The Pierogi Peril
Book 2 in the Kielbasa Queen Mystery Series
Lydia Wienewski has opened her Polish-American cafe and bakery on the shore of Lake Erie, but her idyllic new venture is shattered when the low tide leads to a terrible discovery.
June, 1982. Lydia Wienewski’s dream has finally come true: Lydia’s Lakeside Cafe and Bakery, selling delicious Polish-American fare on the shore of Lake Erie, is now open and her fortunes are looking up. Even her old nemesis and tutor, the irascible Madame Delphine, has made time to sample Lydia’s delectable pierogi, with some of her students in tow.
But when Lydia finds Madame Delphine dead in the water, her lakeside dream turns into a nightmare. Was it a bizarre suicide, or brutal murder? As Lydia and Grandma Mary investigate, they discover that there was more to Madame Delphine than meets the eye, and quickly find themselves drawn into an increasingly perilous situation! Can they uncover the truth about Madame Delphine’s untimely death?
Heat Level: Smooth Sailing
The Pierogi Peril
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The Pierogi Peril
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Lydia waved at Stanley as she drove off, the free eggs packed next to the box of kielbasa in her hatchback. She noticed white smudges she’d left on the steering wheel last night and chuckled. No matter how well she washed up after baking or making pierogi she managed to leave flour prints everywhere.
She raced her beloved purple Ford Gremlin toward Lake Erie along the route she’d driven ad infinitum over the past two months while balancing her double career. It was the reality of being responsible for two separate family businesses that were located the better part of twenty miles apart; there was never enough time in the day or night to get it all done.
Half of her heart remained in Cheektowaga, the Buffalo, New York suburb where she’d grown up. It was still where she officially lived in her parents’ garage loft with Grandma Mary, Pop’s mother. The butcher shop was only a few blocks away, on Cheektowaga’s main throughfare, yet ever since she’d found Louie’s body her view of the area had become a bit darker.
The memory of how awful Pop’s meat supplier had been to her family had faded, but not the image of his murdered corpse that she’d discovered in the family backyard sausage smoker on Good Friday. That would take more time, she figured. It’d only been two months since Easter, after all.
Lydia rolled down the car window and let the morning lake breeze wash away the ugly memory that still hung over that time. She and her Grandma Mary Romano Wienewski had made a good team and solved Louie’s murder, after which Lydia had dived into getting her dream café and bakery up and running in time for Memorial Day weekend at the end of May.
Lydia’s Lakeside Café and Bakery claimed the other half of her work heart. The property she’d bought on the shore of Lake Erie in Acorn Bay would be her full-time gig once Pop was managing the butcher shop fine on his own again. Her business had had a decent grand opening two weeks ago, and was enjoying a slow but steady increase in patrons. Locals and tourists alike enjoyed the Polish American fare she served at lunchtime. Both savory and fruit crepes with a nice dollop of sour cream were popular, as were her platters of fresh and smoked kielbasa. But hands down the lunchtime favorite was her pierogi, served piping hot, golden brown with a sheen of the butter they were pan-fried in. Her bakery was becoming a favorite with the early morning crowd, too. Few could resist her baked goods, a decent mix of traditionally Polish cakes, breads and cookies alongside more familiar American fare like cinnamon rolls and raspberry jam filled yeast doughnuts. Open for breakfast, followed by lunch was a good start and she hoped to add a dinner service to Lydia’s Lakeside’s offerings before the end of the summer. The popularity of her pierogi on the lunch menu filled her with hope that her planned dinner service would be successful, too.
The beginning guitar chords of ‘Waiting for a Girl Like You’ came on her favorite rock station and she turned the Gremlin’s volume dial up. She and Stanley had tickets to see Foreigner at Rich stadium next month in a blow-out, four-band concert. It seemed silly to be thinking about something so fun when her work life, and her family’s coffers, demanded every ounce of her brainpower.
Stanley. It’d only been fifteen minutes and she missed him as if they’d been apart for years. Yes, he was a much more pleasant distraction from her career angst. The love she’d lost and found again never failed to remind her that there was more to life than fresh or smoked kielbasa and placek, Polish sausage and coffee cake.
The earlier clouds had cleared, and as she crested the last rise in the highway the view opened up to a panorama revealing a deep blue sky and aquamarine lake that stretched to its darker horizon. Lydia soaked in the beauty, tears of gratitude leaking out of her eyes. The wind gusting through her rolled down windows probably added to her eyeball discomfort, too.
Before she got too sappy the highway ended. She belted out the last refrain of the number one Billboard’s Rock Tracks ballad with Foreigner’s lead singer Lou Gramm as she merged into local traffic.
Within minutes she turned onto the restaurant’s driveway. Two vehicles in the paved customer parking lot caught her attention. One car was a large, wide-bodied Buick Electra station wagon with room for several passengers. The second auto was quite compact, and reminded her of the small cars she’d seen on the road when she lived in Ottawa.
Ottawa. Lydia gulped, then pushed the thought aside. She’d left her disastrous time at the French pastry school behind her when she’d returned to Buffalo last Christmas, but unexpected reminders had a nasty habit of popping up, like the tiny car in her café parking lot.
A quick glance at the dash clock revealed it was twenty minutes until the café’s lunch opening at eleven-thirty. Maybe a large family had shown up early, but she didn’t see anyone waiting on the wide, covered porch at the front entrance.
It could be a group of bicycle enthusiasts. Her location was convenient to a scenic road that ran south along the lake, and she’d seen a few different groups take advantage of the parking lot.
Grandma hadn’t phoned her at the butcher shop, and she’d only been away from a phone for twenty minutes, so she assumed all was well. Grandma, Freddy the cook, and her younger sister Teri had arrived on time for the breakfast service, and she’d left them before it was halfway over to make her run back to Cheektowaga.
She drove along the graveled drive for the remaining one hundred yards or so, past the good-sized lawn that fronted the sprawling café and bakery building and separated it from the main road. Reaching the graveled parking lot at the back of the building, she pulled in next to Grandma’s gold Ford LTD wagon. The oversized station wagon was a ridiculous car for a widow who lived in a garage loft as far as Lydia was concerned, but Grandma insisted it allowed her to keep her independence. She’d bought the car to travel to Florida with, when she was engaged to the man she now only referred to as the ‘rat-scum bastard who jilted me, that son-of-a-bitch-no-good-jerk.’
Lydia grinned to herself. She was sorry that Grandma had gone through that awful breakup, but grateful that they ended up rooming together over her parents’ garage. It was still their domicile, at least until Lydia was able to move out to Acorn Bay, to be close to the café and bakery.
She opened the car door and stepped out, the wind whipping her hair into oblivion. Lydia marveled at how different the weather often was less than a half-hour drive from home. Slamming the door shut, she picked up the box of kielbasa and allowed herself a quick glance around the property. Her property.
The bulk of the main building, along with a grove of tall pine trees, kept the additional structures hidden from the main road. A tiny cottage, a storage shed typical of most Buffalo suburban backyards, and a former barn that had been converted into a commercial storage garage of sorts, added to the property’s appeal.
The cafe itself gave the overall impression of a house by the sea thanks to the nautical themed sea green paint job and trimmings left by the previous owners. They’d operated a seafood establishment and employed a definite captain-y, pirate-y ambience. She’d spent hours standing here, envisioning the building painted white with red trim in tribute to her Polish American menu. And the cottage, now mostly empty save for the odd bit of broken furniture, was where she planned to settle down and make her first home. With Stanley, of course, even though they hadn’t talked about when they’d actually settle down together in detail yet. The weather-worn bungalow was almost livable, except for the lack of heating. She mentally added ‘cottage furnace’ to her wish list of repairs.
Normally she’d take her time walking to the kitchen, stroll around the property and soak in her good fortune. There was no time for dawdling, though, not with lunch service beginning soon. As she walked past Grandma’s LTD, Lydia saw that Grandma had left her purse on the front seat, probably distracted by from last night’s date with Detective Harry Nowicki.
An unbidden image of Grandma and Nowicki together flashed before her eyes and she groaned. This had to be from lack of time with her own lover.
Great. Now she was thinking of Stanley as her ‘lover,’ as if she was sixty-five like Grandma and not twenty-nine.
Pushing the uninvited thoughts away she put down the box of kielbasa, quickly opened the driver’s door and retrieved Grandma’s forgotten bag.
‘Lydia!’ Grandma’s voice boomed across the lot and reached into the car, forcing Lydia to look up, too quickly.
Pain radiated from the side of her head to her nose thanks to bonking her head on the car frame. Like when she’d knocked her head back on the icy slopes in Glenwood, New York during her illustrious attempt at downhill skiing a few winters ago.
‘Oof.’ She kept the groan to herself and straightened as if nothing had happened. No sense getting Grandma all wigged out that she’d hurt herself.
‘What’s going on?’ Lydia asked over her shoulder, buying herself a second to focus. But there was no reply, and when she straightened the kitchen entrance was vacant. Grandma had gone back inside.
The enormity of her double responsibilities with two family businesses sagged her shoulders more than the items she carried.
‘Tonight. I’ll take a break tonight,’ she grumbled to herself as she walked the final steps to the backdoor, two purses on one shoulder, the box of kielbasa in her arms. She placed them all on the concrete stoop and hustled back to her car to get Mr Gorski’s eggs.
She carefully balanced the eggs atop the box of sausage and used her foot and hip to open the screen door. Careful to not drop her cargo, she entered the kitchen. And froze at the frenzied scene before her. It wasn’t the usual energy she associated with lunchtime preparation. Her staff buzzed about as if it were the middle of lunch service, an hour from now.
‘I need three more pierogi orders, Freddy. One each sauerkraut, potato, and cheese.’ Teri, Lydia’s younger sister, spoke to the cook with authority that belied her nineteen years on the planet. Dressed in a white button-down shirt and black slacks with a red serving apron at her waist, she was Lydia’s vision of the perfect server. ‘That pair at table five is demanding, let me tell you. They want more sour cream to dip the pierogi in, too.’ Teri rolled her eyes.
‘They’ll get their pierogi when I finish the blinis for table nine.’ Freddy suffered no fools, patrons or not.
Grandma burst through the service door, her cheeks flushed and her sapphire eyes blazing. ‘I told Lydia she needed to think about a liquor license. Table five wants a “wine pairing” with their pierogi! Have you ever heard of such a thing?’
No one noticed Lydia. They were too busy.
Lydia’s mind shifted into overdrive. The staff had agreed to arrive two hours early each day, per her wishes, so that they were always prepared. No matter that, until today, there had never been a need to be ready so early. It usually took at least a half hour after opening for customers to show up.
‘Why are we already serving lunch? What’s going on?’ she asked.
Three pairs of eyes pinned her to the spot.
‘Ay yi yi!’ Freddy dropped his spatula onto the hot griddle.
Grandma stared at her for several heartbeats before she calmly walked over to stand in front of her.
‘Here, honey, give me those eggs. Take my towel,’ she pushed the thick, white terrycloth rectangle into Lydia’s hand as she gently removed the box from Lydia’s arms, ‘and hold it to your temple.’
‘What? Why? Teri, what’s your problem?’ Lydia turned to her sister as she held the towel. She didn’t have time for one of Teri’s all too frequent emotional outbursts. ‘Here, hand me my apron, will you? What’s with the screaming? You’ve got Freddy all upset.’
Freddy shot her a furtive glance over his shoulder. He’d turned back to the griddle, as if afraid of her. She had to admit, her tone was off-putting. But what was with Teri’s scream?
Teri ran up to her, holding the red apron with Lydia’s Lakeside Café and Bakery embroidered in white across the bib. ‘You’re bleeding all over the place is what my problem is. Wait a sec to put that apron on. You don’t want to stain it. Give me that towel.’ Teri quickly wet the towel at the sink, grabbed Lydia’s hand, then helped her put it to her temple.
‘What the hey?’ Lydia pulled her hand from her sister’s and looked at the towel, now boasting a bright red stain. ‘Oh, crap!’
‘Keep the towel on your head!’ Teri ordered.
‘It’s just a small bump, no big deal. I hit my head on Grandma’s car. I’m fine, everyone, relax!’ She’d made them all take the Red Cross First Aid course in the days up to the grand opening. The focus had been on grease burns and knife wounds, but really, did they have to get so dramatic over a bump on the head?
‘No, you relax, Lydia. You look like you’re trying out for the lead role in Halloween. You’ve got to get cleaned up, fast. The most important customer you have ever served is out there. Right now. That’s why we opened early, without waiting for you. They were already standing on the front porch while we were setting up.’
‘Why didn’t you call me? You knew I was at the butcher shop.’ She aimed her query at Grandma, who shrugged and went back through the swinging door with a plate of eggs.
‘There wasn’t time to call anyone, Lydia. We had to act, pronto,’ Teri answered as she filled glasses with ice, then carried them to the adjacent soda dispenser.
Lydia let her imagination run wild. ‘Wait, let me guess. Reggie MacKenzie? Chuck Knox? Or, maybe, is it Andre Savard?’ She mentioned the names of a Buffalo Bills football player and his coach, and a Buffalo Sabres hockey player. Local pro athletes were beloved for their embrace of the Buffalo, which included patronizing family-owned taverns and restaurants. Excitement swirled in her belly. ‘No, wait, don’t tell me. Is it a rock star?’ Maybe Foreigner was in town early, to check out the stadium ahead of their gig?
Grandma burst back into the kitchen and shook her head when she spotted Lydia in the same spot she’d left her fifteen seconds ago.
‘Lydia! We need you. Now.’
‘No. The customers aren’t from Buffalo,’ Teri continued as if Grandma wasn’t there, intent on imparting crucial information. ‘It’s a woman we’ve never met, but she says she’s very important to you. That you know her.’
‘They came down from Ottawa,’ Grandma added. ‘As in Canada.’
Her sudden lightheadedness wasn’t from her head wound. ‘“They?” How many are out there?’ Lydia asked. Her stomach’s happy reaction turned sour. Her instinct had been spot-on, as far as the small auto in the parking lot went. No. It couldn’t be . . .
‘It’s some woman dressed up way too much for lunch, if you ask me, and she brought seven customers with her, though one’s just leaving. That’s a lot of hungry mouths in one group, Lydia,’ Teri grumbled. Acting cranky was her way of expressing her anxiety.
‘Less explaining and more serving, folks.’ Freddy didn’t bother to glance up from where he plated up a perfectly browned pork chop and drizzled gravy over it, finishing with a spring of curly parsley. Without a single pause he turned back to the stove and slid pierogi from a large pot of simmering water and onto the griddle, next to a pile of caramelized onions. Not for the first time, Lydia was grateful for the middle-aged man who’d shown up in response to her classified ad. His years of tavern cooking experience on Buffalo’s East Side proved invaluable.
‘You’re right, Freddy,’ Lydia confirmed, ignoring her quaking insides. If her instincts were right about who was out in the dining room, it was time to face down her biggest nemesis of all time.
You’ve got this.
Wasn’t she the one who ran into the lake or cannonballed into a pool, with no advanced pinkie-toe temperature testing? She shrugged off the tote bag and purses, aided by Grandma and Teri, who was still dabbing at her forehead. With zero preamble, Lydia pushed Grandma’s and Teri’s ministrations aside and stalked to the swinging door. She dropped the blood-soaked towel into the laundry bin along the way.
‘Don’t, Lydia! You need a bandage first,’ Teri yelled.
‘You can’t serve people looking like that!’ Freddy boomed.
‘Let her go. She’s on a mission from the Blessed Mother.’ Grandma had a unique way of blending her personal version of Catholicism and pop culture.
The lively conversation that greeted Lydia in the dining room reassured her that despite Teri and Grandma’s complaints, the patrons were enjoying their time, which usually meant they were also happy with their food.
A cloud of smoke hung over the tables closest to the kitchen, making it difficult to see the diners, and Lydia fought to keep her reaction from showing in her expression. The no-smoking area of the restaurant she’d insisted upon marking remained unoccupied. It wasn’t that patrons were smoking that made her want to screw up her face in disgust; some people did smoke, especially with their after-meal coffee.
No, it was the distinct aroma of foreign cigarettes. Myriad images flooded her mind’s eye: laughing in smoke-filled cafes and bars in Ottawa, walking through the frozen streets with her pastry school classmates, driving away from Ottawa feeling at once liberated and a total failure. It also brought back memories of someone she’d hoped to forget . . . Lydia tamped down a sudden desire to flee from the café, from a part of her life she had no desire to revisit.
Keep going. With no more hesitation, she aimed her focus on table five.
There, at the six-seater set with white and red linens and a matching red poppy and white chrysanthemum silk flower centerpiece, sat the two people she hoped she’d never, ever, see again, be it in this lifetime or the next. A third place setting looked like it had been used, but the chair was empty.
Not as overtly religious as Mom or Grandma, Lydia preferred to leave prayers to the Blessed Virgin to her matriarchs – the power of the Rosary being perhaps the single subject the two women agreed on. But even she, a part-time Catholic at best, had prayed a lap around the Rosary beads for extra good measure that this very scene would never play out. Yet here she stood, and there they sat.
She bit her lip and placed fisted hands on her hips.
Why couldn’t the people who sat in her café have stayed put in her nightmare memories of Madame Delphine’s French pastry school, along with the shame of being caught in the midst of her most awkward extracurricular sex-ploit?
But no. For at table five sat her old French pastry tutor from L’ecole du Cuisine in Ottawa, Madame Delphine Chenault, and her son – Madame’s wannabe teaching assistant – Pierre. Madame Delphine’s cheeks puffed out as she chewed a bite of pierogi cheese from the remains her plate, while Pierre delicately dipped a slice of Pop’s smoked kielbasa into Grandma’s fluffy white, homegrown, homemade horseradish. Unlike the other patrons, some of whom she now realized must be students of L’ecole du Cuisine, neither had noticed her yet. Lydia did the most intelligent thing she could, given the futility of the situation.
She spun on her heels and made a break for the kitchen.
‘Mademoiselle Wienewski!’ Madame’s cry sliced through Lydia’s chaotic thoughts and pulled her up short.
End of Excerpt
The Pierogi Peril
by Geri Krotow
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Reviews of The Pierogi Peril
"A Buffalo-area restaurant owner and her feminist grandmother are an impressive sleuthing duo. Lots of local western New York color mixes with amusing characters in a mystery sure to delight." --Kirkus Reviews