Spike was on the ladder, leaning precariously into the tree with a crystal angel in one hand and a fuzzy reindeer in the other, when Luther heard a car in the drive. He glanced out the window and saw Nora's Audi sliding into the garage. "It's Nora," he said. Quick thinking led him to believe that Spike's complicity in the tree should be kept a secret.

"Spike, you need to leave, and now," he said.


"Job's over, son, here's the other twenty. Thanks a million." He helped the kid down from the ladder, handed over the cash, and led him to the front door. When Nora stepped into the kitchen, Spike eased onto the front steps and disappeared.

"Unload the car," she commanded. Her nerves were shot and she was ready to snap.

"What's the matter?" he asked, and immediately wished he'd said nothing. It was quite obvious what was the matter.

She rolled her eyes and started to snap, then gritted her teeth and repeated, "Unload the car."

Luther high-stepped toward the door and was almost outside when he heard, "What an ugly tree!"

He spun, ready for war, and said, "Take it or leave it."

"Red lights?" she said, her voice incredulous. Trogdon had used a strand of red lights, one solitary string of them, and had wrapped them tightly around the trunk of the tree. Luther had toyed with the idea of pulling them off, but it would've taken an hour. Instead, he and Spike had tried to hide them with ornaments. Nora, of course, had spotted them from the kitchen.

Now she had her nose in the tree. "Red lights? We've never used red lights."

"They were in the box," Luther lied. He did not enjoy lying, but he knew it would be standard behavior for the next day or so.

"Which box?"

"What do you mean, 'Which box?' I've been throwing stuff on the tree as fast as I can open boxes, Nora. Now's not the time to get touchy about the tree.

"Green icicles?" she said, picking one off the tree. "Where'd you find this tree?"

"I bought the last one from the Boy Scouts." A sidestep, not a direct lie.

She looked around the room, at the strewn and empty boxes, and decided there were more important things to worry about.

"Besides," Luther said, unwisely, "at the rate we're going, who's gonna see it?"

"Shut up and unload the car." There were four bags of food from a store Luther'd never heard of, three shopping bags with handles from a clothing store in the mail, a case of soft drinks, a case of bottled water, and a bouquet of dreadful flowers from a florist known for his outrageous prices. Luther's accountant's brain wanted to tally up the damage, but he thought better of it.

How would he explain this around the office? All the money he'd saved now up in smoke. Plus, the cruise he didn't take getting wasted because he'd declined to purchase travel insurance. Luther was in the middle of a financial disaster and couldn't do a thing to stop the bleeding.

"Did you get the Yarbers and the Friskis?" Nora asked at the phone, the receiver stuck to her head.

"Yes, they can't come."

"Unpack those grocery bags," she demanded, then said into the phone, "Sue, it's Nora. Merry Christmas. Look, we've just had a big surprise over here. Blair's coming home with her fiance, be here tonight, and we're running around like crazy trying to put together a last-minute party." Pause. "Peru, thought we wouldn't see her till next Christmas." Pause. "Yes, quite a surprise." Pause. "Yes, fiance." Pause. "He's a doctor." Pause. "He's from down there somewhere, Peru I think, she just met him a few weeks ago and now they're getting married, so needless to say we're in shock. So tonight." Pause.

Luther removed eight pounds of smoked Oregon trout, all packed in airtight thick cellophane wrappers, the type that gave the impression the fish had been caught years ago.

"Sounds like a nice party," Nora was saying. "Sorry you can't make it. Yes, I'll give a hug to Blair. Merry Christmas, Sue." She hung up and took a deep breath. With the worst possible timing Luther said, "Smoked trout?"

"Either that or frozen pizza," she fired back with glowing eyes and clenched fists.

"There's not a turkey or a ham left in the stores, and, even if I found one, there's not enough time to cook it. So, yes, Luther, Mr. Beach Bum, we're having smoked trout for Christmas."

The phone rang and Nora snatched it.

"Hello, yes, Emily, how are you? Thanks for returning my call."

Luther couldn't think of a single person named Emily. He pulled out a three-pound block of Cheddar cheese, a large wedge of Swiss, boxes of crackers, clam dip, and three two-day-old chocolate pies from a bakery Nora had always avoided. She was rattling on about their last-minute party, when suddenly she said, "You can come! That's wonderful. Around sevenish, casual, sort of a come-and-go." Pause. "Your parents? Sure they can come, the more the merrier. Great, Emily. See you in a bit." She hung up without a smile.

"Emily who?"

"Emily Underwood."

Luther dropped a box of crackers. "No," he said.

She was suddenly interested in unpacking the last bag of groceries.

"You didn't, Nora," he said. "Tell me you didn't invite Mitch Underwood. Not here, not to our house. You didn't, Nora, please say you didn't."

"We're desperate."

"Not that desperate."

"I like Emily."

"She's a witch and you know it. You like her? When's the last time you had lunch with her, or breakfast or coffee or anything?"

"We need bodies, Luther."

"Mitch the Mouth is not a body, he's a windbag. A thundering load of hot air. People hide from the Underwoods, Nora. Why?"

"They're coming. Be thankful."

"They're coming because nobody in their right mind would invite them to a social occasion. They're always free."

"Hand me that cheese."

"This is a joke, right?"

"He'll be good with Enrique."

"Enrique'll never again set foot in the United States after Underwood gets through with him. He hates everything-the city, the state, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, clean air, you name it. He's the biggest bore in the world. He'll get half-drunk and you can hear him two blocks over."

"Settle down, Luther. It's done. Speaking of drinking, I didn't have time to get the wine. You'll have to go."

"I'm not leaving the safety of my home."

"Yes, you are. I didn't see Frosty."

"I'm not doing Frosty. I've made up my mind."

"Yes, you are."

The phone rang again, and Nora grabbed it. "Who could this be?" Luther muttered to himself. "Can't get any worse."

"Blair," Nora said. "Hello, dear."

"Gimme the phone," Luther kept muttering. "I'll send 'em back to Peru."

"You're in Atlanta-great," Nora said. Pause, "We're just cooking away, dear, getting ready for the party." Pause. "We're excited too, dear, can't wait." Pause. "Of course I'm making a caramel cream pie, your favorite." She shot Luther a look of horror. "Yes, honey, we'll be at the airport at six. Love you."

Luther glanced at his watch. Three o'clock. She hung up and said, "I need two pounds of caramel and a jar of marshmallow cream."

"I'll finish the tree-it still needs more ornaments," Luther said, "I'm not fighting the mobs."

Nora chewed a fingernail for a second and assessed things. This meant a plan was coming, probably one with a lot of detail.

"Let's do this," she began. "Let's finish decorating by four. How long will Frosty take?"

"Three days."

"At four, I'll make the final run to town, and you get Frosty up on the roof. Meanwhile, we'll go through the phone book and call everybody we've ever met."

"Don't tell anyone Underwood's coming."

"Hush, Luther!"

"Smoked trout with Mitch Underwood. That'll be the hottest ticket in town."

Nora put on a Sinatra Christmas CD, and for twenty minutes Luther flung more ornaments on Trogdon's tree while Nora set out candles and ceramic Santas and decorated the fireplace mantel with plastic holly and mistletoe. They said nothing to each other for a long time, then Nora broke the ice with more instructions. "These boxes can go back to the attic."

Of all the things Luther hated about Christmas, perhaps the most dreaded chore was hauling boxes up and down the retractable stairs of the attic. Up the staircase to the second floor, then wedge into the narrow hallway between two bedrooms, then readjust positions so that the box, which was inevitably too big, could be shoved up the flimsy ladder through the opening to the attic. Coming down or going up, it didn't matter. It was a miracle he'd avoided serious injury over the years.

"And after that, start bringing Frosty up," she barked like an admiral.

She leaned hard on Reverend Zabriskie, and he finally said he could stop by for half an hour. Luther, at gunpoint, called his secretary, Dox, and twisted her arm until she agreed to stop by for a few minutes. Dox had been married three times, was currently unmarried but always had a boyfriend of some variety. The two of them, plus Reverend and Mrs. Zabriskie, plus the Underwood group, totaled an optimistic eight, if they all converged at the same time. Twelve altogether with the Kranks and Blair and Enrique.

Twelve almost made Nora cry again. Twelve would seem like three in their living room on Christmas Eve.

She called her two favorite wine stores. One was closed, the other would be open for a half hour. At four, Nora left in a flurry of instructions for Luther, who, by then, was thinking of hitting the cognac hidden in the basement.

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