Book I of the Kebab Kitchen Mystery Series
Ocean Crest, New Jersey
“Lucy Berberian! Is that you?”
Lucy’s car was stopped at a red light when the excited shout caught her attention. Her gaze turned to the crosswalk, and she lowered her sunglasses an inch to peer above the rim. A tiny old lady with an abundance of gray curls was pushing a rolling cart filled with groceries. She waved. One of the plastic bags stuck out from the cart and flapped in the breeze.
Lucy glimpsed the name Holloway’s printed on the bag—the sole grocery store in the small New Jersey beach town. “Hello, Mrs. Kiminski,” she called out her open window.
The old lady smiled, revealing pearly white dentures. “You’re visiting? Your mama will be so happy.”
No doubt her mother and father would be thrilled when they learned Lucy was back, not only for a visit, but longer. Lucy swallowed hard. She’d hit the first stop light out of three in town and already her nerves were getting to her. It felt like a corkscrew was slowly winding in her stomach the closer she came to her destination. And to him.
Don’t think about it.
The light changed, and Lucy waved as she continued down Ocean Avenue. Parking spots in the town’s main street were vacant in late April, and only a few people strolled about. The tourist season wouldn’t begin until Memorial Day. A month later and the town would be crammed with seasonal tourists, and a parking spot would be hard to find.
Lucy drove past a ramp leading to the town’s mile-long boardwalk, and she spied the Atlantic Ocean between two buildings—a blue line to the horizon. The Jersey shore was in Lucy’s blood. She’d been born and raised in Ocean Crest, a tiny town located on a barrier island about six miles north of Cape May. Even off-season the scent of funnel cake drifted from one of the boardwalk shops and through her window. The bright morning sunlight warmed her cheeks, and she spotted the single pier with a Ferris wheel and an old-fashioned wooden roller coaster. Soon the Ferris wheel would light up the night sky and the piercing screams from the coaster would be heard from a block away.
The small ocean town was so different from the rapid pace of the Center-City Philadelphia law firm and apartment she had grown accustomed to over the last eight years. But now that part of her life was done, and she needed to figure out what she was going to do next. When her work had thrown her a curveball, returning home had come to mind. Other than hasty holiday visits, she hadn’t stayed for longer than a weekend.
A few blocks later Lucy parked before a quaint brick building with a flower bed bursting with yellow daffodils and red tulips. A lit sign read KEBAB KITCHEN FINE MEDITERRANEAN CUISINE.
A flash of motion by the front door caught her eye as soon as she killed the engine. Gadoo, the calico cat with yellow eyes her mother had adopted when he kept coming around the restaurant, cocked his head to the side as if to say, What took you so long to come home? and then swished his tail and sauntered down the alley.
Taking a deep breath, she got out of the car, then pushed open the door to the restaurant.
The dining room was empty and the lights were dimmed. Sunlight through the front windows shone on pristine white tablecloths covering a dozen tables and a handful of maple booths. Small vases with fresh flowers and unlit tea light candles in glass votive holders rested upon the pressed linen. Cherry wainscoting gave the place a warm, family feel. The ocean shimmered from large bay windows and seagulls soared above the water. The delicious aroma of fresh herbs, fragrant spices, and grilled lamb wafted to her. It was only ten o’clock in the morning, well before the restaurant opened for lunch and that meant her mother was preparing her savory specials.
Lucy walked forward and stopped by the hostess stand. The place hadn’t changed since she was a kid. As a young child, her mom carried her around to greet customers and kiss the staff. When she was eight, she started rolling silverware in cloth napkins and refilling salt and pepper shakers. Lucy eyed the cash register behind the counter with its laminated dollar bill showcasing the first cash the restaurant took in as well as the required heath department notices that hung on the wall. A low wall separated a waitress station from the dining area, and a pair of swinging doors led to the kitchen. She recalled her days as a hostess and cashier, seating customers and handing them menus, then ringing them up to pay on their way out. A waitress pad sat on a nearby table, and she remembered how excited she’d been as a teenager the day her father promoted her from hostess to waitress. The cash tips had helped pay for her prom gown.
Footsteps sounded on the terra cotta tiles. Lucy turned to see her older sister carrying a tray of sparkling glasses.
“Lucy! What are you doing here?” Her sister set down the tray on a nearby table.
Lucy smiled and embraced her warmly. “Hi, Emma. I’ve come for a visit.”
At thirty-seven Emma was five years older than Lucy. Lucy had always been a bit envious of her sister who was slim and attractive with long, curly brown hair. She weighed the same as she had since college, and she’d never had to worry about how many carbs or pieces of pita bread she consumed. “How’s Max?” Lucy asked.
Emma wrinkled her nose. “He’s the same. The king of real estate in town. He works a lot and is never around.”
Emma tended to frequently complain about her husband, but they had a ten-year-old daughter they adored. “And my little niece Niari?”
“Most of the time Niari’s great,” Emma said. “She’s good in school and likes soccer. But she’s also a tween who can drive us crazy. I dread the puberty years to come.”
Lucy chuckled. “I imagine we drove Mom and Dad nuts as teenagers.”
Emma perched on the edge of a table and crossed her arms. “How’s work? I’m surprised you could get away.”
Lucy cleared her throat. “Well, that’s just it. I have some time to—”
“Lucy Anahid Berberian!”
Lucy whirled to see her mother and father emerge from the swinging kitchen doors. Her Lebanese, Greek, and Armenian mother, Angela, had olive skin and dark hair that she’d styled in a beehive since the sixties. Her Armenian father, Raffi, was a portly man of average height with a balding pate of curly black hair. Both had arrived in America on their twenty-first birthdays, met months later at a church festival, and married soon after. They’d meshed cultures and languages, and Emma and Lucy were first-generation Americans with ethnic roots as strong as her parents’ prized grapevine clinging to its trellis.
Lucy found herself engulfed in her mother’s arms, flowery perfume tickling her nose. The large gold cross—the one piece of jewelry her mother never left the house without—was cool as it pressed against Lucy’s neck. Her mother was a tiny woman, only five feet tall even with her beehive hairdo, but she was a talented chef and a smart businesswoman.
Angela passed Lucy to her father, and Lucy smiled at his bear hug and the light scrape of his whiskers as he brushed her cheek with a kiss. He released her to study her face and grinned. “My little girl, the big city lawyer.”
Her mother touched Lucy’s arm. “It’s Tuesday. Shouldn’t you be at work?”
Lucy’s insides froze for a heart-stopping moment. “I’m taking a vacation,” she blurted out.
Why did she have to sound so nervous? She’d rehearsed the perfect excuse over and over in her car on the way here.
“A vacation?” Angela folded her arms across her chest. Her gaze filled with suspicion as it traveled over Lucy from head to toe, taking in the worn jeans, Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt, and Nike sneakers.
Lucy’s attire was far from her normal business wear, but it was surprising how quick a week of unemployment could affect one’s desire to dress in anything but yoga pants or jeans.
“It’s true,” Lucy said. A small streak of panic ran through her at her mother’s continuing inquisitive gaze.
“Well, it’s about time.” Her mother nodded curtly and unfolded her arms from across her chest. “That law firm works you too hard. You only visit for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. You stay two, maybe three days, and then you’re off again. Plus”—she eyed Lucy with an admonishing glare— “you didn’t visit last Mother’s Day.”
Lucy’s pulse quickened. Here it was. Her family’s ability to layer on guilt. She’d always made an effort to visit for the holidays, but the truth was she didn’t always want to come home. The smothering could be as thick as the sugar syrup on her mother’s baklava—sticky, sweet, and as effective as superglue.
“You know I had a big case and couldn’t take time off. You could have visited me,” Lucy said.
“Bah!” Raffi said with a disgusted wave of his hand. “What company makes its employees work so many weekends? And you know we don’t like to drive into the city.”
Lucy knew crossing the Delaware River via the Ben Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia was like traveling to another country for her parents.
“How long is your vacation?” Emma asked.
“A month.” At their stunned looks, Lucy quickly added, “It’s really what we call a sabbatical.” She wasn’t ready to admit she was no longer employed. Knowing her parents, they’d think she was home for good. Why give them false hope?
“You’ll stay with us. I’ll tidy your room,” her mom said.
Heck no. Seeing her parents was good, but living with them was something else entirely. “I’m staying with Katie and Bill, Mom.”
Her mom hesitated and glared at her as if she’d been denied access to Lucy’s firstborn. Katie Watson was Lucy’s long-time friend. When Lucy had called her to tell her that she was coming home and staying for a while, Katie had offered for Lucy to stay with her and her husband, Bill, an Ocean Crest police officer.
“Fine,” Angela finally said. “I’ve always liked Katie, and she comes from a good family.”
Raffi cracked a wide grin. “You came at a good time, Lucy. With Memorial Day in less than a month, the tourist season will begin. Millie left to have a baby. We need your help.”
Lucy’s smile faded. Millie had worked for her parents as a waitress for years. From what Lucy recalled, Millie had married right out of high school and started having kids. Was she on baby number four by now?
“It’s her sixth boy,” her dad answered as if reading her mind. “We need a waitress. We’re already short for today’s lunch shift.”
Lucy felt as if she were being sucked back into the fold like quicksand; no amount of professional accomplishments mattered. Family helped family, and their expectations could be stifling and overwhelming. It was partly why she’d fled years ago.
But she was older and more experienced now. “Dad, I don’t think—”
“You can borrow Millie’s apron and Emma’s clothes,” Angela said.
Good grief. Millie’s apron was one thing. But how would she fit into her skinny sister’s black pants and white shirt? Lucy was bigger than Emma in every way. From her breasts, to her hips, and definitely her derriere.
Angela pulled out a chair. “Sit. You’re too thin.” She glanced at Lucy’s father behind her shoulder. “Raffi, please bring Lucy something special to eat. We can catch up while we wait.”
Her dad disappeared through the swinging kitchen doors. Lucy rolled her eyes as she sat. Their mother never seemed to notice any physical differences between her two daughters. To her, everyone appeared in need of food.
Emma smiled mischievously as she set a glass of water in front of Lucy. “Good luck,” she whispered, then followed their father into the kitchen.
Lucy inwardly groaned as her mother pulled up a chair beside her. She didn’t need her sister’s warning. She knew what was coming as soon as she spotted the gleam in her mother’s eyes. The maternal message was clear. Let’s talk about how old you are and remind you that your biological clock is ticking louder than a pounding drum and that you should be married and birthing my grandchildren by now.
Her mother patted her hand. “You know I think you work too hard.”
Once again, a nagging guilt pierced Lucy’s chest for not revealing the truth. “It’s okay. I’m home for a while now, remember?”
Angela’s face lit up. “Good. We need to focus on finding you a husband.”
“Mom,” Lucy whined. “I’m not opposed to marriage, but only if the right man proposes. Meanwhile, my career is important to—”
“Posh,” her mom said, waving a hand. “A career doesn’t keep you warm at night when you get old. Granted, men are far from perfect. Your father is a good example,” she said, motioning toward the kitchen, “but he’s there.”
Lucy wrinkled her nose. She didn’t consider herself a romantic, but she’d hoped for more than just there when it came to a man.
“I saw Gadoo,” Lucy said, hoping to change the topic.
Angela always loved to talk about the cat. “He waits for me every morning by the back door. Actually, he’s waiting for his breakfast. As long as I feed him, Gadoo keeps coming.”
Gadoo was Armenian for cat. Not very original, but it fit the patchy orange and black calico cat with yellow eyes.
Before long the kitchen doors opened again and her father emerged with a large shish kebab platter and set it before her. Two skewers of succulent lamb and a skewer of roasted peppers, tomatoes, and onions were accompanied by rice pilaf and homemade pita bread. The aroma made her stomach grumble and her mouth water.
Lucy may not have missed her mother’s lectures about husband hunting, but damned if she hadn’t missed the food. She picked up a warm piece of pita bread, then stopped. “Is there hummus?”
Her gaze followed Emma’s pointing finger. “You have to see our newest addition.”
Lucy stood and looked toward the corner of the restaurant where a long sidebar stood. She hadn’t noticed it earlier. At first glance, it looked like a salad bar, but instead of lettuce, tomatoes, and salad, bins of hummus were displayed, each tray a different variety.
“Specialties of the house, and all my own flavors. Roasted red pepper, extra garlic, Mediterranean herb, lemon pucker, artichoke, black bean, sweet apricot, and of course, my own recipe of traditional hummus,” Angela boasted with pride.
“Customers love it,” Raffi said.
Lucy carried her plate to the bins full of the creamy dips and added a large spoonful of traditional hummus next to the pita bread, then returned to her seat. “Wow! Business must be good, Dad.” She dipped a piece of pita into the hummus and shoved it into her mouth.
Heaven. The lemon blended with the garlic, chick peas and sesame seed puree perfectly, and the texture was super-creamy.
Silence greeted her. Lucy looked up from her plate to see all three members of her family staring at her. “What’s wrong?” she mumbled.
Emma broke the awkward silence. “Dad wants to sell.”
Lucy nearly choked on a mouthful before managing to swallow it down. “Sell?”
“Not right away, but I’ve been thinking about it,” Raffi said.
An uncomfortable thought crossed Lucy’s mind. Her gaze swept him from his balding head of curly black hair to his sizeable belly back to his face. “Are you sick?”
His brows furrowed. “No. I’m old.”
The irony was not lost on her. Less than an hour ago she was hesitant to set foot in the place. But selling the restaurant? For thirty years, ever since her parents had opened it, Kebab Kitchen had been the center of their lives, socially and economically. What would they do without it?
“But I don’t understand why—”
“I have no sons or sons-in-law who want it. Emma doesn’t have a head for business, and Max is into real estate.” Her father eyed Lucy hard, his glare cutting through her like one of his prized butcher knives. “If you’d married Azad Zakarian this wouldn’t be a problem.”
Lucy’s stomach bottomed out at the mention of the man her parents had so desperately wanted her to marry. He was one of the main reasons she’d left to take the job in the Philadelphia law firm. It had taken months, years, to dull the heartache. Her throat seemed to close up as she felt the all-too-familiar pressure from her parents’ unreasonable expectations—that the ultimate fate of the restaurant rested upon her shoulders and that she had to be the one to keep everything together. Lucy reached for the water glass and took a big swallow.
“Dad, stop,” Emma said. “No sense nagging Lucy. Max has a buyer.”
Lucy sat upright at the name. “The bike man next door to the restaurant?”
Every summer, Mr. Citteroni’s bike shop rented a variety of bicycles to tourists. Ever since she was a kid, she’d heard stories that he had mob connections in Atlantic City, and his many businesses were how he laundered money.
“He wants the property,” Raffi explained.
“Why?” Lucy couldn’t fathom what Mr. Citteroni would do with it.
“He wants to open a high class Italian restaurant, but he’s not the only interested buyer,” Raffi said.
“A local woman wants to convert Kebab Kitchen into a diner,” Emma said.
“Another Jersey diner? The state is loaded with them. And Ocean Crest already has the Pancake Palace,” Lucy said.
“Don’t forget that Azad’s interested,” Angela announced.
There it was again. His name.
“Why would he want it?” Lucy asked.
“Azad graduated from culinary school and is working as a sous chef for a fancy Atlantic City restaurant. He wants to buy Kebab Kitchen and keep it the way it is,” Angela said.
Of course, he did. He was perfect. Hand-picked by her parents. He’d started working as a dishwasher for the restaurant when he was in high school. He’d soon worked his way up to busboy, then line cook, and had earned her parents’ respect. Not to mention their hopes of a union with their younger daughter. The pressure tightened in Lucy’s chest.
She glared at her parents. “What will you do if you retire? Where will you go?”
“We’ll stay in Ocean Crest. It’s a peaceful place,” Angela said.
Raffi waved his hand toward the window and a view of the calm ocean and blue sky. “After all, what bad things happen here?”