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The Malteser Falcon

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1: The Signature Bake

 

The name’s Perkins. Sue Perkins. I do cheating wives, embezzling secretaries, secret mistresses, and runaway daughters; I also solve cases, but that’s more of a day job. On my office door it says “Private Eye”. It often also says “Out for Lunch”. My secretary is always criticizing my work ethic. Her name’s Mel, and she’s a leggy redhead - at least, I assume she has legs; I’ve never seen them, they’re always under the desk - with a snappy response for every quip, and a passion for shortbread biccies. I keep her supplied with the good stuff, and she keeps her mouth shut about my cases (because it’s full of shortbread).

On this particular day, I was bouncing a tennis ball against the wall and Mel was filling in a super- cryptic crossword puzzle. I was just about to head out for shortbread, when there was a knock at the door. I seized a file from the desk and tried to look busy, which would have been more convincing if the file hadn’t been covered with dust.

Then She walked in.

She had blue eyes, coral lips, and silver hair that had once been golden; her gaze was direct, her teeth expensive, and her clothes stylish but practical. She was in her late seventies, I’d guess, but I didn’t make the mistake of thinking this was a fragile old dear. Everyone in this town knew the stories; over her long career, she’d crushed her many enemies into dust finer than ground almonds, sprinkled them onto cakes and served them up to the city officials she had in her dainty apron pocket.

Her name was Mary Berry, but they called her the Pastry Queen.

Mel choked on her tea, but I managed a bit more dignity. I stood and offered her my dusty hand. She gave it a faintly disgusted look. I removed it from her sight.

“Ms Berry,” I said, then hesitated, not wanting to give offence to a potential client. “Or should that be - your majesty?”

She got right down to business, and was gone in less time than it takes to toast a walnut. Her second-in-command was trying to kill her, she said. And she wanted my help to prove it. She’d pay well, she said. I didn’t doubt it. In this town, pie is money. And Mary Berry’s pies were the best.

*

2: The Technical Challenge

The scene of the crime was also the heart of Berry’s empire; the Hollywood Bakery. Like the name suggested, the breads there were shiny on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and had a hollow sound if you knocked at their heart, but the place was actually named after the master baker, Paul Hollywood. Hollywood was Berry’s second-in-command and widely tipped to take over her empire when she baked her last Victoria sponge. I staked out the place first, and watched the comings and goings, custom from the street and deliveries in the back. In the shop window, sweet buns and pastries gleamed invitingly at passers by, like the women who caught my eye late at night in the downtown bars, promising a moment of sweetness and then satiated, sticky regret. I never could resist that look. I gave up my loitering, and went into the shop.

The smell in the bakery was glorious, full of warmth and spices, and despite all my unease, I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. When I opened them, I found myself pinned by the gaze of the man himself, Paul Hollywood. His apron was deceptively white, but if I were investigating the horrible death of a loaf of bread, I’d have had no need to look further for a suspect - his hands were covered in the evidence. But I wasn’t investigating the death of a loaf of bread. What Mary Berry suspected would be much harder to prove.

“I get the feeling you’re not here for a croissant,” he purred. “Sue Perkins, Private Eye, if I’m not mistaken. And I don’t think I am.”

I immediately took a dislike to the man. His greying hair was as artfully frosted as a Christmas cake, and his big frame exuded menace and the smell of icing sugar.

“You send pastries up to the Queen’s headquarters every morning,” I said, trying to feel a little taller.

“Every morning,” he repeated with a smirk. “They leave here at nine and my boys run them down there.”

“Which boys would those be?” I asked.

He raised a perfectly coiffed eyebrow, then shrugged towards a pair of hulking brutes in aprons who’d appeared in the doorway. They didn’t look like they were employed for their light touch with an eggwash.

“Funny thing happened the other day,” I said conversationally, eyeing a perfect slice of tarte tatin behind the glass counter. “One of those pastries turned up with crushed glass in it. Sprinkled on top like chopped nuts.”

“Nothing to do with me,” he said. His eyes had lost their friendly twinkle, and now shone ice-blue, colder than the heart of an île flottante. “I wouldn’t ruin a good pastry like that.”

“Not even if it would bump you to the top of the food chain?” I asked.

He looked me up and down scornfully. It was fair; I deserved it for walking in with nothing. Damn those sticky buns. “Under-proved,” he drawled, “And under-worked. You’ve got nothing on me, Perkins.”

He was right. And from the look of the two goons in the corner, who were now shifting uneasily like the middle of an undercooked quiche, it was time I left. The hulking attendants followed me. My heart beating faster than a mixer with a meringue, I darted down an alley then doubled back and around, and slipped into a general store. I browsed among the magazines for a while, then finally decided I’d lost them. As I headed for the door, a car pulled up outside. On instinct, I ducked behind a display of recipe books. I blessed my foresight a moment later, when a cool, collected broad stepped out of the back seat and waved the driver off, then tucked her clutch under her arm and marched towards Hollywood’s Bakery. Even if there hadn’t been telltale flour stains in her tight black curls, I’d have known she was in the baking business. She had smooth, capable hands and an eye like a kitchen timer. I slipped out of the general store and followed her.

To my surprise, she stopped short of the bakery; she loitered on the sidewalk, admiring a display of bannetons in a shop window. After a little while, one of the rock cakes who had so threatened my peace of mind earlier slouched up beside her. Forgive me if I was dubious about his interest in bannetons. Sure enough, he passed her a paper bag, an ominous red stain blotting its middle, and she handed him an envelope. They parted without a word. She clutched the paper bag to her chest, and stalked away after a quick look around, at which point I became very interested in the ‘No Parking’ sign. She pulled out her phone, and spoke a few words into it; the black sedan glided up again, tinted windows up, and she stepped into the back and was gone. I quickly noted down the license plate number, but I already knew where the car was going. I’d recognized her at last; her face had been on the front page of one of the magazines in the general store. She was Kimberley Wilson, up-and-coming baker, and one of the Queen of Pastry’s chief lieutenants.

*

3: The Showstopper

 

The car was pulled up outside Mary Berry’s headquarters when I reached it. The bonnet was still warm, but there was nobody inside. I looked through the rear window; the paper bag was abandoned on the back seat. The window was cracked, so I pulled my little tool kit out of my pocket and extracted a length of fishing line and a hook. After a few attempts, I hooked the paper bag and pulled it out of the window. I examined the red smear on the inside, then shook the bag over my palm, catching a sprinkling of suspicious white powder. I tasted it. Sugar. The red smear was either raspberry or cherry. What was Kimberley Wilson doing with one of Paul Hollywood’s famous jam doughnuts - and why was she picking it up from a highly suspicious intermediary? Was she trying to frame her rival and take his place in the sun? Things were heating up, and the plot, like custard, was thickening.

I looked around. The setting sun was tracing long shadows on the asphalt, and no-one was in sight; that is, except for a shadow that detached itself from an alleyway, appearing for a fleeting second and resolving into a familiar figure. Familiar, at least, from the waist-up. I ran towards it.

“Mel!”

“Sue!”

She grabbed my blazer collar and hauled me into the alley. “Oo-er missus,” I said automatically. “You could at least buy me dinner first.”

“I bought you dinner yesterday,” Mel hissed. “You said you’d forgotten your wallet.”

“That’s neither here nor there,” I retorted. “Or rather, that was there, and we’re here. What are you doing here?”

“Saving you!” she whispered furiously. “You’re walking into a trap!”

“I didn’t know you cared.”

If it weren’t dark in that alley, I’d swear she was blushing. “I’d miss the shortbread.”

I could hear someone coming, so I decided to table the conversation. We ducked behind some rubbish bins, and heard muttering, then some orders in a woman’s low voice; I guessed it was Kimberley. Suddenly there was a sharp exclamation behind me. I whipped around, but a blow caught me on the side of the head, and darkness melted over my eyes, soft and matte as a poorly tempered chocolate glaze.

*

I came to in an office decorated in muted pastels; as I recovered my senses and took stock of my angry headache and even angrier secretary beside me, I realized we must be in the Pastry Queen’s inner sanctum - Mary Berry’s own office. Kimberley Wilson stood beside us. She looked down at me, lip curled.

“Mind if you tell me what we’re in for?” I said, trying for cool.

“How much did it take for Hollywood to buy you?” she said.

I tried to take offence, but my head hurt too much. “I don’t double cross my clients.”

“Then why did you try to hide the evidence?”

My head felt muzzy; was she talking nonsense, or had I been hit worse than I thought?

“What evidence?”

“The paper bag,” she said impatiently. “The bag with the poisoned doughnut.”

“Ah,” I said, thinking fast and trying to buy time. “So Berry found out about the poison, did she?”

“She would have, if her poor PA hadn’t licked the sugar off her fingers after handing it to her,” Kimberley said. “It was dusted with enough arsenic to kill a horse.”

“You didn’t lick your fingers?” I said, then immediately regretted it when I got a look that would have seared a marshmallow. Kimberley obviously wasn’t the type to handle someone else’s doughnut. More’s the pity, I thought, with a moment’s regret. Kimberley looked like a woman with a lot of upper-arm strength. Mel poked me in the side; I wondered if she was telepathic and/or jealous, before I realized she was trying to tell me something. I grabbed her hand with mine and squeezed her fingers, desperately hoping she’d understand that she should keep quiet. Sparks may have flown.

“Adorable,” Kimberley said dryly, sounding like she thought we were anything but.

“Hollywood didn’t buy me,” I said, thinking fast. “I was investigating you.”

“And?” Kimberley raised an eyebrow.

“You’re off the hook. Poisoning your opponent’s doughnut isn’t your style. You’d take him down some other way. Bribing a city inspector to take a closer look at his health and safety standards, for example.” The way her eyes flashed told me I’d struck a nerve, but that wasn’t what I was there to investigate. “My guess is, your boss sent you to collect that doughnut. Did she have a sudden craving?”

“Perkins,” came a cool voice from the doorway. “You’ve an odd way of protecting my life. Hollywood tried to kill me again today, and he very nearly succeeded. But I hear you’ve collected some evidence?”

“I have,” I said, “But it won’t prove Hollywood poisoned that doughnut, will it, your Majesty? That donut was poisoned after it left the bag.”

“And how do you know that?” she said, looking unimpressed.

“I licked it,” I said. A muscle in her forehead twitched.

“Hollywood has an agent inside your establishment,” I said. “And it isn’t Kimberley.”

“Then I suggest you find out who it is,” she said, her voice as chilly as pie pastry straight from the fridge.

“How’s your PA?” I asked.

“Recovering,” she said shortly. “But Christine is above suspicion.”

“Is she?” I said. “How soon can I talk to her?”

“Tomorrow,” she said. “Get out, Perkins. And take your assistant with you.” She handed me a packet. “For expenses. I don’t expect to see you until you’ve cracked the case.”

“Yes, milady,” I said, and ushered Mel out of there, feeling like I had escaped a hot oven just before getting burned.

*

“Where now, boss?” said Mel.

“Assistant, eh?” I said. “Is that how you introduced yourself?”

“It seemed more appropriate than ‘secretary’,” she said sniffily. “Seeing as I was saving your life.”

“It looked to me like you were getting me a bump on the head,” I said. She frowned and reached up to examine my wound; I struck a pose I imagined appropriate to an injured warrior. She didn’t show it, but I knew she was secretly impressed.

“You were right,” she said. “Mary Berry ordered that doughnut. I overheard her.”

While she was hanging around Mary Berry’s headquarters, she meant. If she had aspirations to be my assistant, she was going to have to learn to give a complete and precise report.

“Why did you get involved?”

“My cousin’s one of the Queen’s croissant-runners,” she said. “He said there were rumours about trouble, higher up. Paul Hollywood’s fallen out of favour, and the Queen wants him gone. She’s got you in as her pasty.”

“Patsy,” I said grimly. All that about Christine had been guff I’d made up just to get out of that office. I’d suspected there was more to this case than met the eye from the beginning; laid open, the case looked like a Battenberg cake, checkered through and through. Mary Berry had faked the attempts on her life; she was trying to oust her own second-in-command by framing him for her attempted murder, and promoting Kimberley into his place. But Kimberley was a smart cookie; she’d figure out soon enough that if one lieutenant could be disposed of for becoming too powerful, so could another; I didn’t want to be around when Mary Berry realized she couldn't have her cake and eat it.

“Where are we going?” Mel said suddenly. I had ignored the turn-off to our office, and was headed for the highway.

“I know a nice little place in the mountains,” I said. “We’re going to hole up for a while until this all blows over; just you, me, and some shortbread and cryptic crosswords we’ll pick up on the way. Do you have anyone you need to call?”

“Not really,” she said. It occurred to me how little I knew my new assistant. Maybe it was past time for a work retreat.

“Mel,” I said, “I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

She put her hand on my thigh.

“We could pick up some whipped cream on the way too,” I said.

“Nice,” she said.

I’d like to say we drove into the sunset, but actually we were going the other way. Still, it's the sentiment that counts.