Chapter 9:

Menu 8: A Heated Confrontation

BON APPETIT! Gourmet Battle Girls

Takashi Shirogane scowled as he noticed the news report.Bookmark here

A picture of a smiling Bunzaemon Furukawa, standing alongside the chef of Scarlett—the same restaurant that she worked at—was front and center on the website for Japan’s leading weekly food news magazine. “The Master Uncovers a Hidden Gem!” read the headline. And sure enough, as he scrolled down, there she was. She had the same smirky smile as her father did; the man whose death overshadowed the loss of his beloved Hibiki.Bookmark here

The screen vanished and was replaced with a phone call notification from the Shirogane Group’s main real estate agent. “This is Shirogane,” Takashi said, his voice bored.Bookmark here

“Good morning, sir…I’m pretty sure you saw the news already,” said the agent, rather hesitantly. “The building owner came back to me with a resounding ‘no’ to our offer, so…looks like we’ll have to switch to redevelopment plan B.”Bookmark here

“Right. Whatever.” Takashi said. He was fuming. “I give my authorization to do so.”Bookmark here

“Are you all right, sir?”Bookmark here

“I will talk to you later.”Bookmark here

Takashi pressed the End Call icon so hard he felt the screen protector flex underneath his finger. He turned to a leather bound planner on his desk and opened it up to his social calendar to take his mind off things when he noticed one particular entry. On the listing for Friday night was a gala dinner for the Muses Awards, which were given out to the best Western plays and theater companies in the region. He was on the board for the Muses Awards’ parent organization. Months ago he had booked the space and a catering company to feed the partygoers, but then an idea crossed his mind.Bookmark here

Perhaps…I should see how well she performs under pressure, he thought.Bookmark here

With that, he picked up his phone and called the catering company. “I’m afraid I will have to cancel the contract to provide dinner for the Muses Awards,” he said after introducing himself to the secretary.Bookmark here

“Sir, you do realize that the deposit is non-refundable,” the secretary said.Bookmark here

“I do realize it. I apologize for the short notice but something has come up that has caused me to change plans.” Takashi smiled.Bookmark here

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I was still riding the high from last night’s star studded Gourmet Battle when I arrived at the culinary arts building for lab. Everyone’s eyes were on me and there was a lot of whispering.Bookmark here

“Can you believe it?”Bookmark here

“It’s unreal. He’s like, what, ninety?”Bookmark here

“I think I’m gonna go to that restaurant with my boyfriend if the food there’s that good.”Bookmark here

I tried not to let it get to me, but I definitely felt like I was wearing a long velvet cape with ermine trim, supported by footmen as I strode into the building, ready to start my day.Bookmark here

“Congratulations, Sempai,” said a familiar voice.Bookmark here

I turned to see Momoko Ijuuin leaning against the wall outside one of the second year classrooms. Her quilted knife roll was in her hand, and she was smacking it against the palm of her hand, as if it was a riding crop or billy club.Bookmark here

“Thank you, Momo-chan,” I said.Bookmark here

She looked at me with a disgusted expression. “You must think you’re so special. How’d you get Furukawa-sensei to battle you anyway?”Bookmark here

“It was chance and happenstance, okay?” I snapped back. “I had no idea he even knew about me.”Bookmark here

Momoko snorted and went into her classroom. I was taken aback. The footmen dropped my velvet cape in the mud, and I went upstairs to the lab, bewildered.Bookmark here

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“Hey, Vanilla-chan, are you all right?”Bookmark here

“Huh?”Bookmark here

I had spent most of my morning in lab staring at an empty notebook, trying to write down and sketch various combinations and tastes that I had in mind, but my thoughts were just empty and filled with uncertainty. Salma had seen the expression on my face and came over.Bookmark here

“You look worried about something.”Bookmark here

“It’s just…last night, and then…”Bookmark here

I told her about last night’s battle and how Momoko reacted. She nodded sagely.Bookmark here

“There’s always going to be people in your life that are jealous of you, no matter the circumstances,” Salma said. “They feel like they missed out on something and decide to take it out on the person who has the most. At least, that’s what I always felt.”Bookmark here

“It’s just…I have this nagging feeling that…” I felt my stomach lurch, as Momoko’s words had brought an uncomfortable feeling to the surface. “What people say about me is true that I’m not in the position where I am if it wasn’t for my father.”Bookmark here

Salma nodded. “I know how you feel. It’s like that for me, too.”Bookmark here

“Really?”Bookmark here

“But at least it’s your career and not what you were born into…” Salma’s face grew dark and distant.Bookmark here

“Can I ask you something, Salma-chan?” I said, quietly.Bookmark here

“What?”Bookmark here

“Why are you here, exactly? Are you trying to run away from something?”Bookmark here

She paled for a second, then swallowed. “I’d rather not talk about it right now. I’m sorry. I don’t trust you enough yet.”Bookmark here

Before I could say anything, she walked away towards another corner of the room. I blew that one, I muttered, looking back to my open notebook and playing with the button on my mechanical pencil.Bookmark here

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I could barely concentrate, so I decided a change of scenery was in order, and headed to the Umami Gakuen library. It’s a huge multi-story building with three whole floors, each of them dedicated to a different discipline: general food science and nutrition, Eastern cuisine and Western cuisine. You could probably get lost in it, and one time I found a note that someone has left as a prank: “You are in the organic chemistry section. Search parties are on their way. Do not burn books for heat. Do not eat books for sustenance.” I scanned my student pass at the gates and looked around to find a place to sit that was quiet. I noticed that a lot of the tables and couches in the library were occupied mainly by first year students—it must’ve been study hall. I looked around for a free spot and chanced upon a slightly open door in the corner of the room leading to one of the quiet study cubbies. I decided to head in there and carefully opened the door to see—Bookmark here

“Oh!”Bookmark here

“Oh, excuse me…”Bookmark here

Tetsuya Shirogane was seated at the desk. He had an open book on it—a very complicated looking one, that was full of strange chemical diagrams. He had earbuds in his ears, and I could hear the sound of hard rock music faintly blaring from them.Bookmark here

“I’m sorry. I’ll leave…” I said, but he shook his head as he pulled out his earbuds.Bookmark here

“Can I talk to you?” he asked. “Are you busy?”Bookmark here

“…I guess,” I said, and I closed the door to the study cubby behind me. He switched off his music player and stuck his open notebook within the pages of the textbook he was reading.Bookmark here

“What are you studying?”Bookmark here

“The properties of miraculin,” Tetsuya said. “You know about it?”Bookmark here

“Yeah, that’s…that’s the stuff that makes sour food taste sweet, right?” I asked.Bookmark here

Tetsuya nodded. “It’s a specific kind of protein that binds itself to the taste receptors for sour and bitter and changes those flavors to sweet. I’ve been fascinated about it for years. When I was a kid, my mom got some powdered miracle berry tablets and the two of us experimented for hours...” His face took on a wistful expression.Bookmark here

“My dad and I spent time together making cooking videos,” I said. “You can still see them online…’50 Ways to Cook an Egg’, ‘How To Spiral Peel,’ stuff like that.”Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Tetsuya’s face grew serious. “Listen. I have to tell you something important. Don’t say you heard it from me or anything else, got it?”Bookmark here

“…Um, yeah. Got it,” I said.Bookmark here

“My father’s company is the one that wants to buy Scarlett.”Bookmark here

“Wait, what?” I shrieked, and immediately covered my mouth as Tetsuya shushed me. “How come?”Bookmark here

“He’s still out for blood against you. What my brother did…he didn’t think it was enough.”
“And that’s why…that’s why you told me you were here because you had to be here…”Bookmark here

Tetsuya nodded. “Vanilla-san, promise me if he ever comes to you with an offer or anything like that, don’t even listen to him,” Tetsuya said, urgently. I nodded. “I don’t want any part of his battle. I’m not my brother, and I’m not him…like I told you, I’m only here because I have to be. Otherwise…” He trailed off, and as he was about to speak again, the bell for lunch rang.Bookmark here

“Do you want to come sit with us at lunch?” I asked as I opened the door to the study cubby.Bookmark here

Tetsuya shook his head as he shoved books back in his backpack and tucked his earphones into a pocket of his school bag. “The less you interact with me, the better. Trust me,” he said.Bookmark here

I nodded. “Well…the offer’s always open,” I said, with a small smile.Bookmark here

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Salma didn’t really talk to me much during lunch, and I spent the rest of the day with my head in the clouds. I feel like I probably pressed the issue a little too soon, and maybe a few days cooling off between us would set things right again.Bookmark here

The next morning I got to school as usual, feeling a little more like myself again, and buried myself in my menu planning. I remembered Tetsuya talking about miraculin yesterday and wondered about possibly finding out more about it, so I decided to spend some time in the library reading up on its properties. It was hard to concentrate on it. I wonder if Tetsuya-kun just does this for fun, I thought. I don’t think I could ever read something this complicated just for fun…I did check out a couple books that served as an introduction to chemistry that were specifically written for chefs and nutritionists, so that maybe I’d have something to help me with my research.Bookmark here

“Those look interesting. Are they part of your lab work?” Salma asked as she noticed the books I was carrying at lunch.Bookmark here

“Someone was talking about the properties of miracle berries the other day and it got me thinking,” I said.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-chan, I must apologize. I’m sorry for yelling at you yesterday,” Salma added quietly.Bookmark here

“No, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have pried,” I said.Bookmark here

“Hi Salma-chan, Vanilla-chan!” Yomogi said, walking up to us. “How has your day been so far?”Bookmark here

“All right,” I said. “What about you?”Bookmark here

“I had a productive lab session this morning,” Yomogi said, “but…” She held up her hand to reveal a gauze pad taped to the back of it. “I had to cut things short.”Bookmark here

“Oh no! Was it a burn?” Salma asked.Bookmark here

“Yeah…” Yomogi blushed a little sheepishly. “I have to be more careful when I’m working with caramel.”Bookmark here

“There’s a reason why it’s called ‘napalm,’” I added. There were more than a few nicks and burns on the fronts and backs of my hands. Every single one of them was a lesson learned, so I took pride in all my scars.Bookmark here

“Where are Kei-chan and Hanabi-chan?” Salma asked. “I wanted to talk to all of you together.”Bookmark here

“I think Kei-chan had to help out one of the first year Wagashi Division classes,” I said. “And I think Hanabi-chan had a test earlier.”Bookmark here

Salma shrugged. “Well, at least I can tell the two of you. I’d like to invite you two over to my place for a dinner party!” she said. “And Caroline-chan can come, too, in return for your family inviting me out, Vanilla-chan.”Bookmark here

“That sounds great!” I said. “When were you thinking of having it?”Bookmark here

“I don’t know. Maybe before Golden Week? You probably have plans then, right?”Bookmark here

We continued through lunch talking about our plans for the next couple weeks, especially revolving around Golden Week, before we went back to our homeroom and filled Kei in on our plans for the dinner party.Bookmark here

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That evening was another shift at Scarlett. I was feeling pretty apprehensive about it, especially with Tetsuya’s warning, and felt my stomach churn as I changed into my work uniform. All the signs pointed to it being a calm evening, until the door opened and a man stepped into the room.Bookmark here

“So this is Scarlett?” he said, looking around at the room as if he was trying to smell where a dog had left some “presents.” Then his gaze met mine, and I felt my blood run cold.Bookmark here

“You must be Vanilla Sakamoto,” he said.
“Vanilla Koizumi, actually,” I said. “But yes. I was Vanilla Sakamoto.”Bookmark here

“Allow me to introduce myself. Takashi Shirogane, of the Shirogane Group.”Bookmark here

So this was the infamous father. He was a tall man with dark brown hair and pale blue eyes—the same color as his sons. The serious look on his face was the same serious look I had seen on Tetsuya while he was studying. They must take after Hibiki more, I thought, and tried to recall what she had looked like.Bookmark here

“Is there anything you need, sir?” I asked.Bookmark here

“A table for one and the menu.”Bookmark here

I wrote down his place on the wipe-off board, and guided him over to a two-seater table, pulling a chair back for him. “Would you like something to drink?” I asked cordially.Bookmark here

“Water would be fine.”Bookmark here

I could barely keep my hands from shaking as I went over to the kitchen to fill a glass with water. Tetsuya’s warning was ringing in my head. Was his father trying to test me? Humiliate me? I tried to calm my thoughts. Let him come at you, I thought. You’re among friends here.Bookmark here

“Here is your water, sir,” I said, as I put the glass down on the table. It wobbled, and a little water slopped out of the top. My hands were still trembling, and I knew he could notice it.Bookmark here

“The Neapolitan spaghetti, if you please,” Takashi said as he handed me the menu.Bookmark here

“Yes, sir. Right away,” I said, as I scribbled something that vaguely resembled handwriting down on my order pad and walked over to the kitchen.Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san, are you all right?” Satoshi Mato said as I entered the kitchen.Bookmark here

“That man sitting at table 14,” I whispered. “That’s the guy who wanted to buy this place.”Bookmark here

“Wait, what? How do you know that?”Bookmark here

“I just know, okay?”Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san, why don’t you go take five and let me handle this,” Satoshi said, taking the order pad from me. “You look nervous.”Bookmark here

I shuffled into the locker room and went inside, feeling like I wanted to scream. What did he know about what his son masterminded and what he tried to do to me? And was seeing me like this all part of his revenge? I sat down on the simple plastic bench and tried to steady my breathing. I should escape out the back door, I thought, but…that’s exactly what he would want me to do.Bookmark here

There was a knock at the door. “Koizumi-san, are you in there? It’s Rumi.”Bookmark here

“Yeah, come in,” I said. The door opened to reveal Rumi poking her head in.Bookmark here

“The guest at table 14 said he wanted to talk to you.”Bookmark here

I got up from the bench and took a deep breath. “All right,” I said, as Rumi opened the door for me. I strode out to the dining room and approached Takashi, who was daintily eating his dish of Neapolitan spaghetti.Bookmark here

“I have to say, this food is quite excellent. The kind of food that would attract a master of Japanese cuisine…” The look in his eyes grew dark as I pulled out the other seat and sat across from him.Bookmark here

“I’m on the clock,” I said. “Keep it brief.”Bookmark here

“Koizumi-san, I would like to hire you to cater a private event,” Takashi said. “An organization that I am a board member of has an awards ceremony this weekend, and unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control, our caterers had to cancel. After hearing about your stellar performance the other night…I thought you would be the perfect choice.”Bookmark here

“What about your son Tetsuya-kun?” I asked.Bookmark here

“He has better things to do with his time.”Bookmark here

“And so do I.” I started to get up.Bookmark here

“I’m willing to pay you the equivalent of a year’s salary here,” Takashi said.Bookmark here

A year’s salary. That would be in the tens of thousands of yen, just for working one night. That was also something too good to be true.Bookmark here

“I appreciate the kind offer, but I must decline,” I said.Bookmark here

“You are turning down the chance of a lifetime.”Bookmark here

“I’m eighteen years old. I’ve got plenty of chances of a lifetime left. Excuse me, I must really get back to work.” I got up and pushed the chair back under the table.Bookmark here

“Your father would be very disappointed in you for passing up an opportunity like this,” Takashi said, loud enough for the entire restaurant to hear. The words felt like a punch in the gut. I looked back at him, feeling my blood boil.Bookmark here

“And your wife would be disappointed in you,” I said. “For raising a psychopath that gets off on defenseless girls being beaten up!”Bookmark here

“Why you little…!” Takashi Shirogane got up from his chair, pushing the table violently aside and making the place setting crash to the ground. The look on his face was one of pure rage as he faced me, fists clenched. Before I could let out a retort, Satoshi Mato came running out of the kitchen.Bookmark here

“What is going on here?” he asked, seeing the two of us staring each other down, the ruined food on the floor and the entire restaurant staring at us in horror.Bookmark here

“He started talking to her, and…” Rumi started to say, but Satoshi walked past her and stood between the two of us.Bookmark here

“Both of you. Leave. Now,” he said.Bookmark here

Takashi Shirogane picked up his jacket from the back of the chair that had fallen to the ground and put it back on. “Vanilla Koizumi,” he said, “don’t think you’ve won this battle.” I watched him as he strode out of the restaurant, the bells on the door clanging loudly.Bookmark here

Satoshi’s gaze shifted to me as I was watching Takashi Shirogane leave. “I’m sorry, Mato-san,” I said, as I sullenly walked into the locker room to change.Bookmark here

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“You’re home early, Vanilla-chan…what’s wrong?” My mother looked up from her reading as I came in the door.Bookmark here

My face was still a mask of anger and I walked quietly past her into the house, not saying a word. I went into my bedroom and flopped facedown onto my bed.Bookmark here

Now I don’t even have to worry about Scarlett closing, I thought.Bookmark here

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That little bitch, Takashi Shirogane thought as he strode through the hallways towards his office. How dare she invoke the name of his beloved Hibiki like that!Bookmark here

He opened up his desk drawer and took out a cheap prepaid cell phone—a burner phone he used for one purpose, and one purpose only. He turned it on and dialed a specific number he had committed to memory.Bookmark here

“Shirogane-san! What a pleasant surprise. I haven’t heard from you in a while,” said a man’s voice at the other end.Bookmark here

“I have a job for you,” Takashi said.Bookmark here

“Just say the word, and me and the boys will take care of it.”Bookmark here

“I will send you the name, description and whereabouts of a certain person that I want in your possession within the next 24 hours.”Bookmark here

“I see…important business deal?”Bookmark here

“Of sorts. I’ll tell you the details once that person is in your possession.” Shirogane smiled. He hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair, looking at a photograph of his older son.Bookmark here

You served me well, Taiga, he thought, as he touched his face through the glass. But now…I’ll take over where you left off.Bookmark here

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The next morning, I felt simply awful. I hadn’t slept a wink all night, thanks to a pounding migraine headache, and I didn’t want to get out of bed, either. I forced myself to get up, get changed and pack a lunch for school before Caroline and I made our way down to the train station.Bookmark here

“Vanilla-san…what happened last night?” Caroline asked as we made our way towards the stairs. “You didn’t even talk to mom or open the door to anyone…”Bookmark here

“I think I’m getting fired from Scarlett,” I said.Bookmark here

“What happened?”Bookmark here

“Long story...” We arrived at the turnstiles. “I’ll tell you all about it tonight.”Bookmark here

“Promise? I’m really worried about you,” Caroline said.Bookmark here

“I promise.” I slapped my pass against the reader. “See you later, Caroline-chan.”Bookmark here

As I entered the culinary arts building for morning lab, Toyota-sensei hailed me. “Vanilla-san, will you be able to help me with the first years again?” she asked.Bookmark here

“I think I can,” I said, “but…honestly I don’t know how well I’ll do.” I gave a half hearted smile.Bookmark here

“Well, it’s something easy today, at least. We’re working with fish!” Toyota-sensei smiled broadly, and I merely shrugged.Bookmark here

I went into the first year’s classroom to see that today’s topic was covering different ways of filleting some of the more common fish used in both Eastern and Western cuisine: mackerel, salmon, tilapia, cod. I recognized the class as the same one I had been sitting in on when I saw Tetsuya being bullied by his classmates, but Tetsuya himself was nowhere to be found. Hope he’s not sick or anything, I thought. I had to admit, I was kind of looking forward to seeing him.Bookmark here

“All right then, let’s start the lesson,” I said, as I opened up my knife case and held up the various knives used for the preparation of fish, giving a brief description on the proper use, care and keeping of each one. At the back of my mind, I could hear the nagging voice of Momoko Ijuuin telling me to be thorough. “Now then, remember when you’re filleting, to be thorough with the cleaning. Always have a source of running water nearby so you can thoroughly rinse out the cavity after you’ve removed the internal organs. Especially if you use worms as bait.”Bookmark here

After demonstrating the proper cuts to make, and all the steps necessary to fillet, I walked around the room to watch the students doing their work, and happened upon the boy who had pushed Tetsuya down the last time I had taught. He looked like he was in a good mood as he carefully sliced the head from his fish.Bookmark here

“That’s a very clean cut,” I said. “You look happy.”Bookmark here

“Shirogane’s finally gone,” he said, smirking.Bookmark here

“…Gone?”Bookmark here

“He didn’t show up in class this morning. Guess we finally ran him off.”Bookmark here

“…I see.” I walked away, wondering if everything was all right with him.Bookmark here

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I was still feeling tired at lunch, so I bought myself a can of coffee from a vending machine before I sat down with my friends in the courtyard.Bookmark here

“You feelin’ all right, Vanilla-san?” Hanabi asked as she saw the expression on my face and the can of coffee in my hand.Bookmark here

“Rough night,” I said, sitting down.Bookmark here

“Lots of customers?”Bookmark here

“No…just one. I don’t really want to talk about it, please…”Bookmark here

“Really, Vanilla-chan?” Yomogi asked. She looked concerned. “Did something happen at the restaurant?”Bookmark here

“I met Takashi Shirogane...and I went off on him.”Bookmark here

“You went off on him…how come?” Hanabi asked.Bookmark here

I told everyone about Tetsuya’s warning the previous day, and what led up to the confrontation. “As soon as he mentioned my father, I just…saw red,” I said. “And I’ve got a feeling I’m probably not going to be working there anymore.”Bookmark here

“Has your boss said anything about that?” Kei asked. I shook my head.Bookmark here

“I haven’t heard anything from him. I’m on the schedule to work tomorrow, and he hasn’t got back to me about any changes.”Bookmark here

“Maybe you should go and apologize to him,” Yomogi said.Bookmark here

“I know. I want to. I’ve got to take responsibility for this,” I said, “but…he just made my blood boil so I decided to return the favor. I told him exactly what I thought about his son.”Bookmark here

“About Tai—the older son, right?” Hanabi asked. I nodded.Bookmark here

Salma had been listening quietly to everyone, and looked up from her packed lunch. “Who is this person you’re talking about?” she asked.Bookmark here

“It’s a long story,” I said, “and…it’s not one that I really like talking about. Let’s just say that the person we’re referring to hurt me, hurt Yomogi-chan, and hurt some other people as well.”Bookmark here

Salma nodded. “I see.”Bookmark here

“Speaking of which,” I said, “I was teaching in Tetsuya-kun’s class again today and he wasn’t there. And one of those idiots who was pushing him around last time said he was hoping that he was gone for good.”Bookmark here

“…Really.” Yomogi said. Her expression looked extremely severe. She’d been the victim of bullying before starting at Umami Gakuen.Bookmark here

“I just hope he’s all right,” I said.Bookmark here

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We gathered in our seats for the first class after lunch and watched as Aiko Kinomoto approached the class podium with a sheet of paper and a worried expression.Bookmark here

“I have an announcement from the headmaster’s office,” Aiko said, somewhat hesitantly. “A first year student, Tetsuya Shirogane from class 1-A, Yoshoku Division, was reported missing earlier this morning.”Bookmark here

Missing?! There were a chorus of murmurs from everyone in the room. “He was last seen around six o’clock this morning walking towards Makino Station. If anyone knows of his whereabouts, or has had any contact with him, please notify the headmaster immediately.”Bookmark here

As Aiko went to sit down, the murmurs increased.Bookmark here

“I heard he was being bullied…”Bookmark here

“Well, no wonder. That bastard’s his brother, after all.”Bookmark here

“Do you think maybe he…” There was a nervous pause. I looked behind me at Yomogi, who was beginning to get an uncomfortable look on her face.Bookmark here

I wished I had his phone number, or some way to contact him…hopefully he was just playing hooky or something like that. With a father like that, I wouldn’t blame him for wanting to run away, I thought.Bookmark here

You can resume reading from this paragraph.