Hana Keller serves up European-style cakes and teas in her family-owned tea house, but when a customer keels over from a poisoned cuppa, Hana and her tea-leaf reading grandmother will have to help catch a killer in the first Hungarian Tea House Mystery from Julia Buckley.
Hana Keller and her family run Maggie's Tea House, an establishment heavily influenced by the family's Hungarian heritage and specializing in a European-style traditional tea service. But one of the shop's largest draws is Hana's eccentric grandmother, Juliana, renowned for her ability to read the future in the leaves at the bottom of customers' cups. Lately, however, her readings have become alarmingly ominous and seemingly related to old Hungarian legends...
When a guest is poisoned at a tea event, Juliana’s dire predictions appear to have come true. Things are brought to a boil when Hana’s beloved Anna Weatherley butterfly teacup becomes the center of the murder investigation as it carried the poisoned tea. The cup is claimed as evidence by a handsome police detective, and the pretty Tea House is suddenly endangered. Hana and her family must catch the killer to save their business and bring the beautiful Budapest Butterfly back home where it belongs.
About the Author
Julia Buckley is the author of the Undercover Dish mysteries and the Writer's Apprentice mysteries. She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Mystery Writers of America, and the Chicago Writer's Association. She has taught high school English for twenty-nine years.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Julia Buckley
I sat polishing teacups with my mother and her cat. The latter wasn’t so much helping to polish as he was regarding me from his chair with a stern expression that he wore only when I had disappointed him. I tried reason.
“Major, I will feed you right after we finish. Isn’t this a pretty teacup?” I held up a beautiful specimen of pale green with pink-painted flowers. Major scowled and twitched a whisker at me—a sure sign that he was irritated.
“It’s past his lunchtime,” my mother said mildly. “You know how he likes to keep to a schedule. Hana, hand me that dish.” I did so, still contemplating the cat.
Major licked one of his elegant gray paws. “Yes, I know.” I paused my polishing to scratch his head. “He runs this place, and you are just under the illusion that you do.”
With a sigh I got up, stretched, and said, “I’ll feed him, then, so I can finish up without his judgmental eyes on me.” I went to the counter and got a whiff of my grandmother’s cooking; I closed my eyes to fully appreciate the aroma.
There is nothing like the smell of a Hungarian kitchen. The pure sensual experience is one that a visitor cannot forget, any more than she can duplicate it. If these aromas were to be compared to music, then the song would begin with bass notes of sautéed onions and paprika. (There is always paprika on the shelf of a Hungarian cook, and not the kind that you can buy cheaply at your grocery store.) Above these bass notes is the melody—perhaps the deep, satisfying aroma of chicken soup filled with kis négyzet tészta, square noodles made of only flour, eggs, and salt—or the mouthwatering fragrance of pork, beef, and Hungarian sausage stuffed into boiled cabbage, called töltött káposzta—or perhaps even the soul-filling incense of gulyásleves, known here as goulash. Above all of the wonderful scents that work on the soul like melodies floats a sweet descant known as Hungarian dessert. There is the deep-fried wonder of fánk, a bismarck-like doughnut stuffed with delicious jam; or the thin Hungarian pancakes known as palacsinta, filled with jelly and covered with sugar; or the deep, dark, and delicious plums baked into cakes called szilvás lepény. To those who have never experienced this synesthesia of sights and smells that somehow become a symphony, it is hard to understand why these food memories would follow you wherever you go. I closed my eyes for one second, appreciating the aromas that permeated the house, partly because of my mother’s cooking, but mostly because of my grandmother, who cooked whenever she came to her daughter’s house to “make sure you got all you need.”
I prepared Major’s food and set it down for him. He strolled over, still glaring slightly, and began to pick delicately at the meat in the bowl. I laughed and looked back at my mother. “If we’re set up by three, that should be plenty of time, right?”
“Yes. I told Mrs. Kalas not to arrive before three forty-five.” My mother looked serene, as always, in the domain of her kitchen, the largest and nicest room in her little house. We had set up at the long center island my father had built for this purpose, and the September sun shone on the array of teacups on the shining white surface. Soon we would transport the tea set to Maggie’s Tea House, a business my mother and grandmother had established and which I co-ran.
“Mrs. Kalas is kind of a lot to handle,” I said. “Although she’s not much different from Grandma in that respect.”
My grandmother, who had superhuman hearing, floated in on the scent of Odyssey, her favorite Avon perfume. “Vat did you say about Mrs. Kalas?” She picked up a teacup and began to polish it with the edge of her sleeve.
My mother sent me a subtle but urgent glance. I said, “Oh, just that she’s getting there about fifteen minutes early and we want to be sure everything is all set. This isn’t just a regular event, right? It’s high tea for her Magyar Women group. So we want things to be just perfect.”
She looked mildly suspicious, but then she nodded, tucking a bit of gray hair behind her ear; the errant strand had escaped from the bun at the nape of her neck. She wore our tea house uniform with a black sweater and some sparkling earrings. Although she’d been in America for almost forty years, my grandmother still clung to some traditions from her youth, and one was her preference for vintage jewelry, including the cruel clip-on earrings that invariably left her in pain after a “fancy” tea event.
“Ya. I will go early, make sure the floors vas done properly.”
“Were done, Mama,” my mother corrected. She, too, was an immigrant, but had been only twelve when they left Hungary, and she had mastered American grammar and intonation with a child’s resiliency. She didn’t always like her mother’s lingering accent or her refusal to adhere, sometimes, to American usage. My mother was convinced that Grandma knew exactly how to say things, but merely refused.
My grandmother shrugged. “Ya, yes. I don’t trust that cleaning crew.” She turned to me. “Sit up straight, Haniska.”
I had thought I was sitting up straight; my parents had always been sticklers about posture. Sometimes Grandma just said things on autopilot because she felt it was her job as matriarch. These comments included her feelings about my posture, my hair, my makeup, or what she considered swearing (these were especially reserved for my brother, Domo).
My mother said, “Are you reading tea leaves today, Mama? The ladies always like that. Why don’t you set up your table, and we’ll do it after Mrs. Kalas’s raffle.”
Grandma shrugged. She loved the whole theatrical event that reading tea leaves had become for her, but she always wanted to be coaxed into it. “I suppose,” she said. “If they vant. Mama would do it better.”
At the mention of her, we turned toward the picture of my great-grandmother on the sideboard. She looked, in the photograph, just as I remembered her from childhood—sweet, smiling, wearing her favorite green sweater and sitting in a lawn chair under the large elm in our backyard. My favorite memory of her, distant and lovely with the fog of time, involved me at five or six, standing next to her knee beneath that same tree while she showed me a monarch that had landed on her veined hand.
I leaned forward. “The ladies love it when you do it. Even the American guests like it when you read the tea leaves. Everyone likes to think they can get a glimpse into the future. And it’s free, which they like even better,” I said.
She moved closer to me to examine my hair, as she had done throughout my life. I knew that she was secretly fascinated by my hair, but she pretended to be critical of it. When I was a child I had overheard her telling my mother what a remarkable shade of reddish-brown it was, how thick and glossy. “Like the color of autumn,” she had enthused. “Prettier even than mine used to be.” I had been surprised and pleased at the time, having never thought much about my hair at the age of eight or nine. As I grew up, though, I remembered her words and developed a special pride in my auburn tresses.
“Do I see split ends?” my grandmother asked, pretending to study the lock in her hand.
My mother sniffed. “No, you do not. Why do you obsess over that child’s hair?”
I laughed. “This child needs to get to work. And I’ll remind you both that I’m turning twenty-seven next month so you can probably lay off thinking that I am perpetually twelve.”
Both women looked somewhat disappointed. I said, “Hey, Grandma! If you’re setting up the specialty teacups on your table, I’ll give you a special centerpiece: my Budapest Butterfly!”
“Ooohh,” my grandmother said, clapping her hands. “Can I see it?”
“Yes. I just brought it to Mom’s this morning.” I moved to the counter, where a teacup sat in a box, tucked into tissue paper. This had been a recent find, and a spectacular one. Since I had grown up in and around Maggie’s Tea House, I had of course developed an interest in all things tea, especially teacups, which to me were like jewels, tiny treasures, and individual pieces of art. I had done a great deal of research on teacups, and some of my favorites were from Hungary (I suppose because of my family origins). The great Herend Porcelain company was located in Hungary, the makers of exquisite pieces of china that dated back centuries; I also loved the work of Zsolnay porcelain and Hollóháza porcelain, and I scoured china shops, antiques markets, and eBay for affordable pieces by these makers that I could add to my currently small collection.
The Butterfly, though, was my jewel of jewels, and a recent acquisition. I frequented a little antiques shop called Timeless Treasures, and the proprietor, Falken Trisch, knew of my predilection for European china. He had come across a single piece with the maker’s mark of Anna Weatherley, a porcelain artist in Budapest. The cup, normally listed at about five hundred dollars, had a tiny chip in the plate, barely visible, but still an imperfection, making it hard for Falken to sell it for what it was worth. He had called me in to look at it, and we both marveled at its beauty before he gave me the good news: he would sell it to me for seventy-five dollars.
This was an outrageously low price for a piece of art like this, and I had pounced on his offer and borne home my treasure in a collector’s euphoria.
Now I took it out and showed it to my grandmother, who looked no less enamored than I felt. Perhaps I had inherited my love of beautiful things from her.
She scrutinized the piece like a scientist with a specimen. The handle of the cup was the butterfly itself, with wings of vibrant blue, purple, and yellow. The white china was edged in gold, and the front was dominated by a large painted orange flower—the butterfly’s destination—with bright green leaves flourishing on a trailing vine. Another butterfly, Persian blue and lavender, graced the plate itself, along with two more leaves trailing along a green swirling vine tucked up against the gold trim. Beauty, color, and fragility combined to make a lovely objet d’art.
“Oooh,” my grandmother said, lightly touching the butterfly handle.
“Isn’t it amazing? We can put it at the center of your tea table, and I’ll get down the bag of nylon butterflies and greenery.”
This was our strength and our special talent. We three generations of women, who between us had run a tea house for a total of almost three decades, were masters of stored decorations. Every event had a different theme, although our specialty was the European high tea. Occasionally we purchased specialized decorations according to season or customer request, but we saved everything. We were frugal and smart and we took our decorations seriously; we had a library of them sealed in ziplock bags. The butterflies were particularly lovely—they looked close to real, with vibrant, multihued, iridescent wings and legs that could be bent for attaching to vines or trees or stalks of plants.
“Ya. That will be nice,” Grandma said, running her finger around the gold rim of the cup. Good porcelain seemed to have the effect of a magic talisman on our family; she literally brightened after contact with the lovely object.
“I’ll transport it with the other teacups, and I’ll set up the decorations for your table. You have your sign?”
“In the car,” she said. “I will go now. Magdi, make sure to mingle, talk to all the Hungarian ladies.”
My mother half rolled her eyes as she began packing cups into their travel container. “I always do, Mama.”
Grandma marched past me on a fragrant cloud, her earrings flashing with multicolored stones. “I meet you there,” she said.
When we arrived at the tea house, beautifully landscaped and maintained once a week by someone my grandmother called “a man Grandpa knows,” and whom she paid with mysterious white envelopes handed to him in the shadow of the building, I lifted one of my boxes and carried it toward the entrance, where a brick walkway led to two grand wooden entrance doors. Halfway across the bricks I stopped—or, more precisely, my body stopped—and I couldn’t bring myself to go closer.
My mother trundled up behind me. “Come on, Hana, we’re running late.” She paused, studied my face, and seemed to grow pale in the shady entrance. It was actually a bit warm on that September day, but it felt cold on our threshold. My mother frowned, hesitated, then pushed past me and unlocked the door. My grandmother walked up with her leaf-reading sign; she also took a moment to study my face. She didn’t pale, but she did look interested. “Something is wrong?” she asked.
“No, I—it’s weird. I feel like I don’t want to go in. Am I having an anxiety attack?”
She touched my arm and stared at her own hand for a moment, as though it were an interesting bird that had landed on my sleeve. Then she looked up at me. “No. But we should be watchful. Come, we go in together.”
I had no free hand, so she touched the middle of my back, and I felt almost immediately better. “Thanks, Grandma. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”
She nodded at me with a wise expression. Wise, and somehow commiserating.
Inside I gradually forgot the strange feeling I had experienced in the doorway because we had a great deal to do; I lost myself in work.
I made Grandma’s tea table a visual treat, one that would arrest the attention of anyone walking by. The Budapest Butterfly, my Anna Weatherley treasure, sat on an elevated, velvet-covered platform. Cascading down the white velvet were some artificial-yet-lifelike vines, to which I attached some of the winged art. The butterflies’ tiny pipe cleaner legs could easily bend around any intended location. Over the rest of the table I scattered the remaining butterflies, some of them attached to the rims of the alabaster teacups that Grandma used to read leaves.
She had set up her little sign, which said, “Juliana Horvath reads your fate in tea leaves.”
A jar of loose Earl Grey leaves sat near the sign along with a tiny scoop. Generally people scooped leaves into their palm, cast the leaves into a chosen cup, and filled the cup with boiling water from a nearby carafe. Grandma presided over a line of people, instructing everyone to drink their tea down to the leaves, then, when they reached her, to pour out any liquid that remained at the bottom, turning the cup a few times to eliminate excess tea, dry the sides of the cup, and allow the leaves to take their fateful shape.
Grandma followed some of the basics of reading tea leaves, but she generally incorporated her own mythology. While the traditional tea-reading symbols included things like an acorn, an owl, a palm tree, birds, and hearts, Grandma gave her readings a Hungarian flair by adding shepherds, wolves, hawks, spirits, and even fairies, a staple of Hungarian folklore. These fairies, depending upon the shape of their wings, could bode either good or ill.
My mother approached the table and said, “Lovely, Hana. But I need your artistry on the actual dining tables, and then we have to check out the tea and coffee. And make sure Francois is all set.”
“Right,” I said. I did tend to linger over the aesthetic things; my mother was the necessary taskmaster who kept me moving.
We moved around the little hall that my parents had bought decades earlier with a special-rate business loan for young entrepreneurs. My mother was the entrepreneur, with a business degree and a sharp mind. My father was a history teacher, but he spent a lot of his time helping at the tea house, even if it just meant that he could grade papers and “catch glimpses of my girlfriend.”
Today’s tablecloths were crisply ironed and standard white; each table had been accented with individual pale blue place mats on which we had set teacups in their saucers and dessert plates for the tea sandwiches and petit fours prepared by Francois, the French culinary student who worked for us part-time. Francois had been a real find, because our former pastry chef had retired to have a baby, and we had suddenly found ourselves juggling too many jobs.
Francois liked to have the kitchen to himself, which was fine with us once we saw what he could do with confections. He was young, handsome, talented, and blessed with a French accent—and he made cakes. He was like something a woman would invent for herself if given magical powers. He was moody, too, but so far that had only added to his glamour for the (mostly) women who showed up for events at the tea house.
My mother consulted her watch, her bearing straight and alert. She looked like an attractive general. “They’ll be wandering in soon; let’s just make sure the—oh.”
A determined-looking Mrs. Kalas, wearing a flowered dress and flat nurses’ shoes, was marching through the door. She paused briefly to speak to my grandmother, which involved a spate of Hungarian that I could not understand—I, the first woman in my family to not know the language that was Mom’s and Grandma’s native tongue. I did understand the words “Mariska” and “Law & Order.” Both of the ladies enjoyed watching the entire television franchise, specifically the show with Mariska Hargitay in the starring role, because Mariska was partly Hungarian. Now, after comparing notes on whatever episode they had seen, the women scanned the room to see if it was up to Mrs. Kalas’s standards. Some more ladies entered, clutching their purses and looking like people from another era.
“This will be interesting,” my mother said with a smile. Her strawberry blonde hair was swooped up in an elegant twist today. She wore the same outfit that Grandma and I wore: white blouse, black skirt, and apron embroidered with Hungarian colors—red, green, and white.
“You look nice, Mom.”
“Thanks, sweetie.” She gave me a quick peck on the cheek. “So do you. I like that eyeliner you put on. It makes those big brown eyes look even prettier, and so dramatic! My sweet baby girl.” She swept away and started whisking the newcomers to tables.
I smirked. My mother was under the abiding impression that if I dolled myself up like a movie star I would meet the man of my dreams. The ride toward dreamland had been particularly bumpy so far, with two ultimately unpleasant relationships as all I had to show for the last four years. At this point I was more interested in devoting myself to my career at Maggie’s Tea House and my side job of collecting. Someday I thought I might even open my own shop, similar to Falken’s, where I could buy and sell beautiful things.
Mrs. Kalas was suddenly next to me, clutching my arm. “Hallo, Haniska! You look so pretty today, so pretty!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Kalas.”
“Which is my table? I like to sit with the other officers.” Mrs. Kalas was the president of the Magyar Women group at their church. Riverwood had an unusually large population of Hungarians.
“Right over here. We made tiny place cards, see? So you are here, and Mrs. Pinkoczi is here. And Mrs. Guliban is on your other side. Wait until you see the tea cakes Francois has made today. Delicious!”
“Did your Grandma make kiflis?” she asked. Sometimes my grandmother supplemented Francois’s work with some Hungarian staples, but this week we had all been busy and she hadn’t made her delicious sweet dough crescents filled with jam.
“No, not this time, but you won’t be disappointed.”
Mrs. Kalas still had her fingers around my forearm, and they tightened when a woman I didn’t recognize walked in. The newcomer wore a tweed coat and carried a large red purse with some sort of fancy red stone decoration on the front. She had dyed blonde hair and wore bright red lipstick—that was my first impression. She also looked young until she got close enough that I could see she was the same age as most of the other women in the room—somewhere between sixty and seventy.
“Who is that?” I asked.
Mrs. Kalas pursed her lips. “She doesn’t come to these events much. Her name is Ava Novák.”
“She’s pretty,” I said, mostly for something to say, but it was as though I’d pressed some terrible button.
“Hush!” said Mrs. Kalas, her face flushing with strong emotion. “She is not.”
This struck me as funny. I laughed and said, “What do you—?”
She squeezed my arm with a hand that felt like an eagle’s talons. “Don’t pay any attention to Ava. Pretend she is not there.”
I opened my mouth in shock and indignation, but before I could summon words, Mrs. Kalas had let go of me and walked swiftly away.
In retrospect, I realize it was at that very point that I started to feel the misery, not in the form of sadness or depression, but more in a sense of something in my gut, a sensation I’d never experienced. I barely noticed it at the time, that gut feeling. Now I know it was like a symptom, alerting me to a terrible disease, but the disease was not inside me.
It was in the room.
The Magyar Ladies
Still reeling from Mrs. Kalas’s rudeness, I took a deep breath. “All in a day’s work,” I murmured. I was tempted to go to the back room where I could text Domo or my friend Katie and tell them how weird Mrs. Kalas was, but I caught my mother’s eye and saw that she wanted everyone seated; I helped her to usher the ladies present to their chairs, and we went to the kitchen to get our wheeled carts containing the hot tea. There were eight round tables today, although we could accommodate larger groups. Mrs. Kalas had told us there would be approximately seventy women in attendance, and it looked as though there were almost that many already present.
I took my cart to the first table and began to pour tea; there were sugar and creamer packets at each table, along with traditional porcelain sugar and cream containers that could be passed around. As I poured, the women thanked me politely, some of them predictably commenting on my appearance or asking if I had a boyfriend. Mrs. Toth, a regular attendee, told me that I had “grown into my looks.”
“This is the year you will find a man,” she told me.
My mother, pouring tea nearby, overheard this and shook her head at me, as if to say, These old ladies—what will they say next?
It was true that much of what they said was incredibly inappropriate or even insulting, but they always said it with fondness or what they considered helpfulness, and it was hard to look at their faces and read negative intention there. Except for that strange reaction by Mrs. Kalas . . . “Well, thanks, Mrs. Toth. I don’t really need a man, but if I run across a really great one I’ll give him a try.”
This made all the ladies laugh as they stirred their tea with dainty spoons. Francois peered out of the kitchen and pointed at his watch. Francois needed everything to go according to schedule or he got upset; he ran his kitchen with compulsive precision. I waved and nodded, and he pushed out a large cart covered in sandwich trays. The sandwiches, as always, demonstrated the talent of our chef. Cut into various pleasing shapes and adorned with colorful sprigs of parsley or shaved red and orange peppers or paprika blends, the tiny meals looked like little works of art. Between the three of us—Francois, my mother, and I—we delivered the trays to every table. Francois disappeared into the kitchen to arrange his pastries on dessert trays.
“Who is that young man?” asked Mrs. Guliban. “He’s awfully handsome, Haniska!”
“That’s Francois,” I said, moving the sandwich tray closer to an elderly woman with rather short arms. “He is a genius in the kitchen. He also has a lovely girlfriend named Claire.”
The ladies tutted about this. “You would make a wonderful couple, honey,” Mrs. Sarka said. She called everyone “honey.” She sat up straight in her chair, trying to extend her four-foot-something frame. My mother once joked that she could fit Mrs. Sarka into one of our teacups. “Your babies would be beautiful.”
I put my hands on my hips. “What do you ladies talk about besides men? Shouldn’t you have a woman-focused agenda today?”
They looked at me for a moment, then burst into laughter and some scattered Hungarian. Shaking my head, I headed back to the kitchen. I heard Mrs. Kalas stand and start her program. She clinked a glass and said, “Welcome to all the Magyar Women from St. Stephen’s parish.”
A smattering of applause. I caught the eye of the woman named Ava and smiled at her. She smiled back. I gave a little wave and escaped into the kitchen, where Francois tried not to scowl at me.
“Sorry—I know it’s your space—but they’re driving me crazy. If one more person asks me why I don’t have a boyfriend I’m going to start whipping little sandwiches at them.”
This earned a small smile from Francois. “Even the old women are obsessed with romance. It is the same in my country.”
I leaned against the counter, keeping out of his way, and said, “What brought you to America, anyway?”
He shrugged. “At first, it was on a visit, with a host family. I stayed in Chicago, very lovely. I walked in Millennium Park and saw The Bean and Navy Pier—all the sights, you know.”
He was repairing the frosting on a tiny petit fours, a white-iced cake with a large pink rose on top. “But then I start to examine the Chicago culinary schools. They were good, some of them, and in France there is more competition for these things.”
“I can imagine.”
“So I get a visa, and I start going to school. My dream would be to live here six months, live in France six months. But I could only do that once I had my own restaurant and have a trusted staff. This is the big dream, yes?”
“It sounds wonderful,” I said. And if anyone could do it, Francois could. “What would you call your restaurant?”
He looked thoughtful as he placed the tiny cake on a large tray with many other tiny cakes. “I would call it after my name.”
“Yes. Something like that.” He smiled at me—two in one day!—and gave me a thumbs-up.
The noise in the hall was escalating, so I waved to him and went back out; Mrs. Kalas had done some sort of icebreaker activity, and the women were all standing again, milling around with their teacups and chatting loudly.
My mother moved swiftly through the groups, waiting for a chance to make them sit back down. She was starting to look nervous, so I waded in, telling the ladies that there would be pastries soon and then a chance to have their tea leaves read.
As I passed Grandma’s table, I gasped, my heart thudding in my chest. The butterfly teacup was gone!
I scanned the room. I didn’t think that anyone would have stolen the cup; could Grandma have taken it somewhere to show someone? That seemed the most likely answer. My mother, like a teacher with wayward preschoolers, was trying to shoo women back to their chairs with promises of sweets to come.
I did a quick visual survey, scanning for deep blue tones instead of the pink and green of the tea service we were using today. Finally, at table eight, I spotted it. The new woman, with the red lipstick and the red purse—what was her name?—Ava. A woman in a blue dress, not someone I knew, had leaned down to chat with her, and she laughed at something the woman said. The woman patted her shoulder and moved away, leaving Ava alone at her back table, like the person at the wedding who doesn’t want to dance. In fact, many of the women had drifted out of their seats again and were talking in clusters on our tiny dance floor, or what my mother called “the networking area.” Ava seemed untroubled by her aloneness; she took a sip of her tea, and sure enough, she was drinking out of my Budapest Butterfly, my five-hundred-dollar-when-brand-new Anna Weatherley treasure.
How had she gotten the cup? Why would she drink tea from there and not from the one that was set at her place? Had Mrs. Kalas warned me against her because she was some sort of thief?
I pursed my lips. The moment I could think of an excuse, I would be reclaiming what was mine. With a sigh I did a quick sweep of the room with my cart, picking up stray napkins, empty teacups, dropped silverware. I passed a little cardboard box lying on the floor. I pictured one of the women pulling out her boutonniere or her club award or whatever she had received in it and then just casting the box aside. The rudeness irritated me; we were hostesses, not maids, not janitors. Still, I picked it up and set it on my cart. I looked at the cardboard box for a moment, and in that brief time something happened inside my mind—what felt like the flipping of a switch, as though I were a camera and someone had put on my telephoto lens. I saw the pores of the cardboard, the crease in a bent corner of one flap. I shook my head and pushed my cart into the back room, where I tossed the box away, then came back out to scan the assembled guests, milling here and there, and to consider what might be needed.
Francois appeared with his tall frame and dark curls, brandishing his dessert cart, and an “Ahhh!” went up among the crowd. I wasn’t sure what they found more delicious—the frosted treats or Francois.
This provided a nice distraction, and the ladies returned to their seats in order to eat cake. Just when I thought they had all settled in, the loner called Ava, my teacup thief, rose from her chair and began to walk toward the front door, or perhaps toward the restrooms, which were near the entrance. She seemed distressed; she held one hand to her abdomen as though she felt sick. Concerned, I watched her for a moment as she reached the back hallways where the bathrooms were. She tripped once; was she drunk? Is that why the other women avoided her? I considered going after her, but if she were sick to her stomach, she probably wouldn’t relish having a witness. I’d give her a minute or two, I decided. Then I wondered, perhaps inappropriately, if she had finished her tea, and if I might be able to reclaim my cup. But then I saw Grandma take her place at her table, looking grand and mysterious with her black sweater and flashing earrings.
Mrs. Kalas stood and made an announcement about tea leaves, and a line of women formed, each member casting her leaves into cups and pouring in the hot water. They stood in line, drinking their tea so that when they reached the front they could display their leaves. Grandma sat like a queen, clearly enjoying the drama.
I darted to the back to see if Francois had any cakes left, which he did. “Can I take this last tray, Francois?” I asked.
He was in a corner of the kitchen, texting. I sighed. We loved everything about Francois except his addiction to his phone. I loved my cell as much as the next person, but Francois, at the tender age of twenty-three, seemed to view it as a part of his body. His girlfriend, Claire, a pretty blonde classmate at the culinary institute, often appeared in our doorway with a slightly haunted expression, as though she couldn’t live without a glimpse of her French lover.
A part of me envied her: longing for a man that much, French or otherwise. It had never happened to me. “How’s Claire?” I asked, my voice dry.
He looked up, his eyes wide. “This is my mother, in France. My father is ill.”
“Oh, Francois! What can we do? Will you have to go back?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. He is in hospital; something with his heart. She will contact me later today.” He looked vulnerable for the first time since I had known him.
I crossed the room quickly and gave him a hug, which he accepted gratefully, judging by the strength of his return embrace. “Go home. Talk to your mom or just relax until you hear from them. Let me know if you need anything.”
“Okay. Thank you, Hana.”
He took off his apron and hurried out of the kitchen. I looked around, noting with approval that he had already done most of the cleaning up.
I put away a few remaining dishes and wiped down the counters, then went outside to monitor the group. My grandmother had started her readings. A small woman with white hair sat in front of her, and Grandma was giving her a pretty standard reading. “Good fortune,” she said, staring into the cup. “And marriage. Any marriages happening soon?”
The woman brightened. “Yes! My granddaughter.”
Grandma leaned closer and pointed in the cup. “This. See? The letter M. Could be bad luck, the shape of a serpent, but it is next to the birds flying toward it, which means you will have contact with someone whose name begins with M. Who is this?”
The woman clapped her hands. “My brother Miklos is flying in for the wedding.”
My grandmother swept the line of fascinated women with her triumphant gaze. “You see? The wedding will be a success. Good fortune for you and your visiting family.”
The woman moved away, pleased, and Mrs. Kalas moved forward with her cup. She swirled her tea leaves in the cup three times, as instructed by my grandmother, then inverted the cup so that the liquid drained away and the leaves were left behind. My grandmother stared into the cup and stiffened. “Oh,” she said.
“What is it?” asked Mrs. Kalas, alarmed.
Grandma pointed at a shape on the side of the cup. “You have the woman here, see? But are these wings, or is this her flowing long hair?”
Mrs. Kalas gasped. For Hungarians who bought into legends, one interpretation would make the woman a standard fairy, a potentially good omen, but another would link her to the mythical Fair Lady, or Szépasszony, who was dangerous and vengeful. Neither of those, however, was as menacing as a witch, a common character in Hungarian folklore and one my grandma enjoyed employing for the sake of theatricality.
Grandma studied the cup some more, but this time there was no humor or even drama in her eyes. For a moment she almost looked worried. “You should not trust things on their face. Question things and people. Do not assume they are what they seem. Be careful in this way, for many weeks to come. There is something bad—not for you, maybe, but for a friend, a family, something near.”
Mrs. Kalas, now pale, nodded and walked away from the table.
Grandma normally didn’t leave people without some positive spin, so this was strange. I would have to speak to her—or perhaps my mother would—about keeping things upbeat at the reading table.
I noted again the empty velvet platform on the table and headed toward my butterfly cup, sitting on the place mat in front of the seat where Ava had been. I hesitated near the table, wondering if she had finished her tea, and if I needed to check on her in the washroom. I moved closer and peered into the cup, which sat next to Ava’s shiny red purse. Why had she left her purse behind? Something was different about her purse, but the teacup distracted me. The tea was half-gone, and just above the midpoint of the cup’s interior it looked as though Ava had scrawled something—with lipstick? Eyeliner? Something waxy, it seemed, that did not wash away. Almost the color of blood. And upon closer examination, it seemed to be a phrase or a sentence, but in Hungarian. That’s when the feeling in my gut returned—the misery—and this time I was aware of it.
My mother appeared next to me. “Hana, what are you doing? We need to—?”
“What is this?” I interrupted. I pointed at the Hungarian words, and my mother, alerted by my tone, bent over the cup and looked inside.
Then she stood up. “This is bad,” she said, merely affirming what I already knew, what I felt all around us. “I have to show this to Mama.” She reached for the cup and I grabbed her arm.
“Not the cup. Touch only the saucer.”
She nodded. We both understood that something was amiss, and that whether Ava or someone else had scrawled those words, they had been written with malice.
My mother’s blue eyes were fearful. “Where is the woman?”
“Her name is Mrs. Novák,” I said, my lips partly numb with sudden fear.
“We need to find her.”
“I’ll go,” I said, but I had to drag myself across the floor, heading toward the entrance and feeling tempted to walk out into the sunshine and never return. Instead, I turned left into the little hallway where the restrooms were. I didn’t even need to enter the ladies’ room. Ava Novák was slumped on the floor, staring at the wall in front of her. I knew the truth before I reached her, before I made myself touch her cool wrist and realize there was no pulse at all. I fumbled for the phone in the pocket of my skirt, dialed 911 with one hand even as I made a vague blessing over Ava Novák with the other.
I told the operator that a woman had collapsed; I told her our address.
“Is the patient breathing?”
“No,” I said.
“Does the patient have a pulse?” the operator asked.
“No,” I said. My eyes felt wet. Ava’s eyes, staring at nothing, were still beautiful.
I realized then that the tea hall had grown silent. Then I heard my grandmother’s voice, loud and horrified. “Vasorrú Bába,” she intoned.
“No!” one of the women cried out.
So that’s what it had said in the cup. I knew what it meant because my grandmother had told me Hungarian fairy stories since I was a tiny child. Vasorrú Bába translated to “the witch with the iron nose,” and had come to mean something along the lines of “horrible old woman.”
This is what someone had written on the teacup that they had given specially to Ava Novák, and now Ava Novák was dead.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Dollycas’s Thoughts - - - Welcome to Maggie’s Tea House where Hana, her mother Maggie, and grandmother Juliana, serve cakes and tea focused on the family’s Hungarian heritage. A real treat is that Juliana can read tea leaves and predict the future. The ladies have a vast tea service collection for their customers and Hana has a private collection too. She just added a beautiful butterfly cup, one that she has put on display at their latest event. With the event well underway Maggie notices her cup is not where she left, but on a table being used by a woman, she doesn’t recognize. Her grandmother is busy reading leaves and Hana overhears some ominous predictions. She looks back to see the woman who was using her cup hurrying off to the bathroom. After a few minutes, Hana heads that way to find the woman dead. Detective Erik Wolf arrives on the scene, the butterfly cup is bagged as evidence and he and his partner start getting everyone’s information. When he does start questioning witnesses he asks for Hana, Maggie, and Juliana’s help because they are familiar with the woman and the Hungarian language. With their business labeled as a crime scene, they agree but that doesn’t stop them from doing some snooping on their own. This series is off to a fine start! Hana Keller is 26 years old and still single much to her mother and grandmother’s dismay. She lives with her cats Anthony & Cleopatra and she has a passion for promoting her family’s Hungarian culture. Her mother Maggie is the force behind the tea house, but her grandmother is also very involved. I really enjoyed getting to know them, but feel we have just scratched the surface of who they are. There is a thread that purposed that Hana may have a gift similar to her grandmother that seems to have skipped her mother’s generation. I am interested to see how this is featured in future stories. We are also meet several women/suspects from the neighborhood, the hunky Detective Wolf and his partner. Detective Benton. We are also introduced to pastry chef Francois, Hana’s brother Domo, and her dad too. It is a large cast but the author takes time to make each unique and has left plenty of room for growth. There are some sparks between Hana and Detective Wolf but it is very early in the series and hard to classify as a relationship YET, but we know where they are headed. The mystery was filled with intrigue. I did like that Hana and Detective Wolf stayed in constant communication and she passed on everything she uncovered. I was also pleased that the family was not automatically pegged as suspects and were treated with respect whenever they needed to answer questions. There were twists and turns too and clues were released in unique ways. The author’s detailed writing style played well for this type of plot. The Hungarian theme and language continued throughout the story. I had known a little about the culture and was happy to learn more. When Detective Wolf was around it was necessary for words to be translated and as a reader, not familiar with the language that was appreciated. I love that recipes are included in the back of the book. To learn that Grandma Juliana is partly based on the author’s grandmother brought me even more joy about this book. What a wonderful to pay tribute to someone important in her life. I found Death in a Budapest Butterfly to be delightfully entertaining. I want to get to know these characters better and visit the tea room again soon.
3.5 stars Appealing series debut featuring a Hungarian teahouse setting. Hana Keller helps run the family teahouse with her mother and grandmother. The family characters and relationships and the mouth-watering descriptions of Hungarian food are well-done. The mystery begins when a woman dies after drinking poisoned tea at a teahouse event. Naturally, Hana and her family want to prove that the teahouse is blameless. Soon she begins to untangle a long line of stories and kinships from the old country. There is a hint of other-worldliness when Hana and her relatives begin to talk about psychic abilities, but that isn't a huge focus of the plot. There is also a love interest for Hana in the form of the lead detective. A pleasant and readable start to a new series. Thanks to the publisher and to Net Galley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for my honest review.
I thought this book was a great start to a new cozy mystery series. I loved the setting and the Hungarian traditions and customs added a really unique touch to this book. The story started off quickly, the murder happening at the beginning and flowed nicely from there. There is a hint of the paranormal in this book as well, and I felt like that added another dimension to the story. I enjoyed the characters of the mother and grandmother quite a bit but I found the detective to be a little bit flat for me. I am hoping that he will be a bit more dimensional as the series going on. Overall I enjoyed the book and would recommend to anyone who enjoys cozy mysteries.
What draws you to read a cozy mystery series? Cozies are unique: murders aside, they are set in places you'd like to visit, with characters who are basically good people (murderous impulses notwithstanding) who often fall in love. Murders are generally solved without significant damage to the community. The focus can be food, cats, libraries, knitting, or other creative endeavors (as in Julia Buckley's Writers' Apprentice series). The reader can relax, read, and enjoy a respite amongst the lovely (if occasionally lethal) elements. This new series takes to to a small town in Illinois, home to a thriving community of expatriate Hungarians. Three generations of women run Maggie's Tea House, where fancy teas and traditional Hungarian delicacies are served on lovely china. Hana, Maggie's daughter and Juliana's granddaughter, collects Hungarian porcelains and tea services, which she uses to create the establishment's signature decor. When we meet Hana, she is gathering butterfly decorations to complement her newest teacup, the Budapest Butterfly, for a tea to be hosted by the Maygar Women of St. Stephen's parish. She has coaxed her grandmother to do tea-leaf readings by offering to use the teacup in her centerpiece. Hungarian foods and desserts perfume the air as the women set up and serve. The event seems to go well. Although it seems odd to Hana when Mrs. Kalas, president of the group, rudely snubs quiet Ava Novak, the other women happily nibble, mingle, and queue up to have their tea leaves read. They are all familiar with the symbolism Juliana calls forth from the leaves - animals, acorns, supernatural creatures - and they are accustomed to readings that are both vague and positive -- so they are all shocked when Mrs. Kalas receives a dire warning from her cup. As for Hana, she was distracted already when she notices that the precious teacup disappeared from her grandmother's table, and reappeared on Ana's. She sees Ana sip from the cup moments before she falls ill and dies. Juliana's dismay when Detective Wolf arrives is tied to Hungarian folklore depicting wolves as predatory and trustworthy. By the time the mystery is solved, the reader will be immersed in Hungarian legend and folklore, will learn backstories from a stalwart group of expatriates, and witness a budding romance. Old-country superstitions mingle with modern sensibilities in the beautifully-detailed, immersive book. To this reader, all of the elements of a wonderful new series are in these pages, and I can hardly wait for its sequel. Five stars! Thanks to NetGalley for providing the ARC. (By the way, the Budapest Butterfly is quite real, the work of artist Anna Weatherley. If you look at her work online, prepare to be enchanted and very, very tempted.)
Series: A Hungarian Tea House Mystery - Book 1 Author: Julia Buckley Genre: Cozy Mystery/Coffee/Tea Shop/Paranormal Publisher: Berkley Page Count: 304 Publishing Date: July 30, 2019 The first cozy book Death in a Budapest Butterfly in a new series “A Hungarian Tea House Mystery “from author Julia Buckley hits stores on July 30, 2019, published by Berkley. This new series has stout, gifted women, tasty food, exotic teas, a delightful teacup collection, and a look at Hungarian culture. There are plenty of recipes and tasty treats for those who spend time at Maggie’s Tea House. The main character, Hana, is stubborn, set in her ways and at times naïve. Her mother and grandmother are special and love what they do. Hana’s budding relationship with Detective Wolf will be interesting to watch. With just a hint of the paranormal, this cozy book will make readers smile. Although this is a sweet story and the murder itself intriguing, there was just a bit too much emphasis on the Hungarian side of the women’s lives. There are times when the reader may have to remind themselves that this book is set-in modern-day America. The cultural aspects are fun but seem to be used more for filler than real background information on the characters. I would like to see the paranormal aspects of the three women more defined and enlarged in future books as I felt this was one of the more engaging inclusions in the storyline. Ms. Buckley knows how to write a cozy book. Her story is littered with twists and turns, insightful commentary, and heartfelt family values. Death in a Budapest Butterfly is a cozy book that will entertain readers of all types of mysteries. I am looking forward to seeing the direction this series takes, and the continued development of the characters.
I was drawn to this book because of the teahouse. I’m studying to become an herbalist, and making tea is a daily event for me, so I love reading stories that revolve around it. And this being the start of a new cozy mystery series made it that much more enticing! Also, I read and really enjoyed the first book, A Dark and Stormy Murder, in A Writer’s Apprentice Mystery series by Buckley, so I was pretty confident this would be a good book. I know nothing about Hungary or it’s legends, so that aspect was also very interesting to me. Legends and folklore always add a unique layer to fiction, and learning about cultures this way has always fascinated me. And I always look at the recipes at the end of cozies, but have never made any of them. With the Hungarian recipes that Buckley has included though, they actually seem pretty easy to make and super tasty. Maybe I’ll finally make something. For me, cozies need to have good character development, and Buckley has a real talent for it. I enjoyed watching the different generations interact with each other, and you could see the love that Buckley has for her own heritage through these characters. I’m excited to read more about Hana and her family, and see where Buckley takes this series next. So often in cozies, the heroine is not believed by the police and greatly discouraged with their investigating. Buckley did something I really like, and have been seeing more of recently in newer cozies, the detective actually worked with Hana and didn’t tell her continually to stop investigating. Det. Wolf even told her a couple of times she should become a cop because she has such an inquisitive nature. This is such a refreshing change. Even better, Det. Wolf believed Hana and her grandmother when they started sharing information that came to them from their feelings and psychic powers. He didn’t believe them right away, but came around quickly enough, and didn’t ever make them feel like they were crazy. It is nice to see open channels of communication and encouragement in a cozy mystery. Buckley also handled the romance part of the book well, not only between Hana and Det. Wolf, but with all the other couples. It was sweet seeing older couples still in love, and Hana’s brother trying to encourage his girlfriend to become more part of the world. I’m happy that Buckley doesn’t make use wait forever to see if Hana and the detective will be together, and am looking forward to see how everyone’s relationships continue. As for the mystery itself, Buckley had me guessing through most of the book. The clues and red herrings she left were the perfect amount. And the final reveal was handled really well. I’m excited to see what Buckley comes up with for the next book in the Hungarian Teahouse Mystery series!
Death in a Budapest Butterfly is the first novel in A Hungarian Tea House Mystery series written by Julia Buckley (A Writer’s Apprentice Mystery series). Hana Keller is twenty-six years old and of Hungarian descent. Hungarian food and the culture are a big part of the family’s lives. We get a comprehensive account of the various Hungarian dishes prepared. It was interesting to learn more about the Hungarian culture, cuisine, traditions and folklore. I wish, though, that the Hungarian words had come with a pronunciation guide (next to each word). Hana works with her mother (Maggie Keller) and her grandmother (Juliana Horvath) to run Maggie’s Tea House which features high tea and delicious pastries made by Francois, a French culinary student. I enjoyed hearing about Hana’s teacup collection. The mystery starts off with a bang early in the book. Since many of the suspects are Hungarian, Detective Wolf asks them to be present while he conducts interviews to help with translations. This allows readers to be introduced to various characters plus we find out what they knew about the victim. Hana stays involved in the case as she uncovers information and relays it to Det. Wolf. While I was able to pinpoint the who, I did not know the why. Clues are revealed as Hana talks to various people in the community. I appreciated that we are given all the details of the murder for a complete wrap-up. There were instant sparks between the single Hana and the fetching detective. Hana’s grandmother is happy to give them nudge or two since she would like to see Hana wed. Erik Wolf needs more fleshing out because I thought he was one-dimensional (lacks life). There is a hint that Hana and her grandmother have special psychic abilities. I hope this will feature more prominently in future books. Julia Buckley is a detail oriented writer. She needs to find a balance between not enough and too much which would greatly help the flow and pacing of the book (in my opinion). My favorite phrase was when Detective Wolf said to Hana, “You’ve got the bug, haven’t you? Solving puzzles exhilarates you.” I can certainly understand the feeling. There are recipes at the end for Chicken Paprikash, dumplings and stuffed cabbage. Death in a Budapest Butterfly has Hungarian charm, dainty teacups, a poisoned patsy, a canny killer, a dashing detective, and a neophyte sleuth.