Chapter Sixteen

Just minutes after Nora left, the phone rang, Luther grabbed it. Maybe it was Blair again. He'd tell her the truth. He'd give her a piece of his mind about how thoughtless this last-minute surprise was, how selfish. She'd get her feelings hurt, but she'd get over it. With a wedding on the way, she'd need them more than ever.

"Hello," he snapped.

"Luther, it's Mitch Underwood," came a booming voice, the sound of which made Luther want to stick his head in the oven.

"Hi, Mitch."

"Merry Christmas to you. Hey, look, thanks for the invite and all, but we just can't squeeze you guys in. Lots of invitations, you know."

Oh yes, the Underwoods were on everyone's A list. Folks clamored for Mitch's insufferable tirades on property taxes and city zoning. "Gee, I'm real sorry, Mitch," Luther said. "Maybe next year."

"Sure, give us a call."

"Merry Christmas, Mitch."

The gathering of twelve was now down to eight, with more defections on the way. Before Luther could take a step, the phone was ringing again. "Mr. Krank, it's me, Dox," came a struggling voice.

"Hello, Dox."

"Sorry about your cruise and all."

"You've already said that."

"Yes, look, something's come up. This guy I'm seeing was gonna surprise me with dinner at Tanner Hall. Champagne, caviar, the works. He made a reservation a month ago. I really can't say no to him."

"Of course you can't, Dox."

"He's hiring a limo, everything. He's a real sweetheart."

"Sure he is, Dox."

"We just can't make it to your place, but I'd love to see Blair."

Blair'd been gone a month. Dox hadn't seen her in two years. "I'll tell her."

"Sorry, Mr. Krank."

"No problem."

Down to six. Three Kranks plus Enrique, and the Reverend and Mrs. Zabriskie. He almost called Nora to break the bad news, but why bother? Poor thing was out there beating her brains out. Why make her cry? Why give her another reason to bark at him for his grand idea gone bad?

Luther was closer to the cognac than he wanted to admit.

Spike Frohmeyer reported all he'd seen and heard. With forty bucks in his pocket and a fading vow of silence floating around out there, he was at first hesitant to talk. But then no one kept quiet on Hemlock. After a couple of prodding volleys from his father, Vic, he unloaded everything.

He reported how he'd been paid to help take the tree from the Trogdons'; how he'd helped Mr. Krank set it up in his living room, then practically thrown on ornaments and lights; how Mr. Krank had kept sneaking to the telephone and calling people; how he'd heard just enough to know that the Kranks were planning a last-minute party for Christmas Eve, but nobody wanted to come. He couldn't determine the reason for the party, or why it was being put together so hastily, primarily because Mr. Krank used the phone in the kitchen and kept his voice low. Mrs. Krank was running errands and calling every ten minutes.

Things were very tense down at the Kranks, according to Spike.

Vic called Ned Becker, who'd been alerted by Walt Scheel, and soon the three of them were on a conference call, with Walt and Ned maintaining visual contact with the Krank home.

"She just left again, in a hurry," reported Walt. "I've never seen Nora speed away so fast."

"Where's Luther?" asked Frohmeyer.

"Still inside," answered Walt. "Looks like they've finished with the tree. Gotta say, I liked it better at the Trogdons'."

"Something's going on," said Ned Becker.

Nora had a case of wine in her shopping cart, six bottles of red and six bottles of white, though she wasn't sure why she was buying so much. Who, exactly, was going to drink it all? Perhaps she would. She'd picked out the expensive stuff too. She wanted Luther to burn when he got the bill. All this money they were going to save at Christmas, and look at the mess they were in.

A clerk in the front of the wine shop was pulling, the blinds and locking the door. The lone cashier was hustling the last customers through the line. Three people were ahead of Nora, one behind. Her cell phone rang in her coat pocket. "Hello," she half-whispered.

"Nora, Doug Zabriskie."

"Hello, Father," she said, and began to go limp. His voice betrayed him.

"We're having a bit of a problem over here," he began sadly. "Typical Christmas Eve chaos, you know, everybody running in different directions. And Beth's aunt from Toledo just dropped in, quite unexpected, and made things worse. I'm afraid it will be impossible to stop by and see Blair tonight."

He sounded as if he hadn't seen Blair in years.

"That's too bad," Nora managed to say with just a trace of compassion. She wanted to curse and cry at the same time. "We'll do it another time."

"No problem, then?"

"Not at all, Father."

They signed off with Merry Christmases and such, and Nora bit her quivering lip. She paid for the wine, then hauled it half a mile to her car, grumbling about her husband every heavy step of the way. She hiked to a Kroger, fought her way through a mob in the entrance, and trudged down the aisles in search of caramels.

She called Luther, and no one answered. He'd better be up on the roof.

They met in front of the peanut butter, both seeing each other at the same time. She recognized the shock of red hair, the orange-and-gray beard, and the little, black, round eyeglasses, but she couldn't think of his name. He, however, said, "Merry Christmas, Nora," immediately.

"And Merry Christmas to you," she said with a quick, warm smile. Something bad had happened to his wife, either she'd died from some disease or taken off with a younger man. They'd met a few years earlier at a ball, black tie, she thought. Later, she'd heard about his wife. What was his name? Maybe he worked at the university. He was well dressed, in a cardigan under a handsome trench coat.

"Why are you out running around?" he asked. He was carrying a basket with nothing in it.

"Oh, last-minute stuff, you know. And you?" She got the impression he was doing nothing at all, that he was out with the hordes just for the sake of being there, that he was probably lonely.

What in the world happened to his wife?

No wedding band visible.

"Picking up a few things. Big meal tomorrow, huh?" he asked, glancing at the peanut butter.

"Tonight, actually. Our daughter's coming in from South America, and we're putting together a quick little party."

"Blair?"

"Yes."

He knew Blair!

Jumping off a cliff, Nora instinctively said, "Why don't you stop by?"

"You mean that?"

"Oh sure, it's a come-and-go. Lots of folks, lots of good food." She thought of the smoked trout and wanted to gag. Surely his name would come back in flash.

"What time?" he asked, visibly delighted.

"Earlier the better, say about seven."

He glanced at his watch. "Just about two hours."

Two hours! Nora had a watch, but from someone else the time sounded so awful. Two hours! "Oh well, gotta run," she said.

"You're on Hemlock," he said.

"Yes. Fourteen seventy-eight." Who was this man?

She scampered away, practically praying that his name would come roaring back from somewhere. She found the caramels, the marshmallow cream, and the pie shells.

The express lane-ten items or less-had a line that stretched down to frozen foods. Nora fell in with the rest, barely able to see the cashier, unwilling to glance at her watch, teetering on the edge of a complete and total surrender.

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