The door chime clanked as Ellie raced in the door of the toasty bakery. She couldn't believe she was late.
The smell of sweet cinnamon instantly filled her nose as she ran toward the door behind the counter. She knocked on it as she tried to catch her breath, running her hand over the rough brick wall with the words Fitzgerald's Treats scrawled in white paint.
"I’m so sorry I’m late!" Ellie exclaimed as the door swung open. But her words soon trailed off when she saw who answered the door. She expected the smiling face of one of her friends, Fez, Tink, or Jessica. They solved mysteries together all the time and today they were baking cookies. But instead, she was greeted by the scowl of Jack—a bully from school who loved tormenting Ellie and her friends.
"Hi Scaredy Bat," Jack said to Ellie before he turned around and grabbed a sack of flour. He slammed the bag on a work table, forcing out a puff of flour that made a large cloud in the air.
Fez, the bakery owner’s son, cleared his throat loudly as he squinted at Jack.
Jack's face turned white, and not from the puff of flour. "I mean, hi Ellie. Nice to, umm, see you." Jack turned around and left the kitchen to retrieve more ingredients.
Ellie stood with her mouth open before turning toward Fez. "What is going on? Jack has never used my real name! AND he said it was nice to see me?"
Fez giggled. "Turns out Jack has an interest in baking and needs community volunteer hours. My Dad agreed to let him help. BUT only if he is nice."
Ellie’s oldest friend, Jessica, wiped some dough out of her curly hair and snorted. "Jack being nice? I give it an hour."
Tink wiped a spot of flour off his glasses. “I give it ten minutes.”
Ellie laughed. "I give it less." She signed her name on the sign-in list, along with the time: 9:55 AM. She also saw two names she didn’t recognize, Pierre and Freddy. Jack had distracted her so much that she didn’t notice the large man in a white chef's hat. He was standing beside a tall, lanky boy with dark hair.
“Who are they?” Ellie asked Fez.
“That’s Chef Pierre and his son, Freddy. They’re from France and new in town. This order of cookies for the mayor’s Christmas party is the biggest order my Dad has ever gotten, so he needed all the help he could get.”
Ellie observed that Pierre and Freddy shared the same green eyes.
“Usually, my Dad doesn’t hire other chefs,” Fez continued. “Especially one that he beat out for the big cookie order, but this is too important. These cookies need to be perfect because a lot of important people will be at that party, which could mean a lot of new business!”
“Alright team,” boomed Fez’s Dad, Mr. Fitzgerald. “The mayor’s assistant is coming to pick these up at 2:45 PM, so we need to get back to work.” The kitchen buzzed as everyone took their places.
“Wow!” Ellie said as she watched the chefs and their assistants work.
A cloud of cinnamon floated above everyone's heads. Mr. Fitzgerald squeezed two giant icing tubes and streams of green and red flew through the air. The icing landed on a rack of cookies next to Jack, who was using the cookie cutter like a pro. Across from him was Chef Pierre, with an egg between each finger on his left hand. He cracked all four eggs into a bowl with one stroke, as he poured milk and added spices with his right hand. Pierre’s son Freddy stood by his side, whipping up the batter like a tornado. It looked and smelled amazing!
“Alright gang,” Fez said. “Let’s do this.” Instead of each baking their own cookies, the mystery solving squad did what they did best and worked together as a team.
Tink carefully measured the eggs, milk, and vanilla before dumping them into the bowl for Ellie to beat together with the mixer. Next Fez brought them the flour and other dry ingredients to add, then Jessica rolled out the dough to cut the cookies.
They did the same process over and over again. By the time she was done, Ellie’s arm felt so achy that she thought it was going to fall off. All that hard work was worth it though. She smiled as Fez took the second to last batch of cookies out of the oven—they looked perfect! He slipped them onto the large table in the center of the room under the sign 2:00 PM.
The table had time signs along each section. They started at 9:00 AM with a sign for every half hour up to 2:00 PM. Now only the 2:30 PM cookies were missing and they were in the oven.
Ellie had skipped breakfast in her rush and it sounded like there was a monster in her stomach. She eyed the 9:00 AM cookies. Her mouth watered as she looked at their cinnamon sugar tops that glittered in the light. She was so hungry. Maybe she would just sneak a taste.
She grabbed the cookie and shoved it in her mouth.
She expected a burst of sweet flavor, for cinnamon to tingle her tongue, for it to be the best cookie ever. Instead, her tongue felt like it was on fire. She spit out the spicy cookie as quietly as possible into a trash bin. She had eaten one of Fez's dad's cinnamon cookies before and it tasted nothing like this.
She grabbed another cookie from the 9:00 AM batch and handed it to Jessica.
"Jess, try this," Ellie whispered.
Without asking any questions, Jessica took a bite of the cookie. Her nose quickly wrinkled and she stuck out her tongue. "Oh. My. Goodness. This cookie is disgusting!" she cried. Jessica ran to the bin and loudly spat out the surprisingly spicy snack.
"What do you mean?" Fez asked, rushing over. He planted his hands on his hips. "I just think you have no taste!"
Jessica shoved the remainder of the cookie in her hand toward his mouth. Fez grabbed the treat with his teeth. He munched the cookie, he crunched the cookie, and he threw it around in his mouth as if he were carefully analyzing the flavors.
"Well, I would hardly say this is gross," Fez finally concluded after a long silence. "It is a nice blend of sweet and spicy. But this definitely is not my Dad's cinnamon cookie recipe. Why are they so spicy?" He stuck out his tongue and panted like a dog.
"I ate a cookie earlier, and it was delicious," Tink said. "Definitely not spicy."
Ellie's eyes scanned over the cookie table. "I took the two spicy cookies from the 9:00 AM batch. Do you remember where you grabbed yours?"
"I think from the 11:00 AM cookies," Tink answered.
"Maybe they aren't all bad then?" Ellie said.
Fez let out a sharp exhale. "Only one way to find out." He sampled a cookie from each batch.
"Only the 9:00 AM cookies are spicy!" Fez concluded. "The rest are normal cinnamon."
"But why would only those cookies be spicy?" Jessica asked.
"I don't know,” Fez said. “What I do know is I need to make a batch to replace those ASAP. The mayor's assistant is picking up the cookies in less than half an hour. Not only will I be in trouble since I was in charge, but if word gets out about this catastrophe, my dad will lose business. He's worked so hard all year to make his catering company and bakery successful. I can't let that happen."
"What can we do?" Ellie asked.
Fez lowered his voice. "Find out how this happened. And fast. I'm going to get Tink to help me since he is the fastest at measuring ingredients. I will need Jessica later since she is the best cookie cutter. But I need you to figure this out. You're the best detective I know, Ellie."
Ellie gasped. "So it's a mystery!?"
Ellie started searching for spicy ingredients around the kitchen with Jessica while the boys made a new batch of dough. She held the refrigerator door open and Jessica began trying things one by one.
"What's this?" Jessica asked as she held up a squishy, white chunk.
With a shrug, Ellie popped a piece of the mystery chunk in her mouth and a burst of heat tingled her mouth. She coughed and ran for a napkin to wipe her tongue. “It's garlic paste! Yuck!”
As Ellie gave her tongue one final wipe, she noticed Fez sprinkling cinnamon into the dough. "Hey, maybe it's a spice that makes the cookies spicy."
Jessica nodded. "We should check the spices in the pantry."
Right before they left the kitchen, they noticed Jack slinking to the back. But with all the ingredients already in the kitchen, why did he need to go to the back?
"Do you think Jack is behind this, messing with us again?" Jessica asked.
"Let's go find out,” Ellie said. The girls rushed after him but lost him around the corner in a large pantry where the walls were lined with shelves.
"He can't be that far," Jessica whispered.
"Boo!" yelled Jack as he popped out from behind a shelf.
Ellie could feel her stomach flop from fright as she transformed into a bat. She flapped her black wings as fast as she could and darted into a nearby corner.
Jack roared with laughter.
"Jack! You're supposed to be nice while being here," Jessica scolded. "Fez told us all about the deal with Mr. Fitzgerald."
Jack stopped laughing. "Right." He gave a small sigh and looked at the bat in the corner. "Sorry, Scaredy Bat-- I mean, Ellie."
Ellie transformed back into a vampire. "If you are sabotaging the cookies to mess with us, you will be in so much trouble!"
"Sabotage the cookies?" Jack asked. "I would never do that. Mr. Fitzgerald said he would let me help out over Christmas break if I do a good job today." Jack looked down at his feet and shuffled them side to side. "So I would appreciate it if we could forget I scared you. I am sorry."
Ellie could feel a lump in her throat. She had never seen Jack look vulnerable. She and Jessica exchanged a glance and she could tell Jessica was equally shocked.
"Where were you at 9:00 AM?" Ellie asked, digging out her detective notepad.
"I wasn't even here yet," Jack explained. "I only got here a few minutes before you."
The blaring sound of a car horn came from outside.
"That's my mom. I've got to go," Jack said. Jack grabbed his backpack from beside a nearby shelf and disappeared.
"Do you think he's lying?" Jessica asked.
Ellie scratched her chin. "I know one way to find out."
Ellie raced to the sign-in sheet and scanned for Jack's name as Jessica was called over to cut cookies. There it was near the top with 9:45 AM written beside it.
“That means Jack was telling the truth,” Ellie mumbled to herself. He wasn't here when the 9:00 AM batch was made. Also, it didn't seem like he would risk upsetting Mr. Fitzgerald.
A small cough jolted Ellie away from her thoughts.
Tink ran past her and into the storefront where he took a gasp of air. Ellie ran after him.
"Are you okay!?" she asked.
Tink nodded and cleared his throat. "Well, the good news is I think I may have found what was so spicy in the cookies."
"I ran out of cinnamon, so I asked Pierre if I could use his since it was closer than running to the back. He agreed--"
"Wait. Why would Pierre have his own spices?" Ellie asked.
"I asked Fez that, and apparently a lot of chefs like to bring their own knives, kitchen tools, and even special ingredients to jobs. Anyway, as I was saying, I grabbed what I thought was cinnamon, but it turned out it was cayenne pepper.” Tink let out another cough. “They were both red-ish brown… I should have read the label. In the science lab, it’s important to read ingredient labels and not just assume. I guess the kitchen is the same way."
Ellie gasped. "Do you think someone accidentally made the spicy cookies with cayenne? I mean, if you could make that mistake, anyone could."
"That’s what I was thinking,” said Tink.
Fez swung the door open. "Guys, our problem got bigger."
They went to the table of cookies and Fez pointed to the ones made at 2:00 PM. He whispered to the mystery team. "We couldn’t find the tree-shaped cookie cutter, so we went to the pantry to find a new one. When we got back, I was feeling snacky, so I grabbed a cookie from 2:00 PM. I love when they're warm and we made a few extras in the new batch. But guess what? They're spicy! Just like the others. And they're cold."
Ellie's mouth fell open. "Wait, what? How is that possible? We made that batch together and I watched you take those out of the oven not long ago.” Ellie walked the length of the table, looking at each batch. "Is it just me? Or are some cookies a lot darker than others?"
Jessica turned her attention toward the cookies. "You’re right! It seems like all the cookies made at 9:00 AM and 10:00 AM are darker. Also, half of the 2:00 PM cookies.”
“Try a lighter cookie from the 2:00 PM batch,” Ellie said to Fez.
“We can’t afford to eat more cookies when some are magically becoming spicy,” Jessica hissed in protest.
“I have a theory,” Ellie explained.
Fez did as instructed and tasted a lighter cookie.
“Mmm, these are definitely normal cinnamon. And they’re much softer than the spicy cookies. Still warm, too!”
“That’s what I thought,” Ellie said.
Fez finished the last of his cookie. “The other one almost tastes old with how crunchy and hard it is.”
“Maybe they are,” Ellie said. “What if someone is replacing today’s batch of cookies with older, spicy cookies?” Ellie turned to see Freddy cleaning up his workstation. He was the only one in the kitchen when they came back in. “And with all of us out of the kitchen a couple minutes ago, Freddy would have had time to switch them.”
The gang followed the French chef’s son to the walk-in fridge. A chill shot through Ellie as she rubbed her arms, trying to create some warmth.
“Hi Freddy,” Ellie said as the tall boy stretched to place a tub of butter on the top shelf.
Freddy turned around and his eyes widened in surprise as he saw he was cornered by Ellie and her friends. “Umm, hello.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why are you here today? Wouldn’t you prefer to be relaxing on your Christmas break?”
Freddy gave a small laugh and you could see his warm breath escape. “Yup, but try telling my Dad that.” He turned around and continued to put items back on the shelves. “When he learned Mr. Fitzgerald needed help, he roped me into helping as well. He originally applied to cater the mayor’s Christmas party, but Mr. Fitzgerald won out.”
Ellie scribbled down the word REVENGE? in her notebook, but it looked more like BEVEMCE? It came out all squiggly with her hand shaking from the cold. She wondered, did Pierre want to sabotage Mr. Fitzgerald to get revenge for beating him? Before she could ask Freddy, a loud sound came from the kitchen.
Everyone rushed out of the fridge and into the Christmas cookie catastrophe.
The sight of the broken table and the cookies spread across the floor made Ellie’s stomach do a summersault. A leg from the table had fallen off and two screws sat nearby.
Mr. Fitzgerald stood in the kitchen, staring at the mess. All of the cookies were ruined!
“How did this happen?” cried Mr. Fitzgerald. “I put this table together myself and made sure the leg’s screws were extra tight!”
“Hello?” came a voice from the front of the bakery. Ellie whipped her head toward the clock. It was 2:45 PM—cookie pickup time. She turned toward Mr. Fitzgerald, who was still staring at the cookies in shock.
“Stall the mayor’s assistant,” she instructed Jessica who was the best babbler she knew. “I have an idea, but I need a few minutes.”
“That isn’t the mayor’s assistant,” Tink gulped, peering through the door. “It’s the mayor himself.”
Ellie gasped before taking a calming breath. “Well, this could still work.”
Jessica agreed and Ellie’s eyes narrowed at Pierre, who was rushing to pack up his stuff.
“Going somewhere?” Ellie asked.
“Oh, yes,” Pierre said in his thick French accent, not stopping to look at Ellie. “Lots to finish. It is almost Christmas, don’t you know?” Ellie spotted a screwdriver with his chef stuff.
“Have you been replacing the cookies all day with cayenne ones to sabotage Mr. Fitzgerald?”
Pierre paused packing and finally turned to Ellie. All the color had flushed from his face, which made him look like a panicked ghost.
“Oh no, of course not. Why would you ask such a horrible question, little girl?”
“I think you have been switching the cookies all day with spicy ones you baked. Because you were mad you didn’t get the job to cater the mayor’s party. I am assuming there are more spicy cookies and you planned on replacing them all, but the kitchen was too busy. So you unscrewed the leg on the table instead.”
Pierre stood frozen.
“So, where are the other spicy cookies?” Ellie asked. “If we can give the mayor the bad cookies for now and swap them out before the party, we can fix this.”
Freddy gave a large groan from behind the mystery gang. “Oh, Pappa, you didn’t? Is that what you were baking the other day? Cookies to sabotage Mr. Fitzgerald? And after how nice he has been?!”
“Freddy, you don’t understand,” Pierre said. “With the money from this party we could have opened our own bakery. Just like we had in France.”
“Hurting Mr. Fitzgerald and his family isn’t going to change that,” Freddy said. “Go get the cookies. Now.”
Pierre pulled out a large sack of spicy cookies from inside a nearby cupboard.
Mr. Fitzgerald finally snapped out of his trance. “This is all true, Pierre?”
Pierre lowered his head. “Yes. I was mad. I wanted this job so I could open a bakery of my own. I miss my old customers in France and feeding them delicious treats… moving to a completely new place has been hard. I am sorry. I have hurt your business and set a terrible example for Freddy.”
Ellie expected Mr. Fitzgerald to explode. After all, Pierre had ruined something very important to him. But to her surprise, he spoke in a soft tone. “Pierre, I understand. We moved here less than a year ago and it has been hard to adjust.”
He looked over at Freddy and smiled.
“I hired you to help with the cookies because of how lovely you and your family are. You know, I may have bitten off more than I can chew with both a bakery and a catering company. Tell you what, help me make cookies to replace these and you can have a job here as a baker. That is, if there still is a bakery after what happens with the mayor. I can’t pay you a large amount, but we would be happy to have you and your talent on board.”
Pierre’s eyes lit up. “Really? After what I did? I certainly don’t deserve this.”
Mr. Fitzgerald put a hand on Pierre’s arm. “It’s almost Christmas. Everyone deserves a second chance at Christmas.”
Pierre wrapped his arms around Mr. Fitzgerald. “You are too kind! I accept!”
With all the spicy cookies wrapped in 12 large bakery boxes, the gang carried them to the front. Ellie stifled a laugh as she heard Jessica babbling about bubble gum pink fabric and coral fabric—a difference that the mayor clearly couldn’t have cared less about. His eyes looked more glazed over than the donuts in the display case.
“Here you go!” Ellie said, piling the last box on the counter. “Merry Christmas.”
The mayor smiled and sniffed the air. “Wow, these smell amazing,” he said. “I think I just need a small taste or else these will drive me nuts on the car ride.” He reached into the box and pulled out a cookie. Before anyone could object, he stuffed it into his mouth like a chipmunk with a nut. The cookie bulged in his cheek as he chewed.
Ellie's palms were sweating and her heart was pounding in her chest.
“Wait!” said Pierre, bursting from the kitchen. “These are not Mr. Fitzgerald’s fault. I am responsible for the spicy cookies. I am very, very sorry. Please don’t punish Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“Well, if you are responsible for these, then I have to say, ‘great job!’ These are delicious!”
Ellie gasped. “What?”
“These are perfect. Like a sweet and spicy dessert.”
The mayor squinted at the name tag on Pierre’s chef coat. “Pierre, how would you like a job in my kitchen? Top of the line equipment, plus a generous salary and bonuses.”
Pierre’s eyes grew wide. “You want me?”
“Sure do. Anyone who can bake a cookie this delicious and unique deserves a spot on my personal staff.”
Pierre looked at Mr. Fitzgerald and then at his son and smiled. “Thank you for the generous offer. But I have already found a wonderful job.”
The mayor shrugged. “Suit yourself. If any of you want to stop by the party tonight, you are more than welcome.” He grabbed the boxes, which wiggled in a large tower in his arms. “Merry Christmas!” he said as he headed out the door.
When the door floated shut, Mr. Fitzgerald turned to Pierre. “Why didn’t you accept his offer? He can give you much more money than I can.”
Pierre shrugged. “This feels like home. But maybe we rethink that sign on the brick wall. What if we change it to ‘Pierre’s Patisserie’?”
Mr. Fitzgerald laughed. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay, okay. ‘Pierre & Fitzgerald’s Treats.’”
The two men disappeared into the back.
“Well, that went nothing like I thought it was going to,” Jessica said.
“I don’t think anyone saw that coming,” Tink added.
“Do you guys want to go decorate some ornaments?” Fez asked. “I think I ate too many cookies and the smell in here is making me feel queasy.”
Everyone laughed and agreed.
“I wonder who will be at the mayor’s Christmas party,” Jessica said as she exited, followed by Tink and Fez.
Ellie turned around before she left and noticed Freddy pulling out a book at one of the bakery’s tables.
“Hey, Freddy. Do you want to come decorate ornaments?”
Freddy smiled. “I don’t think you want me to decorate ornaments. I’m not very good at art. All I can draw is stick people.”
Ellie giggled. “It’s okay. Tink isn’t much of an artist either.”
Tap! Tap! Tap!
Tink glared at Ellie from outside the window. “I can hear you!”
Ellie stuck out her tongue at Tink and laughed. “So, you wanna come?” Ellie asked Freddie.
Freddy stuffed his book back into his bag. “Sure! It’s better than listening to my Dad try to convince Mr. Fitzgerald to change the bakery’s name.”
Right on cue, the two men stepped to the front of the shop again.
“Okay, well, what about ‘P & F Sweets?’” Pierre offered.
Mr. Fitzgerald shook his head and turned his attention to Ellie. “You headed out?”
“Yup! We’re going to decorate ornaments.”
“Ooo, sounds fun. Thanks for all your help today. Fez is lucky to have such good friends.” Mr. Fitzgerald gave Ellie a big smile. “Merry Christmas, Ellie.”