Chapter 1: Gone with the Wind 1 GONE WITH THE WIND
Six months later
JUSTIN LI DID NOT LOOK pleased.
“So nobody took my money,” he said, frowning up at us from the driver’s seat of his Mazda 3 in the high school parking lot. The wind started up, icy and mean, making my brother Joe and me hug ourselves and look over longingly at our own car, parked a few rows away. It was that depressing part of spring, before it warms up, when it’s just thinking about not being winter anymore.
“Well… no human did,” I corrected Justin with a little chuckle. “Is the wind a ‘body’? Does it have intention? I guess that’s a question for the philosoph—”
“You’re saying the wind blew that huge wad of cash off the table at the café, and then into the river?” he said, clearly finding the situation not the least bit funny.
“That is what the security footage from the car dealership seemed to reveal,” Joe said, lifting up his smartphone for Justin to see. “Would you like to watch it again?”
It had been really hard for us to get that footage, actually, but Justin clearly didn’t care. He shook his head, taking on a thousand-yard stare. I glanced at Joe nervously, and his expression confirmed that he too had noticed what I feared: Justin was going to the dark place. Since Justin was six foot four and at least two hundred pounds, this was troubling.
“All my barista money,” he muttered, his eyes narrowing as he stared past us. “Over four hundy. Do you know how many lattes I had to make? How many ladies I had to argue with about whether I’d put enough vanilla syrup in? That was my guitar money. Do you know how many girls I was going to get with that thing?” When Joe and I didn’t respond quickly enough, Justin looked annoyed, like we weren’t following. “The guitar,” he said.
“I can see you’re disappointed,” I replied, trying to take on the soothing tone my mom uses when she talks me down from a major blow. “But all things considered, isn’t it better that no human took your money? The wind is a bummer, sure, but it’s also a fluke. You don’t have to feel all mopey about the vicissitudes of human nature, or anything like that.”
Justin looked up at me then. From his scowl and the sharp angle of his eyebrows, it was clear he was irritated. “Vississi-what?” he asked.
“Never mind,” Joe said. “Look, Justin, we’re really sorry about your guitar money. Maybe next time, don’t carry so much cash around? And definitely don’t leave it in an envelope on an outdoor café table on a windy day.”
Justin shook his head. “If it was a dude, I could punch him, at least. You can’t punch the wind.”
This is factually untrue, but I decided not to call him on it. He didn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind. “I’m really sorry,” I said.
Justin sighed, then pulled his long legs into his Mazda. “Well, at least I didn’t pay you anything.”
“Yeah,” Joe said dryly. “At least that.”
Justin had closed the door and started up the car by then, so if he picked up on Joe’s tone, he showed no sign of it. He rolled the window back down an inch. “Thanks, I guess,” he said with another sigh before backing out of his parking space and taking off.
Joe and I both watched the spot where Justin’s car had been for a few seconds. I don’t think either of us really knew what to say.
“That was an anticlimax,” Joe finally commented.
“Yeah,” I muttered. “Good thing he didn’t pay us.”
Joe let out a hard snort. “I can’t blame him, though. There’s nothing satisfying about knowing your guitar money’s at the bottom of a muddy river and there’s nobody to blame but yourself.”
I nodded and started walking to our car. Joe followed. “We’ve had a lot of cases like that lately, though,” I complained. “?‘The wind took your money.’ ‘You slipped the note into the wrong locker.’ ‘Oh, she thought that was her guinea pig.’?”
Joe sighed. “So true,” he muttered. “We haven’t solved a real case since Lookout Key.”
After I unlocked the car, we automatically fell into our usual spots, me driving, Joe riding shotgun. I turned the key, and the radio and the heat both sputtered on. The radio was playing the same inescapable Katy Perry song—I swear it had been playing when we’d turned the car off that morning.
“It’s like everything’s on repeat around here. We need some excitement.” I pulled the car out of the spot and drove toward the parking lot exit.
“At least spring break is coming up,” Joe pointed out.
He was right. We had next week off.
“Yeah, and we have such exciting plans.”
Joe glanced at me. “Are you being sarcastic, Frank?”
I nodded. In fact, we had zero plans. “Is it working?”
“No,” Joe said bluntly. “Stop it. I’m the sarcastic one.”
“Maybe it’s time to switch things up,” I suggested. “That’s what we can work on over spring break.”
Joe groaned and looked up at the roof. “Please let something interesting happen before Frank turns into me and I turn into him.”
Back at the Hardy ranch, Aunt Trudy was cooking something in a big pot while she watched a rerun of What’s Your Flavor?, Colton Sparks’s spice-identifying game show.
She whacked her spoon against the side of the pot. “It’s coriander,” she cried as some contestant got buzzed. “Who puts marjoram in chili?”
“Fun fact!” I announced, thunking my backpack down on the kitchen table and startling Aunt Trudy. She looked over at me, less than thrilled, but I continued anyway. “Coriander is another name for cilantro, a common herb in Latin American cooking. Some people carry a gene that makes them unable to taste cilantro’s fresh, piquant flavor. To them, the herb tastes like soap.”
Aunt Trudy sighed. “Of course I know that, Frank. I’m a home chef. Now look, you’ve made me miss the answer.”
“It was coriander,” Joe said. “That Marta lady got it.”
“Hmm,” Aunt Trudy murmured, unimpressed. “She struggled with allspice earlier. Anyway, boys, help yourselves to some zucchini bread. I made too much again.”
“Ooh!” said Joe, running over to the counter and unwrapping a foil-covered block. “Wow, Aunt Trudy. There are four loaves here. And it’s not even zucchini season!”
Trudy nodded absently, focused on her show. “I was noodling with the cinnamon, trying to get the amount right. The one on the left is the best, I think.”
Joe looked at the loaf he’d unwrapped, confirming it was the right one, and then sliced off two generous helpings. He ripped a corner off one and popped it into his mouth.
“Oh yeah.” He moaned. “This is the best zucchini bread I’ve ever had!”
“You say that literally every time you eat zucchini bread,” I pointed out, grabbing a plate and putting my slice on it.
“It’th alwayth true,” Joe replied around a huge bite.
We settled down at the kitchen table as Aunt Trudy’s game show wrapped up. When the winner—Lisa, who’d gotten the coriander question wrong—was announced, Aunt Trudy frowned. Lisa had won a lifetime supply of spices, plus a trip to Puerto Vallarta, the perfect place to finally figure out cilantro, I guessed.
“You should go on one of those shows,” I blurted, before I remembered how touchy that subject was.
Aunt Trudy looked at me and crossed her arms. “I’ve already won the only prize I ever wanted from this network,” she said with a huff. “And it looks like they’re never going to deliver.”
“Still no word from Sparks’s people?” Joe asked. He’d produced a glass of milk from somewhere and began guzzling it, washing down the zucchini bread he’d hoovered.
Aunt Trudy shook her head. “Oh, plenty of words—but they’re always, ‘We’re sorry, Colton’s just too busy’; ‘He’s opening a restaurant in Santa Fe next week’; ‘He’s presenting at the Daytime Emmys’; ‘It’s his Maltipoo’s third birthday party.’?”
“He’s that hard to pin down, huh?” I asked.
Our aunt nodded sadly. “I don’t mean to whine. I’m sure it’s all true, and good for him. I just really was looking forward to that internship.” She shrugged. “But it’s been six months already, and there’s no hope in sight. I’ve been thinking that I should just give up and take the cash prize. Ten thousand dollars is nothing to sneeze at.”
“You could really deck out your kitchen with ten thousand dollars,” Joe pointed out. I realized he was halfway through another slice of zucchini bread.
Aunt Trudy nodded again, looking thoughtful, and then forced a smile. “There is a new pasta-making attachment for the mixer I’ve been wanting.”
“With ten thousand dollars, you could take a trip yourself,” I suggested. “You know, maybe catch up with Lisa in Puerto Vallarta and teach her about coriander?”
Aunt Trudy gave me a wry smile. “Well, there’s the bright side. How are you boys, anyway? I’ve been dominating the conversation. How was your day?”
Joe groaned, and I made a vague gesture like better leave that behind us.
Aunt Trudy laughed. “That good, huh? Well, it’s a good thing spring break is coming up.”
“Yeah,” Joe agreed. “Hey, wanna take us to Puerto Vallarta?”
Aunt Trudy laughed at the same time that the phone began to ring. My parents’ landline had one of those old-school, actual-bell rings that made you jump out of your seat and pay attention. Aunt Trudy shot me an apologetic glance and made the one minute sign, then grabbed the receiver.
“Hello? Hardy residence.”
That was the last time we heard Aunt Trudy speak a complete word for at least five minutes. Her eyes went wide, her jaw dropped, and she began to say “Wha—” and got cut off. She laughed giddily. She shook her head in disbelief.
Joe and I watched this silent telenovela, every so often glancing at each other like, This is good, right? or Should we do something? as we shoved more zucchini bread into our mouths.
When Aunt Trudy finally spoke again, she was wearing a million-watt smile. “That’s… amazing,” she said. “It is rather short notice, but as it happens, I don’t have plans next week. If you can just go over how I get there one more time?”
She grabbed a notebook and began jotting down information, nodding, every so often saying, “Yes… and where does that leave from?”
I looked at Joe. “Wherever she’s going, it sounds a lot more remote than Puerto Vallarta.”
Aunt Trudy was nodding again. “A ferry? I see. And no cars allowed. Got it. And is there cell ser— Okay. Yes. Sure. Like a get-away-from-it-all kind of place.”
Joe raised an eyebrow.
Aunt Trudy let out a happy sigh. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Can I just take the night to discuss it with my family and make plans before committing? Yes… Yes. Okay. Absolutely, I can get back to you by ten a.m. tomorrow.” She paused. “Thank you. Thank you so much. Okay, goodbye.”
She turned away from us to slip the phone back into its cradle. Then she just stood there, letting out the sort of happy sound a teakettle makes right before it boils.
“Aunt Trudy?” I asked. “Is it good news?”
“Such good news!” she cried, turning around with a huge grin. “Speak of the devil, boys. Honestly. I just can’t believe it. That was Colton Sparks’s personal assistant, Gemma.”
Joe nodded. “And…?”
She laughed, as though she still couldn’t quite believe the conversation she’d just had. “He wants me to get on a plane!” she cried. “Not now. Next week. Colton’s apparently hosting the Golden Claw Awards—they’re prestigious awards for chefs’ achievements in preparing seafood.”
“How thrilling,” I said.
Joe scowled at me, and it took a moment for me to realize he thought I was trying to be sarcastic again, but I wasn’t.
In any case, Aunt Trudy didn’t seem to notice. “This year they’re holding the awards on a remote island off the coast of Maine—Rubble Island. There’s a small inn there called the Sea Spray, where Colton is planning to open a new restaurant. Apparently, he’s very taken with the island. According to him, it was farm-to-table out of necessity before farm-to-table was trendy. It’s supposed to be very beautiful. Anyway, he wants me to come and be his intern for the week!”
“Wow!” I said.
“That’s amazing,” Joe said. “It’s kind of short notice, though, isn’t it?”
“Yes, definitely,” Aunt Trudy agreed. “But they’re paying all my expenses. I’d fly to Portland, Maine, and they’d pick me up from there. You have to drive to a small town on the coast and take a ferry.… Oh, and that’s the best part!” She looked excitedly from me to Joe.
“The best part?” I prompted.
Aunt Trudy beamed. “They said I could bring up to four guests! Your father will never take off for that long, and neither will your mother, I’m sure. But I thought—well, the two of you are off school next week, and you were just saying you didn’t have any plans.…”
I looked over at Joe. He raised his eyebrows. “Hmm…”
“What do you think, bro?” I asked. “Do we want to spend spring break eating lobster on a remote island with Colton Sparks?”
Joe grinned. “I can’t believe you even have to ask! When do we leave?”