"This is wonderful, Ned." Chuck closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the fresh, crisp mountain air. They were in a quaint little village up in the mountains. Walking ahead of them, Digby sniffed his way through the freshly fallen snow. "This is really, really wonderful."
As a smile ticked at the corner of Ned's mouth, he watched her inhale. "I'm glad you think so."
"I've never been to the mountains before." She opened her eyes. "I always wanted to go, of course; read so many books about them. It always seemed so magical with the conifers and snow and altitude! It was all just so fantastic." She paused in thought. "Well, except for the one book where the plane crashed in the Alps and the survivors had to eat the dead passengers to stay alive." Her nose wrinkled. "That one didn't seem so fantastic."
Ned's face had fallen in disbelief at her tangent, from which he quickly tried to recover. "This is not a people eating mountain. This is a wholesome mom-and-pop diner-in-a-cabin mountain."
"Yes." Chuck beamed up at him. "And it's fantastic."
Finding his smile again, Ned beamed back. "Speaking of dining, I know it's Christmas Eve and all, but how does Our House sound for dinner tonight?"
Chuck raised both her eyebrows in surprise. "Our house? We have a house? Here?"
Realizing his faux pas, Ned laughed lightly. "No, as much as I wish, no. Our House the diner." He nodded across the street to the quaint diner built in the shape of a log cabin. It was trimmed in white Christmas lights and a twinkling sign said: Our House. Beneath that was a sign that read: It's your house too! "The best part is they're actually open."
"They are? On Christmas Eve? Those poor people. I'm sure they'd rather be home with their families."
"Maybe the customers are their families. What do you say?"
Chuck glanced after Digby. "Do they allow dogs?"
"You say that like every eatery allows animals, but they don't." She laughed. "But I'm glad this one does. Digby needs some holiday cheer, too. Don't you, Digby?" She patted his head, which set his tail thumping. "Of course, let's go."
They crossed the street and Ned opened the door for her. They were greeted almost instantly by a smiling older man. "Hello and welcome to Our House. It's your house too, at least for tonight. I'm Rob Roberson and this is my wife Roberta."
Chuck shook her head in amused delight. "Hello Mr. Roberson. I'm Chuck and this is my Ned. And our Digby and. I just wanted to say, it's really so sweet and wonderful that you're willing to keep your diner open for tourists like us on Christmas Eve. I know we really appreciate it!"
"Oh, well, you're welcome, of course. You seem pretty sweet and wonderful yourself." Rob ushered them out of the cold. "Come on, have a seat. That's a mighty fine animal you've got there. Not many people like their pets enough to bring them on vacation."
Ned folded his hands behind him as he entered. "Our usual pet sitter went out of town for the holidays, you know how it is."
"But we love having Digby with us anyway," Chuck added. "Don't we, Digby?" She patted him again.
"Well, you're all welcome here." Roberson led them to a cozy booth. Digby curled up on the floor. "Here's your menu, can I start you off with anything?"
"Thank you very much," Ned said, sitting down. "Two hot ciders, please?"
"Right away." After giving Digby a pat, Roberson returned to the kitchen.
"Pretty empty place, though, isn't it?" Chuck glanced around. Other than themselves and the Roberson's running the place, there was only one other couple in their forties and a small family that looked like grandparents with a grandson. "Not much of a reason to stay open on Christmas Eve."
Ned perused the menu. "I'm sure they're just happy to be helping those who do need them. Like us."
Chuck grinned. "Like us." Peeking over her shoulder, she watched the owners preparing their cider. "Do you think we'll be like that, someday? Running our own little restaurant, happy just to have each other and our customers? They look so happy."
Following her gaze, Ned folded up his menu and grinned. "Yes." Taking a deep breath, he nodded to himself. "Here, I got you something."
Chuck's eyes widened. "Ned, you didn't need to get me anything."
"I know you're Jewish and I already got you little gifts for all ten days of Hanukkah--"
"About that . . ." Chuck laughed. "There are eight days of Hanukkah, not ten."
Ned stared at her in bewilderment. He blinked once, slowly and then laughed when he recovered. "Well, if anyone deserves two extra presents, it's you."
"And," she began, a bit sheepish, "tonight is Hanukkah, too."
"But." Ned stared at her. He turned his head, skeptically. "It's Christmas Eve."
"It's not like an advent calendar!" She laughed. "You just started too early. Hanukkah moves around every year. Sometimes it even starts in November." Her eyes seemed to glitter in the light. "You were using last year's calendar, Ned. It started on the 5th last year. But this year it started on the 22nd and so tonight is still Hanukkah and I would have told you only it was such a sweet gesture at the time I didn't want to upset your feelings. But now, by not telling you, I risk upsetting them more so you can see my quandary."
On the floor, Digby lifted his head and stared from one of them to the other.
They were interrupted by Roberson's return. "Here's your cider." He set the mugs on the table. "Brought some water for your dog, too. Hope that's all right." Digby's tail began wagging. "Have you decided on what to order?"
"Thank you, it's fine and no, not yet." Ned glanced over to him. "Just a few more minutes. Please?"
When they were alone again, Chuck gave a tiny smile. "You're not mad, are you?"
"Not mad, no. I feel a bit foolish, stupid really is the word I'd use, but not mad. Enlightened, perhaps." Ned reached under the table to get her present. "Suffice to say, that was a lot of explanation just to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. Again."
"Happy Hanukkah." Her eyes widened when he placed a large box on the table. "Where were you hiding that!"
Ned grinned. "I have my little secrets. Or." He glanced askance and back. "Big, circumferenly, as the case may be."
Shocked at the present, Chuck stared at him, then, shaking her head, examined the box. "Is this a pie?" She gave him an adoring look. "Did you bring up a pie all the way from The Pie Hole just to give to me here?"
Like a deer in headlights, Ned stared at her. "No? No." He tilted his head, thoughtful suddenly. "Did you want a pie? I could make you a pie."
"No!" Chuck laughed. "Well, of course I do. But not if that's not what this is."
"It's not a pie." Ned's shoulders relaxed.
"Is it a hat?" Chuck sighed longingly. "It is hatbox shaped. I do love hats, and I use them now more than ever. Ned, that's so thoughtful of you."
Twisting in his seat a little, Ned said, "It's not a hat, either. I already got you a hat, remember? For . . . not-Hanukkah-Hanukkah."
"I know, but I love hats. I wouldn't mind two. I would mind a hundred if they were from you."
"I'll get you another hat." Ned grinned. "But this is not a hat."
"What is it?"
Ned laughed. "You could open it and find out."
So Chuck did, prying off the plain brown paper. She turned up a corner of the box and then froze. Her eyes closed and she suddenly leaned forward and sniffed. "Oh, Ned." Without opening her eyes, she pulled the top off the box and inhaled again. "This is cheese, isn't it?"
She opened her eyes and stared at the beautiful wheel of cheese displayed before her. After taking a deep breath she lovingly reached out to stroke the rind. "This is a salt rind." She touched her finger to her tongue. She stared at the cheese harder. "This is made from sheep's milk, isn't it?"
Ned pillowed his chin on his palm, staring at her in awe. "You can tell that just by looking at it?"
"I can tell by the smell. And by the rind." She inhaled again, fluttering her eyes closed as she did. "Queso de La Serena," she said, opening her eyes to stare at him. "How did you get this?"
Ned laughed. "I can't believe you can tell me the name of the cheese just by looking at--and smelling--it. And to answer your question, it wasn't easy, but it was a challenge I felt I could rise to. Or Google could. Which it did." He leaned forward. "You've had it before?"
"Oh, Ned. This is so sweet. I know how difficult it can be to obtain La Serena. My aunts--" She paused and took a breath. "My aunt and my mother used to go to great lengths to get someone to deliver it to the house." She grinned up at him. "I'm sure the advent of the internet really helped."
As Ned was about to reply, Digby lifted his head and barked. The grandparents and their grandson had risen and began heading for the door.
"Quiet, Digby. You know better than that."
Digby barked again, watching the family go.
"Maybe he's hungry?"
"You might be right. I'll order him something when the nice man comes back. Did you want to . . ." He gestured at the cheese. "We could just ask for plates and bread. I have to admit, I don't really understand the whole . . . cheese thing." He brightened. "But I am willing to learn."
Chuck smiled. "No, let's save it for dessert. We'll get a wine to go with it and eat it up in our hotel room. Though, La Serena can be a difficult match. Well, no matter. The company will keep it." She waggled her brows. "As will my Christmas present to you."
Ned bit his lower lip happily. "That sounds good to me. Very good."
Chuck waved Roberson back over and they ordered their meal, securing a little meaty something for Digby as well. Digby settled down to eat when it came, but he more than once lifted his head and looked forlornly out into the night.
When they finished eating it was late and had begun snowing. After thanking the Roberson's again and wishing them both a Merry Christmas, Ned and Chuck headed back out into the elements. No sooner had the door opened than did Digby dart past them and run into the street, barking.
"Digby!" Ned stared after the dog, then looked to Chuck. "What's gotten into him?"
"Mountain air, maybe?"
After giving an exasperated sigh, Ned chased after his dog. Chuck ran after them, hot on his heels.
Street lights gave way to cabins and homes lit by moonlight on the snow. In the near darkness Ned lost sight of Digby and drew up short. He tensed as he heard Chuck fast approaching behind him and quickly put his hands in his pockets. "Gloves on! It's dark and we're alone. We don't want to accidentally bump into each other."
"Right." Chuck quickly pulled her gloves on and wrapped her scarf more securely around her neck.
After pulling on his own gloves, Ned sighed. "Why would Digby run out here like this?" He stared into the empty street. "Hello? Digby?"
"Look, there're tracks in the snow." Chuck began following them. "Human and dog."
"Human?" Ned looked around. "You mean he was chasing someone?" He followed her several paces.
"Looks like he found her, too." Chuck drew up short.
A hundred feet or so ahead Digby sat in the snow, next to a body. He barked when he saw them approaching and then began to whine.
"Oh, no," Ned moaned. "Not here. Not now."
Chuck close the distance between them, petting Digby as his tag began to wag slightly. "Good boy, Digby." She looked at the body. "That poor old woman. This is the grandmother we saw back in the diner."
"Was she . . ." Ned shifted, unwilling to approach just yet. "Is it a heart attack? Can we please assume this isn't murder?"
Chuck squatted beside the dead woman, setting aside her box of cheese. "She's been run over, Ned."
Ned gasped. "What?"
Chuck hugged Digby to her. "Look." She gestured to the prone body.
Ned stared. "Why can't an accident ever just be an accident anymore?" He tilted his head one way, then the other, then back. His brows furrowed. "She looks as though she were trampled by a cow."
"Reindeer." Chuck stood up. "Can you believe it?"
Ned gave a nervous laugh. "No?" At the stare Chuck gave him, Ned blinked, realizing she was serious. "Are you saying she was killed . . . by Santa?"
Chuck forced a tight smile. "Hate to break it to you, Ned, but Santa doesn't exist."
Ned laughed. "Exactly. And neither do reindeer! So how could she have been run over by one? It must mean someone's set this up to look like murder by Santa."
Chuck's eyes widened. "Reindeer do too exist!" She laughed. "You think they're just some mythical creature Coca-Cola invented to pull Santa's sleigh?"
Ned crossed his arms, not convinced. "You're telling me some magical flying reindeer just swooped out of the sky and ran this granny over?"
"Reindeer don't really fly, silly." Chuck suddenly began laughing. "I can't believe you thought that reindeer didn't--"
"Hey!" Both Ned and Chuck turned at the voice of a disturbed sounding man. "Ellen? That's my wife! What's happened to her!"
Ned and Chuck exchanged glances. Stepping forward, Chuck went to comfort him. "I'm so sorry."
After explaining how they'd found her, Ned and Chuck stood back to let the man grieve and wait for the police to arrive. Neither wanted to leave the man alone, or lose sight of the woman, but it was clear he hardly saw them.
Ned stared up at the clouds. "I feel like I should call Emerson."
"It's Christmas Eve." Chuck briefly hugged his coat-covered arm. "Let him sleep."
Ned blew a snowflake off his nose. "I'm just sorry. On a scale of One to Awesome, I think this Christmas Eve has been about a Dud."
Chuck shook her head. "Nonsense! It's been exciting and adventurous. I'd rate it an Excellent."
"Exciting and adventurous is our normal life. Personally, for Christmas, I would have preferred a little less death and sadness." Ned stared at the old man weeping over his wife.
Sobering, Chuck sighed heavily. "On the bright side, although reindeer aren't known for their trampling tendencies, this probably is just an accident."
"Yeah. I guess we'll never know, though." In the distance, Ned could hear the sound of approaching sirens.
Chuck's eyes narrowed. "There is a way, of course."
Ned looked at her, then followed her gaze. "We could ask her."
"I'll distract the cops," Chuck said, making up her mind, "but make it quick. I can't give you much privacy."
Heart pounding, Ned shook his head clear. "Right." He slapped his thigh. "Come here, Digby."
What was a short way to ask someone how they had been killed? Emerson would have known. "Were you murdered?" That just required a yes or no answer. It didn't, on the other hand, get much into specifics. "Were you run over by a reindeer pulling Santa?" A bit silly, perhaps, but far more to the point. Then again, there was always, "Were you murdered by Santa?" The reindeer would be self-explanatory after that.
Chuck distracted the police by explaining to them what had happened, or at least what he and Ned had found out and who the grieving man was. That left Digby to distract the husband. He did that with comforting whining and licking, which the man seemed to appreciate. Ned made a pretense of picking up the box of cheese that Chuck had left near the body and, starting his watch, brushed his finger against the dead woman's hand.
Ned stared at her hand, looked at her face, then stared at her hand again. It wasn't cold enough to be preventing his touch. He poked her hand again and when that did nothing, he touched her cheek. Still nothing happened.
Heart suddenly pounding in his chest, Ned held his hand lightly over her mouth. A second passed, then two and then he felt breath. Leaping to his feet, Ned shouted, "We need an ambulance here, now!" His eyes fixed on Chuck's. "She's not dead!"
"Not dead?" Chuck ran over and Ned met her halfway, letting the police radio in the call and attend to the woman. She whispered, "Not dead not dead or alive again not dead?"
Ned was excited, but matched her quiet tone. "Not dead not dead! Trampled by a reindeer, most likely, but not dead from said reindeer trampling!"
"Oh, Ned!" Chuck threw her arms around him and hugged him. Ned stood stock still until she pulled back. "Do you think she'll be all right?"
"I . . . hope so?" He jammed his hands into his pockets. "Let's just say she's got 100% more chance now than she had five minutes ago."
"Oh, it's like a Christmas miracle only I don't believe in Christmas miracles, but if I did, I'd believe in this one." In the distance, they could see the flashing lights of the ambulance. "I hope she lives. She's got to now, hasn't she? It's like fate or something."
"I think so. I think so. Come on. It's cold. Let's get your La Serena and Digby and retire up to our beds at the bed and breakfast." He waggled his eyebrows. "I'm ready for my present. We can let the professionals take care of all of this."
"The police will probably want to question us though." They stepped well out of the way as the ambulance arrived and the paramedics poured out.
"It's Christmas Eve, Chuck. We'll leave them the address of where we're staying. I think they'll understand. We'll just be in the way now."
Chuck took a deep breath and nodded, taking in the scene. The paramedics were working hard now to stabilize the grandmother. Her husband was smiling and crying in relief and neighbors were coming out now, to see what all the commotion was about. Chuck picked up her box of cheese and gave Digby a long hug as Ned gave their details to the police. He was, after all, the one who had found the woman and in doing so most likely saved her life.
Then, gloved hand in gloved hand, Ned and Chuck followed Digby away from the scene of the accident, off to have a little holiday celebration of their own.