Two years, twelve days, one hour, and twelve minutes after the Piemaker and Olive Snook had triumphed at Papen County’s 17th Annual Best In Belly Comfort Food Cook Off, Olive was preparing for another competition, and she knew this would be her year once again. This would be a brand-new competition: this year, there would be no saboteurs and no murder, but she would still have the not-so-secret weapon (unless you counted his still-quite-secret waking the dead talents) of the Piehole: the Piemaker himself. Olive had imagined convincing Ned to sign up for another baking competition would be a challenge, despite the eventual success of their last foray into the competitive world of cooking. However, Ned unexpectedly said yes.
“Chuck says that I’ve spent too much time worrying about murders and her and my brothers lately, and that I should shake things up by worrying about pie instead. More specifically, she was thinking coming up with ways to expand the business. While that is neither something I’m interested in nor could it be considered something I’m good at, I think a baking competition could easily count as marketing the Pie Hole, so I’m in.”
The facts were these:
The 25th Annual Dupree Bakery Bake-Off was highly regarded by the Dupree family of the Dupree Bakery, and fairly well-beloved by bakers looking to add some glitter to their restaurants by way of the glitter-encrusted egg that was given to the annual winner of the highly contested contest.
(“Did you say ‘egg’?” Ned had asked as Olive read aloud the details of the competition. “The trophy is an egg? Is it egg-sized? Does it hatch? Would anyone walking into the Pie Hole see it and think, ‘Ah, yes, an egg-shaped trophy’ or are they more likely to think that we - ?”
Olive decided to cut him off before his mouth could get much further. “Yes, yes, I don’t know, why would it, and you’ve already agreed to this and I won’t let you back out now regardless of what the top prize looks like.”)
The rules were simple: bake a dessert from scratch in four hours or less on the luxurious lawns of the Dupree estate, and the illustrious judges from the Dupree family would pick a winner at the end of the afternoon.
When signing up, Ned had asked Olive what the costuming requirements would be for this competition - none would be the answer she eventually gave him, but the hesitation was long enough for the Piemaker to suspect that the likelihood of getting to bake in his usual black or grey attire was decreasing with each additional minute Olive had to brainstorm ideas. Even worse, he suspected she had wrangled Chuck into outfit-planning, and between the two of them he suspected he’d be outfitted in brightest colors they could find. He had seen the two of them do their absurd secret handshake too many times recently to not be suspicious of their scheming.
As the sun rose on the day of the competition, Ned discovered his fears were well-founded. The Bake-Off was to be held in Georgian County, which was several hours away from his home above the Pie Hole. He awoke and discovered Chuck already up and about, and a strawberry-patterned bright red suit hanging on the wall at the foot of his bed - a crimson ghost left there to haunt him; it seemed to laugh at all the decisions he’d made in his life that had led up to this moment.
“You could have shown me the suit before today and given me a chance to get used to it; it could have been an odd acquaintance who slowly but surely became a cherished friend instead of a mildly terrifying stranger who abruptly enters your life and cannot leave it for reasons out of your control,” Ned said to Chuck as she entered the bedroom. Chuck merely grinned.
“Olive and I decided the chances of the suit meeting its death before now and you being unable to bring it back to life were simply too high. We had to protect it. Too much love and care went into this suit for it to meet an untimely end,” Chuck said.
The Piemaker privately mused that on days like these, he missed the days when Olive and Chuck had not been so close. He felt like Digby was judging him.
Across the hall, Olive Snook was primping and preparing mentally for the day ahead. She had a plan. She would not be distracted. Ned would bake his pie, she would keep things on track, they would win, and she would feel triumph once more. With this in mind, she said goodbye to Pigby and exited her apartment with a bright smile on her face. The smile only grew larger at the sight of Ned in his suit, showing his willingness to go along with her whims.
Four hours and six minutes later, Olive and Ned found the Dupree estate and found themselves among the last to arrive. After checking in with a woman wearing an elegant dark suit with a large enameled pin that spelled out “Dupree Bakery” in fancy cursive, they walked to their stall on the other side of the lawn.
They passed several of their competitors who were already set up and waiting for the competition to begin. Many had elaborate signs indicating they were professionals, yet Ned hadn’t heard of any of them before. He learned from walking across the lawn that the Pie Hole’s Pies would be competing against Bol Cakes’ Cake Balls, Donut Donut’s Donuts, Lem’s Tart Lemon Tarts, and Bert’s Cupcakes, to name a few.
“This is probably the kind of research Chuck thinks you need to be doing,” Olive said to Ned. She continued on in a low, dramatic voice. “We’ve got to scope out the competition while we’re here.”
“What competition? Nobody we’ve seen so far is from anywhere near us; we’re not even currently anywhere near us.”
“Oh yeah? That’s what you think!”
“If this ‘research’ is so important, why isn’t Chuck here doing it herself? We’ve got a competition to focus on, supposedly,” Ned grumbled.
“Oh, so you suddenly don’t think finding a missing person is a good use of Chuck’s time?” Olive replied.
“If it’s such a good use of her time, shouldn’t we be helping her and Emerson right now instead of doing this bake off?”
“Nice try, but I already ran the numbers with Emerson, and considering we get a hefty chunk of prize cash if and when we walk away with that beautiful egg-shaped trophy, it makes way more sense for the future finances of the Pie Hole for us to be here while they earn that private eye cash back home.”
Next to their stall was the simplest one of all the ones they had passed, with a simple handwritten sign that simply said “James’s Jam-Filled Cookies.” Behind the stall was a young boy who looked to be around ten years old, carefully lining fruit along a cutting board, presumably in preparation for cutting it. He looked like a sad miniature Ned, all decked out in black. While Olive pondered the child’s Ned-like vestments, Ned couldn’t help but notice the rather unfortunate haircut, which brought back many memories of his days at the Longborough School for Boys, and the terribly sad expression on his face, which brought back many more memories of his loneliness at the Longborough School for Boys.
As Ned started unpacking and preparing for the start of the competition, he saw that no one else seemed to be helping at the young boy’s stall. Olive, way ahead of him and determined to get to know all her enemies (or competitors, as Ned kept trying to call them; Olive was frustrated at his insufficiently competitive attitude here), was already introducing herself to the boy at the stall.
“Hi! I’m Olive, and tall and grumpy over there is Ned, and we’re baking pies. Have you competed before? Are you here by yourself?”
The young boy muttered a response that provided Olive with the following information: his name was James, this was his first competition, he was here by himself, and now if she’d excuse him, James needed to focus on his jam.
With her own muttered, “Well, alright then,” Olive turned her focus back to the Pie Hole’s stand, made sure all their tools and ingredients had made it out of the car, and waited for the 25th Annual Dupree Bakery Bake-Off to officially begin.
After an oddly emotional speech about the power and importance of baking from a member of the Dupree family, the timer was set and the bakers got to work. Once the prep work of making the filling and creating the pie crust had been done, Ned and Olive had a period of inactivity while the pie crust was chilled. Four hours was way more time than was needed to bake one pie, but the extra time kept them relaxed.
The down time also gave them time to observe the flurry of activity going on next door at the young boy’s stall. Most of the stalls had teams of at least two, but James was by himself and clearly was feeling pressure as he rushed around trying to get every step done for his Jam-Filled Cookies.
Ned and Olive both felt they had only glanced away for a second when suddenly there was a loud crash. They turned back to the stall, only to see James completely still in a way he hadn’t been since the timer had started. On the ground in front of him they could see jam all over the floor coming out of a large pot that had previously been on his stovetop. James just stood there, stunned.
Eventually he said quietly, “That was all the fruit I had.” Ned started to speak, but before any words could come out, James turned and ran off across the lawn. Ned, thinking of all the times he had run into the woods of the Longborough School for Boys for comfort, could not bear the thought of the sad and alone boy getting any sadder.
“Olive,” Ned started, but he didn’t have to go any further. Olive knew what needed to be done.
“You take care of the jam,” she said, “and I’ll go after James.”
As Ned began the process of cleaning up the spilt jam and going back to their stall to retrieve fruit with which to start making new jam, Olive conducted a search of the surprisingly expansive lawn, eventually locating James hiding under a table in the main tent.
After she’d lifted up the tablecloth and found him curled up and crying, there was an awkward moment as they just sat on the ground staring at each other. Olive decided to crawl under the table with him. After another minute of awkwardness, Olive said, “We have extra fruit, if you need some.”
James just continued to look miserable.
“What’s the point?” he said. “This whole competition was a stupid idea anyway. Things needed to go perfectly, and they haven’t, and so there’s no way I’m winning. I thought if I entered and won a real baking competition, they’d have to pay attention. Without that first place trophy, how am I supposed to make my parents care about my baking,” said James, in a tone of voice that conveyed clearly to Olive that when he said “my baking”, he really meant “me.”
Olive knew all too well the feeling of parents who didn’t care and the ways neglected children tried to get their attention, and while she could appreciate the satisfaction that came with winning, she also knew it wasn’t enough to patch up the gaping hole left by inattention. But she knew what had helped her the most was the love and support of others, from her old friends the accidental kidnappers to her newer friends Ned and Chuck and Emerson.
“I know it must seem like getting their attention is the only thing that matters,” Olive started, “but that’s not the only reason to do this competition! Ned and I can help you! We have extra fruit!”
“I don’t think I can do it. I already failed!” said James.
“You’ve just got to believe in yourself!” said Olive. “Or let me believe in you and fake it until you make it - ‘it’ being your own self-confidence in this particular instance.” Olive knew she had the perfect song to sing in this situation, and while Ned would probably tell her to just take James straight back to his stall, she knew there was still plenty of time left in the competition for her to sing her inspiring song and get the cookies made.
But first they had to get out from under the table. Olive grabbed the young boy’s hand and pulled him up and out from under the tablecloth as she started singing, “If just one person believes in you…
Deep enough, and strong enough
Believes in you…”
The group of people milling around the main tent all started to stare, but no one tried to stop Olive and her song.
“...Before you know it
Someone else would think
‘If he can do it, I can do it’
Two whole people who believe in you...”
Across the lawn, Ned suddenly realized there was a lot of commotion over in the direction Olive had gone, and it was growing louder. He had just finished the jam, and made his way over to where he could now hear music. Olive was singing, and it appeared the people around her knew the song too, for suddenly there was a large group of people surrounding Olive and James, singing about how much they believed in James. Ned wondered if any of these other people singing knew James in the slightest, but he decided not to look too closely at the mouth of this particular gift horse; James looked happy, and that was what mattered.
Just as Ned thought he was getting the hang of the song and was considering joining in, it seemed to wrap up.
“You yourself will start to see what everybody sees in you,” Olive and the group of bakers in the tent sang. “And maybe even you can believe in you, too.”
Olive looked to Ned at this point, who nodded. She gave the crowd a big smile and grabbed James and dragged him back towards their stalls as she proclaimed there was still important baking to be done and that this child prodigy needed his space.
The smile on James’s face when he returned to see a new pot of jam ready to be inserted into his cookies gave the Piemaker a warm and fuzzy feeling he wished he’d felt more when he was James’s age, and he hoped James was feeling some of those same feelings of happiness.
Olive and Ned once again stood back at their stall watching James putter about his own baking area.
“We better not have given away our egg-shaped first prize trophy by helping this kid,” said Olive Snook half-heartedly, not meaning it in the slightest.
“Yeah, that would be awful,” Ned responded, meaning it even less.
Olive and Ned smiled at each other, both secure in the knowledge that regardless of the Pie Hole’s ranking, they would consider the 25th Annual Dupree Bakery Bake-Off a success.