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If I’d ever seen anyone truly fit to burst it was the woman standing at my front door, on my porch—a deep shady haven, lush with thriving leafy potted plants that offered a balm to the fierce late June heat. Unfortunately, it seemed to be providing no relief for her.
“Miz Lipskie? Are you okay?”
Curiosity had overridden my surprise. Airlie Falls was a town where people just dropped in on each other, and Texas hospitality would almost always assure you of a warm welcome. My farmhouse, however, was a few miles out of town, and while family, neighbors, and close friends were regulars, there was usually a distinct purpose for others to drop by, other than just for a chinwag.
Most times to order baked goods. Less often to ask for help with some issue or mystery that was bothering them. Yes, I’d become that go-to person. You know, the one you turn to for help if something has mysteriously gone missing. Or like, if someone has poisoned your soup.
Or if you find a dead body buried in your garden.
That kind of thing. And you know? It’s surprising just how often that happens really…
Miz Lipskie though, had never just turned up on my doorstep in all the time I’d lived there, and I prayed she hadn’t found a body in her blackberry patch. Or anywhere for that matter.
I knew her from church, and she was a loyal fan of the baked goods stall, From the Hart, that I ran at our local markets, but she’d always kept to herself somewhat, so it was even more extraordinary that she’d be here and in this state. That didn’t mean she wasn’t welcome, but I had a feeling her distinct purpose wasn’t going to end with us all smiling and wishing each other a nice day.
Accepting my silent offer she stomped into the foyer, and proceeded to stomp right through to the family room which was blessedly cool—and which would hopefully help calm her. She’d still said nothing, and having asked once, I figured I simply had to let her get to her issue in her own time. Which she eventually did.
“That man is the rudest person I’ve ever spoken to!”
Okay, this wasn’t going to be a quick visit. Moving to fetch some chilled lemonade, I called back, “Which man? Not—?”
“That man on the phone! Oooh, he’s made me so mad! He keeps barking at me!”
And you’re telling me because…?
The words remained in my head as I poured two tall ice-filled glasses. “Miz Lipskie, I don’t really unders—”
“Oh, you’ll understand! You’ll understand when he calls you,” she said, reaching for the glass. “He’s the most arrogant, insufferable—” She paused, and suddenly, watching her was like watching a blow-up toy deflate. “I’m sorry, Rosie honey. I shouldn’t have barged right on out here and exploded like that, but I’m just so riled up. This man has been calling me on the half hour since seven this morning!”
I glanced at the clock. It was just after one. “What does he want? You said he’d call me? Why?”
“Why, to order a mud cake, of course!”
This was all about a baked goods order? An order? Really?
She was on a roll again. “He’s been callin’ and callin’ and I just can’t take any more. I kept telling him I don’t bake or sell cakes but he just won’t listen. Keeps telling me I have to take the order or else. Of course, if I’d been thinking straight, I’d have given him your phone number right away. Which I did at the end. He said he wasn’t happy about it, but that he’d call you.”
“Well, thank you Miz Lipskie. I appreciate that. And don’t you worry anymore, I’ll take care of it.”
“I’m not sure Rosie. I feel so guilty sending him on to you, but he just wouldn’t stop. I just had to warn you.”
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell her that he hadn’t yet called when the phone rang, and yes, blame my imagination, but it was a strangely ominous sound.
Waving away Miz Lipskie’s warning whisper, I strode into the airy study just off the foyer. The voice on the other end wasn’t what I’d expected. It was low and muffled, and I’d barely said hello before the order came through – just as Miz Lipskie had said.
“I want to order a mud cake.”
“Yes sir, we’d be delighted to help you.” Actually, I was taking Miz Lipskie’s word for it that it was a male because the voice was so stifled it was hard for me to tell the exact gender. Still, she’d spoken to him several times and apparently been barked at, so obviously she knew.
There was a long pause before he replied. “We? I thought you worked alone?”
“Well, I do, but I have an assistant who helps me in the day-to-day running of the business.”
“Sheesh! Everyone’s a corporation these days! Even you people!” I was about to let that pass when he threw in his next comment. “Your number was passed on. What? You got a club or something? What’s with two of you working the same area? I thought you guys were pretty hard to find!”
I accepted the guy’s reference as a gender inclusive description, but frowned over the comment. “Two of us? Two bakers?”
The response was a low chuckle. “Sure, if that’s what you want to call yourselves. No skin off my nose. I just want the job done.”
He had a funny way of expressing himself that I found confusing but I did understand he wanted cake and that was something I could deliver. “I can do that. Now if I could just have some details? I ne—”
“Just the basics, right? I was told you’d only require the basics.”
“Well, I guess if you consider name and address, and your requirements to be basics, then I guess that’s what we do.” What was with this man? “But how about we start with the cake. Like, do you want chocolate mud? Caramel mud? Strawberry mud? White chocolate mud?”
“I thought you’d just do the job! What’s with the twenty questions?” He sighed. “So what? What’s your most popular? Simplest? I want that.”
“Chocolate. Now sir, what about cream? Do you want fresh or—?”
“Fresh? Hey, hey, stop right there! I don’t want the details, right? That other broad told me you were the best, so I figured you’d just get on with it. Geez—I got a weak stomach.”
This was the craziest order I’d ever taken. He was upset by cream? “Lactose problem?”
The response was a roar of laughter. “Hey, you got a sense of humor! I like that!” The laughter turned into a coughing fit and I waited it through, wondering why I had the feeling it wasn’t genuine. “Just no mess, okay? I don’t like mess. Now, I was told you’d do it for ten. Is that right?”
“Um, I’d usually charge fifteen for a layered cake, there’s a—”
“Fifteen! Where am I supposed to get that kind of money?”
I didn’t actually hear a phone slam down, but I kind of sensed it. One moment he was there, and the next he wasn’t and I was left with a dead line. What in heavens…?
When I turned, Miz Lipskie stood in the doorway, arms folded and wearing an I-told-you-so expression. “Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks that man is a bit strange!”
“No, Miz Lipskie,” I began slowly, my mind whirling, “I don’t think you are.”
Hours after Miz Lipskie had left, and after she’d been tempted not once, but twice, by the sour cream and apple tart I’d baked that morning, the call was still uppermost in my mind. There was something off-center about it.
Midge was the first to arrive home. Midge Moylan—owner-editor of our local paper, my housemate and best friend. Incongruously we’d met when she, as part of the Airlie Falls Volunteer Fire Service, was trying to save my house from burning down. Not long after, her rented accommodation fell through, and as I’d moved into my new farmhouse and had plenty of room, she moved in with me. It was to be temporary, but we both liked the arrangement and so it just continued, and no doubt would until she felt the need to move on. And considering I was now engaged to the gorgeous cowboy-slash-builder Jonah Fencott, and the fact that she’d recently paired up with the adorable Phil Kingsley, that time may come sooner than either of us initially expected.
She’d quickly become the sister I’d never had and vice versa, and the odd thing was we could have easily passed for the real thing as we were uncannily alike physically. Both small framed, on the short side, and possessed olive skin and dark wavy hair that frizzed in humid weather. For fun, Midge had even begun a cursory search to see if we were somehow related but that was something to fit into our spare time—a commodity we both possessed in limited amounts.
As always, she was carrying a pile of papers and folders which she dumped on a credenza just inside my spacious kitchen-cum-family-room. “Tell me something exciting happened here today because my day was boringly tedious. You’d think news would happen every day, right?”
I grinned and reached to pour her a chilled lemonade from the fresh pitcher I’d just made. “Exciting? Not sure I can deliver. Would you settle for weird?”
Both eyebrows rose as she accepted the glass. “Weird? Even better. Spill.”
I’d barely finished telling my tale when the phone rang again and, yes, it could have been anyone but I could tell by the expression on her face that she was thinking the same as me. It could be my mystery caller…
Spookily, it was.
I hit the speaker button as soon as I recognized that muffled voice and we both leaned in close to the phone sitting on the counter. He—it was easier to think of this person as a male—hadn’t returned my greeting, so phone etiquette obviously wasn’t one of his social skills. Instead, he just launched straight in. “Alright, you win. Fifteen, right? I’ll find the fifteen but I’m not paying a cent more. Got it? I don’t care how good you think you are. I just want the job done properly.”
My clueless shrug was echoed by Midge. “The mud cake?” I asked. “You still want the mud cake?”
“Do I have to keep spelling it out to you? Yes, the mud cake.” An exasperated sigh followed his words and filtered down the line. “You just better be good after all this.”
Indignation fired off a couple of quick shots. “I can assure you we’ve never had complaints, but please feel free to consult another baker if you’re unsure.”
“Okay, okay, don’t get all in a twist about it. The job’s yours.”
I thought I heard him mutter something about not having much choice, to which I mentally replied that indeed he did, but manners won out and I kept my thoughts to myself. “Well, there are still some matters to be finalized. I need your name to begin with.”
“Now just wait a minute—I was told this would all be anonymous.”
Midge was now shaking her head in frustrated wonder while I tried to work out his intent. “Oh, I understand. You want this to be a surprise? Is that what you mean?”
“What? Are you crazy? Do you normally warn people?”
My eyes narrowed in further confusion. “Well, not if it’s a surprise,” I mumbled back. Lifting my volume I added, “Okay, a surprise cake. Will you pick up or do you require it to be delivered?”
“You’re too funny for your own good, you know that? Of course it’s a delivery!” There was a heartbeat of silence, certainly caused by surprise on my end, before he started again. This time he was slightly less disagreeable. “Ooh, I get it. Someone’s there, right? You can’t talk? Okay, then just listen. I want it delivered next Saturday. I’ll get back to you with a time and place.”
Midge had been frantically scribbling on a notepad and pushed it across to me. On it she’d written, Get money up front!
I nodded and went back to the conversation. “Sir, I do need a name. Something to attach to the order and I, um, usually require a deposit up front.” I didn’t, but this time it seemed sensible. “A third. A third up front.”
More frustrated sighs and mumbles reached down to us, before he offered anything intelligible. “I was told this would be a clean, straightforward transaction. No names. Just an order and you do the job. Now you want money up front, too?”
I was about to tell him to forget it; forget the whole thing when a speculative gleam in Midge’s eye made me falter. She, too, was sensing something was off and the whole situation had intrigued her. Her journalistic nose could usually sniff out a story, so I added my own sigh and carried on.
My caller filled the silence by barking out a name. “Ed. That’s all you’re getting. Just Ed. Happy? I’ll leave the money at the Boxwood post office. Go in and ask for the package marked to The Baker. Cash only, that’s the deal, right? No paper trail. They’ll want some kind of ID, so we’d better have a password.” He paused. “Mud cake. That’ll do. Seems to be a favorite of yours. I’ll make sure instructions are left, and I’ll get back to you to advise when that money is there waiting for you.”
Then like before, he was gone, and I had nothing but dead air.
When my eyes once more met Midge’s, all I could do was shake my head in wonder. “Tell me that really was as weird as it sounds.”
“Totally weird. Why all the secrecy over a cake? There’s got to be more but I just can’t see it. It was like there was an undercurrent of—something!”
“To say nothing of the fact,” I continued, “that I have to travel twenty minutes to Boxwood to collect five dollars left in a package at the post office? A package? It’s ridiculous. When he calls back I’m just going to tell him to forget it. I don’t need this aggravation.”
Midge was more speculative. She refilled her glass and leaned up against the counter. “I don’t know… I think something else is going on. Maybe we should play it through. See what happens.”
Despite my assertion of minutes before, I understood. That had been my first instinct, too, that feeling that there was something else going on. “I suppose we can hear him out. He’s got to call back with the details of the delivery, and of course to notify me of the first payment.”
Jonah arrived shortly after, accompanied by Tiny, the giant creature we called our shared dog, and despite mine and Midge’s—admittedly slightly dramatic—recount of what had gone down with Ed, Jonah wasn’t on the same page as we were. He grinned in that gorgeously laconic way that never failed to make me smile and reminded us—me actually—of all the times I’d imagined drama when there was none. It was all true, and maybe if Midge hadn’t heard at least one of the conversations, I’d have begun to doubt myself. Instead, I took the indignant high road, which only served to amuse him more.
As he often did, he’d obviously been home to his own farm to shower and probably check on his small herd and had arrived as usual to help with dinner prep. Tonight he was barbecuing ribs while we roasted potatoes and tossed a salad. Considering I’d spent all day in the kitchen it was a deal I was happy to take.
We worked smoothly together and I found myself stepping out of myself for a moment, marveling all over again at the change in my fortune since I’d taken a fill-in job as a home health worker to Miss Alice, an aging cancer sufferer whose bark was way worse than her bite. As an only child of parents who’d been missing in action for most of my life, to suddenly find myself suspected of my client’s murder had been terrifying. If Jonah hadn’t happened by at that lowest point in my life, and if his amazing parents hadn’t supported me without question, my life could have been very different. Instead, I uncovered the murderer, rendering myself innocent and free to accept the wonderful legacy left to me by the very lady I’d been accused of murdering.
Since then, I’d not only found love and a family, got to live in a fabulous farmhouse I’d had the good fortune to be able to renovate, but found an entire town, an amazing community, that had accepted me as one of their own. I’d never believed in coincidence, but since that chance meeting with Jonah, I sure believed in fate.
Of course, I’d also earned the reputation as being someone who could solve murders. You would think there wouldn’t be much call for that, but I’d been unpleasantly surprised. Some people definitely didn’t play well with others. Those cases were way more unpleasant than this latest perplexity with my new client Ed, which I hoped would turn out to be just the case of a grumpy man with few social skills.
Or, perhaps I’d simply been too long without a juicy mystery on my plate, but for some reason I was having trouble committing to that hypothesis. I didn’t want there to be any big mystery to solve—with Fourth of July celebrations just a week or so away, and two upcoming market days, I had plenty to keep me occupied. And typical of Airlie Falls, our town was celebrating Independence Day in style. As they did with every celebration, there’d be various events played out over several days, so, no—I didn’t have time for a mystery right now.
And yet I couldn’t lose that irritatingly nagging feeling that something was headed my way. A not-good type of something.
The next morning I was up just after dawn. One of the few things I learned from my grandmother (by watching her, not from any imparted wisdom) was to get bigger jobs done before the height of summer heat, so I headed outside to take care of my chores. Feeding the chickens first, which I released to meander in search of juicy treats.
I was so proud of the produce gardens Jonah had built me, and now in my second summer at the farmhouse, that garden was flourishing and early morning was a great time to harvest. A lot of the preserves I made as sidelines for my market stall were created from the very fruits and vegetables grown right in my own backyard. We’d also painstakingly cleared and pruned the orchards farther down the property and the peach and plum trees were laden this year. I couldn’t wait to start picking those as well.
For an hour I cleared away weeds and retied bushes before harvesting. The haul was great; my basket was filled with big red rich tomatoes, beans, crispy cucumbers and peppers in a multitude of colors—plenty to share—and I was feeling ridiculously happy. The air was cool and fresh, and a soft breeze fluttered around my bare legs, competing with Tiny who pressed close. She was mooching around pretending to help me but I wasn’t fooled—it was a ruse to cadge a treat out of me later. Smiling, I watched her play hide-and-seek with a brave butterfly, and I turned to the blueberry bush, popping a lush sun-warmed berry straight into my mouth. Just Tiny and I here in the hush of early morning—it was quite idyllic really and as usual I loved this time to just be.
Not perfect, but close to it. Naturally there was also always the possibility that intruders, specifically long slinky ones that slide along the ground, might come in for a visit and for that reason I always kept my phone with me. Luckily, I’d so far never had to use it, and had also never received a call this early, so the sudden shrill peal that barged so harshly into this almost sacred time, sounded ominously like a warning.
Not for a moment did I expect it to be Ed. Even when there was no caller ID, like before.
Once more the niceties were ignored.
“The money will be in Boxwood post office at ten this morning.”
I swallowed back the panic created by the unexpected call and tried to clear my head. “Um, okay. Thank you. I still need some details though—like where the cake should be delivered?”
“At the Airlie Falls markets on Saturday. You know the place?”
Holding the phone away slightly, I pulled a face before responding. “Well, yeah… It’s where I have my market stall.”
“A stall? What? Next you’ll be telling me you pass out flyers!”
“Well, I do, sometimes.”
“Geez… This is one mixed-up world.” He blew out a sigh. “Okay then, at the markets. Twelve noon. She’ll be standing at the rear of the refurbished implement tent; far side. Wearing red. I want a quick, clean job. Don’t mess it up.”
Again he’d hung up on me! No, no, no! This was crazy. And silly. And frustrating! Sensing my mood, Tiny suddenly pushed closer, her growl—low and deep—snapping me back from the depths of… Of what? Despair? Maybe. Exasperation? Yes. Vexation? Most definitely. Those last two were probably one and the same but there was another as well—curiosity; intense curiosity. I wasn’t particularly proud of that part, but I couldn’t deny it.
As I soothed Tiny, thankfully, clear thoughts were beginning to push through the frustration fog. Who was this guy, really? Was Ed even his name? How weird would it be if I tried to stake out the post office this morning? But then, how would I know which person had left a package? It was five dollars for goodness’ sake! It could be hidden in a pocket until he walked in. Could I hang out inside the post office? Try to eavesdrop? Catch him that way and try to make sense of all this? Possibly, though even more possibly I’d be noticed and even quite likely authorities would be called… I had a feeling loitering was only a crime if there was intent. But, sadly I’d have to admit I had definite intent!
Okay, maybe I needed a rethink.
Trudging back to the house I thought about what I had on my plate. The next market was in two days and while I was in pretty good shape, I’d expected to spend these final days getting all the last-minute bakes ready. Could I spare a couple of hours?
The decision was made by Ally, my amazing, and genetically blessed, assistant. She balanced substitute teaching with assisting me and was a natural when it came to baking. I also had to add lifesaver to that impressive list of attributes. It was true. A few months back she’d saved my life, even if she did wreck my best copper pan doing it. I was still working through that, and yes, I had separation issues when it came to my baking equipment.
After hearing the Ed story, which poured out as we made our lists for the day, Ally insisted I go straight to Boxwood. “I’ve got this. We’ve made these bases a million times. The cookie dough is already made up and thawing so I’ll move to those when I’m done.”
It was almost embarrassing how quickly I took that advice onboard and readied myself to leave. Did I have a plan? Not really, but that had never stopped me trying to solve a mystery before. And if there was one thing Midge and I agreed upon, there was a mystery here. It may not be a big one, but it was there and I was hooked.
The drive took the full twenty minutes plus some. It wasn’t that there was traffic—living as we did in rural Texas, it wasn’t like having to fight city travelers. No, it was actually just my own over-primed nerves. You’d think that would make me speed up but it had the opposite effect, making me hyperaware of trying to stay clearheaded and do the right thing.
Weirdly, the Boxwood post office was strangely comforting. Except for the deep, terra-cotta tiled porch that we didn’t have, the building reminded me of the Airlie Falls police headquarters and was probably around the same vintage. Low, white adobe—even down to the bougainvillea creeper that shaded the porch that in this instance was a copper color rather than the rich cerise variety of our building. Inside it was a bustle and I stepped to the side, gazing at an array of postage envelopes with probably way more intensity than such stationery items would normally require. I flicked out my phone. Nine fifty. Had the package been delivered already?
Amazingly, I got that answer barely three minutes later. It came from a male voice delivering pickup instructions and I distinctly heard the words mud cake. Immediately I rose up on my tippy toes to peer over a low, freestanding unit. Surely this couldn’t have been the voice on the phone? The one I’d been speaking to? Although it could explain the slight androgynous sense I’d had when I wondered about the gender.
The reason being that this male was barely old enough to have claimed his full male voice yet, something I figured was still a ways off. He was maybe fourteen, cleanly, but grungily dressed and with a mop of unkempt hair any rock star would be proud of.
When he slipped back out the front entrance, I was right behind him. I waited till we were off the porch and about a hundred yards off Main Street, down a back alley. “Excuse me?” When my polite request had no effect, I became more insistent. “Hey, wait up. Can I speak to you for a moment?”
I wasn’t stupid, I’d seen enough police shows where the cop calls out to the person he or she is chasing way too early, and that person has time to get away. I had, instead, waited until I was right at his elbow.
He turned with a frown but, I quickly noted, no evident fear or guilt. “Yeah?”
“I, um, well, I’m the lady who has to pick up that package you just delivered to the post office.” His frown deepened as he searched for said package in my hands and saw none, so I quickly added, “I haven’t collected it yet.”
“So, I’m the baker. The one you hired to make the mud cake? I was hoping we could talk because I’m a bit uneasy about this transaction and—”
“What?” He held up a hand. “Sorry lady. I dunno what you’re talking about. I just delivered the package to the post office. Got paid for it, too.”
For a long moment I just stared at him. “You’re not the one who called me?”
He was looking at me now like I was a bit crazy and he should be scared, so I wasn’t surprised when his response was a quick shrug before striding away.
“No, wait. Please? You’re saying you definitely didn’t call me for a mud cake?”
He slowed, though I figured there was more bravado than attitude when he turned back to me. “Nah, but if you’ve got some on you, I’ll take it off your hands.” He half-grinned at his own joke, displaying a mouthful of impressive braces. When I didn’t laugh with him, he sobered. “Look, some guy saw me walking up the street and asked me to take the package and message to the post office. Said he was in too much of a hurry to stand in line. I was going to flip him off when he offered me twenty.” To prove it, he pulled two crisp tens from his pocket. “Easy money, so I did it.”
“It was a guy? And you’re sure you don’t know who he is?”
He shrugged again. “Never seen him before. Sorry.” He turned back to his original direction. “Gotta go.”
“No, please…” I called. “At least can you tell me what he looks like? Describe him?”
Again, he shrugged. “Dunno. Just regular. Sorry, gotta go.”
He was getting farther away from me. “How about your name? Please?” I called.
Nothing. Had he not heard or simply ignored me? I called a second time, certain then it was the latter when again there was no response. My eyes stayed glued to him as he hurried down the alley with all the confidence of a self-important teen, which again, I figured was bravado considering his speed, taking all hope with him.
The only tiny chink of satisfaction I’d gained so far from this trip was my gut feeling he’d just told me the truth—he’d shown no surprise nor even the briefest recognition when I’d mentioned the call.
Which all deepened the sense that there was a mystery here. Was this man, Ed, really too busy, or had he not wanted to be remembered by the postal workers? More importantly, why hadn’t I pushed harder for a description?
Frustration powered my steps as I made my way back to the post office. Maybe I’d find some kind of hint there.
Surprisingly I had no difficulty claiming my package, which was in fact an umber-colored business-sized envelope, and much bulkier than I’d expected. Hope rose in my chest, expanding like an inflating balloon. Maybe he’d left written instructions—or even an explanation? Deciding I needed to wait until I was in the safety and privacy of the car, I snagged a coffee to go at a nearby coffee cart before settling into the driver’s seat.
I didn’t tear at the package, using my nail instead to loosen the seal, wanting to ensure nothing inside could be damaged. Which, as it turned out, was just as well…
Because I had a feeling it was a crime to destroy legal tender.
Even if it wasn’t, it was surely a crime against sane thought. For who would destroy one-hundred-dollar notes?
My fingers quickly flicked through them.
Fifty. Fifty, one-hundred-dollar bills.
Fifty times one hundred equaled five thousand. Five thousand dollars. I’d asked for a deposit of five dollars; Ed had paid five thousand.
A third of the full amount…
Ed thought the mud cake was worth fifteen thousand dollars? What?
It was at that moment I knew that what had niggled at Midge and me surely needed to be heeded. I mean, who would pay fifteen thousand for a cake? No, something else was going down.
Something I was almost scared to consider.
End of Excerpt