Just Desserts (Justice, Major Arcana Series) by Francesca Astraea

purple tile reading 'Major Arcana Series Justice Francesca Burke'

If asked, tourists leaving the Sweet Memories Family Run Pâtisserie and Ice Cream Parlour in Carnaby Street would usually describe their experience as magical. Sometimes they would use compound phrases like absolutely fabulous. Occasionally they would enumerate on past experiences or make comparisons: it reminded me of my grandmother’s kitchen. Or I rather feel this place belongs in a Hans Christen Anderson. Or It was like that shop in that book you used to have! But the word used most was magical. The shop was comfortably warm during winter, scented with cinnamon, apple and cloves. During summer months, staff could conjure a cool breeze out of nowhere, wafting coconut, orange and rose-tinted air through the kitchen and over waiting customers. Regardless of the temperature outside, the staff—a combination of the Sweet Memories immediate family and several cousins from their village in Italy—were rarely seen flushed with the heat of the ovens or flustered by an early-afternoon rush.

As befitting its reputation as the best pâtisserie and ice cream parlour outside London, offerings from Sweet Memories were seasonal and fleeting. Toffee apple ice cream and steaming, sticky honey-and-orange buns for bonfire night; strawberry sorbet and sharp lime pavlova at midsummer. A large part of Sweet Memories’ appeal was that you had to visit at a certain time to obtain a certain flavour, or risk an entire year of your friends saying, ‘I got us this gorgeous spiced apple cake in Sainsbury’s the other day—almost like the ones from Sweet Memories, but not as fluffy—oh, but you won’t notice.’

Melody Sinclair’s seventh birthday was the first indication that Sweet Memories might be magical in more ways than one. The bakery usually only offered magazine-worthy wedding cakes alongside its everyday confectionery, but Mrs Sinclair persuaded staff to branch out. Melody was undergoing treatment for leukemia and odds of her reaching her seventh birthday had at one point seemed rather remote. Her birthday cake was, therefore, undertaken by all parties with more than the usual care. An avid reader, Melody had requested a cake based on Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Her birthday present was tickets to see the West End musical, so Melody’s parents were quite specific about design. In Sweet Memories, Maria Cavallo sketched a few ideas on baking paper and rang a cousin in Glasgow about providing his award-winning chocolate fondue.

Eight hours, several dozen eggs and two large glasses of Scotch later, Maria Cavallo had outdone herself.

Her creation was formed, quite literally, of Melody’s favourite things. The cake itself: a seven-layer, raspberry-flavoured, rainbow Victoria Sandwich. At its centre, Maria’s cousin’s chocolate fondue, which was once described by The Times as ‘life-affirming’. Iced with raspberry buttercream and shaped like a large open book, the cake’s pages read ‘Happy 7th Birthday Melody!’ in elegant white piping.

It was, as most brightly coloured children’s birthday cakes are, a roaring success. It also tasted like a summer sunset.

‘Make a wish when you blow the candles out,’ Melody’s mother murmured as she kept hordes of small children a safe distance from the open flames. Death by birthday cake, she reflected, would be a note-worthy but depressing way to go. Melody’s father steadied his ancient video camera, glad that the sound of people cheering could mask his involuntary, although quite welcome, spate of weeping.

A few hours later, after the guests had gone home, a white rabbit wearing a waistcoat knocked on the front door. ‘I’m terribly sorry I’m late,’ he said. ‘Is Melody still up?’

‘Not at all,’ replied Mrs Sinclair. ‘Yes, she’s still up. You’re just in time for a bedtime story. Come on in.’

Buoyed by Mrs Sinclair’s delighted feedback and substantial tip, Sweet Memories added birthday cakes to their product list. Any shape, any height, any flavour, unless it’s adult-themed in which case please speak to Maria personally, advertised the shop window. Just a few weeks later, residents noticed oddities that rather seemed to correspond with Maria selling a birthday cake. Mrs Dean in York Boulevard won five thousand pounds on the lottery. Mr Ahmed in Canterbury Street lost fifty pounds on a diet of homecooked food and long walks. Neither of these things were odd, except that, to quote them both, Mrs Dean’s husband had recently ‘pissed off with the entire family’s life savings and that bloke from the travel agent,’ and Mr Ahmed had spent forty years ‘lacking the inclination to cook more than cereal or walk more further than to the nearest car.’

Coincidence insisted sceptics at the queue at the post office, the queue at the bank and the queue at the traffic lights on Cardiff Avenue. Worthy of a wry smile at the most.

Coincidence, agreed believers, until you remembered that Destiny Parrish’s mum bought her eleventh birthday cake from Sweet Memories and her ailing pet Labrador-Chihuahua mix recovered from her cancer without requiring treatment. Matthew Rhodes’ ninth birthday cake was followed by his father’s surprising early release from his detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

Ah, the sceptics would admit. I see where you’re going.

Unfortunately, so did Ellen Smith.

Ellen—Ellie to her sisters, Nel to her husband, that fabulous lady who works in the vets to everybody else—insisted on throwing her husband Michael an enormous fortieth birthday party on Midsummer’s Eve. This was a shock to most, as on Michael’s thirty-ninth birthday, Ellen had surprised him with a visit to his London flat and found him in an interesting state of undress with her niece.

Even more surprisingly, Ellen’s niece was invited to the party.

She did not turn up.

Most of the town did, though. Ellen was responsible for vaccination reminders and half price worming tablets and a great many bouquets of flowers, delivered to the veterinary practice after the demise of a beloved pet. She was also a fabulous host, providing litres of sangria and a live swing band. Sweet Memories had done most of the catering: miniature puff pastries, tiny fudge brownies, creamy vanilla ice cream cones, all washed down with booze and the knowledge that the first part of the buffet contained a salad.

It was sunset by the time Michael’s birthday cake was brought out. A red velvet sponge topped with whipped cream, strawberries and one of those sparklers that looks like the exhaust from a jet engine, it tasted like a day at Wimbledon.

Two days later, on Monday morning, the multinational corporation Michael had worked for since leaving university announced that it was moving its headquarters from London to Frankfurt. Michael was not invited to join the Frankfurt team. In fact, he had six weeks to find employment elsewhere.

On Wednesday morning, Ellen served Michael divorce papers next to his coffee. It appeared that she owned the house, their car and the rather valuable oil painting they once won in a raffle. Mysteriously, Ellen’s assets seemed to be tied up in offshore accounts, most with rather more digits on the balance statements than Michael had realised. Michael’s assets consisted entirely of an ISA, a moped purchased during an early midlife crisis and the London flat… which had rising damp.

On Saturday morning, Ellen’s niece arrived at the front door. She proceeded to inform Michael that she was pregnant; it was his; she wanted it. So could he please put some of that money he liked spending on nights out toward their child, who she felt deserved a better home than her rodent-infested flatshare.

How had Ellen known? She couldn’t have known, insisted friends and neighbours, although she was smart enough to guess.

She must have known, argued others. How else could she have come out with a million-pound divorce package and the oil painting, while he got a long stint at the local recruitment office and the baby he’d asked Ellen not to have?

If Maria Cavallo and the staff at Sweet Memories knew, they weren’t saying. They did, however, take a large order for an unusual set of cakes for Ellen Smith: seven custom-shaped sponge cakes, chocolate-orange flavoured, iced in pink buttercream. They were for a divorce-confirmation party, to which the whole town was invited to come and celebrate her FREEDOM.

Did you know you can read my short stories before they’re public by joining my Patreon? When you join, I’ll name a character after you. Alternately, consider buying me a coffee – you’ll still be helping me to build a sustainable career, but with fewer direct debits.

You can read more about what inspired the Major Arcana series on my website. Learn about where you can get my book, The Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes here.

You can read more about what inspired the Major Arcana series on my website.

Copyright © 2020 by Francesca Burke
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

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