"Hot Cross Buns"
David C. Kopaska-Merkel
I had developed a Saturday morning habit of stopping by the bakery on my way home from my run. The Three Boatman Bakery, despite its odd name, was not owned by a retired sailor. I never did hear the story behind the name. Anyway, I'd pick up a couple of hot cross buns and by the time I got home with them, Alma would have made tea. We couldn't afford a house with a garden, but we had some potted plants in front of a big living-room window, and we'd have breakfast there. One Saturday when I got to TB2 it was closed. It looked like Harold Baker had not even been in that morning.
I had to tell Alma why I didn't have hot cross buns.
“Maybe he's on vacation, or he got sick, kidnapped by wallabies,” she said.
“It's that last one I'm worried about,” I said.
“This is very good tea by the way.”
“No, I don't think wallabies were involved. I looked for footprints, and this isn't their kind of game anyway. If we were talking about a protection racket I would suspect straightaway. But I'm sure that he's not on vacation. I'll stop by his house in a bit and see if he's ill.
Alma handed me a napkin.
“Your chin. Well, I have a few things for you to do, but why don't you check on Mr. Baker first. You won't be able to concentrate on anything else till you've done that.”
Baker lived alone, but I solicited the help of a neighbor and I jimmied the back door. The house was empty. He had no pets. We checked his house plants. None of them needed water, which meant nothing, because we already knew he had been gone less than 24 hours.
I saw no signs of a struggle. I went back to the shop, and talked to some of the other shopkeepers in the vicinity. The boot maker next door said he had seen Harold leaving the bakery the previous evening. He did not stop hammering shoes together.
“Did he seem okay?” I asked.
"As far as I can tell. But I don't know him very well. You might learn more talking to either the butcher or the candle vendor. The three of them go way back. Look, I hate to be rude, but I'm working on a rush order. Some cat brought these boots in to be repaired and he's leaving town tonight.”
"Then I have 12 sets of royal ballet slippers that I have to finish by sundown, and I'm not even talking about the seven league boots!"
"I get the picture: you're busy. Aren't we all? Say, how much for a pair of seven league boots in my size?"
He looked me over. "You can't afford it."
The bells hanging from the door of the butcher shop jingled pleasantly as I pushed my way in. The air was redolent with the smell of spiced sausage. Behind the counter a stout man wiped his hands on an apron that had seen better days.
"What can I do for you sir?" he asked.
I introduced myself, told him I was looking for his neighbor the baker.
"The boot maker said you knew the baker pretty well," I said.
"Any reason you know of why he might have gone away suddenly?"
"Oh, well, we had some good times when we were younger, even sailed together for a while, but we haven't really had much contact lately. I couldn't tell you if he has a girlfriend or a house in the country, or anything like that."
"What about enemies," I asked, "or stalkers?"
The meat chopper had no clue. I struck out on the other side as well. The candle seller wasn't in. On the door of his shop was a sign saying he would return in a few minutes. I waited around for about an hour, but he didn't show.
So Harold Baker had been kidnapped. I was sure of it, but I had no evidence. Who was the culprit? Jack Horner? He seemed to have his finger in every pie in town. Joan Sprat (or whatever her last name was now) had a history of extravagant relationships with baked goods, so she was a possibility. I wasn't as familiar with carbo-related crime as I should be. I couldn't do this on my own.
I needed some hard information about the gustatory arts, and for that I went to The Wizard. The Wizard of Whipped Cream was a retired chef of keen insight, and his knowledge-gathering tentacles extended the length and breadth of the land. He had helped me out before, in the spine-tingling matter of Kook E.Cutter and the creampuff killings.
"Maybe he was taken out by a rival."
"A rival BAKER!?"
"There's a big pie-baking competition coming up. The king needs a new baker, having disposed of the last one. It has royal sponsorship and a big purse to the winner."
I hadn't heard anything about this.
"I hadn't heard anything about this. What was wrong with the old baker?"
"I hear the King referred to him as a birdbrain; said something about West Nile virus."
"Hmm," I mused.
"I did not know there was killing-level competition for a job where the last person to hold it was summarily executed by his employer. So who fancies himself a good baker, but might think HB is better?"
"Not a clue." His tone made it clear the conversation was over.
I couldn't spend all my time wandering around the city looking for someone no one was paying me to find, so I headed over to my office. When I got there, someone was sitting on the steps in front of my building. She was plump, fiftyish, and looked like she smiled a lot. She wasn't smiling today.
"What seems to be the problem, Ma'am?'
"It's my husband. He's been missing since last night. He didn't come home from work. I went to his shop and he wasn't there. No one knows where he is. I'm worried, this is so unlike him, he can't have run off. Something is wrong."
By this time she was trembling and it was hard to understand her words.
"I thought Harold Baker was single," I said.
"My husband makes candles. He's good at what he does."
I looked at her.
"The candlestick maker. I went by his shop today. It's not a coincidence when two businessmen who knew each other well and who owned adjacent shops disappear in the same night."
"Oh Mr. Deadbolt, you'll take my case?"
"Come inside, Mrs..."
She struggled to her feet and hefted her purse, passing it from one hand to the other.
Upstairs, she seemed uncomfortable, looking every way but at me when I looked at her, and staring at me when I focused my eyes anywhere else. She knew something. I finished shoveling my papers around on my desk and cleared my throat. I went through the usual drill: enemies, jilted lovers ("certainly not!"), and so on.
Finally I said, "Mrs. Fordham, if you keep secrets from me,I can't find your husband. Whatever you're not telling me, it could be important."
She took a deep breath and let it out.
"I'm angry at myself and my husband about this, that's all. Something was bothering him--Some person. Someone who was there almost all the time, but he said he wasn't ready to accuse anybody, and I respected that. He never told me who was bothering him or exactly what that person was doing."
She wasn't telling me anything.
"That's okay, I'll see what I can find out."
I showed her out politely and shut the door. I didn't know whether she was still hiding something or she really didn't know anything.
The baker and the candlestick maker had disappeared without a trace. I couldn't find any witnesses who had seen them during the time they must have vanished and I couldn't find any physical clues on the ground. Maybe I was approaching the whole problem from the wrong end. Maybe I needed to look at the possible culprits. A little investigating showed that Jack Horner had been out of town for a brass competition. I still had gotten no traction with the rival baker concept. No one seemed worked up enough about the competition, and the betting was not in Harold Baker's favor anyway. That left...
A cold icy feeling started to spread through my midsection, beginning with the spot just above my navel where she had her pistol pointed. raised my arms slowly.
"Pound," she snapped, "not Sprat. I haven't been together with him for years."
She had been a big woman when she was married to Jack Sprat, and the years had not taken off any pounds. Still, her physical condition didn't matter much when she stood behind a loaded gun. I had tracked her movements over the past few days and discovered she'd made several trips to a seemingly abandoned warehouse in a postindustrial neighborhood due for reclamation. Then I had slipped up and let her get the drop on me.
"I slipped up and let you get the drop on me. At least tell me why."
She set her lips in a thin line, then took a breath.
"I just can't keep away from his cream puffs or the éclairs. Definitely, the cream puffs and the éclairs are the best in the city. And the doughnut holes--There's just something about them..."
Normally I would have interrupted such nonsense, but I let her ramble, while I looked for a way out. The longer she talked, the better my chances were.
"So I kidnapped him," she concluded.
"What about the candle seller? He doesn't make pastries does he?"
She scowled and shifted her weight, but not enough.
"No, he got there just as I was hustling the baker into my van. I had to take him too. It's not like anybody would miss that baker. Other people don't appreciate him like I do."
Now I started to get mad.
"That's just not right," I said.
"I miss him! I've never had hot cross buns half as good as the ones he makes every morning. I've been buying them every week for a year. Alma feels the same way. You haven't seen me there because you don't get up as early on Saturday morning as I do. So I can't just walk away from this. No one's paying me to find Harold Baker."
This was true, but I was being paid to find the candlestick maker. Baker was just lagniappe. And now she was going to shoot me.
But she didn't pull the trigger.
"You care?" I nodded.
"I thought I was the only one. I thought no one would mind if I kept him for myself. This changes everything. I can't deprive fans of sweet pastry. If I did that, how could I look at myself in the mirror in the morning?"
I was already wondering that, but decided to say nothing about it. She went on for a while in the same vein, and then walked over to an interior wall and used a key to open a door in the middle of the wall. She started to step in, but turned with a hand on the doorknob. "They are locked in the back, Deadbolt," she said. "You'll be able to get them out." With that she closed the door quickly and I heard her footsteps retreating beyond the wall. I ran to the door, but it was locked. By the time I broke through to the other half of the warehouse, which was almost completely filled with junked equipment, and out the door on the other side, she was gone.
You win some you lose some. I did not catch the villain, but I freed the innocent. And I can once again enjoy the pastry that marks its own spot every Saturday morning. Oh, and a grateful client gave me a lifetime supply of candles. Alma told me that I light up her life. Isn't that sweet?
‘Hot Cross Buns’ previously appeared in Nursery Rhyme Noir, Sam's Dot Publishing, 2008.