Once upon a time in New York … much of the city is being swept up in the excitement of Storybook Kingdom, a fall festival celebrating the classic fairy tales of Mother Goose and the Brothers Grimm. Unfortunately for coffeehouse manager Clare Cosi, the dark side of the fairy tales is soon revealed.
In Once Upon a Grind by Cleo Coyle, the fourteenth installment in the best-selling Coffeehouse Mystery series, Clare’s Village Blend coffeehouse is participating in the festival in Central Park. The Village Blend’s coffee truck is decorated in a Jack and the Beanstalk theme, the menu has been “Storybook-ified,” and Clare and her baristas are in costume.
Near the Village Blend’s truck is the tent of “Madame Tesla,” who is telling fortunes by reading coffee grounds. Clare’s business partner and ex-husband Matteo Allegro has supplied some “magic beans” to Madame Tesla. Matt is eager for Clare to have her fortune told, but she says she’s too busy. As they talk, Clare sees one of the Storybook Kingdom’s princesses, the Pink Princess, leave the tent looking upset. She also notices a “hulking knight” staring at the Pink Princess with a “predatory” gaze.
Soon after, Clare gets a phone call from her boyfriend Mike Quinn, a NYPD detective on special assignment in Washington, D.C. Mike says his children, Molly and Jeremy, are coming to the festival with his ex-wife Leila. He asks Clare to do him a favor by keeping an eye on the kids. When they arrive, they tell Clare that the Pink Princess is Anya, their mom’s new mother’s helper. Meanwhile, Matt is asked to step in to portray Prince Charming to replace a sick actor. He happens to be paired up with the Pink Princess for the day.
Later in the day, both Matt and the kids are looking for Anya, who has disappeared. Then the kids go missing too. Trying to find them, Clare goes to Madame Tesla’s tent. Madame Tesla, in reality Matt’s mother Madame Dreyfus Allegro Dubois, offers Clare a cup of coffee brewed from Matt’s magic Ethiopian beans. Clare compliments the roast, but she can’t quite identify one of the spice flavors that she tastes. She drinks some more, and the next thing she knows she’s following Molly and Jeremy into the Ramble, Central Park’s wooded “wild garden.”
This turns out to be a dream—Matt calls it a “vision”—but Clare and Matt use it as a guide to locate the kids. Molly and Jeremy were looking for Anya, the Pink Princess, when their dog ran away. Clare and Matt promise to look for the dog. But when they find the dog, they also find Anya. She’s unconscious but alive. It appears that she’s been drugged.
As fans of the Coffeehouse Mystery series know, Matteo Allegro has a history of drug problems. So it’s not too surprising that the NYPD sees Matt as the prime suspect in the attack on Anya, especially when an eyewitness says that Anya had been seen with a man in medieval dress before she disappeared.
Fortunately Mike Quinn returns to New York to help Clare sort things out and try to clear Matt’s name. But there’s a lot of sorting to do in order to solve this mystery. The sense of danger is heightened when another princess disappears. Suspects include a top hedge fund manager known as the “Wall Street Wolf,” a former New York Giants football player, and even Russian agents.
Clare’s investigation takes her all around New York City, from Central Park to a famous restaurant and an exclusive members-only club on the Upper East Side, to Alphabet City in the East Village and “Little Egypt” in Queens. She even heads out to New Jersey to follow a clue.
Coffee is omnipresent in the story, as it is throughout the Coffeehouse Mystery series. Madame Tesla prepares Turkish coffee for her coffee readings (it’s the most common coffee used for coffee grounds tasseography, because the grounds sink to the bottom of the cup). Clare has the opportunity to sample Bosnian coffee (coffee boiled once, then served with sugar cubes in a separate bowl). Even Mike Quinn, who once upon a time was satisfied with typical police swill, seems to have mastered the art of making good coffee.
Matt’s Ethiopian “magic beans” play the most prominent role. Matt tells Clare a wonderful origin story about his acquisition of the beans (it begins with the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Christian Church). Clare becomes convinced that the beans indeed have mystical powers. Drinking the magic brew several times, she experiences visions that give her clues to the mystery.
But will the magic beans, along with Clare’s investigative skills, lead to a storybook ending?
Less fantastical than magic coffee beans, but almost certainly magical themselves, are some of the recipes that Cleo Coyle includes in the appendix to the book. If you’re looking for a storybook drink to warm you up, you won’t go wrong with the Snow White Chocolate Mocha, or “The Great Pumpkin” Spice Latte, inspired by Charlie Brown and Linus. And for a delicious dessert, choose from the Chocolate Cream “Inside Out” Coffee Cake, Clare Cosi’s Cappuccino Blondies, and several others. If you try them, let me know what you think!
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