Chiswick Park Academy was a hive of excitement. After a quiet summer housing only international boarding students with no plans to return home for the holidays, students had flooded back in a tsunami of chatter, shrieked reunions, and the clatter of hundreds of feet on ancient stone floors.
The current eye of the storm was in the academy’s chapel. On this second week of September, the first week of the new term for those students that attended the academy, there had been a variety of special events arranged. Today was an exclusive harvest festival style event to showcase the best of the high-quality produce and artisan creators that this particular patch of Gloucestershire, England had to offer.
From her display table in the chancel, Ginger Burnet watched with no small amount of amusement as George Harvey, the headmaster of the academy, blushed and stammered his way through an interview with the film crew from BBC South West.
The academy, at the suggestion of several members of the faculty, had invited beloved local television personality Sarah Sontag to report on the event. She was well-known on both a local and national level as a vocal proponent of buying local and supporting independent small businesses. According to Ginger’s close art teacher friend Bonnie Natt, who was far more tapped into the gossip around the academy, Sarah had leapt at the chance to attend the event with a film crew in tow.
“I wonder if Harvey thought he’d get dragged up in front of the cameras?” Bonnie asked, glancing up at the visibly uncomfortable headmaster while she helped Ginger arrange her display of stunningly beautiful and delicate cakes. “The way he’s sweating and the fact that he wore that tie he hates suggests he didn’t and also that he might be behind on laundry.”
Ginger briefly delayed her chuckle of amusement. She narrowed her hazel eyes in concentration, tongue poking out of the corner of her mouth slightly. With the most delicate movements, she finished placing the tiny marzipan sculpture of a sleeping field mouse into position.
Stepping back, she admired the four-tier cake the academy had commissioned from her specially for the event, each of the tiers bearing a countryside tableau of creatures great and small, all lovingly crafted out of marzipan, fondant icing, or chocolate.
“I think our dear headmaster was very much hoping to stay behind the scenes in this instance,” Ginger commented, carefully placing one of the several wheat stalks she had crafted out of melted sugar and edible paint around the sleeping mouse. “Poor George.”
“Poor George indeed,” Bonnie echoed, stretching up on tiptoe as she finished assembling the large canvas backdrop of the rolling Gloucestershire countryside that she had painted for the cake of the rolling Gloucestershire countryside. “Amelia, can you please hook up that other side for me?”
The sixteen-year-old, after a year of helping Ginger in the Melville House café on campus and attending Ginger’s classes the previous term, had become an unofficial apprentice at some point over the summer. Now, she looked up from where she was hand drawing a sign for the cake display using chalk paints, the warm yellow of her head wrap bringing out the flecks of gold in her amber eyes.
Wiping off her hands, she quickly hurried over to the other side of the table, helping Bonnie attach the landscape painting onto the display frame to form the background for the cake.
“That looks incredible,” commented the woman to Ginger’s left who, according to her charmingly rustic sign, made organic jams, preserves, syrups, and pickles using only local produce. “I keep expecting all the little creatures to start moving at any moment.”
“Thank you.” Ginger beamed, shaking her soft chestnut bangs out of her face. “Seeing people enjoy it makes all the late nights of sculpting worth it.”
“She’s been shut in her garage for the last week making the critters,” Bonnie pointed out, a note of pride in her voice. “I think her actual cats were starting to question if they were real with all these sugary impersonators around the house.”
“I made one of the rabbits,” Amelia added proudly, turning to point to a slightly lumpy leporidae on the second, summer-themed tier.
As she did so, her hip bumped the corner of the table, sending a jar of jam careening onto the floor. The sound of breaking glass, muffled wetly by the contents of the jar, caused several heads to turn. Even Sarah Sontag, over by the open doors of the chapel, glanced away from her interview with the specialist, organic, free range butcher who was catering the event.
Amelia looked from the mess on the floor to Ginger, aghast.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, sinking her teeth into the pillow of her lower lip. “I know that was the last of the cherry jam.”
Ginger held up her hands calmingly. “It’s fine,” she said. “It was only for the taster cakes. I’ll go and find some more from the kitchen somewhere. You go and find someone to help clean up the glass and the jam, okay?”
“There’s a bunch of cleaning stuff in a closet in the teachers’ lounge,” Bonnie said, leading a still apologising Amelia away, “I’ll let you in.”
Carefully, Ginger crouched down and started gathering the larger shards of glass together in a pile.
“Need a hand?” The woman from the next table hurried over, a newspaper and plastic bag in hand. “I have some things on hand for accidents like this. Kind of a hazard when I’m moving all these jams and pickles around.”
“You’re an angel.” Using the paper, Ginger scooped up the worst of the glass-riddled jam. “Thank you so much…?”
“Katrina,” the woman replied. “Katrina Blythe.”
If Ginger had to guess, she would say that Katrina was somewhere in her fifties but looking very good. Her thin, straight blonde hair seemed far from silvered, and the weathered skin on her face and hands boasted that she still spent a great deal of time in the great outdoors.
“Yes, I guessed Blythe might be in your name somewhere,” Ginger said, nodding to Katrina’s sign. “Blythe Spirit. Lovely name for your business. I’m still working on mine. Unfortunately, my surname isn’t an option since having Burnet in the name of your cake-making business doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Katrina chuckled, laugh lines appearing around her thin-lipped mouth and around her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll find something perfect soon,” she said. “You’re Ginger, right? I think I stalked through your Instagram the other evening when I was looking up who else was invited to this thing.”
“Gosh,” Ginger grimaced, tying the sticky bag shut. “You’re more prepared than I am. I only know who a few of these amazing vendors are because my mother goes to the big farmer’s market in Lambington every other week.”
“Well, your photos look incredible,” Katrina said, her brown eyes warm with earnestness. “Do you take them yourself? Because I might have to ask you for some tips on how to make my jars of delicious, but not hugely appealing fruit and vegetable sludge really pop the way your cakes do.” She held up a finger before Ginger could answer. “Speaking of which.”
Stepping away to her table, Katrina grabbed an already open jar of bright red jam and brought it over to Ginger.
“It’s perhaps not the same as the jam you were planning to use,” she said, “but this is my summer berry conserve. Sweet, with a pleasant sharpness. Try some. See if it will work for your cakes.”
Ginger dipped the tip of her pinky into the jar to take a taste. It was exactly as Katrina had said: sweet, with a lovely sharp twist at the end to stop it from being overwhelming.
“Thank you so much,” she said, cutting little divots out of the cupcakes she had made to be taster cakes, filling the hole with a spoonful of jam and then putting the sponge “hat” back onto the cupcake. “And I’m afraid I wouldn’t be much help with photos. I’ve got a very talented associate behind the camera.”
“I thought my ears were burning,” came the melodic Welsh accent of Rhys Morgan, History teacher and student-elected hunk of Chiswick Park Academy.
Even strolling up the nave of the chapel, nibbling on several samples from the cheesemonger, he was unreasonably good-looking. It didn’t help that the fawn-coloured stone of the chapel softened the light, making Rhys’ dark hair and beard glow ever so slightly. He’d abandoned his jacket somewhere and was wearing only a pale blue button-up shirt that clung to his broad chest and shoulders.
“How goes the set dressing, Gin?” he asked, admiring the sugar animals. “My camera is in the car right now, but I can go get it if you want some shots?”
Involuntarily, Ginger felt her cheeks heat with a blush. After almost a year of friendship peppered with subtle, and then not so subtle flirting, she and Rhys had gone on their first official date two nights before. It had been wonderful, but Ginger hadn’t seen him since she’d dropped him at home after a full day of museums, food, and talking about anything and everything.
Now, faced with him looking entirely too delicious for the middle of a school day, she all at once found her hands to be unsteady. Squishing down too hard on the delicate vanilla sponge, she muttered a curse as the cake lost all shape, sending jam bursting out like some grisly set of organs.
“I think I’m okay for now,” she said to Rhys, hurriedly tossing the ruined cupcake into the bin and continuing with the next one. “Maybe after the TV crew is done? It should be golden hour by then.”
Ginger turned to see the new administrative assistant approaching officiously with her clipboard. Ava Clarke had a face that could have been anywhere from forty-five to sixty depending on the light, and she perpetually looked as if she had just stepped straight out of the 1950s.
Her dress today was a rather bland shade of beige with only a tiny spray of blue flowers pinned near her collar. As usual, her silvering blonde hair was perfectly coiffed, making Ginger momentarily feel self-conscious about her own heat-flattened hair.
“You and Ms. Blythe are due to be spoken to by the television crew next,” Ava said briskly, pulling a set of horn-rimmed glasses up from where they hung on a chain around her neck. “There are a set number of questions the crew will be asking that should have been provided in your welcome packs, but do be prepared for some ad libs, as they say in the business.”
Ginger exchanged a swift look of amusement with Rhys, but kept her smile firmly buttoned down. Although a decidedly odd individual who seemed to live continually out of step with the rest of the world, Ava was excellent at her job and had kept every event that week running on time.
“Thank you so much, Ava,” Ginger said instead, giving a grave nod before picking up the plate of taster cakes. “Would you like one before you rush off again? You’ve barely stopped today.”
Watery grey eyes filled the lenses of Ava’s glasses. “That’s very kind of you, thank you,” she said, taking one of the delicate little cakes. “Such vibrant jam. It will look beautiful on the nation’s television screens. You really should consider joining the local WI. Your skills would be most appreciated there.”
Rhys faked a cough to hide his involuntary laugh, turning away to stare intently at the squirrel, hazelnut clutched between its paws, on the autumn-themed tier of the cake. If Ava noticed, she didn’t say anything.
“I have Katrina to thank for the jam,” Ginger said, forcing herself to ignore Rhys for fear that he would set off her own giggles. “Mine met a rather sticky end and she kindly gave me some of her mixed summer berry conserve as a replacement.”
“There aren’t plums in the conserve, are there?” Ava asked Katrina, suddenly looking at the cake as if it was a grenade. “I’m terribly allergic.”
Katrina frowned in concern. “There are, I’m afraid. I’m so sorry.”
“Not to worry,” Ava said briskly, her posture snapping straighter as she saw the TV crew starting to make their way toward Ginger and Katrina’s tables in the chancel. “I shall leave the two of you to your interviews with Ms. Sontag.”
Ava glanced at the nibbled cake in her hand. “I shall dispose of this somewhere, although it’s such a shame to waste one of your delicious creations,” she said to Ginger, then glanced down to the sticky patch on the floor. “Please make sure that is cleaned up quickly.”
Ginger gave a quick mock salute, but Ava had already hurried away.
“She’s an odd one for sure,” Katrina said, shaking her head before snapping her fingers as she thought of something. “She did remind me however…”
Ducking behind her table, Katrina began digging through a large denim quilted handbag that looked homemade.
Once again in control of his mirth, Rhys turned away from the cake, an admiration in his eyes that made Ginger blush anew.
“I know you texted me last night saying you thought the robin on the winter tier looked top-heavy, but I don’t see a feather out of place,” he said, surprising her by pulling her into a swift but firm hug. “You knocked it out of the park, Gin. Well done.”
“Thank you,” she muttered against the firm breadth of his chest, trying not to think about the fact that the light sandalwood cologne he used was quickly becoming one of her favourite scents.
When he pulled away, Ginger was surprised to find herself feeling disappointed, despite knowing that the display would no doubt have already caught the eyes of the gossipmongers among both the students and the faculty.
“I’ll come back when it’s quieter to take some photos of your masterpiece,” Rhys said with an almost shy grin. “Good luck on your TV debut.”
Ginger glanced away, tucking her hair behind her ear. “Do interviews for surviving a murder house not count as a debut?” she asked with a wry chuckle.
Rhys rolled his eyes and Ginger once again found herself appreciating his ability to laugh at the dark parts of her past with her, rather than smothering her in pity.
“Fine, your TV debut for positive reasons,” he amended, retrieving his cheese plate from the corner of her table, and returning back out into the slowly moving tides of students, teachers, parents, and locals attending the event. “You’re going to do great.”
Ginger watched him leave, a small smile on her face and a pleasant fluttering in her belly. She only looked away when Katrina hurried over, a scrap of paper in hand.
“I wrote down an ingredients list for the preserve,” she said, passing Ginger the note, “just in case there’s anyone else who needs some forewarning.”
“We’re back!” Amelia announced, rushing up to Ginger carrying a cloth and small bucket of steaming water. “Sorry it took so long.”
Bonnie’s expression was grimly unimpressed. “I’m afraid I got waylaid when I found Ollie Harington and Samantha Cornwallis taking advantage of the entirely empty school to do what I can only describe as canoodling in the teacher’s lounge.”
She tossed Amelia a set of gloves to protect her from the remaining shards of glass. “You know, I wouldn’t say that giving impromptu safe sex talks to bored, horny, rich brats is something I particularly missed not having from my life over the summer.”
“Might be wise to keep that to yourself. Not the kind of gossip you want caught on camera,” Ginger muttered nodding toward Sarah Sontag and the camera crew as they began setting up in the chancel.
“Hello, my lovelies,” Sarah said with a warm, wide smile Ginger had seen hundreds of times on her TV screen. “I’m so excited to shoot these segments with you both. Just give us a minute to get set up and then we’ll be good to go.”
Immediately, Ginger believed Sarah’s excitement to be real. It was, after all, Sarah’s enthusiasm and genuine character that had rocketed her to popularity first as a children’s morning TV presenter. Gradually, she’d moved into the feel good, Sunday night type programming like Countryfile, and most recently had gained her own segment for BBC South West exploring the best that independent producers and preservers of art, food, culture, and local knowledge had to offer.
“She’s smaller in real life,” Bonnie whispered in an almost inaudible voice as the petite brown-skinned woman returned to her crew and started directing them. “Mariah is going to go mad with envy when I tell her. She has all of Sarah’s books.”
“Not the best way to promote tranquillity in your marriage,” Ginger pointed out, silently directing Amelia to tuck the bucket and cloth behind the hanging background for now, out of sight.
“We had to leave the honeymoon period eventually,” Bonnie joked. “It’s now a challenge to see how much of my nonsense that angelic wife of mine can put up with on a daily basis.”
Ginger quickly flapped a hand at her friend to quiet her as Sarah Sontag wandered over to admire the cake.
“This is absolutely magnificent,” she breathed, staring in awe at Ginger’s cake. “And you made all the sculptures yourself?”
Ginger nodded, glowing with pride. They really had hit the jackpot with the light that day, she mentally admitted to herself. The hint of gold that the whole month of September seemed to carry really was the best kind of light to view the creation in.
The layer of fondant that encased the four different cake flavours within had been carefully coloured to match the soft cream shade of the Cotswold stone that made up the buildings of Chiswick Academy. Now it glowed as if Ginger had painted the entire structure in edible glitter, the animals seeming as if they were about to start breathing and leaping up and down the tiers.
Bonnie nudged her forward a little and Ginger realised she’d been standing there in silence while Sarah Sontag had stared at her expectedly.
“If you’re ready, I’d love to ask you all about your journey to becoming someone who is capable of making such delightful edible art like this,” Sarah said, the full apples of her cheeks glowing as she smiled again.
Ginger found herself easily drawn into conversation, explaining about the different flavours of the tiers, the process of creating the animal models, how her artistic background had bonded with her love of baking, and how she was now expanding into taking on unique custom cake orders and catering small events.
It felt like a natural, casual conversation despite the presence of the camera equipment, the boom mic hanging just above Ginger’s eyeline, and the small crowd of students who naturally gravitated toward the camera crew out of curiosity.
Finally, Sarah gave a thumbs up to the camera operator. “I think we’ve got everything we need with Ginger here. We’ll do Katrina next.”
She turned back to Ginger, her smile remaining the same even though her voice relaxed slightly from its perfectly crisp presenter tone.
“You were fantastic,” she praised. “Thank you so much. I’m really hoping once people see your segment and this beautiful cake that you’ll be getting more orders than you know what to do with.”
“Goodness,” Ginger laughed, cheeks warming in response to the compliments, “if that happens then I might actually have to move my workshop out of my garage and commit to getting a professional workspace for myself.”
“You should do that anyway,” Sarah said firmly, brushing one of her short black curls out of her face. “I meet a lot of people, Ginger, who are all skilled in some unique way or another. But you seem like the kind of person who is going to make it professionally with this skill of yours. Try to make connections wherever you can with whoever you can, and always value what you can learn from other people. Now,” she gave a cheeky smile that lit her almost turquoise-coloured eyes, “can I try one or two of these taster cakes? Despite all the deliciousness in this chapel I’ve been so busy I’ve barely got to eat all day and I’m famished.”
Ginger gladly offered the plate. “Take as many as you’d like,” she said. “And it will help with your chat with Katrina since the jam in the cakes is hers.”
Sarah all but inhaled the first cupcake, sighing with delight. “I love days at work when I can count eating cake as interview research,” she joked, taking a bite out of the second one. “When I’m done with the interviews, is there any way you can give me the secret to how you get your cake so light? Mine always seem closer to bricks than clouds.”
“I’d be happy to,” Ginger said, already mentally drafting the blog post she would be able to write detailing her time with the beloved Sarah Sontag.
Sarah stepped away to begin her interview with Katrina and for a few minutes, Ginger basked in the feeling of success. This could be a big break for her, she realised. If even only a few dozen more people watched the segment when it was released and got in touch to commission a cake, it would be enough to push her over the edge from pseudo professional baker into fully fledged specialist cake maker.
Her thoughts were interrupted however by a rapid series of gasps, followed by worried chatter and screams. Pivoting to look toward Katrina’s table, Ginger watched in horror as Sarah Sontag stumbled to her knees, clutching her chest. For the briefest moment, her panicked eyes locked with Ginger’s before they rolled back and she collapsed on the stone floor of the chapel, entirely motionless.
It was a stunning golden evening. A murmuration of starlings swooped and palpated in the sky to the west, their shapes turned black against the glowing light of the sunset. All the students, except the boarders, had left campus and now only a few of the faculty remained.
From the doorway of the chapel, Ginger watched with arms folded as the ambulance carefully and quietly wound its way down the long drive from the academy to the main road. There was no need for sirens or lights or a frantic rush to the hospital. Sarah Sontag was dead.
Ginger felt Rhys’ presence before she saw him. The protective weight of his arm slid around her shoulders and, in this moment, she felt no self-consciousness about tucking herself into his side and leaning on the comforting solidness of his chest.
“You know it wasn’t your fault, right?” he said quietly. “I know it’s what you’re thinking but you need to stop thinking it right now.”
Ginger sighed sharply. “I can’t help it, Rhys,” she said. “She was fine, then she ate one of my cupcakes, and then minutes later she’s unresponsive on the floor. How can I not think it’s my fault somehow? What if it was an allergic reaction and I didn’t warn her about the ingredients? What if she somehow choked on a piece of cake?”
“Choke on a bite of the fluffiest cake imaginable, several minutes after eating it?” Rhys pointed out gently. “Maybe leave the self-flagellating to the Catholics and the theories to the police, hmm? You don’t need to leap in and solve the case, Gin, not again.”
Immediately, Ginger thought of the previous October when she had got swept up in solving the death of her friend, a teacher at the academy by the name of Callum West. It had led her down some dark paths riddled with danger, and had nearly cost her everything: her job, her friends, Rhys, and nearly her life.
“I won’t let that happen again,” she said firmly, pulling away from Rhys’ side a little so she could look up into his face. “I just want to know that it wasn’t my fault. That’s all I need to know.”
He sighed, reluctant acceptance visible in his dark eyes. “I can understand that,” he said. “Just as long as it doesn’t consume you.”
“It won’t,” Ginger promised firmly, meeting his gaze. “I have no interest in repeating some of the toughest, darkest parts of my life. Arlington Manor last summer and all that mess with Callum, Gus, Zoe, and Rebecca last October… It all still haunts me, Rhys, you must know that?”
She looked down at his hand, uncertain whether she could hold it or not. Eventually, she went for folding her arms and leaning back against the warm stone of the door post, but keeping eye contact with him.
“The therapy and the friends and work and everything has helped, but there are still nights where I wake up shaking and sweating.”
She shrugged, trying to alleviate the tension creeping into her shoulders.
“There’s still a random collection of emergency items in every bag I own, and I don’t mean tampons or plasters. I mean I own an unsettling number of recording devices, and tiny tool sets with wire cutters, and one of those little things you have on your car keys that you use to cut the seatbelt and break the window in case you ever get trapped after a crash.”
“But you’re not a quivering wreck of a person hiding away from the world,” Rhys said gently, stepping closer and putting a hand on each of her shoulders. “You’ve got an amazing job here at the academy. You’re setting up a business and living your life and—”
“And killing people with my cake,” Ginger reminded him flatly, chewing on her lower lip as a wave of anxiety crashed over her. “Somehow I don’t think that will be good for my job here or the cake business. Damn, I’ve got that big commission for the silver wedding anniversary next week and I can’t afford to give them the deposit back if they cancel because of this…”
“Deep breath. That’s not going to happen,” Rhys said, squeezing her shoulders again. “You’re the most tenacious person I know. Things might be a bit bumpy for a few days, but you didn’t do anything wrong. Everything will be fine.”
Ginger’s answer never made it to her lips when she spotted her brother Valerian’s black Audio speeding up the gravel drive toward the academy. Behind him trailed a convoy of police vehicles that Ginger unfortunately knew from experience to be the crime scene investigators.
“Go and talk to him,” Rhys said before she could even excuse herself. “He might have some news or some kind of information to calm your worry. I need to talk to some of the faculty anyway about how we’re going to handle this alongside classes starting back.”
“Thank you,” Ginger replied softly as he removed his hands from her shoulders. “And I haven’t forgotten about your sister coming to visit this weekend. Bonnie and Mariah are on for dinner at my place if you and your mother and…”
“Sonja,” Rhys reminded gently. “And you need to find out if your brother is bringing that guy he’s been dating, but don’t worry about that now.”
He looked over to where Valerian, or Ryan as he preferred, was parking in front of Melville House, the reception building of the sprawling academy campus.
“There are more pressing issues right now,” Rhys finished, raising a hand in greeting to Ryan as the elder Burnet sibling got out of the car. “Let’s hope we can maybe get some photos of the cake after the police have gone over the scene?”
Ginger hummed a noncommittal agreement, hurrying down the front stairs of the chapel and across the car park to her brother.
After a significant bump in his career path the previous year, Detective Valerian Burnet had returned to active duty and was now working in the larger town of Lambington about forty minutes from Greater Chiswick.
In an uncommon show of emotion, Ryan wrapped her up into a tight, all-encompassing hug before she could say anything. When he pulled back, the look he gave her was one of intense concern.
“Are you okay?” he asked. “I’ve only got bare bones details from Klimek so far, but he said something about your cake somehow being involved?”
Ginger deflated, shoulders curling forward with a sigh. “I was hoping you had some reassurance waiting,” she said flatly. “But, yeah, Sarah was fine until she ate some of my cupcakes. Couple of minutes later she can’t breathe and collapses. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene, as I’m sure you know.”
Ryan swore softly, glancing around at the forensic team as they began to suit up, ready to assess the scene. One particular technician, a stocky, ginger-haired man with a neatly trimmed beard, lifted a hand in greeting. Ginger knew this to be Declan, the assistant pathologist her brother had been seeing for a few weeks. Ryan returned the gesture, but it was half-hearted.
Ginger made a mental note to ask her brother, when they weren’t at a potential crime scene, how things were going with Declan. Right now, however, she had some slightly more pressing questions.
Ginger pulled Ryan away from the bustle of people putting on the eerie white overalls, shoe covers, face masks, and gloves that reduced the forensic team from recognisable people into eerie, faceless spectres.
“You said Klimek gave you the basic info,” she said. “What exactly did that entail? I might be able to fill in some gaps.” She frowned. “Assuming you’re working on this case? I thought you didn’t cover this area anymore?”
Klimek, of course, was Detective Chief Inspector Jacob Klimek. The Burnet siblings had been somewhat good friends with him from the time all three of them were teenagers. Up until the previous year, Ryan had worked under the DCI as a detective.
However, following her brother being put under internal investigation by the police after he’d become romantically invested in a woman who was a suspect in a case, a suspect who turned out to be guilty, things had become more strained between him and Jacob.
“The Gloucestershire Chief Superintendent has a niece who goes to the academy,” Ryan said, shuffling his polished shoes in the gravel of the visitors’ car park. “Not sure if she called him directly or if she called her parents and they called the Chief Super, but either way, it was quickly made clear that they wanted someone called in from Lambington, as we’re perceived as more experienced, quote unquote big town types.”
He gave a sheepish grin. “Unfortunately, all the more senior detectives are on holiday this week. There’s only me and the rookies so when Klimek called, saying he needed a DI, it turned out I was pretty much his best choice.”
Ginger winced. “I imagine he wasn’t entirely thrilled about that.”
The previous year, when Ginger had broken Jacob’s trust in pursuit of her own investigation into the death of her friend Callum West, a teacher at the academy, it had further weakened the friendship between the Burnet siblings and Klimek.
Once the case had been solved, in no small part because of Ginger and Ryan’s involvement, things had improved a little. Klimek had even advocated for Ryan’s suspension to be lifted, with the only caveat being that he was no longer placed at the Greater Chiswick station.
But Ginger knew that her friendship with Jacob Klimek would never be what it was. He certainly wasn’t going to give her any information about what was going on with the Sarah Sontag case, even though Ginger was directly affected by its result. In fact, he’d likely not tell her for that very reason, no doubt remembering how things had unfolded the previous Halloween with the Callum West case.
Ryan, however, was a different story. He gave a sigh and quickly glanced around before taking her by the arm and leading her even further away.
Once they were out of sight of the chapel, hidden away in one of the small garden courtyards scattered around the sprawling campus of the academy, her brother released her and tucked both hands into his pockets.
“There’s not a lot to go on right now,” he admitted. “But considering how high-profile this case is going to be, there’s going to be a lot of resources invested here. I mean,” he shrugged helplessly, “it’s Sarah Sontag. She’s adored nationwide and works for the BBC. As soon as the announcement is made, it’s going to take over the news cycle for at least a week. Especially since the cause of death was unexpected and apparently pretty distressing.”
Ginger slumped onto a sun-warmed wooden bench scarred with graffitied names of students both past and present.
Her brother winced. “Sorry to bring it up.”
“Is this you, in the nicest way possible, trying to say that I’m going to be a suspect?” she asked weakly, seeing Sarah fall to the ground in her mind’s eye over and over again. “Because, no, what happened to Sarah Sontag is definitely what I would call distressing. And I say that as someone who has found the body of a friend.”
Ryan didn’t answer for a moment, looking back in the direction of the forensic vans.
“I’m not saying you’ll be an immediate suspect,” he said eventually. “But it might be a good idea to ask for a few days off. Since it’s one of their own who has died, you can bet that journalists and all kinds of media people are going to be camped out around the academy or creeping through the town, looking for anyone connected.”
“And when they find out that I might be even vaguely involved,” Ginger said wearily, picking idly at the skirt of her sparrow patterned sundress, “all the gossip rags are going to be digging up everything they can about Arlington Manor, and the case last Halloween.” She heaved a sigh. “This is going to suck.”
“I’m sorry to intrude.”
The two siblings turned simultaneously to see George Harvey, the academy headmaster, hovering at the edge of the courtyard. He looked as if he had aged ten years over the course of the afternoon. Unsurprising, considering that this was the second sudden death on campus during his time as headmaster.
“I couldn’t help but overhear your brother’s suggestion to take some time away from the academy, Miss Burnet,” he said, walking closer, unconsciously tangling his fingers together in the manner he did when nervous. “In this matter, I am in agreement. Not that I think you have anything to do with what happened to Miss Sontag,” he said hurriedly, eyes going wide behind the lenses of his glasses with their thick black frames. “But I think a little distance for the next few days would be best for you and for the school.”
“Headmaster?” Appearing as if by magic from behind a tunnel trellis heavy with honeysuckle, Ava waved a mobile phone in George Harvey’s direction. “We’ve got another concerned parent on the phone.”
The headmaster visibly deflated, another weight tossed onto the already crushing burden he carried. Getting to her feet, Ginger brushed dust from her seat and squared her shoulders.
“Don’t worry about me, Headmaster,” she promised. “Consider me out of sight and out of mind until things have a chance to settle. I’m sure the students will survive a week or so not knowing how to make meringues.”
Harvey gave her a thankful look over his shoulder as he hurried toward Ava and the phone. “I shall call you myself to invite you back to campus, Miss Burnet,” he promised. “Thank you for your understanding, Ginger.”
As the headmaster and Ava hurried back toward the privacy of his office, Ginger turned to her brother and shrugged helplessly.
“I was hoping I’d be able to stay crime scene free for life,” she joked wryly, “but it seems I’ve relapsed. Might as well interview me now, Detective Inspector.”
Ginger couldn’t help but glance up at the viewing mirror placed on the wall opposite her. At lunchtime on a quiet Wednesday afternoon in the Greater Chiswick police station, she highly doubted the observation room would be packed with people. Still, she couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable, shifting on the flimsy plastic chair she’d been given to sit on.
Internally, she chastised herself for fidgeting so much. Although she knew she had nothing to hide and was guilty of nothing, anyone who might be watching from behind the mirror no doubt found her inability to stay still at least slightly suspicious.
When the door opened, Ginger startled so forcefully that the metal legs of the chair shrieked against the concrete floor. DCI Jacob Klimek, freshly returned from holiday judging by his tan, gave her a look of mild amusement.
“A bit twitchy there are you, Gin?” he asked, putting down his novelty Cadbury’s mug full of coffee on the table before taking his jacket off and hanging it on the back of his chair. “Any particular reason you’re so nervous to be in a police interview room?”
Not so long ago, Ginger would have assumed his words were a teasing joke. Now, however, looking at his inscrutable expression, she wasn’t entirely certain if it was a joke or if he was already probing her reactions for some sign of guilt.
“I’d say that being nervous in a police interview room is a pretty natural response,” Ginger replied, opting for something noncommittal until she was more certain about if she was being treated like a suspect or a witness. “Did you go anywhere nice for your holiday?”
“Majorca,” Klimek replied easily, settling into the chair opposite.
The collar of his white button-down shirt shifted just a little and Ginger couldn’t help but notice a jarring tan line across the back of his neck by a strap of some kind. If she had to guess, probably a camera.
“Did you get any nice photos out there,” she asked nonchalantly. “I know you’re not the social media type but I’m sure you took your camera with you.”
Klimek narrowed his eyes just a fraction, but there was a spark of humour there that finally let Ginger relax just a little.
“I’d been back in the country for less than twenty-four hours and I get the call about this mess,” he said with a certain dark wry tone. “You seem to be a magnet for crime scenes. Some of the others had a betting pool going about how long it would be before you were connected to a case again.”
“I don’t entirely know how I feel about that,” Ginger replied with a laugh that she knew sounded slightly nervous. “But I can promise it’s certainly not something I do on purpose. If I never saw another crime scene again, I’d be delighted.”
“After some of the things you’ve lived through and seen I thoroughly believe you.” Klimek leaned back in the chair, loosely folding his arms over his lean chest. “You’ve got to clear some things up for me, Gin, because right now it looks like Sarah Sontag was poisoned by a cake that you made.”
Ginger felt the blood drain from her face, and she rubbed her eyes. “The poor woman,” she whispered, then looked up at Klimek, hoping he could see the innocence in her eyes. “And you’re sure it was poison and not an allergic reaction?”
An allergic reaction would be tragic, there was no doubt about that, and Ginger knew she would never fully forgive herself. But poison, on the other hand, carried with it a range of implications that were far more horrifying. Because Ginger knew that she hadn’t intentionally put anything poisonous into the cupcakes, which was made with the same cake batter as her four-tier masterpiece. Which meant that some ingredient, somewhere in the baking process, had been compromised.
Leaning her elbows on the metal topped table, Ginger pressed the heels of her hands to her temples and stared at Klimek. His eyes were more guarded than she was used to.
“How certain are you that it was the cake that killed her?” Ginger asked. “Because I swear, I didn’t put anything in it that could have poisoned someone. Of course, I wouldn’t.”
“And yet… Sarah Sontag was poisoned by your cake,” Klimek pointed out, tone mild even though the words were relentless. “Help me fill in the missing pieces.” His face softened a fraction. “Maybe it was an accident, Gin?”
Ginger shook her head. “Impossible,” she said. “What was the poison? Do they know? Can you even tell me?”
Glancing quickly into the thin file he’d brought in with him, Klimek said, “Taxine alkaloids, according to the autopsy. Most commonly present in trees from the taxus baccata family.”
Her mind racing, Ginger frowned. “It was a natural poison?” she asked. “I mean, maybe some of the foliage I’d used to decorate the cake and the table might have been toxic? I thought it was all safe but I could have made a mistake. Although that wouldn’t explain how she ingested the poison.”
Klimek closed the file. “I looked it up. Taxus baccata is apparently the common yew.”
Closing her eyes, Ginger tried to picture her display table in the chapel exactly as it had been on the day. Had there been yew? She’d asked Amelia to go and gather some foliage for decoration; perhaps the girl hadn’t recognised the highly poisonous tree for what it was.
“The forensic team took everything on your table to do with the cakes and decoration and are slowly working through testing it all for more signs of the poison,” Klimek said. “Sorry about that by the way. I saw the pictures and some of the little icing creatures down in the lab. You obviously worked really hard on it all.”
Ginger didn’t reply, grieving the dozens and dozens of hours she’d spent in her garage creating the creatures, blasting cold air to stop the fondant and chocolate softening.
“So far, they’ve only found the toxins in the jam, but they need to test everything. You know, for due diligence.”
The powerful conflicting emotions of relief and shock tore through Ginger at the same time.
“The jam,” she breathed. “Oh my gosh… the jam.”
The jam that Katrina had given to her. The mixed berry jam that would easily hide the inclusion of the incredibly poisonous, bright red yew berries with their lethal, miniscule black seeds.
But if it was indeed the jam, that meant it hadn’t been her cake which had killed Sarah Sontag. Ginger sagged back, barely noticing Klimek’s look of surprise at her sudden shift in emotion.
“The jam?” he repeated questioningly.
For a moment, the words stuck in Ginger’s throat. She of all people knew the target she would be painting on Katrina’s back by revealing the source of the jam. But Ginger was also aware that Klimek needed to know the jam had ended up in the cupcakes by chance, and certainly not by any design of her own. Resolved, she straightened once more, seeing Klimek do the same as he sensed her change in mood.
If Katrina had put yew berries into the jam, maybe it had been an accident? Perhaps she had mistaken them for some other berry. But the more she thought about it, the more doubtful Ginger became. To make jam required taste testing over and over again; Katrina would have ended up causing harm to herself long before the jam was ready to be put into jars.
No, this was deliberate.
“The jam in the cupcakes wasn’t the jam I brought with me from home,” Ginger explained, confidently holding eye contact with Klimek as she spoke, knowing that she had nothing to hide and was free from blame. “My jar broke — you should be able to see it happen in the footage from the security camera that covers the chancel — and the vendor on the table beside mine helped out. Her name is Katrina Blythe and she runs Blythe Spirit, making jams and preserves and pickles and things.”
Klimek was writing concise, shorthand sentences in his notebook. Looking up at her with his sharp eyes, he cocked an eyebrow. “Anything else you think might be applicable or useful?”
After some thought, Ginger shook her head. “Only that when I tried the jam, it tasted really good,” she said. “I guess I didn’t eat enough of it to affect me, but poor Sarah ate several spoonfuls of it in the cupcakes. She said she hadn’t really eaten anything that day. Maybe that’s why the toxins affected her so quickly?”
“Possibly,” Klimek said ponderously, adding to his notes. “I can’t go into much detail, obviously, but the autopsy suggested something similar. Since she hadn’t eaten, the stomach lining took in the poison quicker and triggered cardiogenic shock, or something like that.”
A pang of grief hit Ginger in the chest as she thought about the absolute confidence in Sarah’s voice when saying she was certain Ginger would succeed. To be poisoned only a few minutes later after eating one of Ginger’s cakes seemed like an unnecessarily cruel twist of fate.
“Even though it wasn’t my cake that killed Sarah, I feel at least partially responsible for being the reason she ate the jam,” Ginger said quietly. “I couldn’t possibly have known, but still…”
For the first time since he’d stepped inside the interview room, and indeed for the first time in quite a while, Ginger saw her friend Jacob behind the professional mask of DCI Klimek. Reaching across the table, he took one of her hands in his, giving it a quick squeeze.
“If there was no way you could have known, Gin, then there is no way you can blame yourself, is there?” he posited to her. “Loading yourself up with unnecessary guilt won’t help me or Sarah or Ryan while he works the case, and it certainly won’t help you.”
Releasing her hand, he began gathering up his items, signalling the interview was over.
“If you just wouldn’t mind steering clear of any more suspicious deaths or revenge plots or conspiracies, that would be excellent,” Klimek said, with a grin. “Some of the folks around here are already calling you Ginger P.I.E or Ginger: Private Investigator Extraordinaire.”
Getting to her feet, Ginger couldn’t help but grin at the word play, even though she knew Klimek’s light tone was covering a more serious order: he wanted her to stay out of the way and not get involved in the case at all.
She shouldn’t have worried about picking up on his subtext for, as he walked her out to the reception desk, he momentarily placed a light hand on her upper arm to bring her to a stop.
“Seriously though, Ginger,” he said, holding her gaze to be sure she could see how earnest he was being, “don’t poke around in this one. You’ll only end up bringing down a deluge of unpleasant media attention on yourself, on me, on the station, and on Ryan, who now that you’re on the road to being cleared is going to end up being the poor sod in charge of this whole mess.”
“Even without all of those very good reasons,” Ginger replied, “I have no intention of sticking my finger in this particular pie.” She couldn’t help but twitch a smile. “Even though you all might insist I’m the P.I.E, I swear I’ll be keeping my head and going about my usual life until I’m cleared to get back to work at the academy.”
But, as she left the police station and walked to her car, Ginger couldn’t help but entertain the curious questions that were beginning to burst to life inside her head like kernels of popcorn exposed to heat.
Surely making a test batch of yew berry jam counted as a culinary experiment, not anything to do with the case? She just wanted to know how someone would make yew berry jam, not why.
Driving out of the car park and heading home, Ginger couldn’t help but reflect with a certain level of giddy guilt that her assertion to Klimek that she wouldn’t look into anything was already becoming a difficult one to keep.
This Mystery is a part of Ginger Burnet Cozy Mysteries Series!
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