Chapter Two

With his feet toasty and besocked with heavy wool, Luther fell fast asleep and woke up even faster. Nora was roaming. She was in the bathroom flushing and flipping lights, then she left for the kitchen, where she fixed an herbal tea, then he heard her down the hall in Blair's room, no doubt staring at the walls and sniffling over where the years had gone. Then she was back in bed, rolling and jerking covers and trying her best to wake him. She wanted dialogue, a sounding board. She wanted Luther to assure her Blair was safe from the horrors of the Peruvian jungle.

But Luther was frozen, not flinching at any joint, breathing as heavily as possible because if the dialogue began again it would run for hours. He pretended to snore and that settled her down.

It was after eleven when she grew still. Luther was wild-eyed, and his feet were smoldering. When he was absolutely certain she was asleep, he eased from the bed, ripped off the heavy socks and tossed them into a corner, and tiptoed down the hall to the kitchen for a glass of water. Then a pot of decaf.

An hour later he was in his basement office, at his desk with files open, the computer humming, spreadsheets in the printer, an investigator searching for evidence. Luther was a tax accountant by trade, so his records were meticulous. The evidence piled up and he forgot about sleep.

A year earlier, the Luther Krank family had spent $6,100 on Christmas-$6,100!-$6,100 on decorations, lights, flowers, a new Frosty, and a Canadian spruce; $6,100 on hams, turkeys, pecans, cheese balls, and cookies no one ate; $6,100 on wines and liquors and cigars around the office; $6,100 on fruitcakes from the firemen and the rescue squad, and calendars from the police association; $6,100 on Luther for a cashmere sweater he secretly loathed and a sports jacket he'd worn twice and an ostrich skin wallet that was quite expensive and quite ugly and frankly he didn't like the feel of. On Nora for a dress she wore to the company's Christmas dinner and her own cashmere sweater, which had not been seen since she unwrapped it, and a designer scarf she loved, $6,100. On Blair $6,100 for an overcoat, gloves and boots, and a Walkman for her jogging, and, of course, the latest, slimmest cell phone on the market-$6,100 on lesser gifts for a select handful of distant relatives, most on Nora's side-$6,100 on Christmas cards from a stationer three doors down from Chip's, in the District, where all prices were double; $6,100 for the party, an annual Christmas Eve bash at the Krank home,

And what was left of it? Perhaps a useful item or two, but nothing much-$6,100!

With great relish Luther tallied the damage, as if it had been inflicted by someone else. All evidence was coming neatly together and making a very strong case,

He waffled a bit at the end, where he'd saved the charity numbers. Gifts to the church, to the toy drive, to the homeless shelter and the food bank. But he raced through the benevolence and came right back to the awful conclusion: $6,100 for Christmas. -

"Nine percent of my adjusted gross," he said in disbelief. "Six thousand, one hundred. Cash. All but six hundred nondeductible."

In his distress, he did something he rarely did. Luther reached for the bottle of cognac in his desk drawer, and knocked back a few drinks.

He slept from three to six, and roared to life during his shower. Nora wanted to fret over coffee and oatmeal, but Luther would have none of it. He read the paper, laughed at the comics, assured her twice that Blair was having a ball, then kissed her and raced away to the office, a

The travel agency was in the atrium of Luther's building. He walked by it at least twice each day, seldom glancing at the window displays of beaches and mountains and sailboats and pyramids. It was there for those lucky enough to travel. Luther had never stepped inside, never thought about it actually. Their vacation was five days at the beach, in a friend's condo, and with his workload they were lucky to get that.

He stole away just after ten. He used the stairs so he wouldn't have to explain anything, and darted through the door of Regency Travel. Biff was waiting for him.

Biff had a large flower in her hair and a waxy bronze tan, and she looked as if she'd just dropped by the shop for a few hours between beaches. Her comely smile stopped Luther cold, and her first words left him flabbergasted. "You need a cruise," she said.

"How'd you know?" he managed to mumble. Her hand was out, grabbing his, shaking it, leading him to her long desk, where she placed him on one side while she perched herself on the other. Long bronze legs, Luther noted. Beach legs.

"December is the best time of year for a cruise," she began, and Luther was already sold. The brochures came in a torrent. She unfolded them across her desk, under his dreamy eyes.

"You work in the building?" she asked, easing near the issue of money.

"Wiley Beck, sixth floor," Luther said without removing his eyes from the floating palaces, the endless beaches.

"Bail bondsmen?" she said.

Luther flinched just a bit. "No. Tax accountants."

"Sorry," she said, kicking herself. The pale skin, the dark eye circles, the standard blue oxford-cloth button-down with bad imitation prep school tie. She should have known better. Oh well. She reached for even glossier brochures. "Don't believe we get too many from your firm."

"We don't do vacations very well. Lots of work. I like this one right here."

"Great choice."

They settled on the Island Princess, a spanking-new mammoth vessel with rooms for three thousand, four pools, three casinos, nonstop food, eight stops in the Caribbean, and the list went on and on. Luther left with a stack of brochures and scurried back to his office six floors up.

The ambush was carefully planned. First, he worked late, which was certainly not unusual, but at any rate helped set the stage for the evening. He got lucky with the weather because it was still dreary. Hard to get in the spirit of the season when the skies were damp and gray. And much easier to dream about ten luxurious days in the sun.

If Nora wasn't worrying about Blair, then he'd certainly get her started. He'd simply mention some dreadful piece of news about a new virus or perhaps a Colombian village massacre, and that would set her off. Keep her mind off the joys of Christmas. Won't be the same without Blair, will it?

Why don't we take a break this year? Go hide. Go escape. Indulge ourselves.

Sure enough, Nora was off in the jungle. She hugged him and smiled and tried to hide the fact that she'd been crying. Her day had gone reasonably well. She'd survived the ladies' luncheon and spent two hours at the children's clinic, part of her grinding volunteer schedule.

While she heated up the pasta, he sneaked a reggae CD into the stereo, but didn't push Play. Timing was crucial.

They chatted about Blair, and not long into the dinner Nora kicked the door open. "It'll be so different this Christmas, won't it, Luther?"

"Yes it will," he said sadly, swallowing hard. "Nothing'll be the same."

"For the first time in twenty-three years, she won't be here."

"It might even be depressing. Lots of depression at Christmas, you know." Luther quickly swallowed and his fork grew still.

"I'd love to just forget about it," she said, her words ebbing at the end.

Luther flinched and cocked his good ear in her direction.

"What is it?" she asked.

"Well!" he said dramatically, shoving his plate forward. "Now that you mention it. There's something I want to discuss with you."

"Finish your pasta."

"I'm finished," he announced, jumping to his feet. His briefcase was just a few steps away, and he attacked it.

"Luther, what are you doing?"

"Hang on."

He stood across the table from her, papers in both hands. "Here's my idea," he said proudly. "And it's brilliant."

"Why am I nervous?"

He unfolded a spreadsheet, and began pointing. "Here, my dear, is what we did last Christmas. Six thousand, one hundred dollars we spent on Christmas. Six thousand, one hundred dollars."

"I heard you the first time."

"And precious little to show for it. The vast majority of it down the drain. Wasted. And that, of course, does not include my time, your time, the traffic, stress, worry, bickering, ill-will, sleep loss-all the wonderful things that we pour into the holiday season."

"Where is this going?"

"Thanks for asking." Luther dropped the spreadsheets and, quick as a magician, presented the Island Princess to his wife. Brochures covered the table. "Where is this going, my dear? It's going to the Caribbean. Ten days of total luxury on the Island Princess, the fanciest cruise ship in the world. The Bahamas, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, oops., wait a minute, "

Luther dashed into the den, hit the Play button, waited for the first notes, adjusted the volume, then dashed back to the kitchen where Nora was inspecting a brochure.

"What's that?" she asked.

"Reggae, the stuff they listen to down there. Anyway, where was I?"

"You were island hopping."

"Right, we'll snorkel on Grand Cayman, windsurf in Jamaica, lie on the beaches. Ten days, Nora, ten fabulous days"

"I'll have to lose some weight."

"We'll both go on a diet. Whatta you say?"

"What's the catch?"

"The catch is simple. We don't do Christmas. We save the money, spend it on ourselves for once. Not a dime on food we won't eat or clothes we won't wear or gifts no one needs. Not one red cent. It's a boycott, Nora, a complete boycott of Christmas."

"Sounds awful."

"No, it's wonderful. And it's just for one year. Let's take a break. Blair's not here. She'll be back next year and we can jump back into the Christmas chaos, if that's what you want. Come on, Nora, please. We skip Christmas, save the money, and go splash in the Caribbean for ten days."

"How much will it cost?"

"Three thousand bucks."

"So we save money?"

"Absolutely."

"When do we leave?"

"High noon, Christmas Day."

They stared at each other for a long time.

The deal was closed in bed, with the television on but muted, with magazines scattered over the sheets, all unread, with the brochures not Far away on the night table. Luther was scanning a financial newspaper but seeing little. Nora had a paperback but the pages weren't turning.

The deal breaker had been their charitable giving. She simply refused to forgo it, or skip it, as Luther insisted on saying. She had reluctantly agreed to buy no gifts. She also wept at the thought of no tree, though Luther had mercilessly driven home the point that they yelled at each other every Christmas when they decorated the damned thing. And no Frosty on the roof? When every house on the street would have one? Which brought up the issue of public ridicule. Wouldn't they be scorned for ignoring Christmas?

So what, Luther had replied over and over. Their friends and neighbors might disapprove at first, but secretly they would burn with envy. Ten days in the Caribbean, Nora, he kept telling her. Their friends and neighbors won't be laughing when they're shoveling snow, will they? No jeers from the spectators when we're roasting in the sun and they're bloated on turkey and dressing. No smirks when we return thin and tanned and completely unafraid of going to the mailbox.

Nora had seldom seen him so determined. He methodically killed all her arguments, one by one, until nothing was left but their charitable giving.

"You're going to let a lousy six hundred bucks stand between us and a Caribbean cruise?" Luther asked with great sarcasm.

"No, you are," she replied coolly.

And with that they went to their corners and tried to read.

But after a tense, silent hour, Luther kicked off the sheets and yanked off the wool socks and said, "All right. Let's match last year's charitable gifts, but not a penny more."

She flung her paperback and went for his neck. They embraced, kissed, then she reached for the brochures.

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