Along with her mother and grandmother, Hana Keller has achieved renown serving tea and cakes with a European flair, but when a local professor is killed, she uncovers a serving of suspects instead…
Hana Keller is getting ready for a lovely holiday season. When she receives a rare tea set as a birthday gift, she decides to host a tea at her apartment for her closest friends. During the cozy get-together, one of Hana's friends gets word that a murderer is on the loose. Hana soon learns that the victim was Sandor Balog, a professor of Hungarian Studies at the local college.
With her growing psychic ability, Hana senses that she is going to be pulled into the investigation of the professor's death somehow. With her sexy boyfriend Erik on the case, Hana finds the Tea House steeped in suspects. She studies the smiling faces celebrating the season, but the real killer is good at hiding the truth and putting Hana in the hot seat….
Release date: June 1, 2021
Print pages: 288
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Death on the Night of Lost Lizards
The Man in the Snow
My grandmother once told me that snow is friendlier than rain.
"Why?" I asked.
"Because rain wants only to soak you and leave you shivering. Snow sits on your shoulder and tells you the truth: that life is cold, but it warms us with beauty."
"And then it soaks you," I added.
"Not if you brush it away. But more than that: snow is magic."
"Because it reminds us of the Land of Dreams."
This struck me as poetic, especially when she assured me that the snow that fell upon her as a girl in BŽkŽscsaba was nothing like the snow that fell upon us in Riverwood today. I had therefore always associated Hungary with surreal and beautiful snows.
The snow falling now, as I trudged down Andrews Street, did hold a touch of magic in that it resembled something inside a glass globe one shakes to create a Christmas scene, but it also had a diagonal quality, and seemed bent upon landing directly on my eyeballs. I reached my car and made haste to stow my packages in the backseat, then ran around to the driver's door, flung it open, and dove in. "Ah," I said. I brushed the "friendly" snow from my shoulders and got the car heater going. Then I leaned back for a moment to study the snowfall.
It did look more dreamlike from a warm, dry place; I marveled at the lacy flakes that sat briefly on my windshield, allowing me to appreciate their perfect symmetry before transforming into moisture and sliding away.
I sighed and closed my eyes for a moment. What magic would this dream snow bring to me?
My phone buzzed twice in a row. I picked it up and checked my texts. One was from my neighbor, Paige, who was seven months pregnant and quite bored, she had recently assured me. You got a package, she wrote. It's huge!
This was exciting. I didn't tend to get much mail beyond sales flyers and holiday cards. "Ooh," I said aloud.
The other text was from Detective Erik Wolf of the Riverwood Police. It said, Your mother has informed me your birthday is approaching. Surprised that Haniska did not tell me this herself, since she and I are pretty close these days.
I grinned, then typed, I didn't want to make a big deal. Of course you can buy me presents if you want. Or celebrate me in kisses.
I will do both, he wrote, and sent about twelve heart emojis. Erik Wolf had struck me early on as an aloof person, but I had found instead that he was just socially awkward and was in fact an utter marshmallow beneath a hard exterior.
I put my phone aside, wondering why my mother had been talking to Erik in the first place, unless she called him especially to talk about my birthday. This possibility seemed likely, and I experienced a burst of embarrassment. Still, it was good that Erik knew.
My car was toasty now, and I buckled in, ready to make the ten-minute drive home. A young man emerged from an alley, his dark clothing a sudden surprise in the white landscape. He wore black jeans and a dark sweatshirt that said "Riverwood" and bore the stately crest of Riverwood University, located a couple of blocks west of where we were. The boy (that was how he seemed, although my mother would laugh and say he was less than a decade younger than I was) seemed slightly agitated. He slid his hands into his pockets, pausing for a moment under the warm, twinkling lights in the window of Stones by Sparkle, a new shop that I'd been meaning to investigate. His face told me that he was cold and miserable.
"Wear a coat, silly," I murmured. I had inherited my mother's horror of seeing someone not dressed for the weather. The young man hesitated for a moment; he turned toward a large pine tree outside Sparkle's store, and I laughed because it looked as though he intended to walk into the tree itself, his hands plunged in his pockets, like a child entering Narnia. He turned back, his hands visible again and bereft of gloves; he was a lost soul in the snow, and briefly his eyes seemed to meet mine. I know him, my brain said, and then he loped away, turning eventually at Wood Street.
A thought lingered at the edge of my consciousness, something elusive and distant, and my Uncle Zoltan's face shimmered before me for no reason at all. I sighed, putting the boy and my uncle out of my mind. I pulled away from the curb, wondering what Erik Wolf would get me for my birthday, now that the cat was out of the bag. I really would be happy with an evening of kisses, since that was how we tended to spend our evenings anyway . . .
My phone rang, and I poked it with my right hand while I steered with my left. Then I grabbed it and put it against my right ear. "Hello?"
"Haniska," said my grandma's voice. "Did you find something good?"
She meant for tomorrow's Christmas party at the tea house. We were hosting no fewer than fourteen holiday events before Christmas Day, and tomorrow's was for the employees of a local medical group.
"Yes, something awesome. We want to celebrate medicine, right? I found little stethoscopes that can go on cupcakes, and first-aid-kit business card holders. We can put the tea house cards in there, and then they can use them at work."
"Good. Your mama and I did the Christmasy part. And we'll use the white Christmas tea set with holly berries and greenery edges."
"This was supposed to be our day off, Grandma. We've got back-to-back events tomorrow."
"Yes, yes. Now we are all done. Your parents will go see a movie, and Grandpa and I will be home with Netflix. Do you want to come over? I make pšrkšlt and dumplings."
"Mmm, sounds good, but I think Erik is coming over tonight."
"Ah, the wolf. Always lurking around my little lamb." There was laughter in her voice, though. She had come to terms with Erik Wolf's "unlucky" surname by reading his tea leaves and determining that he was actually a shepherd who dressed as a wolf to catch wolves. That, she said, was the nature of police work.
"Yes, he lurks, and I like it. Your lamb is safe if he's around."
"Ya. Okay, see you in the morning."
"I wouldn't turn down some pšrkšlt, if you have leftovers. Erik would like that, too."
"Ya, okay, I make extra," she said, sounding distracted.
"Grandma! Are you watching TV?"
"No, no. Just a show on Netflix. Grandpa and I are on season three. We keep trying to stop, but then something happens, and we have to watch one more."
I stopped at a light, a winking red eye in the flurry of snow. "You're binge-watching, Grandma. That's what they call it. Bingeing on Netflix."
"No. Just to the end of this season, as our little treat. Then we stop and play cards or something."
I laughed. "Good luck with that. See you, Grandma. Enjoy the show."
I set the phone aside and watched my own show as I drove-the beautiful snowfall that was beginning to accumulate on roofs and lawns. Riverwood donning its winter white.
It was a relief to pull into my parking lot at last because the snow had made the roads slick, and I had already seen a couple of cars slide unexpectedly into an adjoining lane or into an intersection. No collisions, thank goodness, but a sight to make one cautious.
I grabbed my packages and purse, climbed out of the car, and moved carefully toward the door. It was opened for me before I got there by my neighbor Paige and her daughter, Iris, a bright five-year-old who had become our unofficial doorman.
"Hi, guys," I said. "Iris, that is one terrific sweater."
It was: a bright blue number covered with white reindeer joined together by their spectacular antlers. She wore this with a tiny pair of jeans. "That looks like something from the Ulveflokk children's line," I said.
Paige brightened. "It is! After you told me Erik's sisters run that company, I had to get something for Iris."
"It looks fantastic on her. I do love their winter stuff."
The two Gonzalez women, mother and daughter, looked at me expectantly.
"What's going on?" I said.
"Can we watch you open your package? It's just so big. We've been dreaming about what could be inside."
"Oh my gosh, I forgot! Yes, yes! Where is it?"
"I had the guy carry it to your door."
I smiled at them, their rosy cheeks and hopeful expressions. "Let's hope it's not been misdelivered, now that we're all excited about it."
We climbed the stairs to my floor and I saw the box immediately: it was indeed big. I jogged down the hall and peered at the information. Yes, addressed to Hana Keller at 444 Abbott's Lane, Apartment 2-5, Riverwood, in beautiful calligraphy-like writing very similar to my grandmother's. "Oh, this is great," I said, my eyes flicking to the return address. "It's from Uncle Zoltan! See the California return address? This is so weird, because I was just thinking about him . . ."
Paige nodded. "I wasn't sure about that name, Horvath."
"Hor-vott," I corrected automatically. "It's my mom's maiden name. Zoltan is her brother. He's sent Domo and me birthday presents since we were tiny. I should write and tell him he can stop, but I just love that yearly tradition. I should have known it was from him, but I keep forgetting my birthday is coming."
"I would never forget my birthday," Iris said, her little fingers on my package. She was unconsciously picking at it, an act born of innocent desire and curiosity. I laughed.
"Let's get this inside and see what he sent me! Iris, how strong are you?"
I tried the package. Not impossible, but, yes, heavy. We decided to push it in with our hands and feet. Eventually we transported it into the kitchen, where I had tools for opening it. Iris helped me slice open the tape and remove some tissue paper, beneath which we could see bubble-wrapped bundles.
"Oooh, it looks like china. Maybe that Hungarian stuff you love so well," Paige said. "Oh no, I'm too excited. Hana, can I use your bathroom?"
"Of course," I said, laughing.
Iris gave me a wise look. "Mommy has to pee all the time."
"Yes, well, she has a little person in there leaning on her bladder. Can you imagine?"
"No," Iris said, her eyes on the package. My cats, Antony and Cleopatra, had joined her and were expressing a similar curiosity about the contents of the box.
"Okay, it's always polite to read the card first. Let's see which words you can read, Iris."
This excited her; she was in kindergarten, but she could read at a second-grade level, her mother told me.
I opened the little blue envelope on top of the wrapped things and pulled out the greeting card, a glitter-covered old-time European holiday greeting.
I opened it and handed it to Iris. "Do your best; I'll help."
Pleased, she said, "Dear Hana."
"I know it is your birthday-that's a big word, but I can read it!" Iris said.
"Go on, my little reader."
"I know it is your birthday, but I know"-she said it right this time-"you like dese cards."
"Very good! Let me try the next sentence."
"Okay." Iris handed me the card with some reluctance and some relief. Her cheeks were bright above her reindeer sweater.
I peered at Zoltan's perfect handwriting. "I discovered this set quite by chance, and I remembered how enchanted you were with this design a long time ago-remember when I stayed with your family in Riverwood? The memory of your sad little face has stayed with me through time, so this gift had Hana Keller written all over it."
"What?" Iris asked, amazed.
"He means he knew I would like it. Not that there was actually writing there."
I continued to read to her. "I hope that the reclaiming of a lost porcelain treasure is a good birthday treat." Iris leaned in to see how porcelain was spelled, and I stole a quick hug. "Have a happy birthday, my dear niece. I hope to see you sometime in the New Year."
I set down the card, not daring to hope about what might be in the box; Iris gave me a no-nonsense look. "Let's get to the opening," she said.
I laughed, and Paige returned just in time to see Iris and me unveiling a beautiful teacup with a pinwheel of bright yellow, blue, and white, and hand-painted art inspired by Chinese designs. "Oh, my gooooosssshhhh," I said. "Oh, my lost lizards!"
Paige's eyes widened. "What?"
"This is unbelievable. It's wonderful." They stared at me blankly, and I said, "Back when I was nine or ten, Zoltan stayed with my family for a while. I don't remember why he was here, but it was fun having him at our house, my handsome uncle. Even then I loved looking at porcelain, and my mom would take me to antiques shops and teach me about the different makers. While we were at a local shop with Zoltan, we saw this set. I thought it was beautiful, and I was fascinated by the design-see the little twin lizards, the way they twine together to make a handle? I wanted it, and Zoltan said he would buy it for me, but my mother said no, I had to save up for it. The set was quite expensive. Well, even before I had saved up the money, the set disappeared. I'm sure I was devastated at the time. And then I never saw something like it again."
I lifted one of the cups and touched its delicate rim. "This is Herend. From their Yellow Dynasty collection. It's not even available in the United States anymore. How did you find this, Zoltan, you wonderful, sweet man!"
Iris ran a tiny, reverent finger over the handle. "Look at dis," she said.
"Oh, Iris-yes, the lizards are definitely the best part. They go along with the Asian-inspired artwork, like these bending willow trees and all that gorgeous flower work."
We all bent to study the cup, resplendent with glittering gold dots that added a touch of magic to the beautiful and colorful detail. "I can't believe this," I said. "This stuff is so expensive. Either he found a vendor who didn't know what this is worth, or he spent a small fortune. Either way, he was right about one thing. What is it, Iris?" I pointed at her.
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