Chapter Seven

The officer's name was Salino, and he came around every year. He was portly, wore no gun or vest, no Mace or nightstick, no flashlight or silver bullets, no handcuffs or radio, none of the mandatory gadgetry that his brethren loved to affix to their belts and bodies. Salino looked bad in his uniform, but he'd been looking bad for so long that no one cared. He patrolled the southeast, the neighborhoods around Hemlock, the affluent suburbs where the only crime was an occasional stolen bike or a speeding car.

Salino's partner for the evening was a beefy, lockjawed young lad with a roll of muscle bulging from the collar of his navy shirt. Treen was his name, and Treen wore every device and doohickey that Salino did not.

When Luther saw them through the blinds on his front door, standing there pressing his doorbell, he instantly thought of Frohmeyer. Frohmeyer could summon the police to Hemlock faster than the Chief himself.

He opened the door, made the obligatory hellos and good evenings, then asked them to step inside. He didn't want them inside, but he knew they would not leave until they completed the ritual. Treen was grasping a plain white tube that held the calendar.

Nora, who just seconds ago had been watching television with her husband, had suddenly vanished, though Luther knew she was just beyond the French doors, hiding in the kitchen, missing not a word.

Salino did all the talking. Luther figured this was because his hulking partner probably possessed a limited vocabulary. The Police Benevolent Association was once again working at full throttle to do all sorts of wonderful things for the community. Toys for tots. Christmas baskets for the less Fortunate. Visits by Santa. Ice skating adventures. Trips to the zoo. And they were delivering gifts to the old folks in the nursing homes and to the veterans tucked away in wards. Salino had perfected his presentation. Luther had heard it before.

To help defray the costs of their worthy projects this year, the Police Benevolent Association had once again put together a handsome calendar for next year, one that again featured some of its members in action shots as they served the people. Treen on cue whipped out Luther's calendar, unrolled it, and flipped the rather large sheets as Salino did the play by play. For January it was a traffic cop with a warm smile waving little kindergartners across the street. For February, it was a cop even beefier than Treen helping a stranded motorist change a tire. Somehow in the midst of the effort the policeman had managed a smile. For March it was a rather tense scene at a nighttime accident with lights flashing all around and three men in blue conferring with frowns.

Luther admired the photos and artwork without a word as the months marched along.

What about the leopard print briefs? he wanted to ask. Or the steam room? Or the lifeguard with just a towel around his waist? Three years earlier, the PBA had succumbed to trendier tastes and published a calendar filled with photos of its leaner and younger members, all clad in virtually nothing, half grinning goofily at the camera, the other half straining with the tortured I-hate-modeling veneer of contemporary fashion. Practically R-rated, a big story about it made the front page.

Quite a brouhaha erupted overnight. The Mayor was incensed as complaints flooded city hall. The director of the PBA got fired. The undistributed calendars were pulled and burned while the local TV station recorded it Live!

Nora kept theirs in the basement, where she secretly enjoyed it all year.

The beefcake calendar was a financial disaster for all concerned, but it created more interest the following Christmas. Sales almost doubled.

Luther bought one every year, but only because it was expected. Oddly, there was no price attached to the calendars, at least not to the ones delivered personally by the likes of Salino and Treen. Their personal touch cost something more, an additional layer of goodwill that people like Luther were expected to fork over simply because that was the way it was done. It was this coerced, above-the-table bribery that Luther hated. Last year he'd written a check for a hundred bucks to the PBA, but not this year.

When the presentation was over, Luther stood tall and said, "I don't need one." Salino cocked his head to one side as if he'd misunderstood. Treen's neck puffed out another inch.

Salino's face turned into a smirk. You may not need one, the smirk said, but you'll buy it anyway. "Why's that?" he said.

"I already have calendars for next year." That was news to Nora, who was biting a fingernail and holding her breath.

"But not like this," Treen managed to grunt. Salino shot him a look that said, "Be quiet!"

"I have two calendars in my office and two on my desk," Luther said. "We have one by the phone in the kitchen. My watch tells me precisely what day it is, as does my computer. Haven't missed a day in years."

"We're raising money for crippled children, Mr. Krank," Salino said, his voice suddenly soft and scratchy. Nora felt a tear coming.

"We give to crippled children, Officer," Luther shot back. "Through the United Way and our church and our taxes we give to every needy group you can possibly name."

"You're not proud of your policemen?" Treen said roughly, no doubt repeating a line he'd heard Salino use on others.

Luther caught himself for a second and allowed his anger to settle in. As if buying a calendar was the only measure of his pride in the local police force. As if forking over a bribe in the middle of his living room was proof that he, Luther Krank, stood solidly behind the boys in blue.

"I paid thirteen hundred bucks in city taxes last year," Luther said, his eyes flashing hot and settling on young Treen. "A portion of which went to pay your salary. Another portion went to pay the firemen, the ambulance drivers, the schoolteachers, the sanitation workers, the street cleaners, the Mayor and his rather comprehensive staff, the judges, the bailiffs, the jailers, all those clerks down at city hall, all those folks down at Mercy Hospital. They do a great job. You, sir, do a great job. I'm proud of all our city employees. But what's a calendar got to do with anything?"

Of course Treen had never had it put to him in such a logical manner, and he had no response. Salino either, for that matter. A tense pause followed.

Since Treen could think of no intelligent retort, he grew hot too and decided he would get Krank's license plate number and lie in ambush somewhere, maybe catch him speeding or sneaking through a stop sign. Pull him over, wait for a sarcastic comment, yank him out, sprawl him across the hood while cars eased by, slap the handcuffs on him, haul him to jail.

Such pleasant thoughts made Treen smile. Salino, however, was not smiling. He'd heard the rumors about Luther Krank and his goofy plans for Christmas. Frohmeyer'd told him. He'd driven by the night before and seen the handsome undecorated house with no Frosty, just sitting alone, peacefully yet oddly so different.

"I'm sorry you feel that way, Salino said, sadly. "We're just trying to raise a little extra to help needy kids."

Nora wanted to burst through the door and say, "Here's a check! Give me the calendar!

But she didn't, because the aftermath would not be pleasant.

Luther nodded with jaws clenched, eyes unflinching, and Treen began a rather dramatic rerolling of the calendar that would now be hawked to someone else. Under the weight of his large paws it popped and crinkled as it became smaller and smaller. Finally, it was as narrow as a broomstick and Treen slid it back into its tube and stuck a cap on the end. Ceremony over, it was time for them to leave.

"Merry Christmas, Salino said.

"Do the police still sponsor that softball team for orphans?" Luther asked.

"We certainly do," Treen replied.

"Then come back in the spring and I'll give you a hundred bucks for uniforms."

This did nothing to appease the officers. They couldn't bring themselves to say, "Thanks." Instead, they nodded and looked at each other.

Things were stiff as Luther got them out the door, nothing said, just the irritating sound of Treen tapping the tube against his leg, like a bored cop with a nightstick looking for a head to bash.

"It was only a hundred dollars," Nora said sharply as she reentered the room. Luther was peeking around the curtains, making sure they were indeed leaving.

"No, dear, it was much more," he said smugly, as if the situation had been complex and only he had the full grasp of it. "How about some yogurt?"

To the starving, the prospect of food erased all other thoughts. Each night they rewarded themselves with a small container of bland, fat-free, imitation fruit yogurt, which they savored like a last meal. Luther was down seven pounds and Nora six.

They were touring the neighborhood in a pickup truck, looking for targets. Ten of them were in the back, resting on bales of hay, singing as they rolled along. Under the quilts hands were being held and thighs groped, but harmless fun, at least for the moment. They were, after all, from the Lutheran church. Their leader was behind the wheel, and next to her was the minister's wife, who also played the organ on Sunday mornings.

The truck turned onto Hemlock, and the target quickly became obvious. They slowed as they neared the unadorned home of the Kranks. Luckily, Walt Scheel was outside wrestling with an extension cord that lacked about eight feet in connecting the electricity from his garage to his boxwoods, around which he had carefully woven four hundred new green lights. Since Krank wasn't decorating, he, Scheel, had decided to do so with extra gusto.

"Are those folks home?" the driver asked Walt as the truck came to a stop. She was nodding at the Kranks' place.

"Yes. Why?"

"Oh, we're out caroling. We got a youth group here from the Lutheran church, St. Mark's."

Walt suddenly smiled and dropped the extension cord. How lovely, he thought. Krank just thinks he can run from Christmas.

"Are they Jewish?" she asked.

"No."

"Buddhist or anything like that?"

"No, not at all. Methodist actually. They're trying to avoid Christmas this year."

"Do what?"

"You heard me." Walt was standing next to the driver's door, all smiles. "He's kind of a weird one. Skipping Christmas so he can save his money for a cruise."

The driver and the minister's wife looked long and hard at the Krank home across the street. The kids in the back had stopped singing and were listening to every word. Wheels were turning.

"I think some Christmas carolers would do them good, Scheel added helpfully. "Go on."

The truck emptied as the choir rushed onto the sidewalk. They stopped near the Kranks' mailbox. "Closer, Scheel yelled. "They won't mind."

They lined up near the house, next to Luther's favorite flower bed. Scheel ran to his front door and told Bev to call Frohmeyer.

Luther was scraping the sides of his yogurt container when a racket commenced very close to him. The carolers struck quick and loud with the opening stanza of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," and the Kranks ducked for cover. Then they darted from the kitchen, staying low, Luther in the lead with Nora on his back, into the living room and close to the front window, where, thankfully, the curtains were closed.

The choir waved excitedly when Luther was spotted peeking out.

"Christmas carolers," Luther hissed, taking a step back, "Right out there next to our junipers."

"How lovely," Nora said very quietly.

"Lovely? They're trespassing on our property. It's a setup."

"They're not trespassing."

"Of course they are. They're on our property without being invited. Someone told them to come, probably Frohmeyer or Scheel."

"Christmas carolers are not trespassers," Nora insisted, practically whispering.

"I know what I'm talking about."

"Then call your friends down at the police department."

"I might do that," Luther mused, peeking out again.

"Not too late to buy a calendar."

The entire Frohmeyer clan came running, Spike leading the pack on a skateboard, and by the time they fell in behind the carolers the Trogdons had heard the noise and were joining the commotion. Then the Beckers with the mother-in-law in tow and Rocky the dropout lagging behind her.

"Jingle Bells" was next, a lively and loud rendition, no doubt inspired by the excitement being created. The choir director motioned for the neighbors to join in, which they happily did, and by the time they began "Silent Night" their number had ballooned to at least thirty. The carolers hit most of their notes; the neighbors couldn't have cared less. They sang loudly so that old Luther in there would squirm.

After twenty minutes, Nora's nerves gave way, and she went to the shower. Luther pretended to read a magazine in his easy chair, but each carol was louder than the last. He fumed and cursed under his breath. The last time he peeked out there were people all over his front lawn, everyone smiling and shrieking at his house.

When they started with "Frosty the Snowman," he went to his office in the basement and found the cognac.

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