A fourteen-year-old crime-solving chef finds mayhem in Mexico in this full-flavored mystery.
Teenage wunderchef—and budding detective—Neil Flambé heads to Mexico City to take part in the Azteca Cocina, a two-week battle of the chefs. But he’s off to an unsettling start: His box of secret ingredients contains a note that says his girlfriend, Isabella, has been kidnapped. He must lose in the final, or else she’ll be killed.
Fortunately, Isabella is clever, and the locks of her hair that accompany follow-up ransom notes have been saturated with smells to help him track her down. But even Neil’s keen sense of smell can’t tackle this case alone. He’ll have to delve into Aztec history, symbolism, and the ancient ruins buried under the modern city. And time is ticking….
Three Chapters and Two Weeks Earlier than Chapter Four
It’s not a duel!” Neil Flambé yelled, rattling the pots and pans that hung over his head. People who heard Neil yell were often impressed by how well the fourteen-year-old chef could imitate a bullhorn.
Angel Jícama, however, was unfazed. He just crossed his arms tighter and narrowed his eyes.
“Neil’s right, Angel,” Larry said. “It’s actually more like six duels, spread out over two weeks.”
Neil glared at his cousin. “You’re not helping!” he fumed. He turned back to Angel. “It’s just a TV show!”
Neil, Larry and Angel were in the kitchen of Chez Flambé. Larry and Angel were sitting on stools, watching Neil pace up and down between the stainless-steel counters. Neil was hoping to convince Angel to come to Mexico City as part of his team for the Azteca Cocina.
“I’m just saying that Angel may have a point,” Larry said. “You know what they say ‘If it quacks like a duck, it’s quite often a duck.’”
“If it quacks like a duck and I get my hands on it,” Neil blared, “then it’s duck à l’orange!”
Larry crossed his legs and lifted his hands into some kind of yoga position. “If the words are not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what must be done will not be done.”
Neil stood in open-mouthed silence for a moment. “What the heck does that mean?” he eventually asked.
“It’s Confucius saying if it quacks like a duck it’s a duck, no matter what you say it is,” Larry said with a sombre slow nod, uncrossing his legs.
“It’s confus-ing,” Neil shouted. Then it hit him. “Wait. Let me guess. You’re dating a Confucius scholar?”
“She has a name, you know. It’s Rosetta,” Larry said. As far as Neil could tell, Larry always seemed to have a different girlfriend, with a different area of expertise, and he went to great lengths to impress them. Neil knew that it was one of the main reasons Larry’s head contained so many obscure bits of information.
Neil gave up trying to figure out what this particular bit had to do with whether the Cocina was a duel or not. “I think you need a coffee,” he said. “You’re brain is starting to hiccup through your vocal chords.”
“I always need a coffee,” Larry smiled. “Maybe if you drank some, you’d be able to follow my brilliant train of thought.”
“That train derailed a few stations back.”
“Ouch.” Larry smiled. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Please leave the jokes to me. I’m a professional.”
“A professional idiot!” Neil yelled even louder.
“Yelling! Now that’s something you’re good at.”
Neil grabbed for a paring knife and waved it menacingly at Larry. “Remember what else I’m good at? Preparing and cooking things that quack like ducks.”
“Quack,” Larry said, and then he started to shake with laughter. “Are you seriously threatening me with a whisk?”
Neil looked at his hand. He was sure he’d grabbed the paring knife, but he was indeed holding a wire whisk. He’d have to be more careful, more in control. Why did Larry drive him nuts so easily? He threw the whisk across the room in disgust, and it crashed through the back window. The cats that hung out below meowed their disapproval. Usually Neil threw out food he was unhappy with, not kitchen utensils. The cats hovered in anticipation whenever they heard him raise his voice. They were quite fat.
“Great,” Neil said. “There’s another repair I can’t afford.”
Chez Flambé was not in the best part of town. It had been a rundown fish-’n’-chips shop, slated for demolition when Larry won it in a poker game. It had cost thousands to clean up the layers of grease and calcified fish batter, and there were still plenty of other repairs needed.
Neil shook his head in disbelief, then rubbed his temples and looked at Angel.
“It’s fine if you don’t want to come, but you’re not going to talk me out of going,” Neil said.
“Talk?” Larry said, waving his hand in front of Angel’s scowling face. “I don’t think Angel has said a word in ages, although I think I heard him growl a few minutes ago.”
Angel said nothing.
“Maybe that was his stomach growling,” Larry smiled. “Angel, would you like a snack?”
Angel said nothing, even louder.
Larry chuckled. “I’ll take that as a no.”
Neil stopped in the middle of the floor, his back turned to Larry and Angel. “Look, Angel, I’ve already hired contractors to come renovate the kitchen and the dining room. Amber and Zoë have bought fabric and paint and new chairs. If I close the restaurant for two weeks without making any money, I’ll lose everything. Anyway, this isn’t some grungy little cook-off. This is the big time, a made-for-TV event with real sponsors. I won’t be in any danger and I won’t be putting anybody else in danger.” Neil avoided Angel’s face, but he could easily imagine the look of disapproval that was etched there.
Neil and Angel had had their first real fight over a duel. A little more than a year ago,
Neil had accepted an invitation from a mafia boss in Venice to a chef-versus-chef battle. Neil had asked Angel to be his sous-chef on that adventure, but his mentor had said no. Neil stormed off and took Larry instead. Neil won, but after having a gun waved in his face, he’d been forced to accept only half of the promised cash.
Angel had first-hand experience with the dangers of the seedy side of international cuisine. Years before, he’d taken part in a deadly duel that had left another chef dead—chef Tortellini, Isabella’s father. Angel had immediately quit the high life of haute cuisine, losing himself in back alleys and country markets around the world. He was in search of the real meaning of food, not culinary glory, not anymore.
“I was hoping you might come along this time,” Neil added in an almost whisper. “You know Mexican cuisine almost as well as I do.”
“Almost?” Larry choked. Angel’s family, on his father’s side, was from Southern Mexico—at least according to legend—so Neil was being cockier than usual, if that were even possible.
Angel uncrossed his arms and let out a deep sigh. “Neil,” he said softly. “This isn’t about my past and it isn’t about putting other people in danger. You’ve already shown your willingness to do that to yourself and to Larry.” Neil’s shoulders tensed at the rebuke. “This is about how you continue to waste your gifts on these ego-boosting adventures.”
“What do you mean?” Neil asked.
“Yeah,” Larry added. “Neil’s ego doesn’t need any boosting. Trust me.” He spread his arms wide. “It’s huuuuuuuuuuge.”
Angel waved him off. “I mean this, Neil: Is your cooking great because someone else says it is? Or because it is?”
“I already get plenty of praise. I need the money.”
“There are other ways to get money,” Angel continued.
“Oh, really? From you maybe? You give all yours away!”
This was true. When Angel had returned from his self-proclaimed exile, he hadn’t opened a restaurant. He had a different plan. He now cooked just one dish a year. He practiced and practiced until he felt it was perfect, or as near to perfect as he could achieve. Then he invited a handful of wealthy guests to come to his home and dine with him. They paid handsomely, but Angel gave almost all the money away to the city’s food banks.
“Have you tried hard work and patience?” Angel said.
“Have you tried keeping food fresh in a refrigerator that’s held together by duct tape?”
As if on cue, the compressor on the ancient walk-in fridge spattered and coughed.
Larry walked over and kicked it, and it came back to life. “I did the duct tape,” he said jovially. “Kind of adds a homey touch to the place.”
“I already work hard,” Neil said.
“But you hunger for glory—”
Neil cut him off, speaking quickly. “If I’m hungry, it’s for what I deserve. Someday I’ll be the most famous chef in the world.” He seemed to be talking to himself as much as to Larry and Angel. “I won’t just have one dumpy restaurant, but a whole chain of Michelin-starred Chez Flambés. I’ll be cooking with the best ingredients and not worrying about how much it costs. I’ll have the best of the best.” He turned to face Angel. “I want it fast. I don’t want to be stuck here the rest of my life watching Larry fix things with his feet.”
Angel walked over to Neil and placed his hand on his shoulder. “I didn’t say patience was easy. But in the end, it is more rewarding. Believe me. You need to look inside yourself to see what it is you want. Fame and riches are easy goals. Can you search for something deeper?”
“The only deep thing I care about is my deep fryer,” Neil said, shaking off Angel’s hand.
“No matter how successful and rich you become, you will not be happy,” Angel said, walking toward the back door, “unless you have happiness and peace inside you.”
“That’s crazy,” Neil said. “I’m already great, and unhappy. I’ll be happy and peaceful enough when I’m great and rich and famous.”
The sound of sudden drizzle and wet cats wafted in through the broken window. Angel stopped and put on his raincoat. As he began to unfurl his umbrella he said, “I have lived this life that you want so desperately and have lived it to the end. It leads to misery and death. It took one life, and almost took my soul. I do not want it to take yours.”
He walked out the door and disappeared into the late-summer mist.
Neil stomped over and slammed the door shut. The fridge sputtered and coughed again. He was so frustrated he almost wanted to cry. He respected Angel. Angel had always been there for him, even more than his own parents. But what he was asking of Neil, what he was always asking, wasn’t fair. He wanted Neil to be content with this dump, with making great food for small crowds, with squirreling away small change when he could be charging top dollar at a ritzy downtown location.
Just because Angel had screwed up his own life didn’t mean Neil would. He was Neil Flambé, after all. He wouldn’t make the same mistakes as Angel. He’d learn from them, but he wouldn’t repeat them. He was great, and he was going to become even greater.
He stood up straight. “Larry, kick that fridge again and grab some scallions and garlic. Dinner service starts in four hours. Let’s prep.”
“You got it, Neil. Anything else I can do?”
“If you really want to be useful, why don’t you start dating a chef who’s an expert in Mexican cuisine?”
“Her name is Juanita. I’m meeting her for dinner next week.”
Kevin Sylvester is an award-winning writer, illustrator, and broadcaster. His books include MiNRS, MiNRS 2, the Neil Flambé series, Gold Medal for Weird, and Sports Hall of Weird. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.
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More books in this series: The Neil Flambe Capers
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