Joy’s assistant, Sophia, looked towards the door. “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Joy picked up a pastry bag full of frosting. “I wish I had a guardian angel tonight. I only booked this Christmas eve wedding because the mayor and his daughter are my neighbors.”
Sophia placed sugar cookies in a pink box and handed it to a customer. “We’ll get through this. And, Joy, everyone has a guardian angel.”
Joy sighed and squeezed a swirl of frosting around the base of the angel then dusted edible iridescent golden sprinkles over her creation. Normally, Christmas was her favorite holiday. But this year, despite being busy at her bakery and surrounded by people, she felt alone. Gabe, her husband, had died two years earlier. She missed his touch, smile and laughter. Both her married daughters were busy with their own families and unable to visit.
Joy stopped and watched her client push through the line of customers. Bridezillas were common, but a Frankengroom, possessing the social skills of a reality TV star, was a first.
“Yo, Mrs. P. How far along are you? You look ready to pop. Triplets?” He pointed his finger at a large woman and used his thumb as a trigger while making a clucking sound with his tongue.
Joy grimaced. Mrs. P. wasn’t pregnant.
Sophia whispered, “His guardian angel must be busy cleaning up after him. Hard to believe he's a successful doctor.”
Frankengroom impatiently whistled the theme song from Jeopardy as he waited in line. Then he shouted over the other customers, “Joy, you will be on time for my wedding reception tonight at my mansion, right?” He winked and flexed a bicep at a female customer in front of him. “With the cupcakes, right? And I want them to taste epic! If they don’t, I’m not paying the rest of my bill.”
Edging past annoyed customers, he did the finger point and tongue click then snatched up the cupcake Joy just made. He tossed the sugar angel on the countertop breaking off its wings and began eating the cupcake on his way out, leaving a trail of crumbs.
The bells hanging over the door swayed and jangled.
Joy climbed down the ladder, thinking of her cat home alone. “I’ll be glad when I can go home, sit next to Mistletoe and put my feet up in front of the fireplace.”
“Me too, I need to wrap presents for my kids tonight.” Sophia helped Joy fold and store the ladder.
Low music began as the wedding party and guests trickled into the ballroom after the wedding ceremony in the mansion chapel finished. Joy frowned as she looked at the best man. He looked familiar but she couldn’t place him. She straightened a red frosted cupcake with an iced poinsettia flower leaning into the evergreen centerpiece. Snippets of conversation swirled around her.
“He’s a jerk. I would be better off if he wasn’t my partner in our medical practice. I can’t take him any longer. He’s self-centered with a ginormous ego. Look at the groom’s cupcake with a miniature replica of him on top. The figure is twice as large as the one on the bride’s cupcake.” Frankengroom’s best man and a guest walked towards the cupcake tree. Joy wondered if she had heard correctly. Had the best man said that?
Joy guarded the tree from mishap. The mayor nodded at Joy and snapped photos as he approached a young man. “My daughter and this reception are beautiful. If the groom went missing, it would be a fun time. I’d be a happy man.” He slapped the younger man on the back. “She should have married you.”
Joy joined Sophia in the kitchen to grab a bite of dinner while the guests were served. “I don’t think Frankengroom has many fans. What does his bride see in him?”
A waitress overheard and confided, “Poor girl was crying before the wedding. I think she was pressured to marry him.” The waitress hurried off. Joy and Sophia exchanged knowing glances.
In the dining hall, the wait staff cleared dinner plates while the best man grabbed the microphone and began talking. “Everyone gather around the dessert tree to toast the groom and his lovely wife.”
Frankengroom shouted to him. “Yes, a toast. You couldn’t have made it through medical school without me, bro. Especially finals, right?” He wiggled his left ear with his right hand and put a finger next to his nose then pointed and did the tongue click.
The best man chewed the inside of his cheek then hoisted his glass. “Here’s to happy times ahead.”
Joy watched people clink glasses. The best man looked familiar. Now, she realized that he must be a doctor in Frankengroom’s medical group. Was it her imagination or did the bride shoot a wistful look towards the young man her father had consoled? Was he an old boyfriend? And what was that secret hand code from Frankengroom to his best man? The best man didn’t look pleased. Joy passed out plates of cupcakes to guests while studying him. She snapped her fingers realizing she had seen the best man’s photo in a recent newspaper article. His name was Dr. Howard-something, and he was hit with a malpractice suit after the death of his patient. There was more, but she couldn’t recall.
The bride and groom crossed arms and bit into their respective cupcakes. Frankengroom swallowed hard and said, “This doesn’t taste very good. At least I’ll save some money by not paying for this crappy...” He broke off, gasping for air, clutched his neck and staggered backwards into the cupcake tower. He and the tower swayed left then right in a strange confectionary tango.
Joy inhaled, watching her tower sway. “My cupcakes.” She moved in tandem with the tower while holding out her hands in a futile attempt to catch her work of art.
The tower twisted then fell to the ground, cupcakes splattering the guests like they were shot from paint guns. Huge frosting globs rained down on Joy. Frankengroom landed on top of the sugary carnage inches from her with the string of twinkle lights on his head. His new wife ran over and kneeled in the sweet goo next to him while Dr. Howard felt for a pulse then began giving CPR.
People screamed, backed away from the scene and a few grabbed their cell phones. Joy didn’t know with this crowd if they were dialing 911, tweeting their friends or taking videos for YouTube. She was shocked at the chaos and felt guilty that her first thought was for the ruined cupcakes.
Dr. Howard shook his head, stopped performing CPR and slowly stood up. “He’s gone.”
The bride covered her face with her hands while her presumed ex-boyfriend comforted her. Her father, the mayor, looked upward with a slightly bemused smile and crossed himself.
Sophia wiped frosting from her uniform then removed chunks from Joy’s hair. Joy scanned the room noting that some people had smirks of delight on their faces.
Dr. Howard jabbed his finger at Joy. “He ate your cupcake just before he died.”
Joy heard gasps, saw people’s eyes widen as they covered their mouths with their hands. She felt angered by the accusation. “Don’t blame me, maybe he choked.”
One hysterical guest yelled, “We all ate Joy’s cupcakes and could be next. Everybody, throw up!” She stuck her finger down her throat.
Sophia grabbed Joy’s arm, “You should get away from this madhouse flash mob. Go lie low in another room until the cops get here.”
Joy walked down the hallway deep in thought. Were her cupcakes responsible? There were many people milling around the cupcake tree who hoped that Frankengroom was now in a hot place. Anyone including the mayor, the bride, her ex-boyfriend, or the best man could have slipped something into the groom’s cupcake. But who hated him enough to kill him?
Joy saw Dr. Howard walk down the hallway towards her. She ducked behind a large potted plant and watched as he looked around then entered the groom’s home office. She took a deep breath, tiptoed to the door and peeked inside.
Joy saw him rifle through the desk, slamming drawers. Pausing, he looked around the room, focused on a wall filled with framed photos and walked over to it. After scrutinizing the pictures, he removed one photo from the wall and extracted a folded piece of paper taped to the back then tossed the picture on the ground. He unrolled the paper, looked it over and tucked it in his pocket. Joy ducked back behind the plant as he walked out.
She hurried into the office and looked at the numerous photos on the wall recognizing several people she knew including the mayor and his daughter. Joy saw the discarded photo was of Frankengroom and Dr. Howard in graduation caps and gowns. She scanned the photo wall and pulled down another photo of a group of students also in caps and gowns that looked like it was taken around the same time. She found a folded sheet of paper taped on back of that photo. Unfolding it she saw diagrams of hand movements with translations next to each. She noted that a pointed finger meant correct.
Suddenly Joy remembered the rest of the article. A classmate came forward and told the medical board about cheating in medical school after Dr. Howard’s patient died. Joy would bet Joyous Creations that this photo was a group who cheated. They probably used hand codes and this piece of paper was a code sheet. She guessed that Frankengroom used it to blackmail Dr. Howard. He probably blackmailed all the people on this wall using information about them hidden on back of their photos. Joy wondered about his strange method of bookkeeping. Perhaps Frankengroom enjoyed keeping the source of his money and power close. Or, Joy thought, knowing how clueless Frankengroom had been concerning people, he needed a pictorial to identify his victims.
She turned to leave and came face to face with Dr. Howard. Taken back, she tried to dodge him but her shoe, slick with frosting on the sole, slipped. He grabbed her arm with one hand and they locked eyes.
Joy screamed. Using his other hand, he smacked her hard across the face.
She saw stars then blackness.
She groggily opened her eyes. The voice sounded like Gabe; where was she? Joy couldn’t see much in the darkness although it appeared she lay in a closet. Her ankles were tied together, wrists bound in front, and a cloth fastened around her mouth. She smelled smoke and saw it seep in under the door backlit by flickering light. Using her bound hands, she pulled down the cloth to free her mouth and yelled.
Struggling to a kneeling position Joy reached up and turned the closet door knob. She winced as the knob burned her hand. She tried again and opened the door staying low to the ground to avoid breathing heavy smoke. Curtains and furniture blazed on all sides of the room. Over the din of the raging fire and her own yelling she heard faint sounds of bells jingling. Maybe her imagination was playing tricks but the bells sounded like the ones hanging over her bakery door. Her heart pounded as she continued to yell. Spasms of coughing overtook her. The bells jangled again.
“Follow the bells,” a firm and familiar voice said.
She looked around but couldn’t see anyone talking. She began to scoot on her still bound knees following the bell sound then shook her head. Why was she going towards that part of the room? It would be faster to stand up, roll over the couch and hop out the door into the hall.
The comforting voice repeated urgent instructions. “You will be okay, sweet Joy, but you need to go to the bells. Now!” At that moment the couch caught fire and it spread to an area rug blocking off escape through the doorway.
She continued her scoot crawl over the hard wood floor, scraping her knees on shards of a broken vase. The sound of bells became louder and more insistent. She spotted a wind chime hanging over a window. Joy wobbled then stood up and opened the window breathing in fresh air.
She yelled for help. Two startled firemen ran over and pulled her through the large window. Joy looked back and saw the wind chime dance wildly.
“I’m glad you kept telling me how to get out,” Joy croaked out as the firemen set her down in the back of an ambulance.
One fireman cut off the cloth around her wrists while the other put an oxygen mask on her. “It wasn’t us. It’s a miracle you escaped that inferno.”
“A month of TLC from my daughters was just the thing to help me recover. What did I miss?”
Sophia ticked off items on her fingers. “You probably know the best man, Dr. Howard Rosen, is in custody for murder, arson and trying to kill you. The good doctor confessed to poisoning the cupcake with the fondant groom on top knowing that Frankengroom would be the only person to eat it. So, Joyous Creations’ reputation is intact. Rumor has it that the bride was being blackmailed by FrankenG and that she reunited with her old boyfriend. Because the mansion burned down, we may never know all the people he blackmailed. All’s well that ends, eh? But, Joy, I still get chills thinking about you struggling by yourself to escape the fire.”
“Strange as it sounds, I wasn’t alone. I felt that Gabe was with me every step of the way guiding me to safety. You were right, Sophia, I do indeed have a guardian angel.”