Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien is the first book in the new Noodle Shop Mystery series (available March 27, 2018).
Welcome to the Ho-Lee Noodle House, where the Chinese food is to die for…
The last place Lana Lee thought she would ever end up is back at her family’s restaurant. But after a brutal break-up and a dramatic workplace walk-out, she figures that helping wait tables is her best option for putting her life back together. Even if that means having to put up with her mother, who is dead-set on finding her a husband.
Lana’s love life soon becomes yesterday’s news once the restaurant’s property manager, Mr. Feng, turns up dead―after a delivery of shrimp dumplings from Ho-Lee. But how could this have happened when everyone on staff knew about Mr. Feng’s severe, life-threatening shellfish allergy? Now, with the whole restaurant under suspicion for murder and the local media in a feeding frenzy―to say nothing of the gorgeous police detective who keeps turning up for take-out―it’s up to Lana to find out who is behind Feng’s killer order … before her own number is up.
You know in the movies where someone says “You can’t fire me, I quit!” … maybe don’t do that in real life. Unless you don’t mind working as a server in your parents’ Chinese restaurant for the rest of your life.
Turns out finding a new job wasn’t as easy as I thought and my portion of the rent wasn’t going to pay itself. My roommate and best friend, Megan Riley, didn’t have the extra funds to cover my half of the bills, so there was no time to waste being “in between jobs.” And to top it off, those pesky credit card people kept calling me day and night. Without any other options readily available and an ever-so-conveniently open spot at my parents’ restaurant, Ho-Lee Noodle House, I gave in.
My parents were thrilled that I needed them for something again. However, I was not. At twenty-seven, depending on my parents was not my idea of a good time. Especially since they had been trying to convince me that working at the noodle house was my destiny well before I went to college. Somehow, I had always managed to escape that reality, until now.
Lana Lee, at your service. Literally.
Things to know about me: I’m half English, half Taiwanese, and no, I don’t know karate. I’m definitely not good at math and I don’t know how to spell your name in Chinese.
The last time I had straight-up black hair, I was in high school. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time bleaching and dyeing my hair this color or that. Currently, it’s chestnut brown with some golden peek-a-boo highlights. My mother had repeatedly assured me that one day dyeing my hair wasn’t going to be fun anymore, and I should enjoy life without graying hair while I still could. But, what can I say, I get bored.
Leaving the house without putting on makeup means there’s an emergency. Or that I’ve been forced out of the house against my will. If that’s the case, send help.
I still have hope that the world can be a better place. This last bit has led some to call me an idealist once or twice. As far as name-calling goes, I’ll take it. We’ve all been called worse, right?
Oh, and I have a problem with doughnuts. I love them and they love me. My older sister, Anna May, is always warning me that it’s going to catch up with me at some point. That day may come, but for now, pass me the Boston cream.
And that’s really the important stuff.
Aside from that, it had been six excruciating months since I started working full-time for my parents. Several factors came into play, helping this particular pursuit of employment along. We start with a foul breakup, then the previously mentioned quitting of former job, and my parents’ sudden loss of their only full-time day-shift server, Lily. Really, Lily couldn’t have picked a better time to walk out. I’ve considered sending a card of thanks.
I’m not the biggest fan of the restaurant business. That might have something to do with spending most of my childhood trapped in the back room of my parents’ restaurant. As a child, I came to the restaurant every day after school where my mother would keep me stowed away in the back room near her office. She had set up a makeshift living room of sorts with a TV and couch, even a small desk where I could do my schoolwork. It wasn’t until Anna May was old enough to babysit that I was allowed to go home after school. Then that started a whole new saga of my life. I called it “Stuck with Miss Know-It-All.”
When I agreed to start working at the restaurant, my mom was so excited that she let me make up my own schedule. And if I was short on money, I was able to pick up extra shifts without any trouble. It didn’t solve all of my money problems, but it got the bills paid, which was priority one in my life right now.
So, things could have been worse …
I counted the ways that life could be worse as I made my way down to Mr. Feng’s office with his lunch order.
Our family’s restaurant, along with Mr. Feng’s office, is located in the charming plaza of Asia Village, a quaint shopping center filled with what I liked to refer to as “Asian stuff and things.” You name it, we got it. Need Asian food, drinks, or candy? We got it. How about a stuffed Hello Kitty for your granddaughter? We got it. Maybe you miss KTV or need some old Chinese movies? We have that too. In all, there were thirteen stores, a giant Asian grocery, my parents’ restaurant, and a new karaoke bar, the Bamboo Lounge.
Northeast Ohio—more specifically, Fairview Park—isn’t what you’d typically consider “Asia Central”; the original Chinatown area started out on the east side of Cleveland. It grew as Asians started to flock to the surrounding areas, and then for a time, it began to diminish. Right now, however, it was on the upswing.
Clevelanders tended to gravitate toward their own part of town despite the fact that the other part of town wasn’t even that far. Mr. Feng, our property owner, who happened to be a dedicated west-sider, craved a more convenient location. And thus Asia Village was born. Though small, it has both charm and character. At the entrance to the parking lot is an ornate, arched entry gate decorated with gold dragons wrapping their scaly bodies around vibrant red poles. Beyond that is Asia Village itself, a tiny city of pagodas all in a row.
Inside, cobblestoned walkways wind around a large koi pond smackdab in the center of all the stores. There’s a footbridge that crosses over to the other side, and if people feel like lingering by the water, they can feed the koi fish. Strung from the ceiling are red paper lanterns wishing good luck and long life, and above those are massive skylights that fill the plaza with so much natural light, you could swear you were still outside.
Some of the shop owners made their storefronts as authentic looking as possible. They kept to the traditional colors of red, gold, and black, adding Asian characters and symbols however they could. Other shop owners decided to use metal and wood textures, taking the more modern approach. For a sampling of Asian styles from past and present, Asia Village was without a doubt the place to go.
I stood now in front of the meager office of Feng and Sung. It was the most plain of all the storefronts, with two large windows, one on each side of the door, covered with miniblinds. Their names in both English and Chinese were emblazoned on the right window in gold lettering. A gold dragon sat between the words, separating their names.
Just as I was about to reach for the brass door handle, I heard yelling from inside. I stepped back, rethinking my entry, and stared at the door, miniblinds staring back at me. Well, this was awkward. The blinds were closed for privacy, and I had no idea who was in there and whether or not I should go in. I didn’t want to interrupt whatever was going on.
Before I could overanalyze the situation, the door whipped open and a chubby Asian face glared at me, her cheeks red with anger. It was Kimmy Tran, and it was safe to say she was a little ticked.
Kimmy was my age and we had known each other since we were toddlers. The Tran family ran a shop called China Cinema and Song, an Asian video and music store; they’d had it for about as long as my parents had owned the restaurant. And because our parents were friends, we spent a lot of time together in our youth. As adults, we weren’t terribly close friends, but there’s a certain bond that develops after you spend hours together contemplating Barbie life scenarios, so we’d kept in contact despite our lives going in different directions.
She slammed the door behind her. “What a selfish jerk!” she yelled.
At a loss for words, I hugged the bag of takeout. Heat from the freshly cooked food seeped through my shirt.
“Do you have any idea what that slimeball is up to?” she asked, pointing furiously at the door. Her hair was wrapped in a sloppy bun on the top of her head, and it shook with each word.
I shook my head. “No…”
She began to pace in front of me, clenching her fists. “He’s raising the rent fifteen percent!” She stopped briefly to gauge my reaction. When I didn’t respond, she began to pace again. “Fifteen percent! Can you even believe that? My parents can’t afford what the rent is now! It’s high enough already!”
This was the first I’d heard of Mr. Feng raising the rent. I would have to ask my mother if she’d heard the same thing. “How did you find this out?” I asked.
“He slipped it in while he was telling my mother about this great plan he came up with to make Asia Village better.” She stopped to face me, placing her hands on her hips. “Better for who? For him and his wallet?”
“Well, maybe there is more to—”
“No, Lana. There are no ‘well, maybes.’ He’s a jerk and he’s selfish and someone has got to stop him before he runs us all out of here,” she said, waving her arms in the air. “He forgets that our parents were the ones who backed him up in the beginning and stuck with him through all the rough times. Now this is how he’s going to treat the people who were there for him? It’s absurd.”
She had a point with the whole parent thing, but I wasn’t sure if I should egg her on. She seemed pretty fired up on her own and I didn’t feel like getting into this discussion so early in the day.
“I’m telling you, Lana, that man is asking for it. One of these days he’s going to make the wrong person mad.” She gave a final huff and stormed off.
Well, that was bracing.
Shaking off her negative vibes, I repositioned the food in my arms and headed inside.
Mr. Feng’s office was always dimly lit and a little on the dusty side. There were two desks at opposite sides of the small, rectangular room. On both of the desks sat those small banker’s lamps with the plastic green lampshades and gold chains. Did anybody even really use those anymore? I’m pretty sure that Mr. Feng owned the last two in existence.
He had his back turned to me and was organizing something in a drawer. I purposely cleared my throat and he jerked up, turning around. Thomas Feng was not just our landlord, but a close friend of all the people who worked in Asia Village. He was a softspoken man in his mid-fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and pronounced wrinkles around his eyes, which I’m guessing came with running a large property—and having two teenage daughters.
He kept this small office space for himself and his partner, Ian Sung, so they could have a quiet place to work on-site when necessary. I also suspected that Mr. Feng liked to have someplace away from home that he could claim as his own. Ian rarely showed up and the other desk seemed to be a courtesy, if anything.
Mr. Feng and Ian owned a couple other small properties in neighboring suburbs. Ian handled the other properties, which included a few small apartment buildings, a stand-alone Chinese grocery, and three duplexes. Asia Village—the first piece of real estate that Thomas had ever owned—was his pride and joy, and so he spent most of his days walking the plaza and checking in with the people he’d known for so many years and considered family.
“Lana … what are you doing here?” he asked me.
“I came to drop off your lunch.”
He looked at the bag in my hands and back up at me. “Where’s Peter?”
“Oh, he had a large takeout order to finish up and couldn’t leave the kitchen. He asked if I could drop it off instead.”
Mr. Feng furrowed his brow and seemed to forget I was there. I inched up to the desk and set his food down. “Is everything okay?” I asked.
“Yes, I’m just … yes … everything is fine, Lana.”
“I ran into Kimmy Tran on my way in.” I nodded toward the door.
He sighed. “I have learned the hard way that you cannot make everyone happy.”
“I’m sure it’ll blow over. You know how Kimmy can be.”
Mr. Feng chuckled as he pulled his wallet out of the back pocket of his pants. “How is business at the restaurant? Are your parents doing okay?”
I nodded. “Things are going good enough that I don’t hear any complaints from them.”
“Do you enjoy working with them?”
I inhaled deeply, grasping for an appropriate answer. “It’s not as bad as I thought. I didn’t see myself here, but you never know where life is going to take you, I suppose.”
He handed me the money and sat on the edge of his desk. “Appreciate your parents while they are still here. One day you will want them here and it will be too late.”
I gave a polite smile as I accepted the money and said my good-byes.
Copyright © 2018 Vivien Chien.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
Vivien Chien was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, where she grew up in a mixed-race home, making for some very interesting cultural experiences. She found her love of books and the written word at an early age while writing short stories about her classmates in elementary school. Currently, she writes side-by-side with her toy fox terrier who refuses to sit anywhere else. When she’s not writing, Vivien enjoys frequenting local Asian restaurants, frolicking in the bookstore, and searching for her next donut.