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Under a Christmas Moon

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‘Twas the night before the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for a Klaus. Klaus Strauss of the Straw Mouse Bakehouse, to be exact. While Chuck and Ned slept, tucked safe in their plastic-bifurcated bed, visions of sugarplum pies dancing in their heads, Klaus stormed through the Bakehouse, setting cookie tins a clatter, kneading midnight marzipan and fuming over the heart of the matter. The matter at hand, other than marzipan, was Christmas pie, the injustice of which could bring tears to Klaus’ eye. On Thanksgiving alone should pie reign supreme, with the Pie Hole triumphant, or so it would seem. And seem it did to Klaus, that after that it was only fair, that for Christmas cake and cookies and the Bakehouse should receive their share. Yet what was this? What did he hear? Something amiss with seasonal desserts this year? On the pie maker’s door, what should appear, but an ad for Christmas pies illustrated by a smug pie-eating reindeer! There Klaus drew the line, and retreated in fury. For this slight the pie maker would surely pay dearly. For down in his workshop, surrounded by Christmas biscuits and bread, Klaus toiled over an unlikely engine of dread. This marzipan contained an ugly surprise, not a treat for the mouth but a shock to the eyes. For on Christmas Eve this Yule log filling would set the Pie Hole alight, bring back the culinary calendar to rights, and give Klaus a very good, and lucrative, holiday night.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The next morning in the Pie Hole started with a bang. Not the bang of incendiary almond paste, but the palpable combustion of Emerson Cod’s fatherly anxiety. Wearing an improbable combination of fedora, Christmas tree sweater, and eye-twitching foreboding, Emerson blew through the Pie Hole doors and bellowed, “If I could have everyone’s attention? In exactly three hours, I will need ninety minutes of completely uninterrupted normality.”

Chuck paused in the midst of securing Digby’s argyle patterned, tinsel-strewn, and bell-festooned reindeer antler headband. Ned froze, finger millimeters away from surreptitiously reviving a pile of rotting figs. Digby halted his contemplation of the way the pie maker’s comforting and long familiar scent and Chuck’s relatively new but soothing scent had begun to merge and blur around the edges into one homey aura. Olive, perched on tip-toe atop a creaking spiral ladder, did not pause as she finally slotted the pie and mistletoe mobile into its hook above the front door. But then she did turn to Emerson with a satisfied smile to ask, “And yet, you came here?”

“Flip that attitude, short stack,” Emerson punctuated with a pointing finger. “My daughter and her highly suspicious mother will be here for pie, milk, and the illusion of wholesome Christmas family unity, and the three of you will do nothing to puncture that precious illusion. That means,” he said, continuing his pointed pointing at each of them in turn, “no bringing the dead to life, no living dead girls, and no drama.”

Olive huffed indignantly, “What are you doing telling us to act normal? It’s like telling everyone not to look at the elephant in the pie shop. No one can be natural knowing you’re scrutinizing every little abnormal step we take. And anyway, it’s not our fault if there’s drama today. It’s the moon.”

Emerson rolled his eyes upward. “You do know we’re inside. And it’s daytime. Ain’t no moon at noon. And anyway, people don’t need the moon to act crazy. Crime, betrayal, Alice cheating on Adam with Angela - that happens every day. Otherwise my business would go in and out with the tide.”

“Ah!” Olive interrupted as she slid down the ladder rail. “But today’s moon is special. It’s a sugar moon. I read in the paper this morning that the moon is closer and brighter than it’s been on Christmas in ages, and seeing it hang there like a big sweet pie in the sky will bring on a sugar rush beyond the fevered dreams of a whole workshop of elves high on peppermint cocoa.”

“Um, I think that’s called a supermoon,” Chuck added. But seeing the stink-eye Olive cast her way she quickly continued, “But they do say strange things are done in the light of the full moon, and this moon is fuller and moonier than ever. Combined with the potent power of the holiday hurry, I bet people will be even more mooney looney than usual.”

“But not here!” Emerson stopped her. “Not during the day, and not in this pie shop for the ninety minutes, one-hundred and seventy-five minutes from now!”

“Of course we’ll help your daughter’s visit go well,” Chuck said, smoothing Digby’s fur back into place around his antlers. “How long has it been since you saw her on Christmas?” she asked, accompanied by the jingling of Digby’s head tilting in curiosity.

“Too long,” Emerson mumbled, suddenly gone quiet. He looked away, seemingly fascinated by straightening the cuff of his spruce-green sweater.

Ned guiltily sidled away from the disgusting figs and shuffled out of the kitchen. “You’re wearing a Christmas sweater,” he noted. “Why are you wearing a Christmas sweater? You think Christmas sweaters are frivolous and ugly and ludicrously limited in their allowable wearing season.”

Emerson straightened, and fixed the pie maker with a stern glare. “Because when someone you care about gives you a Christmas sweater and makes an appointment to meet you on Christmas Eve, the one thing follows the other thing and ends up with you standing in a pie shop dressed like a pine tree. I still do not know why people give other people Christmas sweaters, but much to my chagrin, I now fully understand why people wear them.”

“And that’s love,” Olive said with a sigh, all enmity forgotten. “We’ll act more natural than a lion eating a gazelle. Don’t you worry.”

“Why am I still worried,” Emerson pondered.

The silver door bells chimed - all twelve of them - presaging the leaden stride of the laden delivery woman. “Express package for the Pie Man?” she called, mountains of packages delivered and mountains of packages yet to be delivered weighing down her words.

“Probably me,” Ned acknowledged, signing and taking the pale parchment package from her grasp. As he set it down on the counter the bells chimed again on the delivery woman’s way out, cheering her way onward into the homes of many an expectant future delivery recipient.

“What did we get?” Olive asked, peering over the counter at the peculiar package.

“What did Ned get,” Chuck amended, looking questioningly at Ned for a clue as to who might send an express package to the pie maker on Christmas Eve. Ned shrugged and looked at the package with the incredulous eyes of a man who never received express packages.

Olive plucked a string with impatience. “You make pies, I make pies, Ned makes pies - we’re all pie makers. Open it up!”

“I don’t make pies,” Emerson reminded the bakers bunched around the irregular box.

“You’re an honorary pie maker,” Olive allowed, then she withdrew a pair of silver scissors from her apron and snipped the package open.

Ned parted the pale parchment and pulled off the top of the box, as they all leaned in to peer inside.

“Is that a cake?” Chuck asked.

“I think it’s a bûche de Noël,” Ned added.

“Who do you know who desperately wanted you to have a cake that looks like wood, enough to pay for express holiday shipping?” Emerson questioned.

Lowering her face further, and further into the box, Olive’s muffled and tentative voice filtered up through the wrappings to ask, “Is this log cake ticking?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The facts were these:

Klaus Strauss, in the days before the Straw Mouse Bakehouse, had two formative influences on his life. His straw-blond grandfather Strauss, who taught him to bake crisp crusts and creamy fillings, and Mauritz Müller, his ordinance instructor during mandatory armed service, known affectionately to his friends as Maus. Klaus envied these two uncompromising men their commitment to precision, and their refusal to compromise. Thus he could not abide another year as the second best baked goods emporium in town. Especially not second to pies. Pies did not require meticulous measuring of leaveners and calculation of ratios. Pies did not require the skill and experience to make alterations for fluctuations in the weather and humidity. Pies were sturdy, flexible, forgiving creatures. Pies, in other words, were cheating.

The mince pies currently on Christmas special at the Pie Hole were both cheating and British, a truly unforgivable insult.

Ned did not want to make pies that were perfect or precise. Ned wanted to make pies that smelled like a warm sweet hug, pies that filled you up as full as the first slice of pie you can remember, sliced by someone who smiled as you took that first bite. Before the pie hole, Ned’s two most formative influences were his mother, who he so desperately missed, and a girl named Chuck, who he missed for a very long time, but who was now filling him up just like a sticky warm slice of childhood pie.

Thus, twelve hours, eighteen minutes, and fifty-four seconds ago, as a result of this difference in baking philosophy, Klaus Strauss enrobed a small but potent explosive device in smooth almond paste, rolled it between layers of light cake and thick, creamy vanilla pastry cream, covered the roll in chocolate buttercream, then artfully rough chocolate ganache, and delivered this delicious but deadly message into the hands of Speedy Earl’s Speedy Delivery’s speedy delivery woman, who delivered it into the hands of the pie maker.

Which brings us back to now.

Olive yanked her head back out of the box. “Someone is trying to blow a hole in the Pie Hole!” she exclaimed.

“Who would do this?” Ned asked, trying to reconcile the initial excitement of finally receiving an expedited package only to learn it contained nothing but expedited death.

“It doesn’t matter,” Chuck replied firmly. “Maybe we’ll never know who sent death by chocolate for Christmas, but if we still have each other that’s all that counts. Everybody out!”

Yet just as the pie making trio turned to the door to leave the Pie Hole to its holey fate, Emerson stood barring the door with his arms outstretched.

“Oh hell no!” he announced emphatically. “In one hundred and fifty-nine minutes my daughter will be here to have pie and fatherly frivolity in a big plump red Pie Hole booth, and that is exactly what she is going to get. I am a detective. I will call the bomb squad, and we will solve this mystery, and then, by God, come hell or flaming fondant, I will eat pie in peace like a normal person!”

Standing between the rock of Emerson Cod’s determination and the impending hard ganache blast behind them, Ned, Chuck, and Olive could only nod mutely, hoping one of the others would speak first. Finally it was Olive who lost the invisible battle, and quietly offered, “Ok, but can we wait for the bomb squad, and solve the mystery, and restore normalcy to the world from outside?”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Luckily the bomb squad had very little to do on Christmas Eve, and the captain owed Emerson a favor for his help quietly resolving an incident involving his Doberman Pinscher, a pair of crocodile pumps, and the chief of police’s wife. In exactly forty-nine minutes and twenty-one seconds they were standing in front of the Pie Hole, examining the smoking remnants of the eviscerated pastry.

“What a shame,” Chuck said. “It looks like really high quality chocolate.

“And the cake is so light and fluffy!” Olive added. “Maybe we can order another when this is all over.”

“May I return you both to the matter at hand?” Emerson interjected. “The question is not how tasty the bomb would have been if we could have eaten it before it exploded in our cake-eating faces. The question is who sent it and how fast can we deliver them to the police so that you can get back to making pies, and I can get back to eating them.”

Olive looked doubtful. “But it’s just a pile of mush now. How are you going to trace anything from a cake corpse?”

Emerson gave Ned a hopeful side-eye, but Ned shook his head in a regretful negative.

“Um,” Chuck offered tentatively, “We could just check the card?” And she carefully fished an envelope out from under a mound of flame-retardant foam and wilted buttercream.

The card read as follows:

“I can’t live any longer in the unseasonable shadow
cast by your lying pies. Christmas is mine.”

“Oh, and there’s a cute little picture of a mouse in a Santa hat in the corner!” Olive added, peeking at the card over Chuck’s shoulder.

Looking over both their heads Ned asked, “Is it a straw mouse?”

Emerson tilted the card downwards so he could examine the drawing from the other side, upside-down. “Can’t say. That little logo is too small.”

“It’s Klaus,” Ned definitively declared. “Klaus Strauss.”

“Of the Straw Mouse Bakehouse?” Chuck asked. “But I love that place. Why does Klaus want to kill us?”

“It’s the moon,” Olive said with a knowing nod. “The harried holidays on top of lunar lunacy is too much for some people to bear, and when he couldn’t bake his feelings away, he broke.”

“That is such a sad story,” Chuck said, absently running a finger through the somehow still enticing cream filling.

“And a timely one,” Emerson added. Taking out his phone and beginning to dial he said, “If I call in all my chips, the chief will personally see to it that Klaus is taken away where he can never make murderous meringues or devilishly dangerous devil’s food ever again, leaving us with a leisurely ninety-nine minutes to clean up this mess and get the Christmas cheer chugging away again.”

“Oh, but he’s just a sad, desperate, moon-influenced baker out of touch with the joy of his own gastronomic gifts!” Chuck pleaded. “He needs baking therapy, not a brutal, behind-bars emotional diet.”

Emerson folded his arms in alarm. “He just tried to oh holey night the hell out of all of us,” he said.

“He did just try to kill us,” Ned agreed, “but on the other hand, I do also believe in the power of butter, sugar, and spice transformed by the magic of heat into something that can soothe the starving soul.”

All three pie makers turned pleading eyes on Emerson’s dialing finger, poised to tap that final key which would connect him to the police chief, and connect Klaus to prison. He stared at all of them incredulously, but even Digby joined their cause, padding over to lay at Emerson’s feet, adding his beseeching canine gaze to the mix with a hopeful little tinkle of his antler bells. Emerson drooped his shoulders, sighed, and hit the final number. “I cannot believe I am doing this,” he muttered, as he lifted the receiver to his ear. “Hello, chief, Emerson Cod here - Oh, and a very merry Christmas to you as well sir. I have a lead for you on a suspect in the Pie Hole bombing. You’ll want to pack this one directly to the secure hospital. I’m holding a card here that’s as good as a signed admonition, but really, sir, it’s a cry for help. And after all, it is Christmas.”

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

And thus Christmas Eve returned to what passed for normality in the Pie Shop. Klauss Strauss found himself on the receiving end of not only his best ever bûche de Noël sales, but also a visit from police who brought tidings of a forced vacation from baking repression and a rapprochement with the true spirit of holiday treats. For on the way from Bakehouse to jailhouse they detoured to the Pie Hole where Chuck waited with a very special Christmas pie - one not only laced with herbal mood enhancers, but also a note which read as follows:

“The Yule log was beautiful. Don’t forget your gifts,
and that there are some spirits that never bake away.”

Throughout his stay at the secure mental hospital, Klaus would receive just such a pie every week. At first they tasted like nothing but bitter defeat on his tongue, and they filled him with rage that flowed down his cheeks in torrents of hot tears. But as time went on, he found that he could find other tastes in the pies, and in his own meticulously crafted cakes, during his supervised cooking hours. He tasted again the last birthday torte he baked Maus before the accident that exploded the explosives expert. He tasted his mother’s pride in the first batch of cookies he served to her as a baking apprentice, and the excitement of the first tangy gingerbread he and his grandfather made together. One day he bit into an apple and cheddar Pie Hole pie with sour cream crumble topping and tasted a trace of that most elusive of flavors - the first cake he ever ate, that carried with it a whiff of his grandfather’s spicy cologne, and the warmth of his hugs. It brought different tears to his eyes, cool tears of clarity and peace. When one day Klaus left the secure hospital and returned to the Straw Mouse Bakehouse, he departed with a slightly larger pair of pants, and with something his starved soul had been missing - the fullness of that last bite of Pie Hole pie, which carried inside of it the fullness of the first bite of cake he ever ate, handed to him by the person he loved most in all the world.

For Emerson Cod, fourteen minutes and thirty-eight seconds after Chuck delivered her pie and the police delivered Klaus Strauss out of their lives, his daughter and ex-wife arrived at the pie shop. He took one look at Ned awkwardly petting Digby with a mechanical hand, Olive singing to herself as she strung another set of pie-shaped lights on the tree in the corner, and Chuck, wearing sunglasses, gloves, and a scarf indoors, and sighed. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he said into his daughter’s hug. “I’d like you to meet some friends of mine.” Because Emerson Cod’s life was much better than normal - it was full of gloriously abnormal people who could do the impossible, and bring life back to a deadened heart.

Five hours, two minutes, and fifty-four seconds after Emerson’s successful visit, Olive took Digby to the local dog club pageant where he would star as reindeer number five, and Olive would sample the charms of reindeer owners numbers one through four.

Five minutes and twelve seconds thereafter, Ned hung up his apron, ready to close the pie shop for the night. Chuck caught his eye, and nudged a roll of plastic wrap his way. “Don’t forget this,” she teased, and to Ned, the twinkle in her eye outshone all the antler tinsel in the world. For such a long time Ned had lived on the sweetness of pie-filed memory, but now Chuck filled the pie shop, and the pie maker’s heart, with the warmth her smile. He took her gloved hand in his and they walked out into the snow, to kiss endless snowy plastic kisses under the glow of the sugary, pie-in-the-sky Christmas moon.