Chagrin Falls, Ohio, is gorgeous in the fall, and Bronwyn Crewse, owner of Crewse Creamery, knows just how to welcome the new season. At the annual Harvest Time Festival, residents will get a chance to enjoy hot-air balloons and hayrides, crown a new Harvest Time Festival Queen, and eat delicious frozen treats sold at Win’s freshly purchased ice cream truck. But she gets into a sprinkle of trouble when a festivalgoer is poisoned and Win is implicated.
Although the victim was a former Harvest Time Festival Queen, her once-sunny disposition had dimmed into bitterness, leaving no shortage of suspects at the festival. To clear her name before the chill of winter sets in, Win will have to investigate and hope that her detective skills won’t “dessert” her.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
It was going to be a killer weekend.
The Harvest Time Festival in Chagrin Falls was a favorite event around Northeast Ohio. From the dusk Balloon Glow lighting to the crowning of the Harvest Time Festival Queen during the Labor Day Parade on Monday. Visitors from near and far crowded the streets, enjoying hayrides, the hot-dog-eating contest, and a score of food trucks parked around the center of downtown on the triangle and in Riverside Park. But this year was going to be extra special. It was going to mark the inaugural voyage of my ice cream shop's newly minted food truck.
I'd gotten up extra early to get to Crewse Creamery. I had dozens of frozen delights to make for the shop and now for the truck, too. I knew there were going to be busloads of people coming through.
I made my usual morning meetup with my grandfather, who was already dressed and had a pot of coffee percolating.
"I can't stay long," I said.
"You need me to help?" he asked. "I'm ready if you need me."
I smiled. "I got this."
"Who would have ever thought Crewse Creamery would have a food truck?" He laughed and patted me on my back. "Leave it to you, Win. Carrying on the entrepreneurial spirit we started this business with. Your grandmother would be proud."
It was still dark as I came down Carriage Hill after leaving PopPop, and I saw the soft glow of the lanterns outside the door of my family's shop. A staple on that corner next to the falls' overlook since 1965, the baby blue and yellow awning flapped gently in the early September breeze. My Grandma Kay's wrought iron and wood bench sitting stalwart, giving note that our business had been and would always be about family.
Once inside, I turned the jukebox on even before I pulled one mixing bowl from the shelf. I closed my eyes, humming along to Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," and whirled around on the big checkerboard floor, dancing with my grandmother. Not literally. Grandma Kay had been dead since I was in high school, and no, she wasn't a ghost. She'd always said she'd make sure those pearly gates closed tight behind her. Still, I could always feel her, standing with me, especially when I was surrounded by the walls of Crewse Creamery.
My grandparents, Aloysius and Kaylene Crewse, had worked hard starting a business. The only black-owned one in Chagrin Falls, it had weathered the ups and downs of the twentieth century and with a new face, courtesy of moi, was going to make it through the twenty-first. I'd put in new pretty cobalt-blue-covered booths and stools, added a big menu chalkboard on the back wall, which I'd painted to match the seat covers, and put a huge wall of glass at the back that overlooked the falls our village was built around.
Back in the kitchen, standing at the stainless-steel table, Sam Cooke's "Frankie and Johnny" playing in the background, I cut open the dark-skinned purple fruit for the plum sorbet. The juice dripped from my hands as my knife sliced through. I plucked out the pits, exposing the tender yellowish-tinged fruit inside. I placed the halves on a baking sheet, then sprinkled them with light brown sugar. Wiping my hands on the tea towel I took from my shoulder, I slid them into the oven.
It might have been out of place, but the liquor cabinet in the ice cream shop had all kinds of bottles inside, all opened, all tried. My Grandma Kay had been the originator of her own artisanal ice cream recipes, and the little tin box she stored them in was filled with her penciled-in additions of how to use the hard-to-freeze distilled spirits to make ice cream. I had carried on the tradition but only after paying and getting the required licensure. Ohio lawmakers, in 2017, decided ice cream with alcohol needed to be regulated. I could hear my grandmother fussing about the government wanting to put their noses in everything.
I uprooted a bottle of vodka, poured it into a blender along with some lemon juice, water, sugar and the plums after they'd cooled from being in the oven. I hummed along as the commercial mixer pureed the ingredients, then I put them into the cooler to chill. I pulled out the basket of deep blue, plump blueberries and Greek yogurt I'd mix together until smooth and pour into Popsicle molds.
I heard a knock on the side door, the one that led from the kitchen to the alley between our building and the Flower Pot. I glanced up at the clock on the wall. My help was starting to arrive. I usually scheduled my employees and my mother (not an official employee, just part of the "family" in our family business) to come in an hour or two after I'd gotten in. I liked spending time alone in the shop making ice cream, with the quiet of the morning and the memories of my grandmother.
I wiped my hands on my apron and went to unlock the door.
"Morning," I said. It was Candy. Earbuds in ears, she had her phone in hand and pack on her back. One of my two latest hires. Young. Not as enthusiastic as Wilhelmina, my other new hire, but she was always willing to help.
"Hi," she said and let out a yawn.
I closed the door behind her and she stood in the middle of the floor. She had never been in this early, and other than handing me needed ingredients out of the fridge or cooler when passing through the kitchen when I made batches in the evenings, she had never made ice cream.
Wasn't so sure about how excited she was to be doing it now, especially at six in the morning.
"Thanks for helping me out," I said. "With Maisie out, I needed the extra hand."
"Sure," she said, pulling one earbud out. "I don't mind." She pulled her backpack off. "How's Maisie doing?"
"She's good," I said and smiled.
Maisie Solomon, one of my two best friends and my first employee hired outside of family, was home dealing with the chicken pox. "The doctor said she's not contagious anymore, but she's covered in red spots," I said. "She says her body aches and she's itchy all over. Still best for her to stay at home for a few more days."
The last part of my comment seemed to make both of us scratch. My sudden itch was at the elbow and in the ear. Candy's was on her cheek.
"How did she get the chicken pox anyway?" She shook her head. "Even being in foster care, I got all my shots."
"It's a long story," I said. Until Maisie came to Chagrin Falls to live with her grandmother, her childhood hadn't been smooth sailing.
"Morning! Morning!" My mother swept through the door with all of her usual chipperness. She had a cloth bag in one hand and held the side door open with the other.
"I present to you all of my hard work!" she said, and in came Denise Swanson, rolling a metal grocery cart.
"Hey, Soror!" she said. A big grin on her face. Soror, a colloquialism for sorority sister, was her usual greeting when she saw me. "We brought cookies."
"Twelve dozen," my mother said.
Denise Swanson, like my mother and me, was a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the first black sorority, usually shortened to AKA. Like my mother, she'd been an education major, too, and had pledged with my mother at Howard University in DC some thirty-something years ago. They'd been friends ever since.
An Ohio native, she served as an executive on the Cleveland Municipal School Board. Always dressed classy, she had an excitement about her when dealing with other people no matter what the conversation was about, and loved lending a helping hand.
Today, even though she'd been baking with my mother, she looked like she was on her way to a luncheon at a board of directors meeting. She had on a charm bracelet that dangled, clanked, and probably would have gotten in the way of making up cookie batter. She had on salmon pink trousers and a matching blouse (she loved our sorority's colors-salmon pink and apple green-and wore them often). Her shoes were low-heeled and sensible, but shiny. She kept her hair short, almost in the same style as mine.
I chuckled. "You helped?" I asked Denise.
"Of course she did," my mother said. "I told you, I've been working on them for two days."
"I know you did," I said. "I just didn't know Mrs. Swanson had helped."
"I mostly kept her company," Denise said.
"She did not," my mother said. "The peanut butter ones are all her."
"Now what are you going to do with so many cookies, Bronwyn?" Denise asked. Always the teacher, she didn't do nicknames even though she'd heard my family call me Win my whole life.
"Ice cream cookies," my mother said before I could answer. "Win's going to sell them on the new ice cream truck."
"I heard about that. It's not like the usual 'Turkey in the Straw'-playing ice cream truck, is it?"
"It's a food truck that sells ice cream," I corrected proudly. I didn't want anyone thinking we'd be driving up and down city streets with kids chasing after us. I wanted it to be trendier. "And no." I chuckled. "We don't play 'Turkey in the Straw.' It's like the food trucks that are on Walnut Street on Wednesdays."
"I love Walnut Wednesdays. I go all the time," Mrs. Swanson said. "Happy then to be taking part in this." She snapped off her bracelet and started rolling up her sleeves. "Okay, Ailbhe. Show me what to do."
"What do you want me to do?" Candy asked. She'd been standing there idle. She'd put her earbuds back in. She'd been in her own world and I'd nearly forgotten she was there.
"Mrs. Swanson," I said, forgoing giving Candy directions to introduce her. "This is Candy Cook. She's working here while she finishes high school."
"What grade are you in?" Mrs. Swanson asked.
"I'm in the twelfth grade now," she said. "Finally. I'd been trying to get here for a long time."
"Well, you made it, which is an accomplishment," Mrs. Swanson said, even though I wasn't sure if she knew Candy's story.
"We'd better get cooking," my mother said. She grabbed two aprons off the rack. "Here, Denise." She handed one to her. "Put this on. You're the only person I know who dresses up to come and cook."
She laughed. "I didn't know you were going to rope me into working this early in the morning. I thought we were going to drop off the cookies and go to breakfast."
"Mom," I said, thinking I'd give her and Mrs. Swanson light duty. "You can make the ice cream sandwiches. Use the chocolate and vanilla. Two scoops between the cookies. Roll the outside in nuts, but only on half of them. You know, because some people have nut allergies."
"Okay," she said. "Denise and I will do those first. C'mon." Mom waved her over. "We have a special area for non-nut products so they don't get mixed up."
"That's gotta be tricky," Denise said. "It's easy for nut powder or dust to contaminate the other products in the kitchen."
"It is," I said. "And I keep a sign up saying that we do make them in the same kitchen. But we're really careful." I looked over at Candy. "You'll make the peanut butter and chocolate ice cream once they're finished."
"Make ice cream?" A big smile curled up the side of her face. "You're gonna let me make ice cream?"
"You want to?" I asked.
"Yes!" she said, eyes bright and wide.
"We'll let them get finished with the no-nuts ice cream sandwiches. Meanwhile, you can help me with the blueberry and yogurt pops."
"Okay," she said. "What do I do?"
"We'll make up the mixture and pour them into the molds. Then put them in the blast freezer."
"So this was a great time to initiate your food truck, Bronwyn," Mrs. Swanson said as she stood at the sink with us, waiting her turn to wash her hands. "I heard that news trucks are going to be stopping by all weekend, especially on Sunday for the hot-air balloon show."
"The Festival will be on TV?" Candy asked.
"They're making a big deal out of it, it seems," Mrs. Swanson said. "Putting Chagrin Falls on the map."
"Why?" Candy asked. She pushed up her glasses with the back of her hand.
"We've always been on the map," my mother said and swatted a hand at her friend. "This year is special, though. It's the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Harvest Time Festival. Longest-running annual event of its kind in Northeast Ohio." My mother was proud of her home. "Good news about us for a change."
"Oh, that was awful, the story Channel 6 did on the village after the Mini Mall Fiasco," Mrs. Swanson said.
Candy let out a laugh. "The Mini Mall Fiasco," she repeated.
"That's what they called it," Mrs. Swanson said. "Even had that one reporter that was from Chagrin Falls do the story."
My mother waved a hand. "Don't even say her name. She knows she could have done a better job highlighting the village. Her family lives here."
"It was about murder," I said, not sure how a better job could be done highlighting that.
A Dallas company had tried to come in and buy up property and land in our little town, and the person they sent as a representative was killed. Murdered right behind the very shops they were trying to purchase. They wanted the real estate in order to build a mini vertical mall. It had been a fiasco. Hence the name. The news got that part of it right.
My mother put a proud smile on her face. "This news cycle the story will be special. I'm sure they won't be able to mess it up. The long-lasting Festival and the first year for the Crewse Family's ice cream truck!"
"Food truck!" Denise, Candy and I said in unison.
She's a beaut." My grandfather let out a long, low whistle.
"PopPop, you've seen her before."
"Not in action," he said. "That's one fine food truck."
Unlike my mother, I never had any trouble with PopPop calling it what it was. It was Sunday, the second day of the Festival, but the first day PopPop had come over to the park to visit.
"Baby Blue," as I called her, had been very popular on her first-ever Festival run. She had a dipping case, similar to the one in the store only smaller, a state-of-the-art mini blast freezer, a walk-in freezer (really a "step-in" freezer because you could only step inside of it) and a prep table on the back wall. The outside was, of course, baby blue, with a big vanilla ice cream cone on the side with Crewse Creamery painted in yellow. It went perfectly with the baby blue and yellow awning over the large serving window that matched the one over the store.