"'Deck the halls with boughs of holly,'" caroled Edgar Benedek enthusiastically along with the car radio. "'Fa la la la la la la la la. 'Tis the season to be jolly, fa la la la la la la la la. Don we now our gay apparel, fa la la…' Yo, Jack, didja bring your dress?"
Jonathan MacKensie tightened his hands on the steering wheel of the rental vehicle and tried not to grimace. "Really, Benedek! There's no need to mock a traditional carol simply because of a language shift." The road was a little icy, not to mention narrow and twisting, and he needed to give it all his attention, not to allow himself to be distracted by Benedek's irreverent banter. Once they got off this road and back on the highway, they'd make better time and he'd be home for Christmas.
He smiled at the thought. Putting up the tree on Christmas Eve with the old, traditional ornaments his father had purchased along the way, making sure everything was just as it had always been. Preparing the Christmas goose, even though this year he hadn't planned to share it with anyone, though sometimes some of his students who were still on campus over the holidays stopped in after dinner. Other times he had a date to dinner, and twice Dr. Moorhouse had come.
This year he'd thought of asking Benedek, only to be forestalled midway through the invitation when Benny had interrupted him with an eager description of the party he planned to attend at Boom Boom's. The thought of spending Christmas in a strip club didn't exactly appeal to Jonathan and in truth he'd been somewhat disappointed. It would have been nice to have Benedek come by when there were no shadows to chase, to let him experience the old-fashioned MacKensie family traditions. Though he often found Benedek maddening and exasperating, and wasn't sure even after two years of it what he thought of the paranormal investigation unit at Georgetown, he considered Benedek a friend. He would have enjoyed the dinner the more for sharing it with a friend. Benny had chosen Boom Boom, though, and Jonathan had put the thought behind him as they journeyed to Knightsbridge, a remote village in the mountains of Vermont.
A part of him had been slightly hesitant anyway. Would Benedek have been amused by the old traditions, urged Jonathan to move with the times, tried to drag him out to party? Jonathan clung to his old- fashioned Christmas because it reminded him of his father and didn't want to let it go. Would it have changed if he and Benedek had spent the holiday together? He wasn't sure, but then his entire life had changed because of Benedek. Why not the holiday as well?
The area they were driving through was a skier's paradise but Knight's Bridge was away from the more trendy areas. This year, with so little snow on the ground, the poorer lodges who didn't have the best of snow-making machines, were doing a less than booming business. It had taken little time to prove the ghostly skier was no more than an attempt cooked up by two or three of the main lodges to lure in tourists, a legend of a mysterious skier who had appeared nearly a hundred years before and supposedly warned three people of an avalanche updated for the season. Since the local newspapers didn't report any actual avalanches in the appropriate time period, the whole story was clearly a scam from beginning to end. Disgruntled at the waste of time and irritated by the state of the roads, Jonathan was not in the best of spirits for the drive back to civilization. He'd awakened this morning at the fancy inn where Benny had booked them at Georgetown's expense to find a new layer of snow on the ground. The roads were sure to be difficult and his speculation been proven right. They'd been winding their careful way down since from the highest lodge since shortly after noon, and had stopped an hour ago for coffee and to change drivers. Another half an hour and they'd reach the main highway and they'd soon arrive at the airport where they could catch their flights to New York and Washington.
"Ever notice how often we're told to be gay in Christmas songs?" Benedek teased, ignoring Jonathan's bad mood and lack of proper response. "I think it's some kind of conspiracy myself."
"The only conspiracy I know of is the one that brought me to this remote area on the day before Christmas Eve to track down a ghost that was never here. Look at the time! It's already three o'clock. If we can't make better speed on the highway, I'll miss my plane."
"Chill, J.J. you're not going to miss your plane. I thought it was a great local legend. The Ghostly Skier who patrols the slopes to save people in trouble. Not to mention a way to rake in some major bucks for the season. Rising from the dead in time for Christmas…that's the kind of thing my readers—"
He broke off abruptly, his whole body stiffening in shock then, with a yell, he lunged at Jonathan, grabbed the steering wheel and yanked hard. They had been approaching a sharp curve and Benedek's manhandling was too much for the car's stability. The vehicle slid sideways into the ditch, fortunately a shallow one still filled with soft new snow, and came to such a gentle stop the air bags didn't even inflate.
"Are you mad, Benedek?" Jonathan demanded. "Do you like it up here so much you want to stay here? Let me tell you, the towing expenses won't go on your Georgetown expense account—You're not hurt, are you?" he concluded anxiously.
"No way, Jonny. You?" When Jonathan shook his head the journalist flung open his door and jumped out, shivering a little, and waded through the snow back to the road.
Jonathan followed him, his feet skidding this way and that, one shoe filling unpleasantly with snow. "Why did you do that?" he said, stomping his foot as he reached the highway, only to skid again and grab at Benedek for balance.
Benedek steadied him absently then let go, his mind clearly on other things than his partner's clumsiness. He trotted around the curve without speaking, his face white, his mouth drawn in a taut line. Jonathan followed him, determined to get an answer. "Benedek, where are you going? What is the matter with—"
As they rounded the bend, he broke off abruptly as if he'd been punched in the stomach. The high bridge spanning the deep gorge had provided them a dramatic view on their drive up to Knight's Bridge. Now it provided an even more dramatic one, that of a huge gap in the pavement, a gap they would have hit unknowing if Benedek hadn't put them off the road. Jonathan shivered involuntarily, and it had nothing to do with his frozen foot or the wintry air.
Benny stood at the edge of the bridge, his every muscle tense. Jonathan came to a stop at his side, eyeing the hole in the bridge; if they'd hit that even at reduced speed, they would have plunged through and fallen five hundred feet to the rocky creek bed below. With such a deep curve, they would have had no advance warning of the deadly peril; it would have been impossible to stop in time.
Benedek stood there quivering as if with reaction, his whole body racked with great shuddered. "…doesn't happen often," he muttered under his breath. "…doesn't happen often."
"Benedek. My God, how did you know…"
The shorter man whirled to face him, eyes dark and shadowed, huge in his white face. "I told you how I got into all this paranormal stuff once, Jack," he said, turning back immediately to stare out over the gap. "I had a premonition."
Jonathan recalled the incident vividly; it had been during his first encounter with Benedek at Fartham, when he told of his premonition about the plane crash that had killed his girlfriend. He'd instantly thrown a smoke screen over his moment of vulnerability, leaving Jonathan to doubt, if briefly, the truth of the story. He'd since learned that was Benedek's way, to cover strong feelings by saying something outrageous, and the premonition had never been mentioned between them again—until now.
"You—knew?" he faltered, stunned. "I—didn't realize you still had…premonitions." Reaction had set in for him, too, and he felt shaky and unsteady on his feet. It had been so close…
Benedek's eyes lingered on the huge hole in the bridge. "I don't," he said. "Well, hardly ever. Only when it…involves somebody who…"
"Somebody who what, Benedek?"
Benny turned abruptly and started back around the bend at a fast dog trot. "We gotta block the road before somebody comes along who doesn't have the gift," he said. "Just think of the mileage I can get of out this one. I can do all the talk shows on it." When Jonathan only muttered his name in tones of exasperation he added more seriously, "We'll set up the rental car if we can get it out of the ditch. Otherwise we'll pile up branches or something, and then we can find he nearest place and call the state troopers."
"Somebody who what?" MacKensie persisted.
"Somebody who m—" Benedek mumbled, refusing to meet Jonathan's gaze. He added hastily, "Somebody who might get trashed without Benedek the Brilliantto protect him, sort of a cosmic watchdog."
"I see," Jonathan replied doubtfully, knowing that wasn't what Benny had begun to say. "It's too bad it didn't warn us before the plane went down that time and we landed at the Whitewoods."
Benny grinned. "Are you kidding, buds? That was one of my best stories; I knew it would be as soon as Dr. M told me she didn't want me to write it. Besides, we came out of there in great shape, even yours truly. You should have seen all the secretaries at the Register fussing over me when I got out of the hospital, same with Hooperville."
"You should be ashamed, Benedek," MacKensie chided him. "This is the first I've heard of any ongoing psi abilities. You should be tested. More likely than not you set the stage for each of your little 'flashes'."
Benedek's grin widened. "Yeah, like I chopped a hole in a major bridge, just to get your attention. Not that it doesn't take something like that sometimes." He flung himself behind the wheel of the car. "You push, I'll drive," he instructed.
Unhappy with the division of labor though he suspected Benedek was the better driver and had chosen his task for that very reason, Jonathan grumbled to himself as he went to position himself behind the car, looking for something solid on which to brace his feet. His left foot ached with the cold already. He should have known 'The Quest of the Phantom Skier' was not likely to be the greatest story Benedek had ever set out to cover.
"Okay, Dr. J, when I give the word, you push," directed Benedek.
The next ten minutes were not fun. Unable to find purchase in the loose snow, Jonathan wound up flat on his face no less than three times before the rental car lurched, caught, and finally rose majestically out of the ditch to sit half-across the road. Benedek eyed it thoughtfully and finally pulled it all the way across the road just as the first person arrived on the scene, gliding down the hill on skis and swooping to a stop in a wash of snow. He was a tall young man in his early twenties wearing a bright green parka, a shock of Nordic-blond hair escaping from under his knit cap. Pushing up his skiing goggles he took in all the details of Jonathan's snow-caked self and Benedek's lingering tension.
"You're blocking the road," he observed laconically, resting on his ski poles watching them.
"The bridge is out," Jonathan remarked. " We have to warn people about it or they'll go around the curve and be unable to stop in time."
The skier measured the distance to the curve and the fairly long clear stretch behind them, eyes narrowing. "Lucky you hit the ditch then," he observed, pointing to the marks in the ditch and the snow- plastered state of Jonathan's person. "Tell you what," the skier continued, speaking directly to Benny. "Your friend's clothes are saturated. If you don't get him warm and dry, he'll be ill. See that driveway there." He pointed back along the road about fifty yards. "Head up there. It's the Grove Point ski lodge. They're closed for business until New Year's and some idiot in a Taurus knocked down their sign last week but they'll take you in. I'll stay here and put up a better roadblock than yours. I'm dressed for the weather. I'll haul in some branches and put up a proper barricade and warn anyone else who comes along."
"That's really very good of you," Jonathan managed to say. His teeth had begun to chatter.
Benedek observed Jonathan's sorry state then turned measuringly back to the skier. "If they've got a phone up there, we can notify somebody. We don't have any way of protecting the other side. I don't think anybody can get across on the part that's left."
"No, but there's a better angle of view over there," the skier replied. "Take your suitcases."
Benedek hauled the bags out of the trunk of the rental car, eyed Jonathan consideringly, and chose to keep both of them. "Come on, Jack Frost," he urged. "Dr. M will vivisect me if I let you turn into a giant popsicle."
"And I'll come back and haunt you if I freeze solid," Jonathan promised as they began the trek up the steep driveway. Why did it have to be all uphill?
By the time the Grove Point Lodge came into sight, Jonathan was a solid block of misery. He'd brushed off as much snow as he could, and Benedek had helped, but none of that could do anything about the agony in his frozen foot and the way the wind knifed through his sodden clothes. About halfway up the driveway, Benedek had stopped abruptly, frowning.
"Okay, Jonny, give. We'll switch coats."
"I'm all right, Benedek," he managed, though his teeth were chattering harder than ever and he was beginning to shake uncontrollably.
"Sure if you want to score points as an ice sculpture. Off with it, J.J." He peeled off his own coat and held it out to Jonathan, who was too miserable to object. Benedek's coat was tight and the buttons strained across his chest, but it was blessedly warm, though it didn't do anything for his sodden trousers or the dampness that had permeated his sweater vest and shirt beneath.
Still, it gave him sufficient energy to finish the climb. They came around a final bend to see a little lodge like a Swiss Chalet, Christmas-card perfect in its snow-draped beauty. Although it was not open for business, the pines that framed the main door were strung with lights. A wreath hung on the main door and it was possible to see a huge Christmas tree in the bow window to the right of it. A gray-haired man who was energetically engaged in shoveling the wide front steps paused and stared at them as if he couldn't believe his eyes, then he noticed the way Jonathan was shivering, deep, racking spasms that shook him violently enough to hurt. Benedek waved and yelled when he spotted the man.
"We had a nasty run-in with a snow-filled ditch," the journalist explained. "My buddy helped push the car out. It's a little too cold for making angels in the snow, though. Some guy on skis said you weren't open but he thought you'd take us in. The bridge is out."
Leave it to a reporter to make his point so quickly. The gray- haired man grabbed Jonathan's arm and guided him up the stairs. "We'll warm you up right away, young man. My wife will run a hot bath for you and we'll get some hot soup into you the minute you're finished." Leading Jonathan into the lobby, a huge room with clusters of chairs, and a huge fireplace complete with a crackling fire not far from the Christmas tree, he bellowed, "Martha! We've got guests. Run a hot bath in the Parker Suite. All right, young fella, out of those clothes." A distant female voice called compliance.
He and Benny guided Jonathan to the fire, stripped away the coat, boots, vest and shirt, and the owner of the inn eyed him consideringly and added, "Pants too." He snatched up an afghan from the back of a sofa in the nearest furniture grouping and draped it over Jonathan when he shed his sodden trousers. At least they didn't mean to rob him of his shorts. Pulling the afghan around him tightly, Jonathan struggled to stop shivering. His foot throbbed and he tried to tuck the corner of the crocheted covering closer.
"Foot," Benny said and dropped down on his knees to peel away the icy sock. "Good, doesn't look like frostbite, Jack. How did you get a shoe full of snow?" he questioned disapprovingly.
"It wasn't deliberate. It wasn't my idea to wade through the ditch. Leave it, Benedek," he added when Benny poked at the exposed flesh. "You've done enough to me already." When Benny's body stiffened marginally he added hastily, "Not that you could have done anything else."
"You got that right. Getting us out of the ditch took a genius at the wheel," Benedek said a little too brightly, raising his head to grin at the inn's owner. "You should have seen me. Only genius or an Indy 500 winner could have pulled it off without a tow truck." He buffed his fingernails on his shirt.
"Are the roads that bad?" asked the older man as he urged them toward the stairs.
"No, but the bridge has a giant hole in it big enough to swallow a semi," Benedek told him. "Only way we could miss it was to take the scenic route through the ditch." He didn't mention his premonition and Jonathan let it go, too. There would be time for that later, if necessary. In spite of his boasting of hitting the talk shows with his routine, Jonathan had a good idea it was one subject Benny had never mentioned to Merv or Phil Donahue or any of the others. He didn't babble about things intensely personal. Other people's psi abilities might be fair game, but possibly not his own. None of the bizarre people Benedek had introduced to Jonathan seemed to know anything the plane crash, though they generally had some idea that Benny was capable of premonitions.
A gray-haired woman with rosy cheeks and a cheery face hurried down the stairs. "The bath is running, Maxwell," she said, eyeing the bundled-up Jonathan in surprise. "And I must say, he looks like he needs it. No trace of frostbite?"
"No. He's just too wet and too cold. I think some hot soup would complete the cure, Martha-love. Once you get it on the stove, call Jerry and tell him the bridge is out. Did you put up a warning?" he asked Benedek.
"Left the car across the road with plenty of time to see it, and the guy on skis said he'd put up a barricade with branches."
"What guy on skis?" Maxwell asked.
Benny shrugged. "For all I know it's the Phantom Skier. He didn't give a name, but by then Jonny was trying to turn into the abominable snowman and we didn't have time for chit chat."
"The Phantom Skier is a myth, dear," Martha informed them, though her face had tightened. "It brings in a little business from time to time, no more."
"You're not open for business," Jonathan remembered. "Are we intruding?"
"A fine pair we'd be if we didn't take in a stranded traveler," Maxwell replied. "I'm Max Duffy and this is my wife, Martha. We're not open for business right now; there wasn't much snow and we needed repairs, so I shut us down until the first of the year. You'll stay with us as our guests and welcome."
"But we'll be moving on," Jonathan began, thinking of the quiet peace of his house, the new tree waiting to be decorated with the traditional MacKensie ornaments, and the goose in his freezer waiting to be cooked. "It's Christmas Eve…"
"Oh, my, I'm sorry to disappoint you," Martha Duffy responded as they reached the landing, where the staircase split left and right to the two different wings of the inn. "But unless you drive for hours and hours out of the way, there's no other way down from the mountain. The other roads are back roads, too, and probably not very well plowed. It would be well after dark before you'd even reach a secondary highway. It's starting to snow again, too," she concluded, gesturing at the window where huge, white flakes had begun to drift down quite thickly.
"You mean we're stranded here?" asked Jonathan, not at all enthusiastic at the thought of hours and hours on snow-packed back roads in the dark, mountain roads with steep drops on the curves. By the time they reached civilization he'd have missed his flight back to Washington anyway.
"Grin and bear it, Jon-boy," Benny urged, elbowing him quickly in the ribs. "My snowman buddy here is Dr. Jonathan MacKensie of the Georgetown Institute. Not the Nobel Prize MacKensie, that was his old man. And I'm the famous Edgar Benedek." He grinned hopefully.
"Not the writer!" beamed Martha, her whole face lighting up. "I've read some of your books, and I've seen you on the talk shows, Mr. Benedek. When I came down the stairs, I said to myself, Martha, now that young man looks familiar. The two of you are very welcome here. It's going to be a quiet Christmas for us, with the inn closed and the first time we haven't had at least one of our sons with us for the holiday. But Michael's stationed in Japan and Robert's wife Susan is due to deliver our first grandchild any day now and they didn't think they should travel so close to her time. And James…" Her voice trailed off, shadows touching her eyes for a moment before she brightened deliberately. "Come in here, Dr. MacKensie. I've got a hot bath all waiting for you, and your friend has your suitcase with dry clothes. I'll leave you to it. Come down when you're dressed again and I'll have some nice hot soup waiting for you. Max will go out and take a look at the road, see if he can put up a sign to warn the travelers. We might have a full house for Christmas after all."
By the time Jonathan had soaked the cold out of his bones in the huge tub of steaming water, he felt much more human and a suspicious tightness that had begun to build in his chest had retreated. As a precaution he took several aspirin to complete the cure then, clad in dry clothes, he emerged to find Benny waiting for him sprawled on one of the room's two double beds. "Huge place, fireplace," he said, gesturing at the place. "Great view. But never mind that now. Martha said she'd start dinner; you can have your hot soup and then we can kick back and party down. You won't believe the amount of baking that's been going on here. I think we struck it lucky this time around."
Warm again and comfortable, though not exactly resigned to the interruption of the peaceful holiday he'd planned, Jonathan grinned in response as they left their room. "From the look of the snow, I doubt anybody else will be out on the roads except locals," he observed as they started down the stairs. "I took a look out the bathroom window and you can barely see the road."
"It's getting bad," agreed Maxwell Duffy, coming in the front door. "I set up flashers on the road to warn any travelers and put a sign up to direct them to the inn. I drove your car up here, too and parked it in the garage."
"What about the skier who helped us?" asked Jonathan as they reached the first floor
"He'd built up some kind of barricade of branches and taken off before I got there," Duffy replied. "Probably a tourist from one of the other lodges. There's a good cross-country trail down the other side of the road, circles around before the gorge and then works its way back. Down that way a bit," he gestured down toward the road and beyond, "there's a chairlift for those folks who don't want to make the return journey on skis. Probably went off that way when the snow started to set in." He removed his hat and brushed it off before hanging it on a hat rack near the door, doing the same with his coat. In the short distance between the garage and the main building, he'd been liberally coated with snow. "It's really coming down out there," he added unnecessarily. "I'm sorry you wound up stranded away from your holiday plans, both of you, but it's a real plus for my wife. Martha was taking it bad both the boys had to be away this year, and what with the inn being closed, well, she was kind of sad, only us old fogies here. Just remember, you two are our guests." He waved them in the direction of the kitchen, from which wafted all sorts of interesting scents. "I can see Martha's been baking ever since I went out. She truly loves to bake."
"I think we fell into an old fashioned Christmas, Jonny," Benedek said as Duffy tramped up the stairs. "Lead me to the goodies."
In spite of the modern stoves, two microwaves, huge refrigerator and freezer and a number of other kitchen appliances that were strange to Jonathan, the kitchen had an old-fashioned look, aided by the traditional wallpaper, the copper pans hanging from the timbers that cut across the ceiling, and the rows of frosted cookies spread out on waxed paper on a long table. Though it was obviously where the inn's meals were prepared Mrs. Duffy had given the room a homey look, where people could sit around the tables for midnight snacks if they felt so inclined. The cook herself, just whisking out another tray of cookies from the oven, smiled in delight as the two men entered and gestured them over to the end of the second table, where four places had been set. "You sit right down, Dr. MacKensie, and have a big bowl of my special chicken soup." She dimpled becomingly, giving Jonathan a sudden image of what a beautiful woman she must have been in her youth. "Yes, dear, I know it's a cliché, but clichés become clichés because they're true. And here's a big cup of my special hot cider." She placed a steaming mug before him. "Eat, eat. And yes, I know I sound like a Jewish mother when it's time for food, but there's nothing I like more than seeing people enjoy their meals. Cider for you, Mr. Benedek?"
"You bet. This smells like you win all the prizes with it at the county fair."
"Oh, my, I did win this year. Just try it. We grow our own apples, and they're so good."
Jonathan attacked the soup with relish, feeling it warm him from the inside out, completing the job the bath had begun. Safe from incipient pneumonia, he slowed the pace of his eating, relishing the savor of the soup. Homemade. You could always tell. Jonathan didn't have a lot of time to spare on cooking, but sometimes he and his father had prepared things together; they had always done the Christmas goose together, after his mother died, and had found in it a joy in the holidays that had slipped when they'd lost her. Jonathan had been too young to understand much except that she was gone, but his father—sometimes Jonathan wondered if a part of his father had died with her, and if one of the reasons he'd always pushed Jonathan so hard to excel was in hopes of getting a part of her back. He didn't dwell on such things often, but now, stranded away from the tree, the roaring fire, the savory aroma of the cooking goose, he couldn't help thinking of it a little bit.
Benny buried his nose in the mug and came up with a grin on his face and a spider mustache on his upper lip, which he promptly licked away. "You are a scientific marvel," he said to Mrs. Duffy. "I ought to put you in the National Register. Ambrosia fit for the gods."
Mrs. Duffy blushed bright red and giggled like a girl, giving Benny a quick swat with the edge of her hot pad holder. "You're a flatterer, Mr. Benedek."
"Call me Benny. All my friends do." He cast a sideways glance at Jonathan. "Except this one. I can't get him to lose that stubborn English formality. He has fits with nicknames, too."
"Benny," said Mrs. Duffy obediently. "Now I'm glad I bought a big turkey this year. I told Max I thought we'd better in case Michael got leave and came home, and then I said we'd have the leftovers while we clean everything up for the new opening. But really, I just couldn't bear to cook a little bitty turkey when we've had huge ones every year. Maybe fate told me I'd need one."
"You're being very good to us," Jonathan told her. "We really appreciate it. Here we are barging in on your Christmas, and—"
"And very welcome at that," she interrupted. "If you need to phone anyone, please, do it."
"No, I'm not expected anywhere," Jonathan replied. Who could he call? The goose?
Benny shook his head. "There'll be such a crazy party at Boom Boom's, nobody will notice if I'm not there. I'll call Jordy later and let him know."
"A relative?" asked Mrs. Duffy.
"My editor. Decent guy."
Jonathan remembered the time he'd believed Benedek had been buried alive and how Jordan Kerner had come with him to dig up the grave, and he had to agree with Benedek's call. Jordy was definitely a decent guy.
A chime cut through the cozy atmosphere and Mrs. Duffy jumped. "My, my, that's the doorbell. I can't imagine who could be stopping here on Christmas Eve afternoon." She wiped her hands on her apron and hurried out of the room.
"That's a nice lady," Benny said when she had gone.
"She is indeed."
"She reminds me of my grandma," Benny admitted, sounding nostalgic, and making Jonathan wonder why Benedek hadn't arranged to spend Christmas with her. He had a feeling Benedek wouldn't want him to ask. "Not in looks, but in the whole atmosphere. Look at this. It's like something out of Dickens—well, maybe a Twentieth Century Dickens."
"I assure you, Benedek, I don't intend to search the inn for Marley's Ghost."
"Or the three ghosts of Christmas? Listen! Somebody's here." He bounded up and headed out toward the lobby with Jonathan at his heels, still cradling his cider mug. Benny stopped abruptly and pointed. "What did I tell you?"
It wasn't the three ghosts of Christmas though the three snow- shrouded figures resembled ghosts until they shed coats and hats. They proved to be a blond woman in her early thirties and two children somewhere around ten or twelve, the elder a boy with light brown hair, freckles, and wire rimmed glasses, and the girl slender and fair like her mother, with wide blue eyes. She looked around the lobby, at the Christmas tree, now alight, and the roaring fire in the fireplace, and burst into smiles.
"Look, Mummy, it looks just like Christmas!"
The blonde woman put her arm around the little girl's shoulders. "Yes, it does, Jessica. I'm sorry to trouble you people at such a time, but the bridge is out. We came up here to see if there was another road."
"Not in the snow there's not," Martha explained. "I'm sorry, but it wouldn't be safe to send you over the hills. But you're welcome to stay here for the night."
The girl and boy exchanged doubtful glances, but the woman's shoulders slumped in relief. "Oh, thank you. We'll pay, of course. The man on skis said you weren't open but you'd help us anyway. I thought he meant you'd give directions, and the skier was just a tourist who didn't know the area."
"Bingo! The Phantom Skier strikes again," exulted Benedek. "This is great! What did he look like?"
"He was as blond as me," Jessica explained. "And he had on a bright green parka."
"The same guy," Benny said, triumphant. "I knew there was a phantom skier up here."
"There's no such thing," snapped Mrs. Duffy, her mouth tracing in a tight line. "I'll not have you upsetting the children with ghost stories at Christmas."
"But we like ghost—" the boy began, breaking off when his mother caught his arm and said:
"We're not upset," Jessica told her. "David's right. We like stories. We're not scared, and he wasn't a ghost, but he was nice. Is this a hotel?"
"It's an inn, a ski lodge, but right now we're closed. That's lucky; it means we have room for you to spend the night," Maxwell said. He, too, looked briefly unhappy, but the look faded. "Come in, come in. Do you have bags in your car? I'll go and get them."
"Bags but no presents," muttered David. "They're home in the city. We were up here visiting Dad and his folks, but we were going home tonight. We live in Burlington."
"You'll not get through to Burlington tonight," Martha said. "Come in and I'll put more plates on the table. There's hot soup for starters and we were about to eat. My, my, I'm glad I made all those cookies. I bet you two are champion cookie eaters, aren't you?"
David and Jessica lit up at the mention of cookies. Their mother said, "I'm Carla Bertogli. I'm sorry to intrude at Christmas."
"You're making it a team effort," Benny said, sticking out a friendly hand to her. "I'm Edgar Benedek and this is Jonathan MacKensie. We're stranded too, but I think the Duffys have the local Santa franchise."
Mr. Duffy brought Martha forward. "Max and Martha," he introduced. "Welcome, Carla, kids. And now, Martha's right. It's time to eat. I'll show you your rooms after dinner."
"That was a feast," Benedek told Martha as they gathered in the main lobby in the chairs in front of the fireplace. "You are a master chef, and I'd write your place up in the Register's food section, if we had a food section."
David and Jessica had flung themselves down on pillows before the fire and everyone else settled in. Martha put on a Christmas record on an old fashioned phonograph player, in fact a whole stack of them, and now it sounded like Tony Bennett was dreaming of a white Christmas. Looking around the room Jonathan felt a sudden and pleasant sense of contentment. Benedek, sprawled out on the long couch beside him clutching another mug of cider, looked relaxed and content too. Usually he bristled with a kind of nervous energy, prancing about, making wisecracks, but now, even after the unexpected trauma of a premonition, he looked at ease. When he'd sensed that Carol, who seemed a little shy, was uncomfortable with his banter he'd even toned it down a bit, though he teased the children outrageously and the seemed to adore him. They were a little slower to approach Jonathan but they were outgoing children, far less shy than their mother, and it wasn't long before David had wormed out of Jonathan that he was an anthropologist and had begun questioning him eagerly about dinosaur skeletons. Jessica left her pillow, plopped herself down beside Benny and began to flirt with him shamelessly. Benny ate it up. Jonathan had long noticed how good Benny was with kids. Maybe it was because, in some ways, he was like a big kid himself.
"…and then I found out Mark was seeing his secretary," Carol was telling the motherly Martha. The two women were sitting in rocking chairs just off to Jonathan's right and he could hear every word they said over David's dinosaur questions and the riddle game Benedek and Jessica were playing with intense concentration. "I'd known things were wrong between us but I didn't know it was that wrong. It's only been six months since the divorce was final and I couldn't keep Jessie and Davey away from their dad entirely, but it was hard, seeing him there with her."
"It must have been, dear." Martha patted the woman's arm. "But I admire you for giving the children a chance to see their father."
"They were thrilled, though they didn't like having Nancy there. Mark's parents wanted us to stay another day but Mark and I both knew it was a bad idea. I wanted to get the children home so we could be in our own house and they could have their gifts."
"The children are fine," Martha reassured her. "And I wouldn't be surprised if Max and I couldn't find a few surprise presents in the attics that Jessica and David would like."
"You don't have to give them presents," Carol said in some distress. "We're already a burden to you and you say you won't take payment. Now you want to give the children presents."
"Having young ones here is a real blessing, dear. It's been a long time since our three were that young." She flinched abruptly but pressed on, determined, while Jonathan exchanged a glance with Benedek. He was beginning to realize the Duffys had lost a son fairly recently. Maybe having the bridge out was proving a blessing for them, something to make the Christmas more bearable, something to distract them from a recent loss. Benny nodded as if he could understand and then turned back to the little girl when she tugged on his arm.
Carol seemed to realize something was wrong but she didn't say anything. Maybe she could tell Martha didn't want to talk to her about it. Instead she said, "I don't think I could get through this Christmas without Jessie and Davey. They've been so good. They know it's difficult for me. I've worked so hard to make sure they know none of it is their fault. Children are so quick to take the blame."
"Jonathan! Jonathan!" David gave his arm a jog. "Tell me about the cave man bones you've found. How big are they? Do they smell all rotten and decayed?"
"No, that kind of smell goes off very quickly. It doesn't last even twenty years, let alone fifty-thousand. You, young David, are a ghoul."
The boy nodded with a grin. "I like gory stories, but mom won't let me watch them on TV or go to any of the really good movies. She says I'll have nightmares, but I won't. So what's the deal about the Phantom Skier? That'll be a good one to tell the guys when I get home. Does he have a skull face under his ski mask?"
"It's just a legend, something to thrill the tourists. I never heard anyone claim he was a skeleton. There are a great many skiers around this area. Sometimes people meet other skiers they don't know, and legends spring out of such things." He lowered his voice. "Don't talk about it to the Duffys. I think it might bother them." He wasn't sure why, but Martha had been genuinely distressed when reference had been made to the Phantom Skier.
David eyed the older couple consideringly then reluctantly abandoned the Phantom Skier, turning the subject back to dinosaurs.
Maxwell, who had vanished in the general direction of the kitchen premises, returned bearing a huge tray containing a punchbowl and cups. "Anyone for egg nog?"
There was a general movement toward the big table where he set the tray, Martha scooping up the ladle and dishing up cups for everyone. David hovered near. "Has it got liquor in it?" he asked hopefully.
"David!" chided his mother.
Maxwell smiled. "No, it's liquor free."
"Then Jack can have some too," Benedek teased. "He can be a real wild man after just one cup of eggnog."
"Benedek!" MacKensie hid a smile.
While they sat around sipping the eggnog and talking Mrs. Duffy leaned close to Jonathan and whispered, "I'm going to go up and find a few presents for the children." She hurried up the stairs, smiling to herself.
When she was out of earshot, Max turned back to his unexpected guests. "I'm grateful to all of you. I know it isn't where you'd choose to be on Christmas Eve, but I'm glad for Martha's sake. This is the first Christmas without our youngest boy, Jimmy, and she'd just lost heart. Having the inn closed and no customers to distract her made it harder still. If the other two could have come it might have helped, but it just wasn't to be. Having all of you here has given her a purpose, and she's enjoying herself."
"It's hard to think of lost loved ones at Christmas," Jonathan replied. "It's been a long time since I lost my father, but I still think of him at Christmas, and follow all the old traditions in his memory."
"Martha wanted to do that, to have the same kind of Christmas we had when the boys were home and we still had Jimmy. But short of the decorations and the big turkey dinner it simply wasn't possible. She and I even agreed not to buy gifts for each other."
Jonathan had noticed the absence of wrapped packages beneath the tree but hadn't thought anything of it. He hadn't bought many gifts himself though he had a few presents under his own tree: for Dr. Moorhouse, Liz, Randy, a few others. Benny's gift was upstairs in his suitcase.
"She seems to be enjoying herself now," Benny remarked. "Not that anybody wouldn't, with the famous Dr. Jack here and yours truly, not to mention a couple of great kids and their gorgeous mom."
Carol blushed, but added quickly, "I hope it isn't too much for her."
"No, she thrives on it. You should see her when the inn is full. Of course we have help then; she doesn't do it all alone. Maybe we should have kept the place open. We'd been doing some repairs, remodeling some of the rooms, but the builders finished yesterday." He smiled in the direction of the stairs. "I'm just glad for Martha's sake that you're here. But please, don't mention the Phantom Skier to her. We lost our Jimmy while he was out skiing, and when people talk about the Phantom, it reminds her. Jimmy wore a green coat, too."
Jonathan saw the light in Benedek's eye and knew exactly what he was thinking. Quickly he elbowed his friend in the ribs. The last thing the Duffys needed in return for their kindness was to have Benny suggest the Phantom Skier was actually James Duffy. Benny shot him a quick, narrow-eyed look, but he took his lead from Jonathan, though the anthro prof suspected Benedek would snoop around looking for evidence to back his new theory. But the Duffys didn't need or deserve the kind of publicity that might follow up such stories. The skier who had arrived on the scene and directed Jonathan and Benedek to the Duffys lodge had been human and alive; his skis had left tracks in the snow and he had constructed a barrier of branches to block the road because Max Duffy had found it. Surely a ghost couldn't do those things. They'd merely encountered a local skier, a Good Samaritan. Once he'd built his barricade he'd gone on his way, and if he had returned when the Bertoglis had arrived, it was because this was the area he skied and he'd probably seen or heard their car. Completely satisfied with his explanation, Jonathan caught David's shoulder.
"I know you think a Phantom Skier is exciting, but Mrs. Duffy's been very kind to you. Let it go." He caught Benedek's eye to let him know the message was for him as well. He didn't want any stories of Phantom Skiers distress or embarrass the Duffys after all their kindness.
David looked a little disappointed but he nodded. His mother put her arm around his shoulders. "David, why don't you go see how much snow we've had. It was coming down quite thickly when we arrived."
David nodded and scurried off toward the door, trailed by his sister. They flung it open and gasped in delight and appreciation. "Look at the lights!" Jessica cried. "It's beautiful." Carol followed her children and Max started up the stairs after his wife to help her bring down the presents.
Benedek grabbed Jonathan's arm and half-dragged him off to the kitchen. "Yo, Jack, what was all the elbow stuff and glaring at me? You really think I'd do something to hurt the Duffys?"
"If there was a good story in it…" Jonathan began.
Benny bristled as if he'd stuck his finger in a light socket. "After they invited us in and gave us a storybook Christmas, dug up presents for the kids, fixed us that five-star dinner and kept you from turning into an ice cube you think I'd write a story about their dead son? If that's all you think of me, no wonder you didn't want me to come to your place for Christmas." His body was taut with anger but something like pain flashed at the back of his eyes, astonishing Jonathan. Benedek was usually so convinced he was right about everything he did and said as if he believed other people's disagreements were simply a result of their ignorance that a reaction like this one from him seemed to come right out of left field.
"I invited you—" Jonathan defended himself quickly.
"You invited me—but…" Benedek let his voice trail off. "If this is what you think of me, that I'd do anything to hurt the Duffys after all they've done for us, no wonder you didn't want me to come. What did you think I'd do, mock the hallowed memory of St. Leonard and the one perfect way to celebrate Christmas?"
Jonathan opened his mouth to refute the argument and caught himself without a leg to stand on, his anger at the remark melting away before it could get going. "It…wasn't that," he said quickly. "It's just…half the time you write about anything you want to, no matter what I say or what Dr. Moorhouse says…"
"And who does that hurt, Dr. Jon?" Benny challenged him. "Your stuffy trustees don't read the Register anyway, unless they happen to see it on the way to the bird cage for liner. Dr. Moorhouse enjoys raking me over the coals; I give her a purpose in life. You, I turn into a hero half the time, Indiana MacKensie. But you've got this stuffy little idea that I'd push a story no matter what happened, no matter who got hurt. Did anything I wrote ever hurt you?"
"But you were afraid of what some stuffy colleague was going to think; that somebody you don't know and wouldn't care about if you did might frown because you let down your guard and took a risk. Now you're afraid I'd come over to your place and make fun of good, old-fashioned traditions that you use because you remember your dad at Christmas. I knew I wasn't a knight in shining armor like you, Sir Galahad, but I didn't think I was the scumbag of the century. If that's what you think of me, then I don't need Christmas at your place. I've got lots of friends who'll take me in and never once wonder if I'll hurt their precious reputations or write up their deep, dark secrets in the nasty little paper I write for." His voice had risen as he talked and now he caught himself and continued more quietly. "In case you haven't noticed, Jonathan, I've been trying to clean up my act a little since we started running together. Sure I fudge a little; Jordy expects it: but I don't print anything that isn't true, one way or another, even if it's a real stretch. I might embroider it and titillate the hardworking housewives, but I'm not the louse you think I am. So back off, put on a good show for the Duffys and the kids, and as soon as we get to the airport, I'll be gone. You won't have to think of new ways to dodge me when I come to town or put up with me because Moorhouse orders you to. You know enough about chasing shadows by now to get along just fine on your own!"
Jonathan looked at his friend who stood fierce and defiant, ready to turn and stalk away, and he felt appalled because every one of Benedek's accusations had hit home. What kind of self-righteous idiot had he been? Sure Benny had bugged him and dragged him willy-nilly into all sorts of adventures, but the adventures had been fun and Benny had been a good companion, someone he had learned to rely upon. The journalist hadn't capitalized on Georgetown Institute the way he really might if he'd only been out for what he could get, and if he bugged Dr. Moorhouse, so much the better. She thrived on the challenge and rose magnificently to meet it. Nothing could bestir her more quickly than the threat of Benedek, and Jonathan suspected she relished every minute of their battles.
He looked at himself in some disgust. Was he so worried about his own image that he was afraid to let it be known that this unique man was his valued friend? If so he was lower than pond scum. Benny's other friends didn't stop and worry about what people might think or try to make excuses so they could go back to their 'real' lives. They stood by him. They valued him and cherished him and had flocked in large numbers to his 'funeral' prepared to relish every moment in the spirit that Benedek would have preferred.
"Benedek, Benny, I…" He fumbled for the right words. "Part of that might be a little true. Maybe my father's influence. He was always a man who valued his standing in the community, so some of it must have rubbed off. You've been trying to knock away my conventional corners since we met, and I must say it's proven a welcome change, though sometimes I feel as if I am on a runaway train and can't find the brakes. When you live one way for over thirty years and suddenly try to change it isn't easy. But even if I've been…unfair to you just now, I value your friendship, and I hope you know that."
Benny hesitated, unwilling to back down now that he had taken his stand. Jonathan continued. "Christmas is hard for people, Benedek, especially people who are alone, who don't have family to spend it with. We all get a little crazy when all the television programs promote the perfect Christmas and most of us have Christmases that are less than perfect. I think the reason I cling to my traditions, doing things the way my father did, is because those were the times when the holiday was happy, when everything seemed just right and I didn't doubt for an instant that it always would be. So ever since my father died, I've been trying to recapture something that's long gone."
"Nothing wrong with that, Jack," Benedek conceded, his voice still a little tight. "Everybody wants to have a good Christmas." From the tone of his voice, he might be still seeking, at least still seeking a traditional holiday. He probably threw himself wholeheartedly into whatever party was going each year and loved every minute of it. He wasn't one to brood too much over what had never been and might never be. The Christmas he was enjoying at any given moment was simply a Benedek Christmas and therefore exactly what the doctor ordered.
"And I know how much the Nobel genius meant to you," Benny continued. "Maybe I'm a little envious of that, because my dad wasn't exactly somebody I could look up to."
"He was still your dad and you cared about him. But I've been hoarding it. Trying to hold onto something that was gone." Jonathan brushed that off. "You're right, Benny. I've been a jerk. I want you to be my friend and be yourself, but there are times, when I'm around my anthropology colleagues, that I want you to…well, conform a little, too. It's not fair of me, and I know it. Even though I wasn't sure how you'd react to all the MacKensie traditions when you said you couldn't come for Christmas I was disappointed, and maybe even a little hurt, that you'd choose to go to a strip club instead of coming to my place. And Boom Boom—you had her in on your little secret when you faked your death but I had to go through the funeral." He caught himself there. "After you asked for my help and I didn't give it, what else could you do? I've been so busy trying to make sure you didn't, well, interfere with my life that I missed seeing that you're already an important part of my life, that life without you in it was sometimes boring and sterile. I don't want you to get on that plane and never come back."
"Don't go all mushy on me, buds," Benny cut in quickly before he could develop this particular theme any further. His expression had eased; maybe there were times when even the confident Benedek needed to hear it said that he was liked and valued. "Besides, I know it, really. Who ate his heart out when I had my classic out of body extravaganza in Hooperville? Who jumped between me and a loaded gun at the Whitewoods with that crazy Judge Roy Bean line? Who actually cried at my funeral? (Boom Boom told me!) I know you care, pal, not that anyone wouldn't. I just wish sometimes you'd stop and think before you go on like you're Nixon and I'm Woodward and Bernstein, out to give away all your deep, dark secrets."
"I don't have any deep, dark secrets," Jonathan replied, responding with relish to the return of Benedek's more normal tones that signaled his forgiveness. "Except that I wish you'd come to my place for Christmas, after all, and this time I really do mean it. I've got a goose in the freezer and I know how to prepare it in the old fashioned way. You'll love it."
"I hate to break it to you, Jack, but it's nearly Christmas already. Maybe we can do New Year's. Though I know a great party I'd hate to miss. How about it, Jack, want to do New Year's Eve?"
Jonathan eyed him warily; sometimes such offers led to bizarre events where Jonathan found himself completely out of his depth. But the alternative was not to be thought of. "All right, as long as you promise I won't wind up drugged or in jail."
"Not sure I can promise the last one, buds, but no drugs. Lexie doesn't do drugs. She says it interferes with her ability to channel."
"It made a great story," the journalist replied, "especially when she channeled Lenin and Rasputin on the same night. You know what they predicted? The fall of the Soviet Union, and in this decade, too!"
"They don't have too much time to do it in," Jonathan pointed out. "It's nearly 1987. I think your channel missed the target."
"Hey, there's still time. You can buy me a brewski if she got it right. Or maybe a stretch limo with its own fax machine."
"That sounds like a fair offer, well, at least the fax machine part of it," Jonathan replied.
"And I'll hold you to it, Jonny. Legal and binding in any court in the land. I'll even write a story to cover it and give it to somebody I trust to lock it away until the time comes."
"The way you go on about your stories, Benedek, it's a wonder I can guess what's fair game and what isn't," Jonathan said in one last attempt to explain his reaction to the current situation. He was hardly worried about the 'deal'. "You've been so nuts about the Phantom Skier."
"True, too true. It's the only game in town. That guy looked alive to me, too. Phantom Skier! For once I'm with you, buds. I think it's a tourist trick. The Let's-make-major-bucks Skier."
Jonathan pretended astonishment. "What? No misty skiers prowling the trails and the different downhill runs? No transparent entities on the chairlifts throwing phantom snowballs?"
"Keep working on that imagination, J.J. When I'm finished with you, you'll be able to turn out a great story—or at least a book about Ramapithecus you don't need twelve degrees to understand."
"My life ambition," Jonathan replied with a grin. "I know you wouldn't hurt the Duffys, Benedek. Your stories never hurt me. They may have maddened me, frustrated me, and made me think fondly of murder, but they never hurt me."
Benedek's return smile widened as he listened to Jonathan. "Sounds like I'm doing my job right if that's your reaction, buds," he said.
"I should have known you'd try to drive me nuts on purpose," responded Jonathan. An idea suddenly came to him and he realized what Benedek had started to say out there in the snow when asked about his precognition. He'd begun to say he only had premonitions about people who mattered to him, though of course it wasn't something he could easily admit. Jonathan felt very small, but also very grateful Benny had lost his temper, because he was sure the subsequent discussion had cleared the air. Benny might still madden and exasperate him, but he was Benny, and Jonathan really wouldn't want him any other way.
"Is everything all right out here?" Maxwell Duffy called. "We're ready to open presents and the kids want you to come."
"Never miss opening presents, Jack," Benny instructed Jonathan and started for the lobby. "You never know when the goodies are gonna come your way."
"What makes you think you're getting any presents, Benedek?" he demanded, falling into step with his friend and slinging a comradely arm around his shoulders. "This is for the kids."
"So who isn't a great big kid at Christmas," Benny retorted. "Uh, gotta run upstairs for a minute. Be right back."
He dashed up the stairs and Jonathan watched him, then he suddenly thought of a reason to head up there himself. "I'll be right back," he said to Max, and followed Benny.
When everyone finally gathered around the tree, Jonathan and Benedek each held a package. Jessica at once edged in beside Benny and asked, "What's that?"
"Grown up stuff," he replied. "A present for the prof. He's so stuffy I got him socks and handkerchiefs." The present was clearly too heavy to hold socks and handkerchiefs unless they were made of solid gold.
"Is that for Benny?" David asked Jonathan, pointing to the wrapped gift he held.
"Yes. It's back issues of the National Register," Jonathan replied, trying to match the spirit of Benny's tone. "They were taking up too much room at my house."
Martha smiled. "We always opened gifts on Christmas Eve, so whether you do that or wait until Christmas morning, we'll do them now. Jessica, these are yours. David, those are for you."
Carol hesitated, then, with a smile, she gestured the children toward the packages. They fell upon them with the delight children always bring to presents.
Martha passed a package to Carol and one each to Jonathan and Benedek, then drew out one final box and gave it to her husband. "I knew we said we wouldn't bother with gifts, but I saw this last week and thought of you."
Max took it, his face lighting up, revealing all too clearly where he'd acquired his laughter lines. He pulled a small package from his pocket and offered it to his wife.
Slightly embarrassed with all the sentiment, Jonathan offered his gift to Benedek and took the one Benny gave him. Benedek grinned widely. "Go ahead, Jack. Open it."
Jonathan did, surprised to find it was a large, leather-bound book. The title, embossed in gold, read 'Leonard MacKensie', and when Jonathan opened the book, the title page read, 'The collected writings of Dr. Leonard MacKensie, from his articles, journals and papers.' Stunned as he realized the amount of work it must have taken Benny to pull all Leonard's published works together and get them printed, Jonathan ran his fingers over the title page, tremendously moved. Benedek couldn't have given him a gift he would value more. He'd have to show this to Dr. Moorhouse the next time she started finding fault with Benedek. But he couldn't help smiling because for once, great minds had really thought alike. "Benedek, this is wonderful. It's the best gift I could imagine."
"Well, the way you go on about ol' Leonard of hallowed memory…" He grinned and concentrated on his own present, tearing the paper off like a child expecting a treat. He found himself staring at a similarly bound book. Jonathan had enlisted Jordan Kerner to collect all of Benny's major articles, including the ones that had won awards, so he could have them printed up for him in one place. In the process, Jonathan had read the articles and he realized that Benny knew how to tell a tale. Whether he believed the outrageous and extravagant things he wrote or only wanted to believe them, he gave them each such an exciting twist that the readers would be sucked in, no matter how ludicrous the premise. Jonathan's favorite was the one about Bigfoot running for Congress, but there were even a few in the collection that focused on Jonathan MacKensie. The first few were completely out of proportion, but then Benny hadn't known Jonathan very well then. Later stories, while still written to attract the target audience, had learned a little restraint and Jonathan found them the more interesting for it.
Benny opened his mouth to comment as he flipped through the pages, and for once he was speechless. He looked up at Jonathan and shook his head in disbelief, on the verge of sentiment. "Jack, I—"
David saved the moment. "Books!" he exploded in disgust. "They gave each other books. Not even books with pictures. Geez."
"I like books," Jessica said primly, clutching a copy of The Secret Garden to her chest. "This one's one of my very favorites, but my old one doesn't have nice pictures like this! Thank you, thank you." She jumped up and hugged Mrs. Duffy.
"Well, I'd rather have snowshoes," David replied, stroking his largest present. "I always wanted to try them. This is really great!"
Benny let out a relieved breath. "You've been hauling this ten ton wonder around in your suitcase?" he demanded, his fingers brushing the cover fondly. "No wonder I nearly got a hernia on the way up here yesterday."
"What's a hernia?" asked Jessica, and everyone laughed.
The world was white, as far as the eye could see. Jonathan and Benedek stood side by side in the doorway of the inn, looking out at the snow-packed driveway, sparkling in the morning sun. "I'm not sure I like the idea of those back roads," he said warily. "But we can't keep imposing on the Duffys."
"They love it," said Benedek with perfect truth. "But don't worry, buds. We'll be out of here in an hour. I called in and ordered us up a helicopter. It can land down there where the driveway circles around." He pointed. "I missed Boom Boom's party, so I don't have anything better to do than come along and try your goose."
"It sounds like my goose is cooked now," Jonathan retorted involuntarily, then a thought occurred to him. "Helicopter? Benedek, if the helicopter is going on your expense account…"
"Dr. M will approve. Think she wants her boy wonder stranded in the great white north? Come on, Jack, I've got stories to write and you've probably got papers to grade, and if there isn't a Phantom Skier…"
But suddenly there was a skier, swooping around the corner of the house and coasting to a stop in a flurry of snow, a skier in a green parka and mask. He pushed his goggles up away from his eyes but didn't remove the mask; the morning was crisp.
"It's him!" Benedek burst out eagerly. "The Phantom Skier. I knew he was real."
The skier grinned. "Nope, just Doug Henderson from the next lodge up the road. You must be the writer fella from New York. Max Duffy says you've called for a helicopter and I wonder if you could take one of my people down with you when you go. He's got to get back, can't wait for the plows to dig out the back roads."
"Sure, if you get him down here in time," Benedek replied. "No prob. We owe you one anyway."
Henderson stared at him in surprise. "Owe me one? What do you owe me one for?"
"Helping us out yesterday," Benny replied. "Telling us to come up here before my buddy turned into an abominable snowman."
"I didn't see you yesterday," Henderson replied. "We'd heard more snow was coming so I spent the day around the place, laying in an extra supply of wood and trying to keep track of my guests so if any of them got lost or hurt on the trail we'd known where to look for them."
"Then maybe it was one of your guests," suggested Jonathan. "Somebody came along in a coat that same color and helped us out when we went into the ditch rather than skid off the road. And he was back when the Bertoglis showed up after dark."
"Max called last night and warned us about the bridge, so I went out in the dark and put up flashers. I knew the Duffys weren't set up to take in too many since they'd been shut down. We had a couple of people come in late. Tell Max to give me a call later. I'd better get back and figure out how to trek my tourist down to you." He pulled his goggles down over his ski mask and started away.
"It wasn't a phantom skier yesterday," Jonathan said quickly before Benedek could say a word.
"I think perhaps it was." Max Duffy joined them in the doorway. "Though I hope you won't say anything to Martha about it. I thought so at the time and I still do. I think Jimmy sent you to us so we wouldn't be alone at Christmas. I think he may have even put you in the ditch to save you from the bridge."
"No, that was Bene—" Jonathan began and caught himself as he felt Benedek tense beside him. "That was good luck. The roads were icy. It was perfect timing. But you can't seriously believe your son…"
"I've known for a long time he wouldn't come to us," Duffy said seriously. "Martha would be upset. It was so hard for her to accept the loss, and Jimmy our youngest. We went only went through the motions this year, putting up the tree because we always had, because we thought our boys would expect us to, but it didn't mean anything. None of it did, not until we suddenly had a houseful, sent to us by a mysterious skier, dressed the way Jimmy always did on the slopes. I don't think the Phantom Skier is our Jimmy. I think it's hype, something dreamed up by the bigger lodges up the mountain because of that old story. But I think you were sent to us, you and the Bertoglis, one last Christmas gift from Jimmy so we could find the spirit of Christmas again."
Jonathan opened his mouth to protest the story only to feel a very solid elbow impact on his ribs before he could utter a word. "I think you called that one," Benedek told Max. "He couldn't come home for Christmas, so he made sure you and Martha wouldn't be alone. Tell you what I'll do. I'm going to write it up—not for publication," he added with a sideways look at Jonathan, who only smiled and nodded. "Then sometime down the road when it's easier for the two of you, you can get it out and share it with Martha, and I bet it'll make her smile."
"You can publish it if you like," Duffy replied. "It doesn't have to be this year; Christmas is timeless. Martha is starting to heal. A few years down the road she might like to think Jimmy helped some stranded travelers to give his folks a merry Christmas. You write that story, Benny, and you send it direct to me. Deal?"
"Deal," confirmed Benny happily. "I'll even get Jon-boy here to help. He usually writes about stuffy old bones, but even he's not to old to learn a few new tricks."
"None of us are," Mr. Duffy replied and withdrew into the inn.
"Do you believe that?" Jonathan asked after the door had closed.
"Don't you? It makes too much sense to be anything but real. I think this time we had it, one genuine Christmas ghost, and he was on our side."
Jonathan hesitated. A part of him really wanted to believe the ghost of James Duffy had come upon them and sent them to his parents as one final Christmas present. In the middle of summer the story might not feel so real, but here, on Christmas Day, with the postcard view and the spirit of goodwill filling the air, he might allow himself to believe in one small Christmas miracle.
As if he could read Jonathan's thoughts, Benedek grinned. "Okay, Tiny Tim, go ahead and say it," he encouraged. "You know the drill."
"Benedek!" objected MacKensie, but then he smiled. "Merry Christmas, Benny."
"Merry Christmas, buds. And I think I hear our ride coming," he added as the distant beating of helicopter blades shattered the stillness of the morning.
"Benedek, if you think Dr. Moorhouse will allow this expense account—"
Assuming a saintly expression Benedek recited, "God bless us every one."
Jonathan grabbed a handful of snow and chased him threateningly into the inn.
© Sheila Paulson. The contents of this page may not be copied or reproduced without the author's express written permission.
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