Ginger Lightley walked out her front door at precisely 7:30 a.m. The chilly January breeze was stronger than usual this morning. She flipped up the collar of her wool coat and pulled the knit cap down over her ears. She enjoyed the four-block stroll to her little bakery on town square.
The old city hall sat in the middle of the inner square. The four-story red brick building and its east and west parking lots covered two city blocks.
A variety of attractive old shops occupied the outer square. The most popular destination was Coreyville Coffee Cakes. Ginger was the proud owner and creator of recipes.
Sometimes she missed the old days, when she used to fire up the ovens at 6:00 a.m., mix the ingredients, and bake dozens of cakes, alongside her dear friend and hard worker, Addie Barneswaller. Nowadays Ginger had several employees. Her only job was to create a new recipe each month.
Coreyville Coffee Cakes would not have been a success without Addie. She was black, six-foot-two, and weighed around 190 pounds—every ounce of it muscle. She looked more like a pro basketball player than a 61-year-old cake baker. Ginger had a hard time believing that they were the same age.
One time Ginger demanded to see Addie’s birth certificate. She just laughed it off as a nice compliment. Addie had eight siblings. That was a lot of kids for her parents to keep up with. Ginger wondered if the parents had lost track of some of their ages.
She would never forget the day they met. Addie had just started working in the cafeteria at the elementary school where Ginger was teaching second grade. That was twenty-nine years ago—right before the bakery opened.
The first week of school, Ginger was escorting her class through the lunch line when one of the boys looked up at Addie and made an ugly remark about the chicken fried steak. Some of the other children started laughing. Addie slowly leaned over the counter and peered directly into the boy’s eyes with such intensity that Ginger half expected the kid to burst into flames.
Ginger considered intervening to save the boy, but the little brat had been driving her up the wall all morning. So, she hesitated. Then she saw the puddle which was beginning to form on the floor, between the boy’s shoes.
Addie told Ginger later that she felt bad about what happened. But from then on, the children knew better than to smart off to the big scary cafeteria lady.
That afternoon Ginger overheard a boy warning his friends. “Don’t say anything to her. Don’t even look at her. ‘Cause if she gives you the evil eye, you’re gonna wet your pants.” His buddies began to laugh. But the boy was insistent. “I’m not kidding. That’s what she did to Billy Jones. He wet his pants and started crying—right in front of the whole class.” The other boys suddenly quit laughing. The fear spread like a virus throughout the school. And that’s how Addie became a legend.
Ginger opened the door, anticipating the glorious aroma of freshly baked coffee cakes and perked coffee. There was nothing quite like that first whiff in the morning.
And there it was. It seemed even more intoxicating than usual.
All they had to do was get people into the shop. Once inside, it was nearly impossible for them to walk away without making a purchase. It wasn’t fair, really. Ginger almost felt like a drug dealer.
By the time the shop opened at 7:30, Addie and her new assistant, Lacey Greendale, had already baked dozens of the little cakes.
Ginger’s husband, Lester, God rest his soul, had never cared much for cakes. They were too sweet—especially the ones with icing. But then, as his 30th birthday approached, she had made up her mind to create a cake he’d love. She started with a basic coffee cake recipe and then tried to improve on it.
After throwing away several nine-inch round failures, she came up with the idea of mini-cakes. She ordered a special mini-loaf pan that was actually a set of six 4½-inch by 2½-inch individual pans connected by rods. It worked out great, allowing her to test six recipes at once.
Finally, after eighteen tries, Ginger had a masterpiece. She named it Sweet Ginger Cake. How could Lester resist a cake with that name? She wanted it to be a surprise. But what if he hated it—in front of all their friends? She decided to let him sample it early. He could still pretend that it was a surprise.
She held her breath as he took that first bite. To her, the cake was perfect. But she was still nervous about what he’d think. She couldn’t tell at first. He appeared to be trying to determine each and every ingredient. “Well?”
“Amazing,” he replied. “How did you do it?”
And that was how it all started. Ginger never had any formal training as a baker. Her only tools were a keen sense of taste and smell. She just kept experimenting until she got it right. That’s how she created all of her original recipes.
She closed the door behind her. There was already a line at the counter. Cheryl Iper was hurriedly accepting cash, checks, and credit cards. At the time they opened, most of the customers were on the way to work. Cheryl was doing her best to get them in and out as quickly as possible.
Ginger had never known anybody who could, at the same time, be so frantic yet cheerful, while spouting one-liners so fast that you’d never guess she was a native East Texan.
“Good morning, Cheryl.”
Ginger walked around behind the counter and leaned in close to Cheryl. “Where’s Danny?”
Cheryl blushed. Danny was her twenty-one year old son. “He overslept. I’m sorry, Ginger. But don’t worry. I’ve got everything under control. I can manage until he gets here. And, of course, I’ll dock his pay.”
“That’s fine. I know you can handle it.” Ginger would have offered to pitch in, but she knew that would only make Cheryl feel more guilty about Danny being late.
Ginger walked over to the reduced price rack. Obviously, Navy Newcomb had already come by to pick up the three-day-old cakes for the nursing home.
She gave a twenty-five percent discount on day-old cakes, and a fifty-percent discount on two-day olds. Even after three days, the cakes were still perfectly good, but she couldn’t bring herself to reduce the price further, so she just gave them away to the Coreyville Country Home. The cafeteria would cut them into slices to serve with lunch. The residents loved them.
Ginger walked into the kitchen. “Good morning, Addie. How’s it going?”
Addie was busy removing freshly baked cakes from their pans. She stopped and turned around. “Good morning. It’s going fine.”
As usual, Addie had smudges of flour all over her. Ginger nearly giggled when she noticed the perfectly round white circle on each of Addie’s dark cheeks. It looked like the work of a powder puff in the hands of a color-blind Avon lady.
“How many three-day-olds went out today?”
She thought for a moment. “About twenty.”
“She went out for a smoke break. Second one this morning.”
Ginger shook her head. Lacey Greendale was a beautiful five-foot-ten twenty-one year old with blue eyes and long dark hair. Her ivory skin was silky smooth. She was a sweet young lady, but very naïve. And you could break her heart by just looking at her with disappointed eyes.
Lacey opened the back door and walked into the kitchen. “Good morning, Mrs. Lightley.”
“Please—call me ‘Ginger.’”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’m sorry.”
She walked over and put her arm around Lacey, who towered over her. Ginger looked up at her and pointed to her own mouth. “Reason Five to stop smoking?”
Lacey cover her mouth with her hand. “Sorry.”
“No, don’t worry about me. But what about boys? I mean, men?”
“—I know. If the guy’s a smoker, he doesn’t even smell it on you. But do you really want to get involved with a smoker? First thing you know, you’ll marry him and start having kids. And then your kids will have to live in all that smoke. Surely you don’t want that.”
Lacey was embarrassed. “Oh, no. Of course not.”
“Good.” Ginger released her and smiled at her. She was proud of Lacey. She was beginning to take her little speeches to heart. “Okay. Danny’s running late, so you’d better go out front and help Cheryl until he gets here.”
Lacey seemed slightly annoyed. “Yes, Ma’am.”
Ginger was surprised by her attitude. Lacey usually did whatever she was told with a smile.
After she walked out, Ginger turned to Addie. “What’s wrong with her?”
“I don’t know. She’s been acting kinda funny this morning.”
“I’ll talk to her later.”
Addie noticed something on the counter. “Uh-oh.”
“What is it?” Please don’t let it be a roach.
“The recipe book. It’s gone.”
“Was it there this morning when you came in?”
“Are you sure, Addie?”
“Yes. I always check. It was definitely sitting right there.”
“So, you think Lacey took it?”
“Had to be her.”
“No, I can’t believe she would steal from me.”
“It’s worth thousands of dollars.”
Ginger shook her head. “I guess I shouldn’t have tempted her.”
“Why are you going easy on her? Nobody else who’s ever worked here has stolen it. And don’t you think they were tempted?”
“I guess so. But now I wish I’d never started leaving it out like that. Are you absolutely sure that it couldn’t have been somebody else?”
“Like who?” Then Addie’s expression changed in a flash.
“Navy. He waited here in the kitchen while I went out front to make sure Lacey had picked up all the three-day-olds.”
“Where was Lacey?”
“She went out back for a smoke break right when he came in. I asked her to check out front for me before she took her break, but she ignored me and went out anyway. So, I had to do it myself.”
“So, Navy could have grabbed the recipe book while he was in here alone.”
“He could have. It was either him or Lacey. One of them stole it.”
Ginger knew that Navy Newcomb had blown his trust fund, and that he was flat broke. The whole town knew it. But she didn’t think he would stoop this low.
And if he did steal it, who would he sell it to?