It had been exactly 892 days since Mrs. Ann Gardiner Stewart baked The Cookies and the 15 residents of Suter’s Lane were beginning to worry.
“Do you smell vanilla?” Patricia De Leon asked Bill Tupper, slightly breathless as she raced out her front door. Mascara wand still in hand, evening gown trailing behind her, she turned her nose up toward Ann Gardiner Stewart’s townhouse.
Bill, a squat gentleman who had long ago served as ambassador to the UK, set down his watering can, turned toward the townhouse that sat across the cul-de-sac from his own and sniffed.
“Nope,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’ve lived across from Ann for almost 40 years now. I know The Cookies when I smell them.” Bill spoke in a clipped and professional manner, but his tone changed as he said “The Cookies.” Like all the other neighbors, he caressed the words in a near reverential tone. He and Patricia gazed at Ann’s townhouse, as if willing The Cookies to appear.
Then Bill turned back to his mums.
“Now get on,” he said to Patricia. “Isn’t your fancy award ceremony tonight?”
Patricia sighed, her mind more on The Cookies than her Golden Page Literary Award.
The next day, Noreen Mina and her wife Jin, both cellists with the National Symphony Orchestra, were talking to George Grant, a retired U.S. senator.
“We’ve heard about The Cookies,” Noreen said, lingering over the words. “But she hasn’t made them since we moved here. When do you think she’ll make them again?”
“No one knows,” George said. “I’ve lived here for 7 years and have only had them three times. I even came home early from a vote once just to get one. It’s an experience you never forget.”
Noreen and Jin sighed.
Later that same day, Dr. Emily Schafer banged the heavy knocker on Pierre Guerard’s door.
“But you’re a Michelin star chef! Surely you can figure out the recipe,” she demanded.
“I have tried. I cannot.”
Over the course of that week, the chatter swelled until the neighbors could talk of nothing else.
That’s when retired CIA Director Cliff MacLeod called an emergency meeting.
They gathered on Monday night after Ann had returned from her monthly Board meeting for the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The neighbors peeked out their windows, watching for Ann to turn off her second story parlor light and turn on her third story bedroom light. As pre-arranged, they then scurried from their homes to Cliff’s.
“People!” Cliff slammed his cane onto the coffee table with a crack that muted the jabbering. He then swung the cane against a white board bearing the block numbers: “892.”
“Two years and 162 days,” he said. “There’s no time to waste.”
Jin raise her hand ever so slightly.
“Excuse me,” she said in a little voice. “Has anyone ever actually asked Ann to make The Cookies?”
A mix of snorts and giggles erupted. Cliff handed Jin a slim spiral-bound packet.
“In there,” he said gesturing to the volume, “you’ll find a dossier on everything we know about Ann and The Cookies. You’ll see that she was asked to make them in ’92, which resulted in the longest draught we’ve had to date.”
“Now,” he turned his attention back to the group, erased the 892 and began writing. “Our goals. First: Get Ann to make The Cookies. Second: Reverse engineer the recipe. Simple, straightforward,” he said, gazing at the board. “But so damn elusive.”
He turned back to the neighbors who were all staring at him, some already making notes.
“Let’s review our past efforts to avoid repeating errors. First goal. As we’ve already addressed, asking directly has not worked.” He wrote “asking directly” under the “NO” column. “Celebrations? Birthdays, graduations, weddings, good-byes, holidays?”
Everyone shook their head, murmuring.
More head-shaking as the neighbors remembered the debacle of the Georgetown Great Cookie Bake-off they’d organized in 1995, hoping to entice Ann into baking. Instead, she’d traveled to Israel for the summer and worked on a kibbutz.
“No,” moaned Pierre Guerard. “One hundred thousand dollars. I offered her one hundred thousand dollars for that recipe. She just chuckled, patted my arm and said I was ‘a delightful young man.’”
“Let’s look at the times she has made The Cookies. Everyone turn to page 13,” ordered Cliff. The residents opened their packets, some battered and dog-eared, some covered with notes and red arrows. The studied the carefully documented dates and circumstances of each appearance of The Cookies but found no pattern.
“Can we bring in a psychologist again?” asked Patricia De Leon. “Now that we have more info, a psychologist would have more luck finding a pattern.”
“No, no, no,” Cliff said, slapping the coffee table. “New ideas, people. New ideas.”
Jin inched her hand up again.
“How about a cookie exchange? We hosted one back in San Fran. Everyone came out.”
Former Senator George Grant scoffed.
“Nice idea, ladies, but that will never work.”
“Now wait a minute,” Cliff said. “You may have something there, Jin. It’s different. Bill, you’ve known Ann the longest. What do you think?”
Bill dunked his tea bag as he thought.
“She likes the unexpected,” he said slowly. “It’s not a tradition we see around here.” He shrugged. “It’s just odd enough that it might spark her curiosity. If she comes, she’ll definitely bring The Cookies. We know she doesn’t bake anything else. It’s our best chance.”
“Ok!” Cliff said bringing his cane to the floor with a satisfied thump. “Noreen and Jin will host. Next week. Have invitations out by tomorrow. Next: we have to figure out that recipe. How the devil do we do that?”
“Impossible,” said Pierre, head in his hands.
Cliff poked him with the cane.
“The detective was a complete failure,” said Patricia. She turned to Jin and Noreen. “The last time she made them, we hired a private detective to go through her trash and search her kitchen. But he came up with nothing. Butter, flour, baking powder, vanilla – nothing extraordinary.”
“We’ve even had him follow her to the store a few times when we think she might be getting close,” said Dr. Schaefer. “But we’ve never gotten it right.”
“Why can’t you figure it out? You’re one of the best chefs in the U.S.” Noreen asked Pierre.
He moaned, head still in hands. Bill patted him on the back and said to Noreen, “You’ll understand when you try them. The Cookies are gloriously chewy, yet melty. There’s butter and vanilla of course, but there is something else going on that no one can replicate. An ingredient – or ingredients – that touch soul with a depth and complexity none of us have ever experienced.”
“Cardamom,” came Pierre’s muffled, yet still plaintive, cry.
“Pierre thought he had it with a very unique and exquisite cardamom imported from India and the faintest wisp of Mexican chocolate several years ago, but no. Something was still missing,” Bill said. He dropped his voice to a whisper. “It crushed him.”
“Does Ann have any idea how much she is torturing all of us?” asked Jin.
“No way,” said Patricia. “Don’t you see how careful we all are? There’s a fine line – we think. And we don’t know where it is. Make sure she knows we like them so she keeps making them. But not too much – or else she might stop altogether.”
“Enough!” Cliff whacked the white board again. “Ideas!”
Noreen whispered to Jin, who nodded.
“Well, we know the new sommelier at The Four Seasons, Maxwell Gladstein. He’s new in town, doesn’t know that many people. He’s won awards, he has an incredibly refined palate.” Noreen shrugged and glanced around the room. “He’s trained in wine, but maybe he could taste something in The Cookies that Pierre couldn’t identify.”
Pierre, head still in his hands, whimpered.
The others looked at each other, nodding, and Cliff thumped his cane on the floor.
“Agreed! Invite this man, but don’t tell him why. We don’t want him spilling the beans to Ann.”
The gas lamps along Suter’s Lane flickered and glowed as the first guests rang the bell at Noreen and Jin’s townhouse the following Friday evening. The neighbors were murmuring amongst themselves as they sipped their wine and admired the platters of cookies displayed on the dining room table. But they all jerked their heads toward the door at each ring of the bell and hovered by the windows, waiting for Ann.
“She’s coming! She’s coming!” squealed Patricia, lifting the brocade curtain just enough to see. “And she has a platter.”
Everyone congregated by the door, trying to look casual, but welcoming Ann in before she could even ring the bell.
“Oh my,” she said in a rich voice, which always seemed to be masking a chuckle. “What a glorious welcome. How lovely to see you all.”
Eager hands jostled to take the covered Chippendale tray from her while Noreen helped remove her wrap. Ann stood tall and erect even at her considerable age. She moved gracefully in delicate heels. Her thick snow white hair always looked effortlessly - yet somehow perfectly - coiffed, even if she was just stepping outside to pick up her New York Times and Washington Post. It was her eyes though that still drew people to her, just like they had in her younger days. A sparkling blue, they could twinkle and crinkle as they most often did, or turn suddenly to impenetrable ice, which few people – none of the neighbors – had seen.
But the residents of Suter’s Lane weren’t interested in Ann’s eyes that night. They gathered around the platter, holding their collective breath as George lifted the cover. There lay 24 perfectly ordinary pale yellow glistening discs that emitted such a rich aroma, the neighbors nearly swooned. At last. The Cookies.
Jin laid the platter with great tenderness in the center of the table as the others watched in reverential silence.
Ann, meanwhile, was gliding from platter to platter making comments on each serving. “Oh, Pierre, you’ve outdone yourself!” “Patricia, darling, what extraordinary designs.” “Senator – and Mrs. Grant – those cookies are exquisite jewels.”
She was still examining the trays when someone rapped loudly on the door. She glanced at the group which was still hovering around The Cookies and didn’t appear to hear.
Ann opened the door to see a handsome, yet disheveled, man of about 30 about to pound again as he balanced a tray of elegant snowflake sugar cookies in one hand and a flask in the other.
“Well hello there!” Ann said. “You must be a friend of Noreen’s. Come in, come in. And let me take that tray from you.”
The young man threw his arms around her, grabbing her in a bear hug.
“You’re the nicest lady I’ve ever met,” he said.
Ann wrinkled her nose slightly in an unobtrusive sniff and chuckled to herself.
“My good fellow, you must have been out celebrating already. Come along and let’s get you some coffee so you can enjoy the party. What’s your name?”
The young man collapsed onto the foyer bench, head in hands.
“Max. My wife left me,” he wailed.
Ann sat next to him.
“Well that’s just rubbish,” she said. “And so close to the holidays. Did you make these cookies, Max?”
“What cookies? Oh those …. Yeah.”
Ann peered at him more closely.
“You look familiar, Max. Where -- Ah, yes,” she smiled and laughed to herself. “You’re the new sommelier at The Four Seasons! Quite a profile the Post did on you. An impressive background indeed for such a young man. You, my friend, have nothing to worry about. Either your wife will come back or you’ll find someone new. Now, come escort me to the parlor and meet the others.”
Max stood precariously and allowed himself to be led by Ann, who linked her arm through his.
“Look who I found at the front door,” she said to the neighbors. “This is Maxwell Gladstein. He’s the new sommelier at the Four Seasons.” Noreen grabbed Max by the arm and gave him a peck on the cheek, but pulled back almost immediately, frowning as she smelled the alcohol.
“Max has had a difficult day,” Ann said in a low voice. “Would you bring him some coffee?” As Noreen hurried off, Ann picked up her tray of The Cookies and turned to Max.
“Here, young man. These will set you straight.” The neighbors looked on in horror as Max ate one cookie in two quite bites. And then grabbed another. And another. He started to smile.
“These are GOOD!” he slurred.
“What do you taste?” Jin asked hopefully.
“I don’t know,” Max said. “But damn, lady, these are AMAZING!” he said, turning to Ann.
Bill pushed a platter of pinwheels in front of him.
“Here, son, have these,” he said. Max grabbed a pinwheel but immediately turned back to The Cookies. The shock on the faces of the neighbors – even gentle Bill – turned to scowls as they moved en masse toward Max.
“Get him out of here,” said George, grabbing one arm as Pierre grabbed the other.
“Who shows up at a cookie exchange drunk?” asked Dr. Schaefer.
“We will destroy you, Maxwell Gladstein,” threatened Patricia. “You’re not going to hold that Four Seasons job much longer.”
“What’d I do?” he slurred, looking at the angry faces.
Ann grabbed a bouquet of sleigh bells adorning the doorway and shook them until all eyes were on her.
“This has gone entirely too far, my dear friends. Look at yourselves. You’re about to throw a broken young man – a prize-winning sommelier no less – out into the night over what? Cookies? For heaven’s sake.”
“But they’re THE Cookies,” Dr. Schaefer faltered.
“THE Cookies, THE Cookies,” Ann mimicked, shaking her head with a smile. “Now, really. It’s all been good fun – the detective, the garbage search, the gossip, the intrigue, the psychologist, the window washer. But – “
“What? You knew?” Bill asked. At the same time Cliff said, “We never sent a window washer.”
Ann raised her eyebrows. “You didn’t? I thought surely the window washer last summer was taking pictures of my kitchen. Well, perhaps you should have. And yes,” she said, turning to Bill. “Of course I knew. You’re a clumsy group of spies. Really, Cliff – no wonder Castro got away.”
She took a sip of wine. “The sommelier was a nice touch, very creative.”
“But that time in ’92 when we asked you to make The Cookies – and then you didn’t for three years. Was that intentional?” asked Dr. Schaefer.
Ann cocked her head, thinking.
“I’m sorry but I don’t recall that. Dear me, three years? My, how time flies. I was traveling so much in the early 90s – that’s when I was working with the UNHCR. I suppose cookies had fallen on my priority list.”
“I’m still not understanding,” said Cliff. “We were really that obvious?”
Ann’s blue eyes began twinkling. “Well, don’t be too hard on yourselves. I suppose the time has come to reveal all. My friends, I was an OSS agent during the World War II. I was only 18, but I was a damn fine agent – one of the best.”
The group fell silent, trying to absorb this revelation.
“That means you’re – “ Patricia touched her fingers, trying to figure out Ann’s age.
“Yes, yes, I’m quite old,” she said, lifting her glass for a toast.
“You all look so morose. At a cookie party! Now, raise your glasses to fine wine, amateur bakers and good friends.”
“Will you make The Cookies again?” ventured Noreen.
“Oh, yes, certainly. On New Years Day, I will make plenty for all of you. It will be a Farewell Fete to The Cookies, as you call them.”
The group gasped.
“Yes, my friends. It’s been a good run but it’s time to retire The Cookie.” Ann waved off the protests.
“Will you at least give us the recipe? Or a hint?” asked Pierre.
“Heavens no! Then the secret recipe wouldn’t be a secret, would it?” said Ann. “But, as you’ve so kindly pointed out, I am well on in years and it won’t be long until I go on to my Great Reward. But in my will, I have left the recipe. For one of you. The one, who I believe, can best keep it a secret. Now, we drink!”
The neighbors of Suters Lane raised their glasses and toasted. The party lasted well into the night with goodwill and holiday cheer fueled by sugar and alcohol. But behind the smiles and laughter, the neighbors’ gazes slid from one another, suspicions formed and plans were laid as each person pondered that elusive recipe tucked away in The Last Will and Testament of Mrs. Ann Gardiner Stewart.