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The Pudding Affair, or Nights In (Treacle Tart)an

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'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

The voice came through on the wireless, low, warm, and crackling a bit with the distance in counterpoint to the fire going in the living room.

"It's a bit of an insult, don't you think," Clementine Amaretti said, punching down the dough for what was destined to become six very fine loaves of white bread, "that they only consider the creatures in that tale? What of the people? Or the inanimate objects? I have it on very good authority that there was an overnight roast going in that house, do you think it wasn't moving?"

The dough, wisely, remained silent. Clem pummeled it some more.

The wireless, after a while, moved to a radio play, one about a cop, a sled, and the true meaning of Christmas. Clem tuned it out. She had it on, not because she needed to fill her hours with endless chatter, but because she, like the narrator of the Moore poem, was listening for something.

That something, rather than the improbable clatter of reindeer hooves on a suburban rooftop, came with the shrill ring of the house phone in the hall.

Clem grabbed a damp cloth on her way out of the kitchen, cleaning away stray bits of dough from her hands as she went. She picked up the phone on the seventh ring.

"Avoiding me?" asked a low voice, thick with syrup and swamp gas. Clem laughed, wedging the phone between her ear and shoulder so she could better scrub at the thin grime of flour still sticking to her skin.

"Never, never, Miss Meg, you know that," she said, "you just caught me in the middle of baking."

Miss Meg barked a laugh. "Baking, baking, always baking with you. One day I'll call and you'll have just sat down to read the paper, and I'll know something's up."

"You're calling me," Clem said with a smile, taking the phone back in her hand and walking a little ways down the hallway, the cord stretching. "Which means something's up regardless. How's Cinn? And Allie?"

"Doing well, as you very well know," Miss Meg replied. "Don't you try and distract me, girl. You know what I'm about."

Clem did, in fact, know what she was about. Miss Nutmeg Lebkuchen and her sisters, Cinnamon and Allspice, were the best Section Chiefs Clem had ever had in her time at Marzipan, which, unfortunately, meant that they rarely called for social reasons.

"Where am I going?" Clem was able to reach the doorway to the living room, the phone cord curling behind her into the dim light of the hall, not quite taut from the strain. She watched the fire pop as she listened to Miss Meg outline a tangled tale of deceitful caterers, lost wills, endangered inheritances, and poor time management.

When she finally hung up, Louis' trumpet was wailing from the wireless, and a pair of train tickets, there and back, were winging their way to her through the morning post. Her bag, as always, was already packed; she'd only need to add a few location specific things to it before catching a cab to the station tomorrow.

She went back to the kitchen, humming under her breath as she finished up with the bread dough, setting it to rise overnight. She'd have to leave a note, she thought, searching for towels to cover the bowl. If she left it on the refrigerator, Ginger would find it in the morning after she came home from her overnight shift, and know where Clem had gone. She'd also leave instructions, just in case her roommate had forgotten how to work the finicky bread oven that lived in the corner of their kitchen.

Once all that was done, she left for her bedroom, riffling mentally through her closet, trying to remember if she had a coat that was suitable for Scotland in December.

~~~

Meloma Karona felt out of place.

Edinburgh was a far cry from Ierapetra, and the constant grey damp only served to make her miss home all the more. Additionally—and most importantly, at this juncture—there were no trains on the island, and therefore no train stations.

The early morning crush had eased some, leaving Meloma standing relatively clear of the chattering waves of humanity that surrounded her. It gave her a sense of relief, but still she was worried, and trying not to show it. She'd only been in Edinburgh a week, tracking down a rogue apiarist, and now here she was, on the asking of Auntie Allie, looking for an operative coming up from the south and hoping desperately that she hadn't already missed them.

"She'll be on the 11 o'clock train," Auntie Allie had said, her voice incongruously tinged with the snap and impatience of New York's busiest, never mind the sugar-sweet drawl of her sister. "Look for a woman with an orange hatband and baker's arms. You'll know her."

"Will she know me?" Meloma had asked, nervous. She'd never worked with anyone outside of the Mediterranean sector before; all of Meg and Cinn's people were worse than foreign to her.

"Mention your bees, and she'd be hard pressed not to," Auntie Allie had replied, and that had been that.

Now Meloma was doing her best to scan the current inhabitants of the station surreptitiously, on the lookout for—there! A flash of orange, at about eye-level. It resolved itself into a thick ribbon of a deep tangerine color, banding an extremely mode felt hat. It was a lovely piece of millinery, worn at a rakish angle by a woman wearing wide-legged trousers and a well-cut suit jacket in a dark grey, with thin pinstripes that Meloma bet, she just bet, matched the hatband exactly.

The woman was moving down the platform with purpose, a valise held by her side, and it was easy enough for Meloma to maneuver herself through the crowd to fall in next to her.

"I must say," she started, cursing the nerves that seemed determined to come through her voice, "I really do like your style."

The woman slanted a look over at her, glanced over Meloma's brown and gold tiered dress, and broke into a smile. "When they said I'd be looking for a honeycomb, I didn't think they were being quite so literal." She held out a hand. "Clementine Amaretti. Call me Clem, less work for both of us."

"Meloma Karona," said the same, blushing, and took it. "Do you know why they needed two of us?"

"The caterers, I expect," Clem said cheerfully. "The will is simple enough, and once that's sorted, the inheritance follows pretty easily behind. Plus, Miss Meg said you're wonders with a schedule, so that only leaves the one thing."

Meloma hummed in agreement. The legal—and illegal—side of the things she did for Marzipan were relatively simple: it was the food-related crises that usually had the potential to spin into full-blown disasters.

"Oh, that reminds me," Clem said as they approached the doors, stepping ever-so-slightly ahead so that she could hold one open for Meloma, "What is the problem with the caterers? Miss Meg just said they'd lied somehow, or maybe it was that they'd been lied to."

"It's the pudding," Meloma said as she stepped out of the station into the determinedly watery sunshine, Clem following behind. "I can't figure out how, but they've misplaced the pudding."

~~~

Misplaced, Clem soon learned, was the wrong word.

The caterers were a perfectly competent group of approximately thirty people, a solid mix of servers, on-site cooks, decorators, and management based in the eastern part of the city. The problem was, all thirty of Alborio Catering's employees swore up and down they were perfectly capable and prepared to make enough Christmas Pudding to serve the two hundred guests that had RSVP'd to Azúcar Rico-Caballero's Christmas Party, and yet, when asked directly for any of the ingredients, cooking methods, or even the appearance of the Pudding, they all came up empty.

It was eerie, almost, Clem thought, how thoroughly blank the looks she received were, especially contrasted with the off-handed knowledge displayed on the topic just moments before, when the matter had been discussed more obliquely.

"It's like someone pulled it out of their heads and left a cardboard cutout behind," commented Meloma softly, as they watched yet another sous chef walk back to the area Señora Rico-Caballero had set aside as prep space.

Clem had to agree. This level of uncomprehending blankness, of inability, went far beyond their usual cases of simple misunderstanding, or lack of prior training. This went straight into the realm of outright culinary and cultural sabotage, which meant that she and Meloma were walking on potentially thin ice.

Over the next few days, she and her new partner had frustratingly better luck sussing out the more mundane undercurrents in Sra. Rico-Caballero’s household, while any signs of their delicacy thief remained maddeningly out of reach.

The promisingly strange, almost twitchy demeanor of one of Sra. Rico-Caballero’s sons was dismissed as the natural behavior of a very kind, yet simultaneously very nervous man with an unfortunate aversion to loud noises and sudden appearances by unexpected guests, while a houseboy with questionable finances was revealed to simply be in need of a sit down with someone with a bit more money sense, if the amount of money he spent on pomade, shoeshine, and adventure novels was anything to go by.

By Friday, the day before Sra. Rico-Caballero's Christmas Party, Meloma and Clem had identified the thief (a maid who hadn't known what she picked up, and put all of the papers in a cabinet with previous years' linen inventory records), thwarted the scheming attorney, and whipped the event planning staff into an astonishingly efficient and well-oiled machine.

The Christmas Pudding, alas, still evaded them.

~~~

At 8 o'clock the evening before Sra. Rico-Caballero's Christmas Party, Meloma was in the wine cellar underneath the kitchen, door at the top of the stairs wedged open to illuminate the lines of dusty shelves. She was bent over, hunting up a dessert white, as well as a red for the meat course, when the muted thump of footsteps coming down the stairs alerted her to the presence of another person.

Meloma straightened to step out from behind the shelves, mouth already open to announce her presence, when the door to the cellar was shut, plunging her and whoever had just entered into darkness. A match flared, and in the wavering light she was able to make out the shock of thick blonde hair belonging to Pera, Sra. Rico-Caballero’s stepson, in the gaps between the shelves. His face looked pallid and sweaty, and the match shook in his hand before dying out, a far cry from the steady rock of support Meloma had met the first day they’d entered the household.

Another match lit with a sulfurous hiss, and Meloma faded back as far as she could behind the rows of wine bottles, fighting to stay out of the flickering circle of light as Pera moved over to a rack set at the very back of the cellar, the only one with a set of doors, and pulled out a small key from around his neck. As Meloma watched, he opened the doors, and pulled out a bottle of thick green glass from the bottom of the shelves.

She stifled a gasp. There, in his hands, pulsing faintly through the dark color of the bottle, was the tell-tale glow of a stolen recipe.

“Oh,” said Pera, almost mournfully, “what am I to do with you?”

Meloma was frozen. She was one of Auntie Allie’s girls, and here was their culprit, caught almost red-handed, but she was also a woman alone in a dark basement with a man who had already shown himself willing to commit a crime. She wasn’t out of options, none of Marzipan’s agents ever were, but she needed to be careful.

She shifted slowly to the side, hand reaching for a full double-size bottle of chianti, so focused that when the door at the top of the stairs was pulled open again she almost jumped.

“Miss Karona?” came Sra. Rico-Caballero’s voice, getting closer as her footsteps began to echo down the stairs, “Miss Karona? Jessi said she had seen you come down here, I was worried when I saw the door closed, have you been down here in the dark?”

“Over here,” Meloma said, stepping out behind Pera, the chianti bottle held tightly behind her back.

"Oh, there you are,” Sra. Rico-Caballero said, then froze at the sight of her son, who was still holding the bottle containing the recipe, face stricken as he looked at his mother.

“What is the meaning of this?" she said, and Meloma could just detect the slightest hint of a shake. “Pera?”

"I hate it, Mamá," he said, arms finally dropping limply to his sides, the bottle hanging loosely from his fingers. "Every year, it's so prominent, you're so proud of it, you make me eat it, and every year I hate it—I hate you—more."

Sra. Rico-Caballero stared at him, disbelieving. "So you steal it from me? This thing you say you know I am proud of, that I love, you take it from me?"

"No, Mamá, that's not what I meant to do." Pera sounded anguished. "I decided this year, enough was enough. I wasn't going to eat the Christmas Pudding, and I wasn't going to lie to you about liking it, not anymore. But I didn't want you to be disappointed in me; I thought making sure the caterers couldn't make it would be better than telling you I didn't like something you loved so much."

Pera looked dejected. He held out the bottle towards Sra. Rico-Caballero. "I'm sorry, Mamá. Here, take it. I was going to return it, but I knew I couldn't without talking to you. I was trying work up the nerve when you came down."

"Oh, m'ijo," Sra. Rico-Caballero sighed, gesturing at Clem to go ahead and take the bottle from Pera's hand. "You did not have to do this, you know? There are easier ways to say you don't like something, you know this, I know you do. Resorting to recipe theft should never be an option you consider necessary, not with me.

"We're family, are we not?" she asked. Pera nodded miserably. "Family asks questions, family shares. Family does not—" she fixed Pera with a glare so different from the looks she'd been giving him thus far that Meloma almost jumped "—does not engage in the highest of illegal activity simply because they're afraid of disappointing their mother. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Mamá," Pera said softly, then followed Sra. Rico-Caballero up the stairs after she beckoned him over, leaving Maloma, Clem, and the recipe in the wine cellar alone.

~~~

"Well," Clem said, an hour or so later, "That was unexpected."

Meloma hummed in agreement from her seat across the table, papers and code-book spread in controlled chaos in front of her, constantly in danger of knocking over the two mugs of tea they'd ordered.

They were at a patisserie located near the center of Edinburgh's commercial district, one frequented enough by students at the local University that Meloma's work went uncommented upon. It was a lovely place, with wood floors, local art, an unashamed affection for chintz and paisley, and warm yellow lights that spilled out onto the sidewalk in a golden wash.

The recipe, newly retrieved, sat in its bottle between them as Meloma scratched away at her report, acting almost like a centerpiece.

"I've never had it play out quite like that," Clem continued, eyes scanning the crowd behind her partner, snagging on a bright blonde bob here, an intricate cascade of multi-colored braids there. "With the confession, the hand-off, and the not quite repressed tears, I mean."

"Aye," said a voice in a truly terrible Scottish accent, far closer to the table than it had any right to be. "Verra anticlimactic, wouldna ye say? I hadna even had tha’ opportunity to send ye some of these lovely wee gadgets they've set me ta makin'."

"What in the world—" Clem started, twisting in her seat, trying to pinpoint who was speaking.

Meloma's voice came from behind her, harsher than Clem had expected it could become. "Ma'am, I don't know what you think you know, but for your own safety I suggest you forget it."

"Stand down, ladies" the same voice said, this time devoid of the attempted burr. What was left over was American, maybe, or Canadian, Clem thought, before her eyes settled on a vision in lavender silk.

"Biscotti à la Mode," the vision said with a wink. "I'm one of Madame Cinn's girls. Call me Scotty, never Bisco, please ignore the fact that my initials spell BALM. May I sit down?"

Clem blinked. She'd never met, as Scotty had put it, one of Madame Cinn's girls in person, just received packages with their work inside, but Lord, if they were all like this, she could see why.

While she was woolgathering, Meloma gestured towards an open chair. "Please, sit down. My name is Meloma Karona, and this is Clementine Amaretti."

"Clem," said the same.

Scotty politely refrained from saying "I know". Madame Cinn's girls, for all their usual lack of presence in the field, usually knew twice as much as Miss Meg and Auntie Allie's agents combined, and had a better idea of what to do with it.

What she did say was: "I notice you've got yourselves a recipe."

"Yes," Meloma sighed, before launching into the whole sordid plot, Clem chiming in on the bit she'd done herself, or whatever Meloma didn't quite remember.

"And so," she finally finished, "we have the recipe, that's clear. It's just what to do with it now that we have it, that's giving us pause."

"We want to give it back, obviously," Clem continued, once it became clear that Meloma was done talking for the moment, "but Sra. Rico-Caballero asked us to be as discreet as we can about the whole affair, which means returning it to the caterers without them noticing they've lost anything that had to be returned in the first place."

"Which," Scotty said, "is a bit difficult when the things tend to glow like bloody Jack-o-Lanterns."

"Quite," Meloma murmured.

Scotty was quiet for a moment, clearly thinking. The sounds of the cafe washed over them, bright conversations about holiday plans, finished papers, and the hope for a white Christmas swirling through the air.

"Flambé," she said after a minute, "or, alternatively, and probably easier to excuse, group photo."

"Oh," Clem said, picking up on what Scotty was implying, "the flash—"

Meloma nodded. "Do up the recipe right, send it with the light—"

"And poof," Scotty finished, "there they have it, as well as a lovely Christmas card."

Clem grinned, and reached for her mug.

"I do so love it when a plan comes together," she said, and took a sip, pleased to find the tea was still warm.