Ginger Lightley wakes up in a cemetery, head throbbing, blood on her hands, a dead body nearby, with her fingerprints all over the murder weapon. She’s struggling with fuzzy memories and the loss of her most precious assets: her keen sense of smell and taste.
It’s the week of her annual bake-off, and she discovers that most of her contestants have motives for the murder. She must solve the case before the contest winners are announced and all of her suspects leave town…and she goes to jail.
Read the three-chapter excerpt…
Coreyville, Texas—near Longview
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Ginger Lightley’s flashlight flickered as she hurried across her back yard to the cemetery gate. When she touched the cold metal latch, a chill shot up her arm. A flurry of cool wind blew up her dress and apron, and she struggled to push them back down. She wished she’d taken the time to put on her winter coat before stepping out of her warm kitchen, but there was no time to go back for it.
Susanna Clampford, a woman in her mid-sixties, like Ginger, was somewhere out there in the black night among the graves, either lost or injured. When she’d called Ginger a few minutes earlier and said she was walking to Ginger’s house from Coreyville Hotel by way of the cemetery shortcut, Susanna’s phone had gone dead in the middle of the conversation. Either her phone lost service at that moment, or she’d dropped it or fallen down. Ginger had called her back, but it went to voicemail.
She opened the gate and it squeaked, reminding her once again that she still hadn’t oiled the hinges. Her eighty-eight-year-old neighbor, Mrs. Martin, a retired elementary school principal, had the hearing and the bark of a chihuahua, and every time she heard the metal-on-metal squeal, she would run to her kitchen window, press her face to the glass, and yelp her disapproval. At this time of night, if Ginger woke her up, the crabby old woman would probably try to call in a SWAT team.
Ginger studied Mrs. Martin’s house. All of the windows were still dark. Apparently, she was a heavy sleeper. Maybe she was snoring like a freight train and couldn’t hear anything else. Ginger closed the gate behind her and latched it securely to make sure the wind couldn’t blow it free and hammer it against the fence like a bell clapper. No need to press her luck with Mrs. Martin.
She began walking along the familiar trail that led from her back yard to the alley behind her bakery. She used it nearly every day, except when the ground was wet and muddy, so she could stop and have a chat with Lester. It had been six years, and Ginger was now sixty-six. Lester was still sixty-two, and always would be.
She called out, “Susanna? Susanna? It’s Ginger. Can you hear me?”
The only answer was a gentle breeze whistling a soft, eerie melody through the treetops.
Ginger was now beyond the glow of her porch light, and there was not even a hint of moonlight.
A cold gust of wind surprised her, throwing her off balance, and she collided with a low tree branch.
Old Coreyville Cemetery was not being managed the way it once was, and Ginger had been complaining about the maintenance of the trees and shrubbery.
Her hair blew to one side, and she shivered as she untangled herself from the tree branch.
Her flashlight went out.
Suddenly the wind stopped. The air was dead still.
She hit the side of her flashlight with her hand, and it came back to life, but the beam was weak. The batteries were dying fast. She could see where she was about to step, but no farther.
Ginger took it slow, wanting to find Susanna as quickly as possible but knowing that she’d be no help to anyone if she tripped on a branch or some other windblown object and became immobilized. The two of them would be crying out to each other for help, with no one to answer. However, Ginger had her phone in her pocket, and unlike the flashlight, it still had plenty of power. And if her flashlight went dead before she located Susanna, she could use the flashlight app on her phone to find her way home.
This was crazy, though. Wandering around in a cold, dark cemetery with a weak flashlight and no coat? She could just take out her phone, call 9-1-1, and go back to her warm house. Let the police come out with their powerful flashlights and bullhorns and dogs. They could track her down in no time. Of course, it would probably take them at least ten minutes to arrive. Ginger could find her faster than that.
Besides, what if this was a prank? Would Susanna do that to her? Yes, she just might. Then Ginger would look like a fool for calling in the cops.
She began walking again. Her nose picked up the strong scent of Japanese honeysuckle. It was a lovely aroma, but almost too much for Ginger. Her acute sense of smell and taste had helped her create dozens of tasty cake recipes and earned her the Queen of East Texas Bakers moniker, but sometimes she wished she could turn down the sensitivity level just a bit.
She yelled, “Susanna? Susanna?”
Why wasn’t she answering? If Susanna had taken a wrong turn, she might be way in the back of the cemetery. Perhaps she’d fallen and hit her head and was badly injured. What if she was dead? Nobody liked Susanna, least of all Ginger, but she’d forgiven Susanna for what she’d done—or at least she thought she had, until she began to dwell on it again. Why couldn’t she just let it go once and for all?
Because Susanna was despicable.
What if she had to give Susanna CPR to bring her back to life? Ginger would do it, of course. Whatever it took. But they would never be friends. How could they be, as long as Susanna treated Ginger as her mortal enemy—as though it were a fight to the death between them and their two bakeries.
She shouted, “Susanna? Where are you?” Ginger heard the frustration in her own voice. It was not something she wanted Susanna to hear, sounding like she hated to be bothered by someone who might be in dire need of her help. “Susanna? Are you okay, honey? Please answer if you can.”
It was the first day of Ginger’s annual bake-off, a four-day event that she held in conjunction with the final week of the Coreyville Carnival. The carnival was held at the fairgrounds, located at the edge of town, just a few blocks from Ginger’s bakery, Coreyville Coffee Cakes.
Ginger’s bake-off was a great promotional opportunity for the participating bakeries because it attracted folks from all over the area, including Longview, Marshall, Gladewater, and Tyler. She had kicked things off with an orientation dinner that evening. For the next two days, contestants from eight area bakeries would be giving lessons and schmoozing with fans at Coreyville Hotel, and then selling their cakes and pastries from tents at the carnival. Ginger marveled at the very idea that bakers could have fans.
On Saturday, at the carnival, judges would select the three winning cakes. And the competition was brutal. Every baker lusted after the first-place trophy that Ginger had won every year.
Ginger heard something up ahead. Probably an armadillo or a raccoon. The type of critters that roamed the cemetery usually stayed clear of humans as long as they didn’t feel threatened. Ginger would never forget the time she’d accidentally walked into the safe space of a nervous skunk. She thought her nose was going to explode. Couldn’t smell anything but skunk for a week.
She noticed a light in the distance, and hurried toward it. “Susanna?”
The light was on the ground. Susanna had apparently fallen and dropped her flashlight.
When she got closer, though, she didn’t see Susanna. There was only a flashlight, jammed into the ground at the back end. The beam was directed at Ginger’s gravestone, which stood beside Lester’s.
Ginger leaned over to get a closer look. She could smell the plastic of the flashlight and just a hint of something else—an unexpected scent. It was—
She froze as she saw something shocking.
The date of death had been added to her gravestone.
March 23, 2016.
“That’s today,” she said out loud.
She was still bent over when she heard something behind her and turned her head to look.
A woman towered over her.
Short, blond hair.
A bat in her hands—no, a shovel.
She wasn’t in distress at all.
She wasn’t lost in the cemetery.
The whole thing was a trick, a ruse, to lure Ginger out there so she could attack her.
This was the last straw! No more valiant attempts at forgiveness.
This was war!
Before she could move, the shovel struck the side of her head.
Ginger felt the energy draining from her body.
She needed to get up.
The next blow could crack her head wide open.
But she was too weak. She was helpless, about to pass out.
Or was she already becoming brain dead?
Was Susanna about to strike her again?
Hundreds of thoughts flashed through her mind in less than a second. So, this was how she would die? With a red-hot hatred burning in her heart? She’d always assumed that when the day came, she would go peacefully—maybe like Lester, in her sleep—or at least with a calm, loving heart. But all she wanted to do was get up, snatch the shovel out of Susanna’s deceitful hands, and beat her to death with it.
What a grisly thought to die with.
She pictured Lester, who was buried just a few feet from her. They’d always talked about him taking an early retirement, buying an RV, and touring the country. Ginger had great employees, and she could have taken off for weeks at a time. But then Lester was diagnosed with lung cancer and went down much faster than the doctor had predicted. He didn’t even smoke. Perhaps it had been caused by working at the chemical plant for all those years.
She and Lester never bought that RV. They never went anywhere but the doctor’s office and the hospital. And finally, to the funeral home.
But recently, Ginger had been given a second chance at love. She and Elijah Bideman had been inching toward marriage. Now that dream was dying too.
Her one happy thought was that she’d soon be joining Lester, her mom and dad, and her Grandma Jessie and Grandpa Cecil. Ginger missed them all so much.
It seemed to be happening in slow motion. She fell forward until the top of her head bumped into her gravestone. It didn’t hurt. It felt like a soft pillow instead of the cold, unforgiving granite that it was.
Inch by inch, her head slid down the front of her gravestone as her failing eyes saw the ground coming closer . . . closer . . . closer . . .
Next Chapter —>