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Read by Cassandra Morris
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In this tooth-rotting adventure, Cass’s mom has been kidnapped by the evil dessert chef and chocolatier, Señor Hugo! The ransom…the legendary tuning fork. Can Cass and Max-Ernest find the magical instrument before it’s too late? Will they discover the evil secret ingredient to Señor Hugo’s chocolate success?
If you’re tempted, take a taste, but just remember…this book is not good for you.
Table of Contents
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good snap… melts a hint of blackberry… mmm… yes… strong is it cardamom? velvety mouth-feel… finish… mmm…
mmmmm… smoothly on the tongue… yet earthy underneath… note of… cinnamon and—or maybe licorice?… not too sweet… lovely must have another…
Oh. It's you.
For a second, I thought it was—well, never mind what I thought.
The question is: what am I going to do with you?
You see, I'm—nbot quhgbite rlaaeady—
Sorry, my mouth was full. What I was trying to say was: I'm not quite ready for you. I'm very busy. Didn't you see the DO NOT DISTURB sign?
What am I doing? Something important. That's what.
Well, if you must know, I'm eating chocolate. But it's not like it sounds! Trust me. It's work. Research.
This book is all about chocolate. And—ykuh wounbrldbnt wrannt—sorry, I couldn't resist another bite—you wouldn't want me to write about something I didn't know about, would you?
What's that? You wouldn't expect anything else from me?
Great. Thanks for the vote of confidence.
Let me tell you something: I'm not the same scared writer I used to be, and I'm not going to take any guff from you. I have other readers now. Grateful readers. Readers who know how to treat an author.
Take this extra-large box of extra-dark, extra-expensive, extra-delicious chocolates that I'm eating right now. Not to toot my own horn but a fan sent it to me as a present.
For P.B.—the best writer in the world, said the note.
What? It must be a trick? Nobody would say that about me and mean it?
OK, out—now! There's no way I'm going to write this book with you sitting there insulting me.
I'll tell you what: on my desk, there's a chapter I just finished. It's supposed to come much later in the book, but you might as well read it now while I continue… researching.
It will be like a prologue, an amuse-bouche, if you will—something to tickle your palate before the real meal arrives. *
Speaking of meals, which chocolate shall I have next? The caramel nougat or the raspberry ganache…?
Eeny meeny miny moe…
A bird poked his head through the iron bars and nudged the arm of the girl on the other side. The bird was bright green with a red chest, yellow crest, and big, begging eyes.
"Patience, my friend!" said the girl. "My gosh, you are a greedy bird!"
(In reality, she was speaking French and what she said was: "Patience, mon ami! Zut alors, tu es un oiseau avide!" But the French version is a little less polite.)
Laughing, the girl opened her hand and revealed a small broken piece of chocolate—the same color as her delicate skin.
The bird swallowed it whole, then looked at her beseechingly.
"Sorry, that's all I could get today."
The bird squawked—whether in thanks or in protest, it was hard to tell—and then flew away, his long tail waving in the wind.
"You should be bringing me food. I'm the one in the birdcage!" the girl called after him as he disappeared into the dense jungle.
Glum, she sat down on the pile of old newspapers that served as her bed—and as the only source of entertainment in her cement cell. The bird was a pest but his visits were the highlight of her day. There was nothing to look forward to now.
"Look alive, Simone!"
One of the guards, the large humorless woman named Daisy, stepped up to her cage. "They want you again."
Already? Simone wondered. It had only been an hour since the last time.
They were waiting for her in the Tasting Room.
The three of them, as always, sitting in those tall silver chairs behind that long marble table. In their bright white lab coats. And bright white gloves.
They'd never introduced themselves, but she had names for them: The tan man with the silver hair, she called him the Doctor. The beautiful blond woman with the frozen smile, she was the Barbie Doll. And the blind man behind the dark sunglasses, he was the Pirate.
They were like a tribunal. Like judges.
Only, weirdly, it was her judgment they were waiting for.
She sat down opposite them on the low stone bench. The one that made her feel about two feet tall.
Always the same routine. First, they made her drink a glass of water. Twice distilled water without any trace minerals, they'd explained. Absolutely tasteless. To cleanse her palate.
Then the Pirate placed in front of her a small square of chocolate on a plain white plate.
A Palet d'Or, he called it. A pillow of gold. *
And then they waited in silence for her response.
They said she was a supertaster. Somebody with double the usual number of taste buds in her tongue. But she knew it was more than that. **
For as long as she remembered she'd been able to detect subtle differences in flavors.
Was the honey made from orange blossoms or clover? Clover. Blackberry or boysenberry? Gooseberry. Was that lemon thyme or lemon verbena? Neither, it was lemongrass.
She was like one of those virtuosos who can play an entire symphony by ear the first time they sit at a piano. She had the taste equivalent of perfect pitch.
Now, in this cold room so far from home, she looked down at the Palet d'Or. It was dark to the point of blackness, and it had a silky sheen.
Carefully, she nibbled off a corner. And closed her eyes.
For weeks they'd been making her try darker and darker pieces. Some so chocolaty and dense they were like dirt. Some so intensely flavorful they were like a jolt.
But this was something else altogether. It was like ultra chocolate. The quintessence of chocolate.
It was the best thing she'd ever tasted.
And the worst.
Tears streamed down her face as she experienced a lifetime of emotions all at once.
The taste of the chocolate—the tastes, that is, because the chocolate tasted of so many things—took her back to her childhood. To her family's old cacao farm in the rainforest.
In flashes, she remembered the gnarled roots of the cacao trees and the damp, fragrant earth.…
She remembered the flowers… those little pink flowers that bloomed year-round… not on branches… but right on the trunks of the cacao trees… as if each tree had come down with a case of flowery measles…
And she remembered the pods… red and yellow… like fiery sunsets… they looked as if they might contain alien spores or perhaps hives of evil fairies… but inside was the sweet sticky pulp that she loved to squish and squeeze between her hands…
And the seeds… she couldn't believe people made something as wonderful as chocolate from those sour little seeds… but soon she could identify any variety at a glance… the fragile Criollos… the purple Forasteros… *
How happy she'd felt on the farm…! How safe…!
And then came that terrible day… the arrival of the three glamorous strangers… asking how she knew so much about chocolate… praising her tasting powers… promising a better future…
And then the crying as she was taken from her parents…
The gradual realization that she was a prisoner…
That her life was not her own…
"It's working!" exulted the Barbie Doll. "Look at her face!"
"She does seem to be… reacting," said the Doctor more cautiously. "Simone, can you tell us what you are tasting? What you are seeing?"
"Yes, tell us!" urged the Pirate, clenching his gloved fist. "Have I found my recipe at last? Is this my chocolate?"
Simone opened her mouth to respond but—
Suddenly, she couldn't see. She couldn't hear. She couldn't even feel her arm.
All her senses were gone.
She tried to scream but she made no sound.
What was happening to her?
What awful thing had she just eaten?
Max-Ernest sneezed so violently his spiky hair quivered for a full five seconds after he was done.
"Hey, did you notice—did I blink?"
He looked down at his friend Cassandra, who was crouched next to him, her pointy ears sticking out above her long braids.
"I read that every time you sneeze, you blink. So I always try to see if I can keep my eyes open."
"Sorry, wasn't looking…," Cass muttered.
She had long ago learned to ignore half of what Max-Ernest said. A necessary survival skill if you were going to be best friends with the most talkative boy in town.
"Now what do soup mix and pest control have to do with each other…?"
She was trying to read words scrawled on a cardboard box, but most had been crossed out:
TEDDY BEARS AND TOY MICE
Catchers mitt and opera glasses
Dried flowers, flies for fly fishing, dried flies (real)
Canned tuna/ soup mix/ pest control
"Uh-oh, I think I have to—ka-chew!" Max-Ernest sneezed again. "It's the dust mites, I'm allergic—"
Cass pushed the box aside—it wasn't the one she was looking for—and stood up. Suddenly, she was a good half foot taller than her companion.
"Oh right, how could I forget a single one of your hundred allergies?"
"What do you mean? There's only sixty-three—that I know of," Max-Ernest corrected, not picking up on her sarcasm. "Let's see, there's wheat, walnuts, peanuts, pecans, strawberries, shellfish… oh, and chocolate, of course!"
"C'mon," said Cass, moving on to a box behind the one she'd just been looking at. "Are you going to help me find this thing or what?"
It was summertime and Cass was working afternoons at her grandfathers' antiques store:
THE FIRE SALE
EVERYTHING YOU EVER NEVER WANTED!
as it was identified on the front door.
As readers of certain unmentionable books will recall, the store was housed on the bottom floor of an old redbrick fire station. Cass's grandfathers, Larry and Wayne, lived upstairs, and every day they crammed their store with more and more stuff. Last year, Cass remembered, the store had already seemed like a maze, but at least there'd been enough space to walk between the shelves. Now you had to climb over piles of junk just to get from one part of the room to another.
Cass had told her mother that she was working at the Fire Sale to save money for a new bicycle, but that wasn't exactly true. It wasn't her only reason for working anyway.
In fact, she had an ulterior motive.
She was looking for a box. A special box she knew to be somewhere in her grandfathers' store. And considering there were at least a thousand boxes in the store, not to mention all the things that were unboxed, she figured she would need all summer to find the one she was looking for.
Today, her grandfathers had taken their dog, Sebastian, to the vet, and Cass was taking advantage of the time to redouble her search. Max-Ernest had graciously agreed to assist.
Or more precisely, had reluctantly agreed to keep her company.
He was used to his survivalist friend's quixotic quests, whether she was searching for toxic waste under the school yard or killer mold under the cafeteria sink. * But this particular search, he felt, was particularly hopeless.
"What makes you think the box is still here?" he asked, not moving from his perch on top of a pile of old encyclopedias.
"You know my grandfathers—they never throw anything away." She closed up the next box and moved on to another.
Max-Ernest looked around the store and shook his head. "I think they have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. It's clinical."
Cass bristled. She loved her grandfathers and couldn't stand anyone criticizing them—except possibly herself. "Does everybody have to have a condition? Can't they just like stuff?"
"So why can't you just ask them where it is?"
"Are you crazy? They'd tell my mom for sure."
"But we don't even know what it looks like. This whole thing doesn't make any sense—"
"I know it says, 'Handle With Care.' And there's a hole cut in the cardboard."
"Like if you were carrying a cat?"
Max-Ernest wasn't very good at feelings, whether his own or anybody else's. But he noticed that Cass's ears—always a reliable emotional thermometer—were turning bright red.
The box was obviously a sensitive subject.
Indeed, it had been less than six months since Cass had discovered her mother's secret:
That her mother had not given birth to her.
That she was adopted.
That she was a "foundling," as her grandfathers put it.
That Cassandra wasn't even her real name. *
The story went like this:
The Arrival of Baby Cassandra
A not-so-long-ish time ago in a place not-so-farish away, there lived two not-so-very-old-ish men.
These two men loved collecting things so much that their home filled to the brim with odds and ends and this and that and a lot of bric-a-brac, too.
Knowing the men's acquisitive habits, the neighboring townsfolk were always leaving boxes on their doorstep. Their home was the home of last resort.
Usually, the boxes contained broken musical instruments or mismatched china or outgrown clothing.
Objects. Things. Stuff.
One fateful day, however, the men opened a box on their doorstep and discovered something altogether different. Instead of baby clothing, they found a baby.
An actual. Living. Breathing. Baby.
The men didn't know what to do. Of course, of all things in the world, a baby is the one thing most people would want to keep. But as tenderhearted as these men were, they knew that their home was a difficult and dangerous place to raise a child. There were far too many things to pull and poke and break and burn and rip and ruin.
Luckily, a friend was visiting at the time. This friend, a very smart and successful but also very lonely woman, had just been telling them how very, very much she wanted a baby of her own. They decided that the baby was meant to be hers.
The friend was Mel, short for Melanie, the woman who would become Cass's mother. That same day, the two men, a certain Larry and a certain Wayne, declared themselves Cass's grandfathers.
And they all lived happily ever after.
When Cass first learned the truth about her origins, she'd been inclined to forgive her mother for not telling her sooner. She knew her mother hadn't wanted even the littlest thing to come between them. And the fact that Cass was adopted was a pretty big thing.
But as the weeks wore on, instead of softening, Cass's feelings had grown increasingly hard. For most of her life, as the child of a single mom, Cass had wondered who her father was. Now she had to wonder who her mother was as well?
The worst part was that her mother didn't seem to have any sympathy for Cass wanting to know who her parents were. Her birth parents, Cass agreed to call them. Oh, her mother said she had sympathy. She said she understood. But she wouldn't do anything about it.
With a normal adoption, you could march over to the adoption agency and demand to know the names of your birth parents. ("Sure, when you turn eighteen," her mother repeatedly reminded her. "Until then, the records are sealed.") Because Cass had been dropped on a doorstep, there was no agency to consult.
To Cass the answer was simple: hire a detective. But her mother refused. Even when Cass said she'd give up her allowance for a year.
So, not for the first time, Cass decided to play detective herself.
"Please help me," said Cass. "You have no idea what it's like not to know who your parents are. Your parents fight over you every second of your life."
"I said OK, didn't I?"
Max-Ernest made a big show of examining a shoebox on the shelf in front of him. "You think a baby could fit in this—?"
"What if it was a midget baby—"
"You know what—why don't you just leave?"
Before Max-Ernest could respond:
It was the sound of something very heavy dropping on the ground. Followed by a loud insistent pounding on the front door.
*I COULDN'T DECIDE WHETHER THE EVENTS THAT TRANSPIRED IN CASS'S GRANDFATHERS' STORE SHOULD BE PRESENTED AS ONE CHAPTER OR TWO. SO I MADE IT ONE CHAPTER IN TWO PARTS. THAT'S WHAT'S KNOWN AS SPLITTING THE DIFFERENCE.
Again. And more pounding.
"Who is that?" Max-Ernest whispered, pale. "I thought the store was closed."
Cass shrugged, trying her best to look unconcerned. But she abandoned the box she'd been inspecting and stood up all the same. "Probably somebody unloading their old junk on my grandfathers, like usual."
Louder this time. They both flinched.
"Yeah, but what if it isn't?" said Max-Ernest, staring at the front door. "There's no time to get a message to the Terces Society."
Cass's ears tingled in alarm at the mention of their secret organization. "Shh! You never know who's listening."
"That's my point," Max-Ernest whispered. "The Midnight Sun could be right outside the door, for all we know. How 'bout that?"
Cass looked at him, her ears now turning cold.
Max-Ernest was right. The terrible truth was: they had done such a good job of driving away their enemies they no longer knew where their enemies were.
It had been months since they'd last seen the Midnight Sun's malevolent leaders, Ms. Mauvais and Dr. L, flying away from a mountaintop graveyard in a black helicopter, and despite the Terces Society's best efforts, they'd been unable to determine where that helicopter had gone.
Those insidious, invidious, and perfectly perfidious alchemists could be anywhere.
"Maybe they've been waiting all this time for your grandfathers to leave," Max-Ernest continued. "And now they're going to seize their chance to take revenge on us."
Cass didn't say anything; she didn't have to.
They waited another minute or so—it felt much longer—but there were no more thunks. Just the usual ticks and tocks and whirs and beeps of the many old clocks and assorted gizmos that cluttered the store.
Then they started tiptoeing toward the front door.
They froze. This time the sounds came from inside.
Had somebody broken in?
Grabbing each other's hands, they started turning around in slow circles (although whether they were looking for the sources of the sounds or for someplace to hide I'm not certain).
Finally, Max-Ernest pointed to the floor—
At his feet were the broken pieces of a ceramic rooster he'd knocked over. That was what had made all the noise. Well, those last noises. The bang and the crash. The thunking and pounding remained to be explained.
They waited another minute. Nothing.
Cass cracked the front door open—
And they breathed matching sighs of relief.
Cass's first guess had been correct: there were three cardboard boxes waiting for them on the landing.
They wouldn't have to battle the Midnight Sun, after all. Not right now anyway.
"Let's see," Cass said, expertly shaking the boxes one by one. "Shoes—hope they don't stink too bad… shirts—all stained probably… magazines…"
After struggling to find places in which to squeeze the new merchandise, Cass resumed searching for the cardboard box that had been her very first home.
Max-Ernest, meanwhile, sat back down on his encyclopedia pile and started flipping through the box of magazines. There were many kinds, some recent, some going back years. Sadly for Max-Ernest, there were no puzzle books or magic manuals or science magazines (the three things he was looking for in order of preference).
He was about to close up the box when he noticed a magazine that had been buried near the bottom.
"Hey, look at this—it's from last week."
"We? Since when do you care about We?" Cass laughed. "That's like all celebrity gossip and stuff. Have you even heard of the names in it?"
"I've heard of the Skelton Sisters—"
He walked over to Cass and thrust the magazine under her nose.
The cover of We showed two skinny blond girls—the twin teen superstars known as the Skelton Sisters—who just happened to be two of the youngest members of the Midnight Sun. (Most members were much older, as in hundreds of years older.) They were smiling dumbly at the camera, one of them holding an unhappy-looking baby—as far away from her body as possible.
Cass smirked. "She looks like the baby just peed on her or something."
She opened the magazine to an article headlined:
Twin Hearts IN AFRICA:
THE SKELTON SISTERS' LATEST ROCK TOUR
IS A GOODWILL MISSION.
A two-page picture showed the twins standing with a nun in a white habit. Surrounding them were a dozen grinning children.
And in the background: a bright green bird with a long tail flying into the jungle.
Cass read the caption aloud:
Romi and Montana Skelton with Sister Antoinette at the Loving Heart Orphanage in the Cote d'Ivoire. The self-supporting orphanage runs a cacao plantation on which all the children lend a hand. "It's a wonderful learning experience, like an open-air classroom," says Sister Antoinette. "And of course at the end of the day there's always plenty of chocolate for everyone!"
Cass looked up from the magazine, shaking her head. "Can you believe they were at an orphanage? Probably they just went to have their photo taken… Hey, wait a second—we know this nun!"
"I doubt it," said Max-Ernest. "I don't know any nuns. I mean, unless I know a nun but I don't know I do—"
"Well, you know this one."
Max-Ernest stared. "Oh no, is that who I think it is?"
Cass nodded, excited. "Can you imagine anybody less likely to be a nun than Ms. Mauvais?"
"So we found the Midnight Sun? How 'bout that?"
Cass grinned. "How 'bout that? We have to tell everybody right away!"
"Tell us what? We're dying to know!"
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- Sep 1, 2009
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