and rang the Kranks' doorbell.

Luther yanked the door open, ready to land a punch. "What is it?" "White Christmas" resounded in the background.

"Are you Mr. Krank?" asked the reporter.

"Yes, and who are you?"

"Brian Brown with the Gazette. Can I ask you some questions?"

"About what?"

"About this skipping Christmas business."

Luther gazed at the crowd in his driveway. One of those dark silhouettes out there had squealed on him. One of his neighbors had called the newspaper. Either Frohmeyer or Walt Scheel.

"I'm not talking," he said and slammed the door. Nora was in the shower, again, and Luther went to the basement.