The bookshelf along the far wall of the Owner’s bedroom was lined with jars, top to bottom. To someone who didn’t know any better, they would probably look like simple peanut butter jars. All of them unmarked. All of them empty. But the Owner could tell them apart, and they most certainly were not empty.
This was his collection of Talents. Talents for origami and dog-training and computer-repair and whistling, and dozens of others he’d managed to nab over the years. The Owner had always believed that there was really only one Talent you needed in this world: The Talent for appropriating other people’s Talents.
Selecting a jar from the back, one which had not yet been filled, the Owner—switt-tsk-schwap!—unscrewed the lid. Then he lifted his right hand above the empty jar and squeezed it into a fist. Tighter and tighter he squeezed, until at last . . .
Where just a moment ago there had been nothing, now suddenly there was the Talent the Owner had plucked from the man in the gray suit, clean and condensed and opaque, like an ice cube. The Owner had seen the sight a thousand times, but he never tired of it.
As the Owner reached for the lid to the jar, the Talent began to dissipate, just as the Talents always did if you left them to their own devices. A fine mist rose out of the jar, higher, higher, straight into the air vent above. The Owner thought he heard a soft sniffle escape from the vent, but when he shot his eyes up to check, there was nothing.
THE LINE FOR THE NUMBER 36 BUS OUT OF HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI, was the longest at the station. All sorts of folks were making the long trip north. There were slouchers and starers. A few snoozers. Puckered here and there along the row were men stretching their limbs, hoping to catch a hint of a breeze. A woman fanned her daughter with a newspaper whose headline read SCIENTISTS BELIEVE EXTINCT JUPITER BIRD MAY HAVE BEEN LARGEST FLYING ANIMAL. A toddler munched a cracker, sprinkling sticky crumbs across his mother’s chest. No one seemed to have the energy to speak above a grumble.
The air was thick.
Amidst them all sat a young man, exactly one day past his eighteenth birthday, perched carefully atop his powder blue suitcase. His new brown suit was stiff with creases, not yet shaped to fit his angles. He tapped his foot on the ground, breathing in the last few moments before he claimed his inheritance. His Fate. As soon as he climbed aboard that bus, the young man would be on his way.
Next to him, a small girl who had been losing at a game of jacks for some several minutes suddenly snatched up all seven pieces before the ball bounced down, her hand whipping through the air too quickly to follow.
“Hey!” cried the girl’s competitor, a boy at least three years her senior. “No fair! You said you weren’t any good at jacks!”
The girl grinned a sly little grin. “I’m not good,” she replied, tossing the pieces in the air in a whir of jacks-and-ball-and-jacks. She caught them expertly. “I’m Talented.” She pocketed the jacks and held out her hand, where the boy begrudgingly deposited a nickel.
The young man watched as the girl scurried across the line to her mother, who was leafing through a magazine. When the girl proudly produced her nickel, her mother scolded, “Not again, Susan.” But she only tsked as her daughter flipped the coin in the air. The young man couldn’t help but grin at the scene. A Talent is only rewarding if you wield it well. That’s what his mother had always told him. It seemed to him that this little girl was a master wielder.
“That’s a nice suitcase you’ve got there.”
The young man looked up. Standing before him was a man in a gray suit. He might have been forty, he might have been older, and he was, quite easily, the largest man in the bus station, his enormous frame threatening even the brick support posts for sturdiest structure.
“Sorry?” the young man replied.
“Your suitcase. It’s a choice model. Top of the line.”
Instinctively, the young man grasped the sides of the suitcase just a little tighter. It was a very old suitcase, but sturdy and well-loved, boxy and large as a small child, with worn corners and three small dimples near the left clasp. Across the top a cursive scrawl of silver thread spelled out the brand: St. Anthony’s.
Hidden inside the lining was a single slip of paper that constituted the bulk of the young man’s inheritance.
The young man cleared his throat. He’s just a friendly traveler, he told himself, making conversation. “Thanks,” he replied. “It was my mother’s.”
The words had slipped out without his meaning them to—it was—and he hoped that the older fellow hadn’t noticed his use of the past tense. The last thing the young man wanted to talk about was his mother. But the large man in the gray suit merely grinned a sideways sort of grin. It was a grin that suggested he knew more about the world than he was letting on.
As though to thank him for his silence, the young man offered his hand. “Mason Burgess,” he introduced himself.
“Pleasure to meet you, Mason,” the older fellow replied, leaning down to reach Mason’s outstretched hand. The man had a surprisingly firm shake. “Mind if I wait with you?” And with the ease of a man a third his size, he plopped down his worn leather duffel and folded his legs underneath him.
He did not mention his name.
“So,” the fellow said to Mason, lifting his hat from his head to wipe his brow. “Going north, are you?”
“Poughkeepsie,” Mason confirmed.
“New York,” the fellow said, nodding. He seemed not surprised by the information. “Good for you.”
“And you?” Mason asked, making conversation.
“I’m a traveling salesman,” he replied, although it was most certainly not the answer to Mason’s question. “Odds and ends, mostly. I don’t suppose I could interest you in a knot?” He opened the right side of his jacket. Inside, where most salesmen might hang watches or whatnots, the old man had pinned dozens and dozens of knots. There were slipknots and topknots and figure eights, and tens more Mason had no name for.
Mason squinted. “You certainly are Talented,” he told the man graciously. “Do you . . .” He searched for his manners. “. . . sell many knots, then?”
The older fellow dropped shut the side of his jacket. “Heavens, no,” he said, the last of a guffaw trickling over his words. “These are mostly for entertainment. It’s a horribly useless Talent, tying knots. Could have been blessed with a Talent for finance or medicine. Even a log-splitting Talent might have done me some good. But no, I find myself with knot-tying.”
“Well, the only knot I’ve mastered is the one to tie my shoelaces,” Mason admitted. He couldn’t help it; he liked the odd fellow. “Every other knot just looks like a tangled mess to me.”
The man in the gray suit thought about that. “Well, that’s the thing about knots, isn’t it?” he replied after a moment. “If you don’t know the trick, it’s a muddled predicament. But in fact each loop of every knot is carefully placed, one end twisting right into the other in a way you might not have expected. I find them rather beautiful, really.”
“Mmm.” Mason had nothing more to say on the subject, so he changed course. “It must be an interesting job, traveling salesman,” he said. “Seeing the world.”
“It isn’t bad, at that,” the man told him. “I’m saving up for a hot air balloon. Faster travel, and the views are amazing.”
Without warning, the bus’s engine roared to life. “Number 36 to Philadelphia!” the bus driver bellowed. “Transfer to points north!” Mason rose to his feet.
“Now, just you remember,” the man in the gray suit told Mason, as though they were continuing a previous conversation, “keep an eye on that suitcase of yours.”
“Of course I will,” Mason snapped, picking the suitcase up by the handle. It weighed less than a loaf of bread. “I don’t . . .” Mason shook his head. I don’t need another father—that’s what he’d begun to say. “I’ll be careful,” he told the man. “Are you traveling all the way to Philadelphia? Perhaps we might sit next to each other.”
The man’s gaze was still fixed on Mason’s suitcase. “I had one once,” he said. “A St. Anthony’s suitcase. Did you know there were only three dozen ever crafted? Shut down production after that.” He returned his hat to his head and bent to scoop up his duffel. “I let it out of my sight, if you can believe such a thing. Let go of the suitcase for one minute and . . .” He suddenly seemed to notice the line was pressing them forward, and shook his head as he and Mason inched closer to the bus. “Just be sure to keep an eye on it, young man. The St. Anthony’s brand, they seem to have a tendency to . . . redistribute themselves.”
Mason looked down to discover he was clutching his suitcase close to his chest, like a baby with a rag doll. Ridiculous. He lowered his arms, turning from the man in the gray suit just long enough to close the gap in the line.
“I’d be happy to offer you the window seat, if you’d like,” Mason said over his shoulder as they continued toward the bus. “Or the aisle, if you’d rather stretch your le—”
Mason stopped talking. Because he had turned around again.
And the man in the gray suit was no longer there.
“Suitcase and ticket, please, son.”
Mason whirled back around. “Huh?” he muttered to the driver, momentarily confused by his outstretched hand. Where had the large man gone off to? There was no sign of him anywhere.
“Suitcase and ticket, please.”
Mason shook himself back to his senses and handed the bus driver his ticket.
“That’ll have to go under the bus,” the driver told him, pointing to the suitcase in Mason’s hand. “No room for it up above.”
Mason felt his eyes go wide. “But I . . .” He bit his lip. You are a grown man now, he told himself. Speak with confidence. “No, thank you, sir. I’d rather keep it with me.”
The driver crossed his arms with the impatience of a man too long at his job. “Son, the bus is full, and there’s no room for that boxy bag in the overhead. Either you get on board with your suitcase underneath, or both of you stay here. It’s up to you.” And he reached around Mason’s head to grab the ticket of the next passenger in line.
* * *
When the bus pulled into the Philadelphia station, Mason Burgess was the first to disembark. He tapped his foot impatiently as the driver unlocked the baggage compartment, then fumbled through the other passengers’ bags to find his own.
It was not there.
Mason checked everywhere. He searched the other passengers as they trotted off with their own suitcases. He crawled inside the baggage compartment to check for hidden nooks and corners. He even threatened the driver. But it was no use.
The suitcase, and the one slim, irreplaceable slip of paper inside it, was gone.
Fifty-Three Years Later . . .
a cake that’s sweet, simple, and hard to dislike
FOR THE CAKE:
small sliver of butter (for greasing the cake pan)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
2 cups sliced canned peaches (about 1 1/2 15-ounce cans)
2 cups flour (plus extra for preparing the cake pan)
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
FOR THE FROSTING:
3 oz cream cheese, at room temperature
4 tbsp butter, at room temperature
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups powdered sugar
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1. Preheat oven to 375°F. Grease a 10-inch tube pan or Bundt pan with butter, and flour lightly.
2. In a small bowl, beat the eggs lightly with a fork. Set aside.
3. Drain the canned peaches into a sieve or strainer and rinse them lightly. Pat them dry with a paper towel and measure out 2 cups. Set aside.
4. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, and cinnamon. Set aside.
5. In a large bowl, mix together the eggs, granulated sugar, and oil with a wooden spoon until just blended. Slowly add the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Carefully fold in the peaches and nuts.
6. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for 50 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn it out onto a cake rack to cool completely before frosting.
7. While the cake is cooling, make the frosting: In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla with a mixer on medium speed, until well combined and smooth, about 1 to 2 minutes. Reducing the mixer to low speed, gradually add the powdered sugar and ginger, and beat until smooth. Apply frosting to the top of the cooled cake.
MISS MALLORY’S HOME FOR LOST GIRLS IN POUGHKEEPSIE, New York, was technically an orphanage, but there were hardly ever any orphans there. In fact, most days, if you peeked inside the window, you would see only one orphan, all by herself but hardly lonely, standing on her tiptoes at the kitchen counter, baking a cake.
Cadence, that was her name.
She was standing there now, Cady, deciding what to add to her bowl of batter. If you squinted through the window, you could just make her out from the chin up (Cady was barely a wisp of a thing). You’d see the shiny, crow-black hair that hung smooth as paper from the top of her head to the bottoms of her earlobes. And you’d see the petite—pixieish, Miss Mallory called them—features of her face. Tiny nose, tiny mouth, tiny ears. Cady’s eyes, however, those were large in comparison to the rest of her. Large and dark and round, and set just so on a face the color of a leaf that has clung too long to its tree.
Flour, sugar, butter, eggs. Cady studied the bowl in front of her. She closed her eyes, digging into the furthest reaches of her brain to figure out what would be the perfect addition to her cake. At last her thick black lashes fluttered open. She had it.
Cinnamon. She would make a cinnamon cake.
No one knew exactly when Cady’s Talent for baking had first emerged—just as no one knew exactly where she had come from. But one thing was certain: Cady was a Talented baker. She could bake anything, really. Pies. Muffins. Bread. Casseroles. Even the perfect pizza if she put her mind to it. But what Cady loved above all else was baking cakes. All she needed to do was to close her eyes, and she could imagine the absolutely perfect cake for any person, anywhere. A pinch more salt, a touch less cream. It was one hundred percent certain that the person she was baking for would never have tasted anything quite so heavenly in all his life. In fact, what the orphanage lacked in orphans it made up for in cake-baking trophies. Five first-place trophies from the Sunshine Bakers of America Annual Cake Bakeoff lined the front hall, one for every year that Cady had entered from the age of five, when her oven mitts swallowed her up to the elbows. No matter who entered the competition—professional bakers, famous chefs with exclusive restaurants—none of their Talents were able to match Cady’s, not for five years running. Cady’s cakes were never the most beautiful, or the most stunning. Last year not one but two bakers had crafted fifty-layer-high masterpieces of sugary wonder, studded with frosted stars and flowers and figurines. One even included a working chocolate fountain. Cady’s single-layer pistachio sheet cake had looked pitiful in comparison. But nonetheless, it had been the judge’s favorite, because Cady had baked it specifically for him.
This year’s bakeoff would be held in just one short week in New York City, a two-hour drive away. Miss Mallory had already cleared space in the hallway for a sixth trophy.
The kitchen door squeaked open and in waltzed Miss Mallory, a polka-dot tablecloth folded in her arms. (Miss Mallory’s perfect cake, as far as Cady was concerned, was just as scrumptious as she was—a nutty peach cake with cream cheese frosting.)
“What did you come up with?” Miss Mallory asked, crossing the room to peer into the cake bowl.
Cady found the cinnamon in the cabinet above her and popped off the lid. “Cinnamon,” she replied, shaking the spice into the bowl. Cady had no need for measurements. “A cinnamon cake, three layers high.”
Miss Mallory took a deep breath of pleasure. “And the frosting?”
Cady did not even need a moment to think. She knew the answer, sensed it the way other people could sense which way to walk home after a stroll in the woods. “Chocolate buttercream with a hint of spice,” she replied.
“Perfect,” Miss Mallory said. “Amy will love it.” She snuck a finger out from under her tablecloth to poke a tiny glob from the bowl. “I hope this fog finally gives up,” she said, sighing as the taste of the batter hit her tongue.
Cady had been so intent on her baking that she hadn’t even noticed the haze. She peered out the window. Out on the lawn, the thick mist obscured all but the legs of the picnic table, and puddles speckled the steps to the porch.
It had been foggy the morning Cady was brought to Miss Mallory’s, too. Cady had been much too young to remember it, but she’d heard the story so many times that the details were as real and comfortable as a pair of well-worn shoes. The damp smell of the dew outside. The mystery novel Miss Mallory had been reading when she heard the knock at the door. And most especially, Miss Mallory’s surprise at the arrival.
“I’d never seen a baby so small,” Miss Mallory always told her. “And with such a remarkable head of hair. There was a braid woven into it.” Here Miss Mallory would trace the plaits across Cady’s scalp, making Cady’s skin tingle delightfully. “It was the most intricate braid I’ve ever seen, twisted in and about and around itself like a crown. Whoever gave you that braid was Talented indeed.”
Miss Mallory snuck one more fingerful of batter from the bowl. “Perhaps we should move the party inside today,” she suggested.
“But Adoption Day parties are always outside,” Cady protested, slapping Miss Mallory’s hand away playfully. There wasn’t much consistency in the life of an orphan—new housemates coming and going like waves on a shore—but Adoption Day parties were always the same. Adoption Day parties took place outside, with presents and card games (it was difficult to play other sorts of games with so few people about) and a cake baked by Cady for the lucky little girl whose Adoption Day it was.
People sometimes suspected, when they learned how few orphans lived at Miss Mallory’s Home for Lost Girls, that it must be a sorry excuse for an orphanage. But the truth was quite the opposite. The truth was that most of the orphans at Miss Mallory’s found their perfect families astonishingly quickly. Miss Mallory had a Talent for matching orphans to families—she felt a tug, deep in her chest, she said, when she sensed that two people truly belonged together, and she just knew. Most of the little girls who came through the orphanage doors were matched within days of arriving, sometimes hours. Miss Mallory had famously matched one girl only seven minutes after she stepped off her train. They would send photos, those lucky little girls who had found their perfect families, and Miss Mallory would frame them and hang them in the front hallway, just above Cady’s row of trophies. Smiling kids, beaming parents.
Cady had studied them carefully.
Cady was the only orphan at Miss Mallory’s who had ever stayed for an extended period of time. Oh, Miss Mallory had tried to match her. Over the years Cady had been sent to live with no fewer than six families—loving, happy, wonderful families—but unlike with the other orphans, it had never quite worked out. Cady had always done her best to be the perfect daughter. She yes, ma’amed and no, sired and ate all her vegetables and went to bed on time. But no fewer than six times, Miss Mallory had come to return Cady to the orphanage long before her one-week trial period was over. “I made a mistake,” Miss Mallory always told her. “That wasn’t your perfect family.”
But Cady knew that Miss Mallory didn’t make mistakes. Somehow, for some reason that Cady couldn’t explain, the fault lay with her. And Cady vowed that if she ever got another chance, with another family, she would do whatever it took to make it work. One day she would have an Adoption Day party of her own. One day she would bake the perfect cake for herself.
“Maybe,” Cady said slowly, glancing outside at the beautifully foggy morning, “maybe today’s the day I’ll meet my family.” The very idea warmed her through just as much as the heat from the oven. She tugged an oven mitt onto each hand and opened the oven door, then set the cake pans on the center rack. “Maybe,” she said again, “my real and true family will step right out of the fog.”
IT WAS AN UNUSUALLY FOGGY MORNING, SO MURKY THAT THE Owner of the Lost Luggage Emporium at 1 Argyle Road in Poughkeepsie, New York, could scarcely see the ground in front of him. But the Owner had very little use for ground these days.
He tapped his toes at the air, two inches above the soggy soil, as he finished affixing the sign to the Emporium’s door.
ROOMS FOR RENT
The Owner (that’s what they called him around town, ever since he’d opened up the Emporium, and it was how he’d come to think of himself, too) was not thrilled at the idea of renting out the building’s empty upstairs bedrooms. But a hard look at his finances had finally convinced him that he had no other choice. Although his mother had amassed quite a fortune—an especially impressive feat for a woman with no Talent—it hadn’t been enough to last him fifty-three years.
The telltale sound of tires starting down the long wooded stretch of Argyle Road sent the Owner floating back inside the building. It couldn’t be Toby already—the dolt had only just left for the morning’s luggage pickup an hour ago. The door slammed shut behind him with a crooked wha-pop! One more thing the Owner couldn’t afford to fix.
The building had once been an architectural beauty, as famous for its two tall, round turrets as for the goods that were produced inside. Now, its white paint was peeling, its shutters were cracked, its windows were grimy with dust. As old and bleak as its owner, that’s what Toby liked to say.
The Owner reached the circular wooden counter at the center of the main storeroom and lifted the hinged section to float inside, settling himself behind the register. A hastily hand-lettered green sign hung above the countertop, displaying the store’s motto:
LOST LUGGAGE EMPORIUM
DISCOVER WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS MISSING
“This is quite the setup you’ve got here,” the customer called as he entered the store. Tendrils of fog curled their way in behind him before the door had a chance to close. Wha-pop! The customer jerked his head on his spindly neck, indicating the various sections of the store—the racks of clothing, the shelves of books, the electronics, the appliances, and, of course, the suitcases. “All this stuff really come from lost luggage?”
The Owner did not look up from his book. It was the latest Victoria Valence mystery, Face Value, and it really was quite good (although it wouldn’t have mattered if it weren’t). “Mmm,” he replied.