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Death by Bubble Tea

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Two cousins who start a food stall at their local night market get a serving of murder in this first novel of a delicious new cozy mystery series by Jennifer J. Chow, bestselling author of Mimi Lee Gets a Clue.

When Yale Yee discovers her cousin Celine is visiting from Hong Kong, she is obliged to play tour guide to a relative she hasn’t seen in twenty years. Not only that, but her father thinks it’s a wonderful idea for them to bond by running a food stall together at the Eastwood Village Night Market. Yale hasn’t cooked in years, and she hardly considers Celine’s career as a social media influencer as adequate experience, but because she’s just lost her job at her local bookstore, she feels she has no choice.

Yale and Celine serve small dishes and refreshing drinks, and while business is slow, it eventually picks up thanks to Celine’s surprisingly useful marketing ideas. They’re quite shocked that their bubble tea, in particular, is a hit—literally—when one of their customers turns up dead. Yale and Celine are prime suspects due to the gold flakes that Celine added to the sweet drink as a garnish. Though the two cousins are polar opposites in every way, they must work together to find out what really happened to the victim or the only thing they’ll be serving is time.

ISBN-13: 9780593336533

Media Type: Paperback(Mass Market Paperback)

Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group

Publication Date: 07-05-2022

Pages: 304

Product Dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)

Series: L.A. Night Market #1

Jennifer J. Chow is the Lefty Award-nominated author of the Sassy Cat Mysteries and the L.A. Night Market Mysteries. The first in the Sassy Cat series, Mimi Lee Gets A Clue, was selected as an Overdrive Recommended Read; a PopSugar Best Summer Beach Read; and one of BuzzFeed’s Top 5 Books by AAPI authors. She currently serves as Vice President on the national board of Sisters in Crime and is an active member of Crime Writers of Color and Mystery Writers of America. Connect with her online at www.jenniferjchow.com.

Read an Excerpt

One

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a book. To that end, I strolled with purpose from my residence to The Literary Narnia to retrieve my paycheck a few days early and splurge on a tome. Even after having worked in said bookstore for nearly five years, or perhaps because of my extended tenure, I still recommended The Literary Narnia to family, acquaintances, and strangers. I provided the recommendations not to increase our customer base and secure my financial stability but because I truly believed in the message of our store.

The two Japanese American sisters who ran it, Dawn and Kelly Tanaka, always spread new books featuring female main characters out on the front display table and complemented these with other classic books about women in a prominent placement on a book carousel near the cash register. Both ladies were in their sixties, and although even longtime customers couldn't physically tell them apart, with their petite statures and similar bushy silver hair and wire-rimmed spectacles, I could differentiate between the two based on character traits. I'd even developed my own special way of categorizing the personalities of people around me; I used dim sum characteristics from my years working at the restaurant that Ba owned.

Dawn reminded me of ha gow, translucent shrimp dumplings served in bamboo steamer baskets on one of those rolling dim sum trolleys. She never failed to be transparent with everyone she met, and I could rely on her unfailing honest opinion for everything, from books to diva authors. The Literary Narnia had only occasionally hosted guest writers, usually ones local to Los Angeles, but none of the top-tier New York Times bestselling authors. The small shop, hidden in a residential strip mall, didn't gather large crowds of readers either. Those who resided in Eastwood Village visited the bookstore, more for nostalgia's sake than for anything else. The Literary Narnia also got a boost of sales from the college students from the University of California Los Angeles who lived only a few miles away from our cute community area.

Dawn's sister, Kelly, resembled ham sui gok in personality. Those deep-fried salty triangular bites possessed a savory filling tempered by an outer crispy and glutinous shell that tasted salty and sweet in the same bite. Kelly Tanaka was like that, mostly of a pleasant disposition, but often with a deceptive tang of saltiness that came out unbidden and biting upon reception.

I counted myself as one of the lucky residents of Eastwood Village who had The Literary Narnia as their bona fide local bookstore and frequented it often. Like the rest of our community, developed only ten years ago, the strip mall housing The Literary Narnia still looked freshly birthed. It had sharp rectangular lines with a fake brick façade surrounding each storefront. The coal black asphalt appeared freshly tarred with bright dental-white parking lines. However, it couldn't compete with the sprawling outdoor mall across the street unoriginally called The Shops at Eastwood Village.

Despite it being Friday, the official start to the weekend, only a few vehicles took up any spots in the bookstore's adjoining parking lot. Two pastel-colored beach cruiser bikes, painted in seafoam green and sweet lilac, with attached woven baskets were positioned in the bike rack. I noticed that the owners hadn't bothered to lock up their bicycles.

The door to The Literary Narnia was already open, perhaps in a subtle attempt to entice customers who'd come to the strip mall to get groceries from the organic produce mart or visit the hairstyling plus eyebrow-threading services salon.

I sauntered inside and took a moment to literally breathe in the air. The heady rush that came to me whenever I sniffed the pages of older books and even new books washed over me and filled me with contentment.

From the checkout counter, Kelly waved to me. "Yale Yee," she said, giving me a slight shake of her head. "Coming in even when you have the day off. Didn't I tell you to enjoy the weekend away from this place?"

"I can't help it," I said, spinning around in a theatrical twirl. "I'm lured by the siren call of the work of a thousand authors."

"Yeah," Kelly said. "The ones always languishing on our shelves." Even though she'd started off in a joking manner, a layer of underlying verbal acid tinged her words.

I took a look at the small space around me, marveling at the tall towering wooden bookshelves with their various handmade signs in calligraphy done by Dawn. Beyond the usual sections like "Children's" and "Science Fiction," other quirkier spaces were labeled with such titles as "Stories Written from a Pet's Perspective" and "Books with Exquisite Interior Art." It did seem like none of the inventory had moved since I'd been in the day before. It took less than five minutes to wander down the aisles of The Literary Narnia, and I didn't find another soul browsing the volumes or lurking in our hidden corner with the overstuffed plaid armchair, flipping pages.

When I returned from my scouting, Dawn had joined her sister near the register.

"Uh-oh. I'm your only customer," I said.

On hearing my words, the lines around Dawn's eyes seemed to crinkle with worry. "Yes, dear. That's why we had to-"

"I haven't told her yet," Kelly said.

"Told me what?" I moved to stand in front of the counter.

"We'll explain after the weekend," Kelly said, using a brusque tone.

"I'm here today to pick up my paycheck," I said. "Might as well tell me now."

"I'll get that check right away for you," Dawn said, scurrying to the back room where we kept even more unsold inventory and books we planned on returning to the publisher, their covers ripped off.

Kelly looked beyond my left shoulder. "How's your father doing nowadays? Still busy running Wing Fat in Westwood?" She'd pronounced the name of it correctly, making the "fat" sound more like "fought." The phrase meant "Always Prosperous" in Cantonese, but none of my schoolmates in sixth grade had known or wanted to know the significance when my dad had started running the restaurant. This was after he'd poured in years of savings from waiting on tables and being a line cook until he achieved his dream of owning his own business.

"Ba's doing great," I said. "The wait is out the door during dim sum hours, and people love his other dishes. He's even testing out a few new snack foods I recommended, but he's not sure his clientele will want to try them, so he's going to introduce them at the local night market happening this weekend."

Dawn returned from the back room with my paycheck in hand and thrust it at me. "I can't understand why you won't do direct deposit, but here you go. Guess we'll see you on Monday. Bye now," she said.

I folded my paycheck and stuck it in my back pocket. Purses were the bane of my existence, and I made do with many pockets and the occasional wallet when needed. "You can't shoo away a paying customer like a pigeon," I said. "I'm going to select one of your fine literary products to purchase."

I wandered over to the display table, again scanning the newest titles we'd received. A domestic thriller was getting a lot of starred trade reviews recently. I picked up the novel with a cover of a shadowy female silhouette.

At the cash register, I noticed that only Dawn stood at the counter to ring up my purchase. Maybe Kelly was taking a break in the back room. Sometimes she napped in the uncomfortable metal folding chair we had there.

I plunked down the domestic thriller on the counter and idly looked at the paperback classics on the book stand. My eyes were immediately drawn to my usual Jane Austen favorite. I loved Pride and Prejudice, and my old copy was all tattered with the words almost rubbed off of the title. Should I add it to the pile? It wouldn't be a prudent purchase, since I was also considering getting takeout from that new kebab place for lunch on the way home from the bookstore. I gripped the edge of the counter tight to stop myself from temptation as I said, "Just the one book, please."

Dawn picked up the huge tome and flipped it around to reach the back cover. She aimed the scanner at the barcode and hesitated. "This is a lot of money, Yale, and I know that you're on a tight budget. Are you sure you don't want to reconsider, given . . ."

I gave Dawn a pleasant smile. I tended to pretend I knew what people were blathering about to cover up the fact that I didn't have the slightest clue.

"You're really taking the news well," she said. "It's only because of the lack of customers. We love your presence . . . but my sister and I can barely make ends meet as it is. We had to cut corners somewhere. I don't think we even make minimum wage at this point."

I opened my mouth to speak, closed it, and then opened it again. "Are you telling me that I no longer work here?"

Her cheeks turned an alarming shade of pink. "Oh. I thought Kelly already told you while I grabbed your paycheck."

"When is my last day?"

"Monday." She fiddled with her spectacles. "I'm so sorry. We ran the numbers yesterday and just couldn't figure out how to keep you on. People don't really walk into bookstores anymore, and we've never been good with that internet thing."

Monday would be my last day in this beautiful shop that I called my home away from home. I almost staggered from the sudden physical pain in my gut.

Dawn blinked. "Me and my big mouth. I'm really sorry about this, Yale."

"Right." I nudged the hefty novel away from me with a clenched fist. "On second thought, I think I'll get the Austen."

She scanned the paperback and slid it inside a plastic bag stamped with The Literary Narnia's logo, a faun holding a book under a lamppost. In a soft voice, Dawn said, "You know, Yale, you could take this time to explore what you really want to do with your life. Maybe go back to college . . ."

I shuddered and grabbed the plastic bag away from her. "Hope more customers come in today, Dawn, and I'll see you on Monday."

The credit union was located only a few stores away from the bookshop, and I paused there to deposit my check. Afterward, I marched over to the main intersection and pressed my finger on the crosswalk button with one firm push. When the pedestrian sign flashed at me, I made sure to turn my head to the right and left to check for traffic hazards before I crossed.

To get to my apartment, I could go around the block or cut straight through The Shops. I decided to follow the shortest route and got an eyeful of polished stores flanking either side of me. They towered above me because of their multilevel construction. The shops on the bottom level had faux mosaic tiles and neon signs that lit up at night in startling scarlet or piercing purple. The residential units placed above the stores were colored in fruitier tones like avocado, lemon, and pear.

A huge plaza lay in the middle of the open mall, a design of interlocking cobblestones for pedestrians to amble along while browsing the high-end and chain stores located there. A steady stream of people walking around added a festive buzz to the air. A few of them wore costumes, in anticipation of Halloween happening in a few days. I darted by Harley Quinn, Rosie the Riveter, and a zombie bride. Finally, I reached the far end of the plaza and moved past the large two-tiered circular fountain with its strong gushing water. Anyone who lived in the area (and those who visited) soon found out that water splashed far beyond the overhanging lip of the fountain. People gave it a generous berth to avoid getting drenched.

My apartment lay just beyond the water feature and abutted a small residential street. Fountain Vista was a tall complex painted in a delicate eggshell hue and offset by brilliant blooming orange bird of paradise plants near the front entrance. I entered the foyer through its automatic doors, nodded at the security guard, and scurried across the slick floor. The lobby was set to a chilly sixty degrees despite being in the middle of the fall season. Not bothering to pause at the collection of metal mailboxes-I only ever got spam mailers, and once a week sufficed to retrieve those-I continued to the bank of elevators.

I lived on the third floor in a two-bedroom "apartment home," as the brochure had described the place. It catered to modern tastes, with its monstrous stainless steel appliances, slippery hardwood floors, and an overabundance of swirled granite countertops. I wished it came with antique furnishings, but I managed to disguise its lack of personality by adding my own touches. I stuck handmade artisan magnets onto the refrigerator, tossed cheerful patterned rugs on the floor, and draped lace runners made of crocheted doilies over the counters.

The minute I hung my set of keys on the rustic wooden hook near the entryway, my stomach grumbled as a reminder that I'd missed an opportunity at trying out the new kebab eatery. I reflected on the paycheck I'd deposited at the credit union. Even though I technically lived alone, the amount would cover my "share" of the rent with little left over for extravagances. I rummaged in my alabaster white pantry and perused its bare shelves. Doll noodles would have to do for lunch.

I'd survived on doll noodles, or ramen, in my short-lived stint at college. I filled a pot with water and placed it on the stove. I flipped on the switch to ignite the gas burner and watched the blue flame lick greedily at the underside of the pot. As the water bubbles commenced, I remembered how many times I'd made this same meal in college before my sudden unplanned departure.

I'd also eaten it a lot as a child. Ramen was cheap, and even though the instant noodle packaging had changed over the years and didn't have the same doll figure that had inspired its original name in Cantonese, the food to this day reminded me of my parents and how they'd scrambled to feed me before Ba got his big break to open up his own restaurant. I plopped the block of ramen noodles into the pot, a little water sloshing over the side and sizzling away in the heat. I watched the noodles transform, change from a hard brick into soft tendrils bobbing in the boiling water.