Cold Ground Ginger 3

Wednesday, 11:47 p.m.

Coreyville Hotel was a stately five-story building that was built in 1952, located on town square across from the courthouse. The first floor was occupied by the lobby, a large restaurant, a bar, and two conference halls.

The hotel had nearly gone out of business three times, had been renovated twice, and had received a major facelift in 2008. Occupancy rates were rarely high except during the annual two-week carnival. The hotel was currently at full capacity.

Al Fenster, sixty-seven, was sitting in the hotel barroom with his large belly pressed tightly against the edge of the bar, making it physically impossible for him to fall off his stool if he happened to get drunk and pass out. He almost chuckled thinking about it. At least there was one advantage to his obesity.

He gazed up at the screen’s flashing bright colors, fully aware that his shiny dome was partially obstructing the view of the men sitting at the table behind him watching Sports Center.

He was there first. Let them move to another table. Al did whatever he wanted, without apology.

A young bartender named Billy delivered another White Russian. “This one’s got a little more vodka, sir. I think you’ll like it better.”

“Billy, I’ve been sitting here for hours, and I’m gonna come back tomorrow night and the next night, so don’t you think it’s about time we put ourselves on a first-name basis?”

“Whatever you like, sir.”

“Well, what I’d like is for you to start calling me Al.”

“Yes, sir, Al. Are you in town for the carnival?”

“I’m not a sideshow, if that’s what you think.”

“Oh, no, sir—I mean, Al. I didn’t mean that.”

Al laughed. “Don’t get excited, man. I probably would make a pretty good sideshow.” He raised his voice. “Step right up, folks, and direct your attention to the amazing Al. He’s got the world’s biggest belly.”

One of the men at the table behind him said, “Hey, dude, hold it down. We’re trying to hear the show.”

Al waved him off.

“Sorry,” Billy said. “I didn’t mean to offend you.”

“Aw, you can’t offend me. But maybe this will give you a laugh: I’m a contestant in Ginger Lightley’s Bake-Off.”

“Oh, really?”

“Surprised?”

“Well, I just thought you—”

“You thought I was here to eat the cakes, not bake them, right?” Al patted his stomach.

Billy snickered, then looked embarrassed.

Al enjoyed embarrassing people.

Billy said, “No . . . I thought you might be one of the judges.”

“Nope, I’m the proud owner and operator of Al’s Deli and Bakery in Longview.”

“I’ve heard of that.”

“So, you’re probably wondering why I’m staying here at the hotel. Well, I’ll tell you why, Billy, my man. It’s because there’s no way I’m making that twenty-minute drive home after all this booze.”

“That’s smart, Al. Very responsible of you.”

“Yeah, but that’s not the real reason. I booked a room for three nights like all the other knuckleheads in Ginger’s rigged contest.”

“Well, if you think it’s rigged, then why bother with it?”

“Okay, fair enough. You got me. It’s probably not rigged, but sometimes it sure seems like it when Ginger walks off with the first-prize trophy every year.”

“I love Ginger’s little coffee cakes.”

Al was beginning to slur. “Sure, they’re great. But mine are the greater-est, and I’m gonna win first prize. I guarantee it.” He knew he’d just said something that didn’t sound quite right, but so what? At least he wasn’t slurring his words like some drunk.

“You guarantee it, huh?”

“You don’t believe me? You think it’s the liquor talking, don’t you?”

Billy shrugged. “Well, you did just say that your cakes are the ‘greater-est.’ That’s not really a word, Al.”

Al sat up straight. “Are you an English teacher, Billy? It that what you are? No, you mark my words: Ginger Lightley will not win that first-prize trophy this year because that baby’s going back to Longview in the passenger seat of my Toronado.”

“What’s a Toronado?”

Al was incensed. “What’s a Toronado? It’s a fine luxury car, boy. An Oldsmobile.”

Billy had a blank look on his face.

Al shook his head. “Oh, just forget it.”

A man from the end of the bar said, “Hey, bartender, can I get some service down here?”

Billy walked over to the man.

Al checked his watch. The bar was open until two a.m., so he had another two hours to drink. He enjoyed drinking—especially with a friend—but his drinking buddy, the thirty-six-year-old Bobby Boudreaux, turned out to be a lightweight. It wasn’t long before he’d gotten drunk and angry, and then stormed out.

Bobby owned Doggers in Gladewater, a gourmet hot dog restaurant and bakery. Who’d ever heard of such a thing? Still, he was a good-natured old boy, and fun to hang out with until he got drunk. They had two things in common: a love for baking and a burning desire to beat Ginger Lightley at her own game.

But as much as Al enjoyed bragging about his baking abilities, his girlfriend, Maybelle Rogers—owner of Maybelle’s Bakery in Tyler—was the one who had a real shot at dethroning Ginger. Al was a hack and he knew it—like an auto mechanic pretending to be a French pastry chef. His forte was the deli. Meats and cheeses. His bakery items were nothing special, and he wouldn’t have even signed up for the bake-off if Maybelle hadn’t been participating.

Maybelle was a successful businesswoman. Al was a terrible money manager and was about to go bankrupt. But together, they could become the king and queen of East Texas sweets and meats—as long as Maybelle’s daughter Caroline didn’t get in the way.

Caroline said folks in their sixties were too old for romance, but Al knew better, and he was gunning for the perfect marriage of sex and money.

He noticed that Billy was having a private conversation on his cell phone. That was something Al would never tolerate from his own employees.

Billy put his phone away and walked over to him. “Well, Al, as of tonight, you’ve got one less competitor.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My buddy’s a paramedic. The owner of that bakery in Marshall—Susanna something—she’s dead.”

Al tried not to let the satisfaction show on his face. “What happened to her?”

“Somebody beat her in the head with a shovel—right out there in Old Coreyville Cemetery. Ginger Lightley was out there too. She’s in the emergency room.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yeah. She’s a nice lady. Everybody loves her. I hope she’s gonna be okay.” Billy walked away.

Al quickly took out his phone and texted Maybelle: Can I come to your room? It’s important.

She answered immediately: Sure.

Al left the bar, went into the men’s restroom off the lobby, took out a travel-size bottle of Scope, poured the contents into his mouth and gargled with it, and threw the empty bottle in the trash. Then he took the elevator up to the third floor, where Ginger had booked rooms for all of her contestants. He went to Maybelle’s door and tapped lightly.

She let him in. “It’s nearly midnight, Al. It’s way past my bedtime.”

He slurred. “Sorry. I woke you up with my text?”

“No. I wasn’t sleeping.” She smiled. “I was lying in bed thinking about you.”

He grinned. “You were?”

“Well, sure.” She stepped in close and looked up into his eyes. “And you know what was going through my head while I was lying in bed thinking about you?” She put her hand on his chest.

“Uh . . .”

She stepped back and gave him a stern look. “Al, you’ve been smoking those stinky cigars again. I can smell it all over you.”

“No, babe, it’s not me. It was a guy in the bar.”

“They let them smoke cigars in the bar? Yuck.”

“Yeah, I know. Ever since I quit, they smell nasty to me too.”

She cocked her head to one side. “How many drinks have you had?”

“I don’t know. A few.”

“I’ll try to breathe through my mouth.” She moved in close. “Now, where was I? Oh, yeah. See if you can guess what I’m thinking right now.” She began to unbutton his shirt.

“Wait, wait, Maybelle. I hate to stop you, believe me—more than anything in the world—but I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What is it?”

“Susanna Clampford is dead.”

“Dead? What happened to her?”

“She was murdered in the cemetery,” he said. “Somebody beat her in the head with a shovel.”

“Are you kidding me? She was killed in the cemetery with a shovel? You don’t think that somebody actually—”

“Carried out the plan?”

“Al, this is bad. I mean, of course it’s bad. It’s terrible—horrific that she was murdered—but what if the police think we were involved? I’ve been right here in my room since nine o’clock, but nobody’s been here with me, so I guess, technically, I don’t have an alibi. How about you?”

He hesitated, apparently a split-second too long.

She blurted, “Oh, Al, you didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?”

“No, of course not. I can’t believe you even have to ask.”

“I’m sorry, but . . .”

“Maybe we don’t belong together after all.” Was he drunk out of his mind? What was he doing, telling her that? What was he gonna say if she agreed with him? He was a complete idiot for sticking his neck out so far, but the words were already out there, hanging in the air, and the longer she took to respond, the more likely that he’d just blown it.

She said, “Don’t say that, baby. I trust you.”

“I know you do. I don’t know why I said that. Oh, and there’s more news.”

“Oh, God. What?”

“Ginger Lightley’s in the hospital.”

“What happened to her?”

“I don’t know, but she was in the cemetery too.”

“Oh, my. It was all in the plan. How badly is she hurt?”

“I don’t know.”

“Should we go down to the hospital and check on her, see how she’s doing?”

“Well, it’s a nice thought,” he said.

“But at this time of night?”

“You’re the one who suggested it.”

“Yes, but, you know, we could have already been asleep when the word went out,” she said. “No, we’ll go see her tomorrow if she’s still in the hospital.”

“That’ll work.”

“I mean, we could run down there and make a big show of it, but personally, I’d prefer to spend the evening with you.” She gave him a long, passionate kiss on the lips.

“You don’t feel just a little bit guilty?”

Maybelle raised her eyebrows and smiled. “Not yet.” She removed his belt.

“But what if we get caught? Caroline’s right down the hallway.”

“No, she’s not. You worry too much, Al. She just called me a few minutes ago to say she was leaving the bakery.”

“She was still at the bakery? It’s midnight. Sounds to me like she’s finally got herself a boyfriend.”

“I wish. But no, she’s just a workaholic. Anyway, she won’t be here until after one, so I told her not to bother me when she gets in. Now, where were we?”

End of Excerpt
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