Gresham’s annual Applefest is its biggest event of the year, and it brings out the best—and worst—in the residents of this tiny Wisconsin village. This year’s festival is expected to be the biggest yet, and that means the apple pie contest will determine the reputations of numerous bakers, housewives and others. Before the contest is over, however, one of the judges will be dead and cold.
When one of Gresham’s most prominent—and reviled—citizens suddenly dies while judging the apple pies, all signs indicate someone tried to poison her. That theory is quickly thrown into doubt when the medical examiner can find no trace of poison. When it seems like the investigators have given up on finding the truth, local bookstore operator Zachary Gagewood must find out who the killer is before someone else falls prey to an apple pie!
After grabbing his camera bag from the table next to the front door, Zachary closed the door and locked it, and he laughed out loud when he saw Toby with his nose pressed against the window, like he was saying, “Please take me with you! I like pie, too!” Zachary knew he couldn’t take the dog because the park clearly said “No Dogs Allowed,” and Applefest officials said they would be strictly enforcing the rule after last year’s debacle.READ MORE
When Zachary reached the park, the dull roar he had heard leaving the house had become a deafening cacophony of cheers, chatter and catcalls. He looked to his right and saw the apple dunk tank was already seeing a long line of people eager to toss apples at a target and drop public officials into what today must be chilly water. It looked like they were using a baseball colored red to look like an apple, which made sense this year because the drought had decimated the supply of apples across most of the Midwest. Zachary debated whether he should join the line and see if Jacob Malueg climbed onto the platform. However, he really wanted to see how the apple pie contest was shaping up. For one thing, he wanted to see if Kevin’s week-long schizophrenia was worth it, and for another, he wanted to show Mary that gay people have every right to enjoy Applefest.
Zachary started to turn toward the park pavilion, where the contest was taking place, when someone plowed into him, causing both people to crash to the ground. It took a moment for Zachary to get his bearings, but he stood up and dusted himself off. He looked down at the person who had sent him tumbling. The first thing he noticed was the sweetest smile on the man’s face. The second thing he noticed was that he had no idea who the guy was.
Zachary held out his hand. “Been walking long?”
The man took the hand and stood up. “I am so sorry. I’m new to these parts, and I just can’t believe how big this event is. Y’all have everything.”
“Well, we don’t have a Starbucks, but we manage to brew some decent coffee. You just have to know where to look.”
The man grinned, but his smile quickly disappeared. “I am sorry again. I completely forgot to introduce myself. I’m Newell Krueger.”
“Zachary Gagewood.” Zachary and Newell shook hands. “It’s always good to know the identity of the person who mows you down in the park, gives the cops something to work with.”
“I really do apologize. I’ve been here all of a week, so I’m still trying to figure things out.”
“So what brings you to Gresham?”
“Well, my grandfather owned the local feed store, and he passed away about a month ago, as you probably know. Most of the other folks in the family wanted to shut it down and sell the building, but I convinced them to let me have a...” Newell put up a hand. “Hold that thought.”
Newell hurried to the front of the park, where a blue-haired lady was puttering along with a walker, and on that walker were three apple pies. Zachary smiled, knowing all too well who it was. It was Miriam Lemorande, but most folks in the area knew her as Granny Apple.
“Ma’am, could I help you carry those? It looks like you could use a hand.”
Granny smiled. “Well, aren’t you just the most thoughtful young man? Yes. Yes, I could use a helping hand. I’m heading toward the park pavilion for the pie judging contest. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in time.”
Newell looked around with a confused expression, evidently trying to locate the pavilion. Zachary smirked. Amateur.
“Granny, I’ll give you a hand, too. Newell, the pavilion’s over there.” Zachary gestured and grabbed one pie while Newell scooped up the other two. The two men walked slowly with Granny as she made her way to the pavilion.
“By the way, ma’am, my name is Newell Krueger.”
“Well, good morning to you, Newell. My name is Miriam Lemorande,” Granny said, pausing briefly between her first and last names, emphasizing each syllable, “but most folks around here call me Granny Apple.”
“Is it because your cheeks are bright and rosy like apples?”
Zachary couldn’t help but roll his eyes. Newell was definitely laying on the charm, just thick enough to make Granny chuckle but stopping short of being too cheesy.
“Actually, Newell,” Zachary said, “Granny owns the most amazing apple orchards in Shawano County, and it’s one of the most famous in the state. She is known far and wide for her apple pies, cobblers, juice—any apple product you can think of.”
Granny’s cheeks glowed a gentle pink. “Mr. Gagewood inflates my reputation...” She leaned toward Newell and whispered, “...but not by much.”
While Granny continued to regale Newell with tales of her apples, Zachary glanced at the pies he and Newell were carrying. One had a crust that completely covered the top, and another had a lattice pattern across the top, both very traditional. The third one, however, had a top crust that looked there had been several explosions, and the apple filling was up at the top, overflowing to almost look like volcanic lava. Zachary could already see Mary pitching a fit about it and spewing more bologna about how apple pies should be prepared a certain way. The Mormon matron against the queen of apples—there was a fight Zachary would pay ringside seats for.
Upon reaching the pavilion, Zachary’s jaw dropped at all the pies on the picnic tables. There had to be almost two hundred! This was why the festival needed so many judges.
Newell stopped short, his eyes glazing over. “Whoa.”
“Pretty impressive, isn’t it?” Granny said with a wide smile and a gleam in her eye. “I just love how the area comes together and creates such beautiful desserts. I suppose I should get these pies checked in, boys. Thank you for your help, and I hope to see you again sometime during the festival.”
Zachary and Newell set the pies down next to a lady with wide-rimmed glasses who was registering the entries, and they said their good-byes to Granny. Zachary started looking for Kevin, with Newell following along.
“I have never seen so many pies in my life. It’s like somebody robbed every bakery between here and Texas.”
“Yeah, we’re pretty proud of our apples here. It’s slightly demented, but at least it’s better than paying tribute to rhubarb.”
Zachary and Newell stopped short as they saw someone in a giant apple costume walk past. Newell pursed his lips and nodded in bemusement. “I’d really like to see the community that has the rhubarb festival. Those people must really be pathetic.”
“I’m really losing credibility, aren’t I?”
“It’s all good. I wasn’t sure if there were any celebrations or festivals around here because you’re such a small village, but this is pretty cool.”
“Hello, hello, hello!” sang a higher-octave voice.
Zachary turned and saw Primrose Sorenson scuttling toward him. He sighed, knowing she was going to assert herself as the self-imposed welcome wagon.
“So, Zachary, are you going to introduce me to your new friend?” Primrose asked with the whitest grin, her curly, blond hair bouncing on every word.
“Newell, meet Primrose Sorenson,” Zachary said, monotone. “Primrose, this is Newell Krueger. He’s taking over the feed store.”
Primrose opened her mouth to speak, but she was interrupted by another cackling hen. “Can you believe that Mary Damron? She is on her pie rant, and I actually saw her mark zero on some of her score sheets for the pies. She’s talking about imposing new rules here and now, arbitrarily without the consultation of the committee! Can you believe that?”
Primrose shook her head. “June Darby, you know perfectly well that she is the pie Nazi of Gresham. She and I are like Thelma and Louise in real life, but all bets are off when it comes to Applefest. What we need to do is band together and get her off the damned Applefest committee. She struts around like she’s the queen of the festival.”
“Well, she can’t be, considering she smashed down our idea of having Applefest royalty. Thought it would sully the image of our festival. I tell you, my daughter, Heather, would have provided a tasteful symbol of what Applefest really stands before, at least what it stood for before that witch got involved.”
“I’ve got to watch this,” Zachary said as a cackle escaped his lips. “I realize it’s like an accident on the highway—hideous, grotesque and something you can’t look away from.”
He walked over to the other side of the pavilion, where more than a dozen people were walking along the tables. Another crowd stood nearby. Sigrid and Scotty were closest to the table, watching with mixed apprehension and bitterness. Zachary made his way to the other side, where Kevin and Sasha were standing. Kevin was biting his nails.
“So how goes the pie judging?” Zachary asked.
“They just started,” Kevin said. “I’m kind of nervous, seeing all these pies.”
“Really?” Zachary arched an eyebrow. “Kevin, you’ve been to Applefest before. You know how many pies get entered each year. Granny Apple is registering three of hers as we speak.”
“But I’ve got red apple filling! I should be a shoo-in.”
“Let’s face it, Kev. You’d have to be a master of mind control to have this contest in the bag.”
Sasha nodded, “Especially with Little Mary Sunshine over there stopping at each pie and verbally expressing every reason why the pie looks wrong, and then she takes a bite and gives a dissertation on what is wrong with the taste. I think she might actually succeed in turning this into a three-day festival.”
Zachary opened his mouth to reply but was interrupted by the screeching sound of—as Sasha put it—Little Mary Sunshine. “And just what do you think you’re doing here?”
Zachary looked up and saw Mary was addressing him. “Hello, Mary. I didn’t recognize you without your flying monkeys.”
“I thought we got rid of you as the event photographer. Why are you here?”
“You might have robbed me of a day of photography work, but I can still enjoy Applefest the same as anyone else who lives here, so put that in your cauldron and boil it.”
Mary sneered as she took a bite from one of the pies. “I guess you can stay, but let me make it clear here and now that I do not approve, and you would do well to stay out of my way. I will not have you and your kind of people tarnishing the good name of Applefest.”
You can’t tarnish a rusted blade, Zachary thought. It was time to really let the judgmental hag have it.
“Quite frankly, Mary, I don’t give a damn if you approve of me being here or not, so if you don’t like it, then you can just drop dead, for all I care.”
In all his wildest dreams, Zachary never would have believed Mary would actually do it.COLLAPSE