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 her 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 . . .
Wednesday, 11:14 p.m.
Ginger began to regain consciousness. She was lying on her back and could feel her head throbbing, but otherwise, her senses were dull. She felt like she’d been asleep for three days, then awakened in the middle of the night. The room was completely black. Her body shivered. Why was the house so cold?
Her hands began to regain their sense of touch, but instead of feeling the smooth, warm sheets of her bed, she felt the cold, damp . . . grass? Ginger wiggled her toes and realized she was wearing shoes. She began to touch herself all over. She was fully dressed and wearing an apron.
Where was she, and how the heck did she get there?
Ginger located her cell phone in her apron pocket, took it out, woke it up, and held it over her face. It was eleven-fourteen p.m. She turned on her flashlight app and projected the beam in one direction and then another. She saw trees and bushes. Gravestones.
She was in the cemetery. Why in the world was she sleeping in the cemetery? Nothing made sense.
Memories flashed by like headlights on a busy freeway. She concentrated to try to slow them down, but they were disjointed, sketchy, and out of order. It was like trying to recall an old, half-forgotten dream. She remembered a man talking to her about a reverse mortgage. No, wait—that was a TV commercial.
Ginger tried to sit up, got dizzy, and quickly turned to the side and vomited. She eased herself back into her original position, flat on her back, to let her stomach settle.
She called 9-1-1.
“Ginger? What’s the matter, sugarplum?”
“Sherry, I’m in the cemetery, and I don’t know how I got here.” Ginger was heartened to realize that at least she’d remembered Sherry’s name.
“Old Coreyville Cemetery, behind your house? So, you got yourself all disoriented and went wandering around out there in the dark, not knowing why you were there?”
“No, it’s not like that, Sherry. I’m on the ground. I just woke up and I can’t remember much, but my head is throbbing like crazy. I think somebody attacked me. I need an ambulance.”
“Okay, sugarplum. Just stay put, and I’ll get you some help right away. And don’t hang up.”
“I won’t.” Ginger could hear Sherry radioing the paramedics.
Sherry came back to the phone. “So, did you have anything to drink tonight, or maybe take some pain pills?”
“Now, you know I don’t drink,” Ginger said. “Do I? I’m pretty sure I don’t. My memories are all jumbled up.”
“Well, I’ve never seen you take a drink, but honey, working this job, you learn that a lot of folks do their drinking in private. Lord, you’d be shocked to know how many times I get calls from them people. One night, a certain somebody—I can’t say who—was having some fun with her new margarita machine and got falling-down drunk—literally. She fell off her back porch and landed in the dang flowerbed, face first. Nearly suffocated. She like to have never got all that crap out of her nose. Her yard people had just added new mulch, and you know how godawful it smells.”
Ginger suddenly realized that she couldn’t smell anything—not the grass, not the honeysuckle, not even the vomit she’d spewed onto the ground right beside her.
She smelled NOTHING.
She licked her arm and tasted NOTHING.
“Ginger? Are you still there?”
Under her breath, she said, “I can’t smell or taste anything.”
“Wait—I just remembered something. I was in my kitchen, working on a cake recipe, and somebody called me on the phone—Susanna Clampford, I think—but after that, it’s fuzzy.”
Ginger saw a powerful light approaching her.
“They’re here, Sherry. I’m hanging up now. Thanks so much.”
“Any time, sugarplum.”
The man behind the flashlight had a gravelly sounding voice. “Ginger?”
It was Boot Hornamer, the eighty-something-year-old Justice of the Peace. He must have been driving around and heard the call for the ambulance on his radio.
“Boot, what are you doing out and about this time of night?” But she already knew the answer. He was nocturnal to hear him tell it, sleeping maybe two to three hours a day, usually in the afternoon.
He was chomping on a big wad of chewing tobacco, as usual. “Paramedics will be here shortly, Ginger. How bad are you hurting?”
“My head’s killing me, but otherwise, I think I’m okay.”
“What are you doing out here at this time of night, girl?” He spit tobacco juice into a bush.
“I don’t know. I’m having trouble remembering.”
He leaned down with his powerful flashlight, blinding her. “Looks like you’re bleeding.”
“Yeah, you’ve got blood on your hands.” He inspected each hand. “But I don’t see any cuts.”
“Really?” She held her hands up to her eyes. In the bright light from Boot’s flashlight, she could see the dried blood.
“You said you’ve got a headache. Maybe the blood’s from your head.” He knelt beside her and inspected her head, digging into her scalp with his fingers. “Does this hurt?”
“Ow! You’re pulling my hair!”
“Sorry. Your head ain’t bleeding, as far as I can tell.”
“Well, that’s good to know. Thanks.”
“You feel like trying to get up?”
“No. I think I’d better wait for the paramedics.”
“Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.” He stood up. “You know, when I was walking up, I heard you telling Sherry that somebody called you on the phone and that’s why you came out here.”
“Yeah, I think that’s what happened. I mean, I must have had some reason to come out here in the middle of the night. I think Susanna Clampford called me from the cemetery, and I came out her to meet her for some reason. I can’t remember exactly why, though.”
“Wait. You just said something new.”
“Yeah. You said she called you from the cemetery.”
“Yeah, I did say that, but I’m not sure if it really happened.”
“Susanna Clampford’s the one who owns that big bakery in Marshall, right? Your number-one enemy?”
“I don’t have any enemies, Boot. Not really.”
He spit to the side.
“If my head’s not bleeding,” she held up her hands, “then where did this blood come from?”
“Good question.” He inspected the area. “There’s a shovel over here. Looks like blood on the handle. Hey, this is your shovel, Ginger.”
“What? No, it couldn’t be mine.”
“It’s got your name on it.”
“Well, I can’t imagine why I would have been walking around out here at night with a shovel. It doesn’t make any sense.”
The paramedics arrived and began to check her out.
Boot continued to nose around with his flashlight for a while and then came back to Ginger. “There’s a body over there.”
“A body?” Ginger’s mind raced as she tried to jog her memory.
“Just a few yards up the trail. It’s a woman. Looks like somebody bashed her head in.”
“Oh, God. She’s dead? Did you recognize her?”
“Well, her face has got blood all over it, so I’m not sure, but it looks like it might be Susanna Clampford.”
“I didn’t really know her, but I’ve seen her around.”
“And, uh, it looks like the murder weapon is your shovel.”
“Oh, no. I don’t understand what happened, Boot.”
The paramedics transferred Ginger to a stretcher.
Boot said, “I gotta call the chief, Ginger, so don’t be surprised when he shows up at the hospital asking all kinds of questions.”
“But, you don’t think that I—”
“It don’t matter what I think. Somebody killed that poor woman, and I gotta do my job.” He took out his phone.
The paramedics picked up the stretcher and carried her out of the cemetery.
Ginger tried to focus all her brain power on remembering what had happened. She pictured Susanna standing over her with a shovel and swinging it at her. Then she got up and fought with Susanna.
Did that really happen?
And did she then grab the shovel away from Susanna and start beating her with it?
She couldn’t imagine herself doing that, but if Susanna attacked her with a shovel, maybe Ginger’s old hatred for the woman had come flooding back and caused her to go after Susanna with a blind vengeance.
She prayed that wasn’t true.
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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”