Haint Hawkins would have been bored to death if he hadn't been dead already.
Business was lousy, even for the best private eye in town. The only private eye, to be sure, but definitely the best.
There just wasn't anybody making any trouble for anybody else at the moment.
No sneaky characters to follow around.
No missing money to track down.
And no mysterious deaths. That was the worst of it.
The only cases Haint had worked on lately were a dead car battery (loose wiring was all) and a deadbolt that wouldn't turn (just needed a little grease).
But no cases of real-life deaths. The kind of case Haint preferred because he could go talk to the dead person directly to find out what had really happened.
It had been that way for Haint ever since the Case of the Curious Condiment, when he had fallen -- or was pushed, he would never say which -- into a huge vat of pepper over at the old spice mill.
Everyone in town thought he was gone for good, but a couple of days later there he was again, the same old Haint. But sneezing a lot.
No one could figure out how he had survived.
He hadn't. Not really.
Haint was dead all right, but a different kind of dead. The kind who could go back and forth between the living and the spirit worlds when he needed to.
But since lately he hadn't been needing to, he spent his days doing what he always did when he wasn't working on a case: coffee in the morning at the Excalibur Cafe, then a walk around town, then back to his office to wait for any cases that might come his way.
It was a morning like that when he picked up the paper and saw it was time again for the annual festival where people would come out to celebrate the town's history and especially to see and taste all the entries in the best-pie contest.
Days Gone Pie, it was called.
Haint headed over to the town square. He walked from table to table, almost dizzy from the smell of all those delicious pies. He could hardly wait for the judging to end and the tasting to begin.
He was standing there trying to decide which one he should try first -- the blueberry or the banana cream -- when he turned and at the end of his nose saw a plate piled high with slices of just-baked cornbread.
And glaring over the other end of the plate were the narrow eyes of Fussy May Cavanaugh.
Fussy May Cavanaugh was the kind of person who would make cornbread no matter what the occasion, even for Days Gone Pie, and then go around saying that she'd win the pie contest every year if she really wanted to.
She hadn't been born Fussy May -- her real name was Roselle -- but she had done all she could do to earn it over her long and contrary life. When she was just 6 or 7, people had started calling her Fussy because she always wanted her hair a certain way. And as the years went by, she was happy to have people think that she knew more about food than they did, so that when any kind of question about cooking came up, they could always say, "I don't know ... but Fussy may."
Not that she ever shared her recipes. Especially not the recipe to the cornbread she was holding at this very moment.
"Why, thank you, Miss Cavanaugh, don't mind if I do," Haint said as he reached for a slice.
"No!" Fussy May snapped as she yanked the plate away. "My recipe!"
"And a fine recipe it must be," Haint said. "Everyone speaks highly of it."
"That's not what I mean," Fussy May spat. "My recipe ... something's missing from it, and I can't figure out what."
"Don't you have it written down somewhere?" asked Haint, by now a little bit curious.
"Written down? And have somebody steal it and call it their own? Never! That was my grandmother's recipe, Grandma Cavanaugh's, and I was the only person she ever shared it with. But I'm sure something's missing, and if I can't make it the right way, I won't make it at all."
Haint could see now that she was speaking more out of fear than of anger.
"I can try to help you," he said, "but I'll have to take a slice with me."
"And why is that?" Fussy May asked. "I've already told you the recipe's not right."
"I should need a taste to see if I can determine exactly what's missing," Haint said. "And then I can determine how best to find it."
"Well ... if you have to," said Fussy May, nodding her head at the plate.
Haint took a slice. Two slices. "This is a delicate matter indeed, Miss Cavanaugh. I will make some inquiries. But I assure you, that recipe will be yours again in no time."
Fussy May walked away, and Haint gobbled down one of the slices. Delicious as always. It would be such a shame, he thought, to never taste it again.
The next morning, after coffee at the cafe, Haint got to work. He started by talking to some of the people who knew Fussy May best, especially the ladies who sat with her at church bingo. (Haint figured that if Fussy May had forgotten what was in the recipe, she might have forgotten that she had slipped up and TOLD somebody what was in the recipe.)
He didn't learn much, only that one time Fussy May had once fought off a wild boar with her bare hands after it had wandered too close to her garden.
That was a bit of a surprise. Haint would have thought that Fussy May and the boar would have been the best of friends, given how similar their moods usually were.
But that didn't get Haint any closer to the missing ingredients.
This was, he decided, a question for the dead.
Later that evening, Haint made his way up to the high ground that rimmed the town.
Spirit Ridge, the townspeople called it. There was a local legend that the ghosts of the dead lived there, and that some nights, when the winds were still and the smell and smoke of logs crackling in a fireplace lay heavy on the air, you could hear them whispering.
In the first place, they were always making a racket, all times of the day and night, with their blaring music and barking dogs.
In the second place, they called their home Croaking Oaks.
Haint walked through the neighborhood, stopping every so often to catch up on the latest -- how the dead loved to gossip! -- before heading over to talk to Grandma Cavanugh, apparently the one person dead or alive who knew for certain what went into that cornbread.
Haint found her where she most always was, sitting on her porch humming softly to herself.
Grandma Cavanaugh laughed and laughed when she heard about Fussy May's predicament.
"That girl," she said, "I must have told her a thousand times to write down that recipe. I knew she never would, so I wrote it out and slipped it inside the cookbook I gave her before I passed. And do you know she's never once opened that cookbook, always thinking she knows everything about everything. I bet she's in a state now!"
Then Grandma Cavanaugh told Haint the recipe, every step and every ingredient.
Though it was the middle of the night, Haint hurried down from Spirit Ridge and went straight to Fussy May's house. He banged and banged on the door until she opened it just a crack, with an angry look on her face and a cast-iron skillet in her hand.
Haint smiled. "Now is that any way to greet the person who found your ingredients?"
Fussy May's eyes grew wide. "Let's have it," she said.
"Not until you put down that skillet," Haint said. "There may be a better use for it."
They sat at the kitchen table, where Haint told her the recipe, every step and every ingredient. (But not where it was written down.)
"Of course ..." Fussy May said. "But how on earth did you ever figure it out?"
Haint smiled. "Now Miss Cavanaugh, you're not the only person who can keep a secret."
Cornbread To Die For
1 tablespoon bacon drippings
4 cups cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking soda
4 eggs, beaten
4 cups buttermilk
4 tablespoons molasses
Preheat oven to 450. In a very large bowl, combine cornmeal and baking soda. Separately, combine eggs, buttermilk and molasses. Add to cornmeal mixture and beat until smooth. Grease large (12-inch) skillet with bacon drippings; place in oven until very hot. (Can also divide into two smaller skillets.) Pour batter into skillet. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, and the top is golden brown. Remove from oven, let cool for 5 minutes. IMPORTANT: SPRINKLE WITH A PINCH OF HOPE AND A DASH OF LUCK. Serve.