It’s fair time for Shawano County, and that means the Fairest of the Fair, Victoria Pennington, is hitting the streets to hype up the longest-running county event. It also means the mild-mannered Fletcher Burgess is preparing the fair’s tastiest treat — creampuffs. Tensions are high at this year’s fair because Fletcher’s daughter, Janet, believes she was robbed of the Fairest honor due to the Pennington family’s enormous donation to restore aging fair buildings.
The friction hits fever pitch when the Fairest eats a creampuff for a television commercial promoting the fair and dies immediately after taking a bite of the beloved confection. Fletcher, who personally served the puff, is believed to have killed Victoria to avenge the injustice his daughter suffered.
While officials are trying to quell local fears about safety at the county fair, Zachary Gagewood tries to clear Fletcher’s name and find out who really wanted to send the Fairest of the Fair to her maker. The question is whether Zachary can sort through the fluff and identify the murderer before someone else falls prey to a killer confection.
It wasn’t immediately clear to Zachary whether Agnes Portman, president of the Gresham Ladies Society and treasurer of the Shawano County Fair board of directors, was merely expressing delight after tasting a delicious creampuff or if she’d discovered her G-spot. The nine-member fair board had been sampling the latest tasty treats cooked up each year by Fletcher Burgess for the ladies to sell in their booth, and when the seventy-year-old woman bit into hers, she let out a cry usually only achieved by Hollywood actresses around the age of twenty when they were in hot and steamy scenes with naked leading men that had pulsating muscles all over their well-oiled bodies. When she cried out, everybody in the tiny meeting room on the fairgrounds stopped whatever they were doing, even if they were in the middle of biting into their own creampuffs, and stared at Agnes like she was possessed.READ MORE
Agnes looked at Fletcher, the other fair board members and Zachary—who had come to take publicity photos of the fair—and blushed fiercely as she dabbed her mouth with a napkin and breathlessly said, “Delicious.”
Fletcher put his hands behind his back. “I think she liked it.”
“What was your first clue?” Zachary asked sarcastically before looking at the viewfinder on his camera, which showed the last photo he’d snapped right when Agnes cried out in ecstasy. Sure enough, Agnes looked like she was being taken again and again like a woman in a cheesy romance novel, with a smile that parted the wrinkles on her face and with her eyes rolling up inside her head. Zachary wondered how much trouble he’d get in if he sent that photo out to the local media when the fair board issued its press releases.
Agnes, still a little flustered, stood up. “Fletcher, you’ve outdone yourself. These creampuffs taste even better than last year’s. Did you change your recipe?”
Fletcher shook his head. “No, ma’am. It’s the same recipe that my family has had since my grandmother was alive.”
Agnes frowned, appearing a little disappointed by Fletcher’s answer. “Maybe you found a different kind of cream for the puffs. That must be it.”
“Nope. Same kind of cream. I make it from scratch.”
“There must be something different with the puffs. I’ve tasted your creampuffs every year for almost twenty years, Fletcher, and these taste like they’d been touched by God.”
Zachary had to cup his mouth to keep from laughing out loud. Agnes might have thought the creampuffs were touched by God, but that scream sounded like she’d been ravaged by the devil.
“Anyhow,” Agnes concluded, “I think these puffs will be perfect for the ladies society to sell, as always. Thank you for generously bringing in samples for the board to enjoy.”
Fletcher beamed. “It’s my pleasure, Ms. Portman. The creampuffs have always been a fair favorite. I’m just glad that y’all allow me to continue being the official baker for your organization. I know there are plenty of other bakers out there who would kill to have my job.”
One person immediately sprang to Zachary’s mind. Scotty Glenn, who’d been operating a bakery in Gresham for years, always started moaning at this time of year that Fletcher must be paying off the fair board, noting that his own pastries were twice as tasty as Fletcher’s. Scotty swore every year that he’d find a way to top Fletcher’s puffs, but he had failed every time.
“Well, I’d say your puffs are the killer this time,” Agnes declared. “I must have another taste.”
The second cry of ecstasy was more ear-piercing than the first. Zachary was surprised the shriek didn’t cause the windows to shatter.
“Agnes, should I get you a cigarette?” asked Beau Madsen, the president for the fair board.
Agnes started fanning herself with her napkin. “No, no. I should be all right. I just hope the folks who visit the county fair next week have strong tickers when they buy these amazing puffs.”
“Fletcher,” Zachary said, “promise me you won’t offer your creampuffs to Sigrid to put on her menu. My bookstore is right across from her supper club in Gresham, and the last thing I need is for the place to sound like Caligula’s palace and scare away potential customers to my business.”
“Well, if you think I shouldn’t.” Fletcher looked sad. He obviously didn’t realize Zachary had been joking.
“Relax, Fletcher. I think they only cause orgasmic screams from Agnes. I think the rest of the county should react normally.”
Agnes shot Zachary a dirty look. “You just wait, Zachary Gagewood. Someday, I’ll pass away, and when I do, I’ll haunt you every moment of every day.”
Zachary imagined hearing never ending, elderly orgasmic moaning. He wasn’t sure if he should be tickled or terrified.
“Well, Fletcher. Let me snap a few more photos of the plates of creampuffs before the fair board polishes them off.”
After snapping about two dozen photos from multiple angles, the nine members of the fair board dove into the creampuffs, snacking and chatting. Agnes let out a few more moans, although they didn’t have the zest of that first big scream. Zachary put his camera in his black case and slung it over his shoulder. He had other tasks to deal with at the fairgrounds, so he told Fletcher and the fair board goodbye and left the meeting room.
As he stepped outside the fair office, he looked around the almost empty fairgrounds. There were a few vacant shacks and a large open field in his line of sight, but in just a few days, the field would be filled with carnival rides, and the shacks would be jam packed with volunteers from numerous Shawano County nonprofit organizations cooking up a variety of fair food, from cheese curds to funnel cakes to deep fried Oreos. Zachary loved county fair time, remembering the joy when he was a child entering animals and other exhibits.
Zachary walked over to the commercial building and poked his head in. Gwendolen, one of his employees from The Literary Barn, was in a booth setting up shelves. The bookstore was going to sell books at the fair, including a romance novel called Wisconsin Hearts Afire recently published by Tasmin Godfrey, a retired Gresham schoolteacher.
“Hey, Gwendolen. How goes it over here?”
“Excellent. I should have this booth shipshape in an hour or so. Once we bring the books over, we’ll be all set for business.”
“Well, we still have a few days before the fair starts, so there’s plenty of time. Besides, there’s no security or alarm system in this building, so it’d be best to bring in the stuff the day before the fair opens instead of leaving it here for seven or eight days and run the risk of having someone swipe our stock.”
“I know, Zach. I’m not a complete idiot. You just wait and see. I’m going to sell so many books here at the fair, it’ll make your head spin.”
“We’ll have to see, Gwendolen. With so much going on at the fair, folks are probably going to be thinking more about cotton candy and carousels than about books.”
Gwendolen grabbed a box and set it on a table, opening the flaps to show stacks of comic books. “That’s why I thought having an area with comic books might catch the eye of our younger browsers. Zach, I know we can do it, and before you ask, no, I’m not keeping this box of comic books here. It’ll go back to The Literary Barn as soon as I’m done.”
Zachary smiled. He knew how much Gwendolen wanted to make the fair booth work. It had been her idea, and he knew she felt like the junior partner of the bookstore, so he was willing to provide some latitude with this project to see if she could step up. Chad, Zachary’s nephew, had volunteered to help, and Zachary was going to help at times. That left Alexander manning the bookstore in Gresham, with the help of Kevin and Laura, the newest member of The Literary Barn’s family. He wasn’t too worried about only having three employees at the bookstore during the fair, as most businesses in Shawano County slowed to a crawl once the fairgrounds roared to life. If it wasn’t for the summer tourist traffic, most of the villages would be ghost towns.
“I’m not all that worried, my dear. Granted, this is something new that we haven’t tried before, but if it is a success, it might give us an indication of whether there’s enough of a market to examine opening a second bookstore in the county.”
Gwendolen’s eyes bugged. “Wow! Are you really considering another store?”
“It’s been a thought Alexander and I have had—Alexander more than me—but it’s something that we wanted to take carefully.” Zachary grabbed a folding chair and sat down. “When I first opened The Literary Barn, I never imagined it would grow. I figured it would just be me and Kevin selling a few books and making a modest living. I never imagined it would explode like this.”
“It’s because you’re smart and savvy. You don’t just sell what you have on your shelves. If people want a particular book, you put in the work to find it and get it into their hands.”
“With all the books in existence, can you imagine how much space I would need to have all of them in stock? Gresham would have to be renamed Booktopia. I’d need an army of employees to take care of them all.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t written a book. With all the things you’re involved in, I would think you’d be able to come up with something imaginative to give J.A. Jance and Stephen King a run for their money.”
Zachary chewed on that thought for a moment. He enjoyed reading books, and he loved providing others with grand adventures that enriched the mind and soothed the soul, but writing a book himself wasn’t something he had consciously considered.
“Who knows? Maybe someday my life will slow down enough for me to write more than a strongly worded letter.”
“Could be fun. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to write that great American novel that you always hear about. I think it’d be a blast to be this siphon for all these chaotic words and images swirling in the ether.”
“I never thought about it like that.”
Zachary noticed a shadow nearby. He glanced over and saw Janet Burgess, Fletcher’s daughter, step through the large double doors of the commercial building.
“Hello, Zach. I was wondering if you’d seen my father around here.”
“Last time I saw him, he was satisfying the fair board’s sweet tooth—oh, and making Agnes Portman’s eyes roll back into her head.”
“Oh, yes. The big tasting. I’d forgotten all about that. Dad was up all night making sure the creampuffs for today were perfect. You’d think that his career would depend upon it.”
“You never know. Organizations can be so fickle. One sour puff, and you can bet the local gossips would swarm the countryside, letting every man, woman, child and dairy cow know about it. It’s a miracle that your father has been the creampuff man for so long.”
Janet chuckled. “It’s what he lives for. If he couldn’t create the county fair’s staple food, he’d probably step in front of a Shawano Speedway racer.”
Gwendolen grimaced. “Cheerful image.”
Janet nodded. “Besides, I know he needs the affirmative boost. He was disappointed when the judges chose not to make me the Fairest of the Fair. He was so excited that I was running, and it certainly didn’t make him feel any better that Victoria got the crown.”
Gwendolen raised an eyebrow. “Why was he disappointed? From what I’ve heard, Victoria Pennington is a wonderful representative for the fair.”
Zachary wrapped his arms around his elbows. “Yeah, but there are some who believe the only reason she was named the Fairest was because her family put up one hundred thousand dollars to help repair some of the aging buildings on the fairgrounds. There were four ladies in the running, but it seemed to some folks like Victoria was getting all the attention.”
“Seemed that way to my father, too, but I’m personally happy that Victoria received the honor. It’s not like I can’t run again next year.”
“Speaking of the Fairest, it looks like she’s heading our way.” Zachary pointed to the other end of the commercial building, where Victoria was making a beeline for the book booth.
“Hello, Zach. I’m trying to solicit donations for the fair’s annual scavenger hunt. Would you care to give anything to the cause?”
“Gwendolen, could you give Victoria a couple of our books? I’m always happy to help out the fair whenever I can.”
Victoria grinned big. “I know. It’s always wonderful how you give so much time to photographing the fair, which reminds me that we have that photo shoot tomorrow for the advertising. Are we still on for ten-thirty?”
“I will be there.”
“Wonderful. This will be so much fun.” Victoria turned, saw Janet, and spun the other way before departing with the books.
Zachary frowned. “Is it my imagination, or did she just snub you?”
Janet shook her head. “It’s not your imagination. I think Victoria is letting the prestige go to her head. She treats the other two contestants the same way. I don’t know why. After all, she won.”
“Low self-esteem, maybe?” Gwendolen offered. “That’s the reigning theory for why bullies are bullies. The reason schools are besieged by mean girls is because they don’t get enough love in their daily lives.”
“I think she gets plenty of love,” Janet retorted. “Have you seen her boyfriend, Damian Cantwell? He has ripples in his muscles and lust in his big, brown eyes.”
Zachary stood up. “As much as I’d love to talk about men with muscles and lustful eyes, I must drop off a few things at Kevin’s apartment and then head to The Literary Barn to relieve Alexander. He’s got something going on with his fiancé, Murphy, this afternoon.”
“I have to go, too,” Janet said. “I promised my dad I’d meet him for lunch.”
Gwendolen waved. “You guys enjoy your day. I’m going to get back to being Rosie the Riveter—well, at least Rosie the Bookshelf Maker.”
Zachary smiled. “Have fun. I’ll see you at work tomorrow.”COLLAPSE