To the outside observer, the scene in the living room was peaceful. A large fawn-coloured greyhound dozed in front of the large stone fireplace, warmed by the flickering flames. To one side was the old man, resting easily in his large wingback chair, flicking through the stock market reports as he usually did at this time of night. On the opposite side of the fire, the man’s beautiful wife was draped elegantly along a chaise lounge tapping away on her sleek laptop.
The observer shivered, but whether it was from the cold or longing they weren’t sure. Since it was a damp, bitter night in early October, complete with a light drizzle that dampened everything, it should have been the former. But the feeling of longing was cold as an arctic gale. There wasn’t just the glass of the window separating them from the domestic scene inside; it was so much more than that.
Why did the old man deserve such peace when there were so many others who were without it? Did anyone in this sleepy village really appreciate the peace they took for granted?
Maybe they would when all of this was over…
The shriek filled every room in the small cottage. Ginger Burnet, hazel eyes wide with panic, raced down the narrow, creaking stairs. She could hear the heavy footsteps of her pursuer close behind her as she took the corner into the living room.
It was barely dawn in Little Chiswick, in the county of Gloucestershire, and the house was still unlit. Every corner was darkened with shadow as Ginger dashed across the living room. Disaster struck when the woven rug laid on the smooth wooden floorboards flew out from under her feet.
Ginger crashed to the ground. It was over for her. Moments after, her attacker struck with vicious precision.
Letting out a yelp of pain, Ginger rolled onto her back, pushing her long brown hair out of her face. “That’s my toe, you little miscreant!”
Nina, the larger of the pair of British blue shorthair cats who also lived in the Georgian-era stone cottage, paused her assault on Ginger’s fluffy slipper-socks. Her ears flickered back and forth.
“I thought we agreed that if I bought you the little dangling mouse on a string toy, you wouldn’t treat my slippers as your nemesis?” Ginger said, swatting lightly at Nina as the cat’s wide golden eyes locked once more on the closest woollen tassel.
Strolling into the living room at a far more dignified pace, the second of Ginger’s cats, Miles, wandered over to investigate the chaos his sister had caused. Although one of his greenish-golden eyes was milky with blindness, his other was bright with curiosity as he immediately climbed into Ginger’s lap before stepping deliberately on her stomach.
“Ow, that’s my bladder, Your Highness.” Ginger winced, shooing the cat away despite his indignant meows of protest. “Go on, the both of you. Find something else to do besides bother me. I still need to do an icing test on the cake before I leave for work — Nina, no!”
Slick as butter, the cat sprung out of Ginger’s reach, one claw caught in the woollen weave of the knee-high grey socks. When she tugged on her prey, however, the claw slipped loose. This sudden movement was enough to convince Miles it was time to play.
Ginger gasped as he used her stomach as a launch pad to attack his sister, before the two cats went skittering out of the living room.
Shaking her head with a chuckle, Ginger straightened the rug, then got to her feet. Flipping on the tall lamp in the corner by her precious turntable, she trailed a finger along the collection of records filling the shelf. Pulling out an Ella Fitzgerald record, she placed it on the turntable.
As the music filled the early morning in the chilly house, Ginger danced toward the kitchen, letting the energy of a new day fill her. Although she’d been up late the night before baking and had only slept in fits and starts, she was finding it easier to face each day.
Of course, the events at Arlington Manor in August still haunted her dreams, but the ghosts were getting quieter. She was getting better at sleeping through the night, but after so many mornings spent watching and waiting for the sunrise to banish the memories, she found she enjoyed the fresh sense of possibility the early morning brought.
So, here she was at 5 a.m., dancing to Ella Fitzgerald around her kitchen, preparing to attempt an icing test for her latest cake project. Setting the kettle on to boil, she prepared her usual morning cup of peppermint tea and cafetiere of coffee.
The kitchen was her favourite room in the house, for obvious reasons. With its blue-grey cabinet doors and draw fronts, floor tiles the colour of light brown sugar, and the exposed beams of the cottage giving it a homey air, Ginger spent much of her time there. When she wasn’t cooking or baking for friends, family, clients who had ordered a cake, or herself, she would often sit cross-legged on one of the worn chairs reading baking articles and watching videos on her laptop at the scrubbed oak table. The table, a hefty, knife-scarred thing, had been there since before the previous owner of the cottage had moved in, back in the sixties, and Ginger loved the character it added to the room.
Opening the fridge, she carefully lifted out the sweet and sticky loaf cake that had been cooling overnight. The earthy, sweet scent of stem ginger and sticky black treacle filled the kitchen. Ginger experimentally poked the rich, golden brown surface, frowning at the texture.
“A little dry,” she murmured, setting it on the oak countertop. “Maybe the curd and buttercream will help.”
After pouring her tea and coffee, she set the steaming cup and cafetiere on the table and began gathering the ingredients for her buttercream icing. Soon, she had a large bowl of creamy, fluffy coconut buttercream ready for spreading. However, she first halved the loaf cake and spread a generous layer of mango curd inside, before layering the cake once more.
“I hope Mum and Colin like the flavour,” Ginger said to the house at large, as she began applying the buttercream. “Getting gluten-free cake right is always a challenge.”
The cake was a test bake for the creation she was planning for her stepfather Colin’s retirement party at the end of the month. After twenty-seven years as a tree surgeon and manager for the woodland of a local wildlife sanctuary, he was stepping away from his job. Ginger had offered to provide the cake, and she had big plans for it.
The time flew by and, before she knew it, Ginger’s coffee was gone, the cake was done, and she was running late for her job at Chiswick Park Academy.
Swearing under her breath, Ginger rushed to box up the cake, then changed out of her slipper socks and into her shoes. Wriggling into her coat and yanking on a woollen hat that mussed up her feathery bangs, she dashed out of the door with the cake box tucked under her arm.
Soon, Ginger was cycling at a brisk pace along the quiet, winding country road that hid the row of three cottages, of which hers was the last. Farmland rolled away on both sides of the lane like textured fondant. Most of the fields contained nothing but the bristled remains of wheat and barley stalks. Crows and gulls searched for fallen grains, scattering into the air like salt and pepper as Ginger flew by on her bike.
The stress of running late soon dissolved and Ginger took a deep breath of the clean, slightly damp morning air. From somewhere there drifted the earthy, but not unpleasant, scent of mulch and wet fallen leaves.
By the time Ginger turned onto the long, winding gravel drive that led to the doors of Chiswick Park Academy, she was humming and, once again, on time.
Chiswick Park was renowned as one of the best schools in the county, if not the whole of the South West of England. It was an old institution, dating back several hundred years when it had started life as a seminary. The academy was now responsible for several hundred students from around the country, and the world, who lived at the school for the whole term, as well as nearly two hundred more students who lived locally and only attended during the day.
The myriad of affluent parents who sent their children to Chiswick Park kept the school’s seven teaching buildings and large chapel, all built of the honeyed local Cotswold limestone, in perfect condition. It also paid for the gym, swimming pool, woodworking and ceramics studios, block of stables, and personal cricket pitch.
There were children everywhere as she pulled up at the front of the school, all dressed in the rick burgundy and sky-blue uniform of the academy. As Ginger dismounted her bike and wheeled it into the sleek glass and metal covered bike storage unit, complete with CCTV and multiple layers of storage, several of the faculty members heading into the building gave her a wave.
One of these was Bonnie Natt, one of Ginger’s long-time friends and a member of the art department at the academy.
“Is that a cake box I spy in your bicycle basket?” she called, shooing several young students toward the doors as the first bell rang, “or are you just happy to see me?”
Ginger laughed, locking her bike into place. “Both, as always, Bonnie. I’ll leave the cake in the staff room for everyone to try at lunch.”
Bonnie gave a grin and a thumbs up, the October sunshine making her short auburn hair glow like fire.
“Your baking is a source of great temptation to me, Ginger Burnet,” said a deep male voice from behind her.
Clutching the cake box to her chest like a shield, Ginger spun around, torn between her flight, fight, or freeze instincts.
“Rhys,” she said, as she recognised Chiswick Park’s newest history teacher, trying not to stare at the way his cycling shirt clung to his broad, muscled chest. “For a big guy, you can be very quiet. You scared me.”
Rhys frowned in consternation. With his light brown hair still mussed by his bike helmet and his dark brown eyes pinched slightly with concern, he strongly reminded Ginger of a remorseful chocolate Labrador or a worried Cocker Spaniel.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, his lilting Welsh accent making Ginger’s heart flutter a little as it always did. “Would you perhaps like me to wear one of those bells they have on cats’ collars?”
Ginger laughed, the panic retreating as quickly as it had consumed her. “Perhaps,” she said, falling into step with him as they both walked toward the main building. “Although I’m sure that would only make the Year 10 girls find you even more adorable.”
Rhys flushed and grimaced, ruffling his hair to ease his awkwardness.
“Bonnie told me last week that one of the house mothers found out a group of the girls had made an Instagram account dedicated to me,” he said, opening the door for them both and ushering Ginger through ahead of him. “It was called ‘The Chiswick TILF’, although God knows what that means.”
Ginger bit down on a smile. “TILF?” she said innocently. “I think it means Teacher I’d Like to Fu—”
“Sweet Mary, Jesus, and Joseph,” he muttered, hurrying away toward the teachers’ shower and changing room before she could finish. “You’re a menace, Ginger. I’ll see you later.”
Ginger laughed heartily as she continued on toward the kitchens, only remembering at the last moment that she needed to leave the cake in the staff room.
Retracing her steps, she wandered through the now empty halls. Peering into the box to examine how the cake had survived her commute, she almost collided with someone as they unexpectedly turned the corner.
“Ginger,” said Professor Callum West, head of the English department, reaching out to steady her. “Turning up like a bad penny as usual, eh?”
She couldn’t help but grin at his greeting. Although she’d only been working at Chiswick Park for just over a month, Callum had been warm and friendly to her from the very start.
There was an energy about his whole appearance and demeanour — the stylish kind of bald, bright blue eyes, clean shaven, and somehow managing to look casually dressed even in the three-piece brown suit he wore every day — that drew people in.
Ginger was not the exception, and she quickly counted Callum as a friend. They had plenty to talk about despite him being fifteen years older than her twenty-eight years, and he’d come to dinner at her house several times, followed by hours of drinking good scotch and listening to jazz while they had animated conversations.
But right now, Callum looked distracted, peering up and down the corridor.
“I don’t suppose you’ve seen Gus Amberley while coming to school?” he asked. “I was supposed to have a meeting with him before class started but he didn’t show up.”
Ginger thought for a moment, trying to think if she’d seen the hunched, sullen figure of Gus Amberley, only son of one of the richest families in Chiswick, in the halls.
“Sorry,” she said, shrugging her shoulders helplessly. “I haven’t seen him today.”
Callum frowned, rubbing a hand across his lined forehead. “All right, Ginger, thank you anyway. I’ll see you later.”
Ginger watched him go, wearing a frown of her own. Callum had never mentioned Gus to her before, but the concern in his face was serious.
What was going on with Gus Amberley?
Ginger was soon too busy to wonder about the whereabouts of Gus Amberley. It was chicken pie for lunch that day and all the food at Chiswick Park was made fresh. For the next several hours, Ginger was up to her elbows — almost literally — in shortcrust pastry.
Once the pastry was finished and passed on to the other staff who were actually assembling the pies, Ginger turned her attention to the list of baked goods she was supposed to make that day for the café in Melville House.
Most of Ginger’s day was spent in Melville House, the smallest of Chiswick Park’s seven main buildings. It had originally been built by Lord Thomas Melville, the owner during the 1750s, as guest quarters for the staff of his noble friends.
Now, the building served as a social space and café for the students who boarded at the school, with an added hospitality area for visitors. Ginger had been hired to run the café, a job which involved providing fresh baked goods each day.
She was in the process of assembling a chocolate cake layered with honeycomb whipped cream when she felt a recognisable flustered presence behind her.
“How can I help you, Headmaster?” she asked, not looking away from the cake as she carefully set the top layer on top of the thick cream filling.
George Harvey, the average height, slightly doughy man who was the current headmaster of Chiswick Park Academy, rubbed his hands together as he hovered in the doorway of the kitchen.
His brown hair was thinning on top and everyone knew he had all kinds of bizarre hair growth tricks and serums delivered to the school so his wife didn’t know. As usual, he wore a dark blue suit that might have looked distinguished on him fifteen years and twenty pounds ago, but now just looked strained.
But then, everything about Headmaster Harvey looked strained.
“I just came from Melville House and noticed that the new cakes hadn’t been put out yet,” he said, fiddling with his thick-framed black glasses. “They’re meant to be out by 12:20 and it’s noon now and I didn’t see you setting them up…”
The cake safely in place, Ginger dusted off her hands on her skirt then turned to the headmaster.
“Everything is ready to go,” she said with forced calm. “I already heated up the coffee machine, and just came back to put the cakes together. The café will be open at 12:30 as always, Headmaster.”
“Good… good to know.” Headmaster Harvey lingered for a moment longer, forcing several of the kitchen porters to awkwardly skirt around him.
“Can I do anything else for you?” Ginger asked, trying not to giggle as she imagined Bonnie’s reaction when Ginger told the story later in the break room. “Otherwise I really should get on. Can’t have the café opening late, can we?”
The headmaster immediately straightened, flushing as he realised he was causing a delay. “Of course not, Miss Burnet. Carry on.”
He turned to leave and almost ran face-first into the swinging silver doors that led out of the kitchen. The kitchen staff all pretended to not have seen, but as soon as he was out of sight the kitchen filled with muffled laughter.
Ginger chuckled, shaking her head, and began loading up the hostess trolley with the cakes, muffins, brownies, and scones intended for Melville House.
The main halls were filled with students at this time of day, so Ginger decided to take the outside route through the decorative courtyard garden enclosed on all four sides by the main house.
The paths were made of smooth, grey sandstone slabs and were edged with neatly clipped box hedges. The stone was dotted with darker patches which were still wet with the previous night’s rain. Ginger turned her face to the October sun, enjoying the cool breeze after so many hours spent in the kitchens.
If the weather was good that weekend, she would take her mother apple picking, she thought. Maybe she’d even be able to get her brother, Valerian, to come along. It wasn’t as if he had done anything other than drink and mope since he’d been put on temporary suspension from the police force the month before.
“I have to wonder if there is ever a moment in your day where you don’t have a cake with you or something to hand.”
For the second time that day Ginger was startled from her thoughts by Rhys’s voice. He waved from his place on a bench beside the pond at the centre of the courtyard. One ankle was propped on the opposite knee in a pose of relaxation; a book lay open on his thickly-muscled thigh.
“I’m working on getting a bell,” he promised with a grin that made the light stubble on his cheeks, chin, and upper lip catch the sun slightly. “For now, I’ll still be addressing you initially from a distance.”
Ginger laughed, slowing her pace. “I appreciate that. Pretty sure I’ve got a spare cat collar with a bell at home. I could bring it in tomorrow for you?”
Rhys grinned. “It’s a very kind offer, but I have my own bell supplier, thank you.”
“How very middle class of you,” Ginger teased, halting completely as she drew level with him. “Interesting book?”
Rhys nodded, picking it up to show her the cover. “The Moneyless Man. It’s about a guy who lived completely without money for a year as an experiment, but he still lives like that now.”
“You’d better not let the headmaster see you reading that,” Ginger said with a laugh as she continued on through the courtyard, sticking to the path that would take her across the quieter east hall toward Melville House. “He’ll be terrified Callum corrupted you and is getting you to teach all the kids about anarchy and convincing them to turn on their rich, capitalist parents.”
“Long live the revolution!” Rhys called after her, giving an overly serious salute.
The rest of the afternoon for Ginger consisted of manning the counter at the little café in Melville House. Apart from a few prospective parents there to meet with George Harvey, it was quiet for several hours. Ginger therefore took the opportunity to sketch and doodle plans for Colin’s retirement cake.
Her plan was to build an entirely edible forest out of cookies, puffed rice sculpted into various shapes, and a huge amount of fondant icing. The centrepiece, however, would be the ginger cake she was currently taste testing, decorated to look like the Porta Cabin that had been his office for many years.
The recipe she was trying to recreate was of a cake she’d had only once as a teenager. Colin had taken Ginger, her brother, and her mother Dorothy, whom he’d just married, to show them where he’d grown up in Jamaica and to meet his extended family. The cake had been baked by Colin’s grandmother, and even thirteen years later, Ginger could remember how perfect it had been.
It was the perfect thing to have as his retirement cake, but to Ginger’s deep frustration, she just couldn’t seem to get the recipe right. Not that she was actually working off a recipe since Colin’s grandmother had died several years before, and she had never written any of her recipes down. Therefore, Ginger was working off memory and guesswork. It didn’t help her case that Colin had recently become gluten intolerant, meaning she needed to make the whole cake creation gluten-free.
Ginger scribbled a note on the back of her hand that she needed to buy more xanthan gum at some point. As frustrating as it was, she was enjoying the challenge. She just didn’t want to give Colin something that was anything less than perfect.
“Any lingering scraps for a weary vagabond?” Callum West asked, joining Ginger behind the counter. “Surprised to see you still here.”
Ginger glanced up at the clock. “It’s half past five already?”
Callum laughed, taking one of the apple and cinnamon muffins from the display case and beginning to eat it. “Been one of those days where time is a bit malleable?” he asked.
Beginning the process of shutting up the café and cleaning up, Ginger nodded. “It was quiet in here for most of the afternoon apart from the three o’clock rush, so I guess I got a bit caught up in planning Colin’s cake.”
“How’s that going?” Callum asked, sitting on the counter while Ginger tidied as if he was a rebellious teenager and not a man in his early forties with a PhD and a mortgage. “Is he looking forward to retirement?”
They chatted easily for a while about Ginger’s baking plans, the conversation soon evolving into a discussion about the colonialism inherent in much of British cooking. A natural lull appeared as Ginger finished packing away the cakes for the night.
“What are you doing here so late?” she asked. “Surely you didn’t stay just for a muffin and a chat, not when we’ve got dinner this weekend.”
Callum shook his head, brushing the last of the crumbs off his lap.
“I’m lingering because I have a meeting with a parent,” he said. “And after Gus Amberley not showing to our meeting this morning, I want at least one meeting today to not be a total waste of my time.”
He sighed in frustration and Ginger cocked her head in question.
“I’ve tried everything to get through to Gus,” Callum said, visibly frustrated. “After the year off he took last year for that internship his father arranged for him, it’s like he doesn’t care about school at all. I’ve talked to him during class, after class, before class. I’ve talked to his parents, both individually and together. I’ve tried to arrange a tutor for him, but he never shows up to the appointments. It’s all been fruitless and I’m running out of ways to keep him just above a failing grade.”
“I’m sure your faith in him is appreciated,” Ginger said, turning off the display lights and closing the security grates over the service hatch. “Even if he doesn’t appreciate it now, I bet he will in the future.”
“I guess you can’t save them all, no matter how hard you try,” Callum said with a weak smile and slid off the counter. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Ginny. Right now, I’ve got papers to grade while I wait for this meeting.”
Ginger waved goodbye as Callum returned to the main building, while she headed for the kitchens to pick up her bag. Soon, she was on her bike once again, peddling steadily through the gloaming.
As she wheeled her bike up the garden path, she could see Nina and Miles asleep on the front windowsill over the radiator. Her heart warmed with love for her little companions, and her step quickened.
Tonight, she decided as she opened the door, was a night for soup, good cheese, and good wine. Then, cuddle time with the cats before bed.
Two meows greeted her as she closed the door behind her and took off her hat. She smiled, heading for the living room. Life was good.
The next morning dawned cold and miserable. A fretful wind sent the branches of the cherry tree in the rear garden into a slashing frenzy. Ginger was awoken by Miles anxiously kneading her stomach, unsettled by the weather. The only sign of Nina was her glowing golden eyes from her hiding spot in the dusty shadows on top of the wardrobe.
“It’s all right, Miles,” Ginger murmured, carrying the cat downstairs cradled in the crook of her dressing gown clad arm. “I’ll make you the little blanket fort before I head out to work. You can spend the whole day hiding and sleeping if you need to, baby.”
Ginger spent her time before work drinking coffee, comforting Miles, and researching various chocolatier techniques she would need to practice for Colin’s cake.
“Guess that art and sculpture degree are coming in useful in the end, aren’t they, Mum and Dad?” Ginger muttered to herself, clicking on another YouTube video and starting to take more notes.
Stepping out of the house, leaving behind the promised blanket fort for Miles, Ginger made it two steps into the lashing rain before she decided that today was a driving day, not a cycling one.
Leaving her bike in the tiny garage that housed her equally tiny car, she crawled along the lane toward Chiswick Park. Her wipers were working as hard as possible, but she still had to lean forward, squinting, to see the road through the pounding water.
She still arrived early however, the drive taking less time than her usual bike ride. Parking in the staff car park beside Melville House, Ginger held her coat over her head as she ran for cover.
“Wouldn’t be surprised if the roads flooded,” Aston, the young, overly stylish receptionist said glumly in response to Ginger’s cheerful good morning and comment about the weather. “I was meant to be going to an art show tonight too.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Ginger said breezily, wiggling the large box she held toward him. “I brought carrot cake muffins in today… your favourite. They’re still warm too.”
Aston’s usual look of detached sullenness that he wore at all times when not interacting with guests and important members of staff, brightened just slightly.
As if doing a strange cake strip tease, Ginger slowly peeled the lid off the box, releasing the glorious autumnal scent of cinnamon riding on the sweet smell of carrot.
“My girlfriend is trying to make me do the whole keto thing,” Aston said even as he snaked a hand out to take a muffin. “But this is mainly carrots, right? So, it’s healthy.”
“If that’s what you need to tell yourself,” Ginger said, not pointing out that the cream cheese icing that topped the muffins was not even remotely healthy.
Leaving Aston to his denial and dour attitude, Ginger strolled past the café on the route to the kitchen that meant she would be outside for the least amount of time.
As she wandered along the quiet hallways, currently empty of students at eight in the morning, she paused with a frown. Crouching, she pulled an A6 notebook, bound in red faux leather, out of one of the decorative plants.
It was easy to recognise, even without opening it. Ginger had seen Callum writing in it many times before, scribbling away at lunch or during a coffee break. She assumed it was some kind of personal journal or teaching notes and so, even though she was curious, she didn’t even take a peek. Instead, she tucked it into her pocket and changed her route to pass by Callum’s office, thinking she would offer him a muffin along with his lost notebook.
The light was on inside, brightening the words “Professor Callum West PhD” that were painted in gold typeface on the frosted glass of the door.
Rapping her knuckles quickly on the glass, Ginger opened the door without waiting for an answer. She knew at this time of day he’d be leaning back in his chair, feet up on the distinguished wooden desk, a book in one hand, and his headphones playing his favourite Rammstein songs at full volume to prepare for the day.
The scene that greeted her as she stepped inside, however, was very different. It took her a moment to even process what she was seeing.
Although warm with light, the room was cold. There was a patch of soaked carpet where an open window had allowed the rain to pour inside all night. The desk was in disarray; a chair had been knocked over on the side of the desk opposite Callum’s tatty black chair that he insisted didn’t need replacing.
In the centre of it all was Callum, dressed in the slouchy black suit from the day before, and the black lace-up shoes he once told her he’d been wearing to work every day for the last twelve years.
Except yesterday had apparently been the last day.
Professor Callum West was hanging from a rope attached to the old chandelier hook. To Ginger’s horror, he was very much dead.
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