Neil Flambé and the Tokyo Treasure
Chapter One Manga Mania
Neil Flambé leaned back in his chair and watched the final panel of The Chef fade to black on the laptop screen. His arms hung limply at his sides and his jaw was practically touching his chest. A thousand thoughts were going through his head. Some of them weren’t about food, which was unusual. Neil was possibly the best chef in the world, and he was certainly the best teenage chef in the world. Food was his oxygen and it took a lot to distract him.
“What the heck was that . . .?” he said under his breath. He gave his head a shake.
Neil’s cousin Larry peeked over the top of the laptop and smiled. “So, waddya think of my manga?”
There was always a little risk in asking Neil what he thought, because he was never shy about answering the question honestly, and loudly. That was one of the
many reasons why he had so many enemies.
But this time, Neil wasn’t sure what he thought about Larry’s latest, and possibly craziest, project, his online manga comic, The Chef.
“Well?” Larry said, wiggling his eyebrows hopefully. At least that’s what Neil thought he was doing. It was hard to see anything under Larry’s shaggy hair.
Larry was Neil’s older cousin and also his sous-chef, and Neil knew all too well that “crazy projects” and Larry went together like chocolate and chilies. Larry had recently made a foray into the fashion world with his line of me-shirts—T-shirts with messages printed on the inside, so only the person wearing it had any idea what it said. He was always studying some foreign language or trying out some new art project—usually in an effort to impress a pretty face.
Neil could never quite figure out how Larry ever slept. Then again, considering how much coffee Larry consumed—maybe he didn’t sleep at all.
Now Larry was trying to get Neil’s opinion of The Chef, and Neil was searching for an answer.
Neil’s immediate reaction was at least partly annoyance. He was a little unhappy that the main character bore a striking, and unauthorized, resemblance to a certain teenage wonder chef. And the young woman looked like
their friend Isabella Tortellini, but in a skimpy Japanese schoolgirl costume.
Neil wondered if Isabella had seen the comic. He assumed not, since Larry was still alive.
“Let me guess. It’s SO good that you’re at a loss for words,” Larry said with a satisfied grin. “The words you’re looking for, by the way, are ‘amazing’, ‘cool’, and ‘wow.’ Feel free to use them.”
The words Neil was coming up with, though, were slightly different—“annoyed” and maybe “confused.” Did he like the story? Did he hate it? Was it any good? He didn’t know. He couldn’t concentrate on much past his shock at the whole situation. After all, Neil had only found out about the comic yesterday. Larry had dumped the news of its existence on him like a bombshell along with other, even more explosive, news—Larry was leaving.
Apparently, Larry and his collaborator Hiro Takoyaki had been posting an online version of The Chef for months. Larry wrote the story. Hiro did the pictures. The Chef had become a viral sensation and now a Japanese book company was offering them a book deal, but the editors wanted the manuscript ASAP—and suddenly Larry had himself a one-way ticket to Tokyo, courtesy of his partner.
Neil had not looked or sounded happy about this unexpected news. On the other hand, as Larry pointed out, Neil rarely looked or sounded happy.
“Yes, real amazing literature that will soon be a real book.” Larry beamed, more than happy to fill the void left by Neil’s silence. “And to think it all started with a
chance meeting at a comic book convention. Hiro, an illustrator in search of a poet, and me, a poet in search of an illustrator. A match made in manga heaven. But don’t worry—I’ll try to remember you little people when I’m at the Hollywood premiere of the film version of The Chef.”
Neil hated to admit it, but he was going to miss Larry. A lot. The pair had just returned from a trip to Paris where they’d been seconds away from dying together on top of a crazy woman’s skyscraper. (The woman, Jeanne Valette, had been part of an elaborate thousand-year-old plot against the Flambé family—a plot foiled by Neil and his friends.) With that now in the past, Neil had hoped he and Larry could return to their restaurant forever.
That was also part of his hesitation in giving Larry an answer. If Neil said he liked it, would that encourage Larry to leave? But if he said he hated it, would that convince Larry to stay? Not likely. Neil changed the subject. “Explain, again, why can’t you keep writing this comic from here?”
“It’ll be way faster if Hiro and I are working together side by side. The publisher wants original stories and artwork by the end of next month, so with time zones and e-mail and stuff it’s just way easier to do it in person. He lives right on the coast south of Tokyo. It’s beautiful.” Larry sighed.
Neil nodded slowly. “Ah . . . cute sister?”
Larry’s grin grew improbably bigger. “Her name’s Koko. But HE sent me the ticket, remember.”
“Why do the characters look so, shall we say, familiar? I’ve never met this Hiro guy.”
Larry shrugged. “You think the Chef looks like you?”
Neil arched an eyebrow. “Is that a joke?”
Larry smiled. “I showed Hiro some pictures of all of us. I guess he liked the way we looked. I know I’m handsome.”
“For a sheepdog, maybe.”
“Woof. And anyway, that’s still not an answer. What do you think of the manga?”
Neil stalled for more time while he marshaled his thoughts. An ornate wooden clock above the door chimed two o’clock. Two tiny chefs came out of little doorways and began tenderizing a carved side of beef with tiny mallets. Larry had made the clock in wood shop. He wasn’t technically in the class, but the teacher, Caroline Dubois, had been giving him private lessons.
“Um, it’s time to prep for dinner,” Neil mumbled, standing up.
Larry didn’t budge.
“Hey, Gary’s on it,” Larry said, wagging his thumb over his shoulder toward the kitchen. Gary was the bike courier/drifter that Larry had hired as his own replacement at Chez Flambé. Neil thought Gary looked like a shabbier version of Larry (if that was even possible).
Neil could hear Gary humming away, occasionally washing some vegetable or other and even chopping a few onions. Maybe it was a good thing Neil couldn’t see him. He had a sneaking
suspicion Gary’s so-called “experience” with cooking was limited to shoplifting candy bars and beef jerky.
“Fine. If you say so,” Neil said, sitting back down with a thump. Neil had no patience to train another sous-chef. He was sure he’d have to fire Gary sooner rather than later, and searching for a better assistant was going to take him time he didn’t have. But he was going to have to make it work for now—he desperately needed to reopen and start making money. Fighting Valette had not been cheap. She’d even arranged for a fake food poisoning scandal and bad reviews—a possibly lethal combination for a restaurant. And Neil had to admit, to himself, that Gary’s presence was one more concrete sign that Larry was, in fact, leaving.
Larry snapped his fingers in front of Neil’s face. “Hey, chef-boy, wake up. What do you think of The Chef?”
“I think . . .” Neil slipped back into silence for a few more seconds.
He wanted to say he hated it, that it was all a stupid idea, and that Larry should stick to cooking, with Neil, in Chez Flambé.
But it didn’t stink. In fact, it was pretty good. Praise was never an easy thing for Neil to dole out. So when he did open his mouth, it wasn’t praise that came out.
“Avocado,” Neil said, finally.
Larry rolled his eyes. “I think you meant awesome. It’s pronounced AWE-SOME,” Larry said with a smile, shutting the lid of the laptop with a flourish.
“No, I meant avocado.”
“Av-o-ca-do,” Larry repeated slowly. “Sorry, don’t get it.”
Neil sighed. “What I mean is, why does the Chef have an exploding avocado?”
“Duh, because it’s cool.”
Neil shook his head and leaned forward in his chair. “No. It’s wrong. A pomegranate would make more sense. It’s got a harder shell and would make a way better explosive.”
“Um, okay.” Larry looked skeptical.
“The way Hiro draws the chef’s grenade doesn’t even make sense.”
“How do you mean?”
“He’s got the thing exploding all over the place, but an avocado just has one big seed.” Neil grew more animated. “Think of all the pips inside a really ripe pomegranate, not one of those stringy things you get at the market, but a really good one from Iran. If I grabbed an avocado the way the Chef is holding the one in the comic, I’d end up with instant guacamole running through my fingers. You should replace the avocado with a pomegranate.”
Larry rubbed his stubbly chin and considered. “Naw. I still think the avocado sounds better. ‘I will attack you with my atomic avocado’ is way better than ‘pelt you with my potent pomegranate.’”
“Ax the avocado.” Neil stood up suddenly, sniffing the air.
Larry seemed surprised. “What? That’s it?”
“Um, no . . . the manga . . . it’s not bad,” Neil said, walking past Larry toward the doorway.
“Ooooh,” Larry said. “Maybe the publisher will let me put that on the cover. ‘Celebrity Chef Neil Flambé
says it’s not bad’! A blurb like that could sell tens of copies.”
But Neil ignored his cousin. Something was distracting him—a smell from the kitchen. A smell that, like Larry’s web comic, unexpectedly didn’t stink.