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Neil Flambé and the Crusader’s Curse Black Birds
Every night, around dinnertime, all the crows in Vancouver fly east, abandoning downtown for the surrounding suburbs and their hills. It’s an amazing sight, a sky filled with cawing black birds, moving over the houses and parks like an enormous living storm cloud. No one knows for sure why they do this. Some believe they sense night is coming on, and bad things happen in the city at night.
Neil Flambé, on his fifteenth birthday, burst out of the back door of his kitchen and into the alleyway behind his restaurant, Chez Flambé. He was hyperventilating. His eyes were wide with panic. A crow gave a loud caw and Neil glanced toward the sky. As he gulped desperately for air he watched the birds pass over his head, momentarily blocking out the setting sun. He felt a chill run down his spine, but it wasn’t the cool evening air. The dark murder of crows seemed to match his mood perfectly.
Neil took a deep breath and tried to calm down. He could hear the Soba twins back in the kitchen calling in more dinner orders. Neil shook as his sense of rising panic returned. He prided himself on running the kitchen like a finely tuned clock, but it didn’t take long for orders to back up—one more disaster he couldn’t deal with right now. The crows continued to stream overhead. His foot tingled. Maybe he could just run away? No. Yes. What was going on? “Calm down!” he yelled at himself.
His birthday had not gone well. He’d gotten into fights with his girlfriend, Isabella; his cousin, Larry; and his mentor, Angel. Of course, that wasn’t so different from an ordinary day. But what had just happened was so shocking he could scarcely believe it.
The first group of customers had arrived early for their dinners at the grand reopening of the newly (and expensively) renovated Chez Flambé. They’d arrived to new tables, new engraved silverware, new linen, new dishes, and wonderful food.
Neil had cooked and served them a dozen of his latest creations, perfectly balanced and chosen for the occasion: mouthwatering mushroom risottos, succulent zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese and fried in olive oil, perfect pesto and Manchego cheese pizzas. He’d even allowed himself a smile at the thought of the compliments that would soon come flooding back through his gleaming stainless steel kitchen doors.
Instead, what had come back to the kitchen were at least half of the plates.
The customers had sent their dinners back.
Neil had to say it out loud to himself again now to actually believe it. “They sent their dinners back. They sent my dinners back.”
Amber and Zoe, his twin waitresses, had barely whispered the complaints.
“Something tastes off.”
“Tastes like a can.”
What? These dishes were prepared by Neil Flambé, not some hack with a hot plate! Neil had sniffed each dish closely. His incredible sense of smell—his secret weapon in the kitchen—had told him that his dishes were exactly as he had intended them. He even stuck his wooden spoon into the risotto and scooped out a huge mouthful.
It was, as he expected, sublime. “Those idiots must be drunk,” Neil said.
“I thought the customer was always right,” Neil’s cousin, Larry, called back from the sink where he was busy washing some carrots and zucchini.
“I thought the sous-chef was always quiet,” Neil shot back.
“Yes, chef.” Larry sighed and turned his attention back to the vegetables.
Still, Neil had to admit Larry had a point. Customers paid his bills, and those bills were huge. Neil gritted his teeth. “Tell them I’ll send a fresh order out ASAP,” he hissed to the twins.
Neil prepared the dishes exactly as he had the time before, sniffing at each tiny step to be certain that the dish was up to his exacting standard. The twins carried out the dishes with Neil’s assurance that they were perfect.