It was Brooke’s first time using liquid nitrogen. She carefully uncapped the canister and poured the liquid over the chicken purée, causing a dense cloud of vapor to blanket the counter. She watched as the chicken froze in seconds, before her very eyes. Presto, chicken ice cream. This molecular gastronomy stuff was incredible. The science and art of turning anything into anything.
“Smile!” Keely appeared suddenly out of nowhere and was holding her phone up to Brooke’s face. Brooke didn’t know what had come over Keely lately—she was constantly ordering everyone to make “fun faces” so she could take their pictures and post them on Instagram.
I’d smile if you got run over by a truck, Brooke thought.
“OK, let’s all establish our murder mystery characters,” Keely said, hoisting herself up to sit on the kitchen counter, almost knocking over a cup of xanthan gum in the process. “I’m K, obviously. K, the beautiful heiress of Lovelorn Pond!”
“Or Karl,” said Sophat. “Karl could be K.”
“Karl!” said Karl , smiling hugely at the sound of his name.
Keely rolled her eyes. “Why would anyone want to kill Karl?”
Because no one would miss him, thought Brooke.
“Ve all hav ze K, no?” Karl said, pointing at Sophat. “Only him doesn’t hav ze K.”
“Um…what?” Sophat looked confused. “Why is he pointing at me?”
“Ze K. Ve all hav. All but him.”
“He’s saying we all have Ks in our names,” Brooke explained. “Except you.”
“Oh…” said Sophat.
“Omigod!” squealed Keely . “This is so cool. Brooke, your character can be the serious German-American translator. And Parker can be your evil twin brother!”
Brooke rolled her eyes. She and Parker were always being thrown together like that. People assumed that because they both loved science, they must be friends, or even boyfriend–girlfriend. But in reality they could barely stand each other. Maybe in some other life they could have made a good team—after all, they were the two smartest kids in school. But for some reason, in this life, they always ended up competing instead of collaborating. Was it her fault or his? Brooke didn’t know. But she knew the rivalry had gone too far at this point—there was no stopping it; it had taken on a momentum of its own. They would never be friends.
Currently, Brooke and Parker were both finalists for the highly prestigious, highly coveted Galambos-Danishefsky Fellowship to Harvard. It paid for four years of everything, plus multiple additional grants for independent research. There could only be one winner. Brooke had decided to up her chances by padding her extracurriculars with a diverse range of activities. But wherever she went, Parker was right there, dogging her, leveling the field. French Club, Poetry Club, Cross-Country Skiing, Quiz Bowl. And now the one club she thought he’d never take an interest in: Cooking Club. She couldn’t get rid of him.
Keely cleared a space on the countertop and laid out the mysterious directions. She glanced toward Sophat and said, “You’re the prime suspect because you don’t have a K in your name. Omigod, this is going to be so fun!”
Brooke scowled. Why was everyone so obsessed with fun? Fun was for idiots who didn’t have goals. Brooke didn’t need fun. All she needed was to win the Galambos-Danishefsky Fellowship, go to Harvard, and become the first female president-slash-bioengineer in history. Which would only happen if she refused to give in to distractions.
“‘Step nine,’” Keely was reading. “‘Blend lobster essence with 2.5 grams calcium gluconate and 2.5 grams xanthan gum. Vacuum-seal mixture with motorized aspirator to remove excess air…’ God, this is complicated.”
“Could you move?” Brooke said, ignoring the conversation. “We have work to do here. Parker, hand me the whipper.” Parker suddenly looked sick. Brooke let out an exasperated sigh. “If you’re not feeling well, you shouldn’t be cooking,” she said. “It’s unsanitary.”
“I’m fine,” Parker said. “I just don’t feel like playing this dumb game.”
“Well,” said Brooke, pulling off her safety goggles, “there’s the first thing we’ve agreed on. I wish whoever wrote that recipe would just raise his hand and explain what’s going on. If it is a game—which I highly doubt, by the way—he should explain how it works so we can get it over with and get on with our project.” No one spoke up. Brooke scanned the room, searching all the faces for signs of culpability and finding none. Then her gaze stopped at Sophat, who was leafing through a stack of recipes, avoiding her eyes.
“Sophat, I know it’s you,” she said. “Just tell us how to skip to the end. I’m sick of this.”
“Me?” Sophat sounded genuinely surprised.
Keely shook her head vigorously. “It’s totally you, Brooke, isn’t it?” she said. She poked Brooke’s side with a huge wooden spoon.
“It is not me,” said Brooke, wriggling away from Keely and her annoying spoon. “I hate games.” She rubbed her eyes, wishing she weren’t expending her mental faculties on this stupid thing. She knew Sophat was responsible, just by process of elimination: Parker was too uptight, Keely was too stupid, and Karl lacked the necessary command of English scientific terms. She wished he would just stop pretending.
“OK, look,” she said, grabbing a sheet of paper from the recipe book and turning it over. She took out a pen and drew a pair of overlapping circles. “The person who invented this game has to have two qualities: an interest in science and an interest in fun times.” She wrote “science” inside one circle and “fun times” in the other. “There’s only one person in the group who fulfills both criteria.” Then she started filling in the names of the five Cooking Club members gathered in Keely’s kitchen.
It wasn’t until she’d finished her handiwork and stood back to give everyone a look that she noticed she had paired herself and Parker inside a single circle, the one that they were apparently destined to always share. She hoped no one noticed her blushing, but her peripheral vision caught Sophat staring at her, a faint smile on his lips.
“Why are we so sure this is even a game?” said Sophat. “It doesn’t look like a game. It just looks like a recipe with a weird name.”
For the next few minutes, everyone argued about whether this was a game or not and, if it was a game, whether they were supposed to play characters or themselves; whether “K” was Karl or Keely, and why anyone would want to kill Keely anyway (“I’m on the prom committee! I have enemies!”). Brooke tried to tune them all out and concentrate on concocting more liquid-nitrogen ice cream.
“Brooke.” Suddenly Sophat was right next to her, whispering her name. He gently placed his hand on her arm, where Brooke just stared at it like it was a bug that had crawled onto her when she wasn’t looking. Sophat immediately withdrew the offending appendage.
Sophat always seemed to be doing weird stuff like that—trying to talk to her, touching her at the weirdest times for no apparent reason. At first she figured he wanted to copy her homework, but it soon became obvious that he was pretty smart and was capable of getting good grades without her help. She considered the possibility that he was just a nice dude who wanted to be friends, a notion she quickly rejected as highly unlikely—if years of being the class incredibrain had taught her anything, it was that people didn’t want smart friends. They wanted fun friends.
“I think we can win this,” he said in a low voice. He motioned for her to follow him into the living room.
“We?” said Brooke. The word sounded strange to her, and it felt strange to say.
“I know how to figure out who wrote the recipe,” he whispered. “And I swear to god it wasn’t me.” He shot a glance at the pile of backpacks by Keely’s front door, then looked meaningfully back at Brooke.
“Um…what?” said Brooke.
“We go into everyone’s backpacks and find their notebooks,” he said. “Then we can compare their handwriting with the writing on the paper.” He smiled proudly.
Brooke didn’t know what to do. She didn’t like games, and she wanted to get back to their project. Normally she would have just ignored Sophat and walked away. But this time was different. There were extenuating circumstances this time in the form of Sophat’s teeth, which were so… shiny? How did they get so…
Brooke shook her head to break her reverie. It’s just saliva, she told herself. She felt her mouth start to form a smile, which she squelched as fast as she could, suddenly self-conscious that her teeth could never be as shiny and white as Sophat’s. She should have been using that dumb whitening toothpaste her mom was always trying to shove on her. She managed a tight-lipped smile that she hoped didn’t look too weird.
“We can win this,” said Sophat, “as a team.” And with that he grabbed her hand, gave it a quick, warm shake, and strode off into the kitchen.
A moment later she heard him call out: “Guys, look at this!” He grabbed a box of baking soda and dumped a huge heap of it onto the counter. As the others started to gather around him, he uncapped a bottle of vinegar and poured it onto the baking soda. Anyone who’s ever built a model volcano knows this trick, but Keely and Karl were freaking out. Keely started snapping pictures with her phone while Karl made exclamations in a very excited-sounding German.
Brooke, meanwhile, was creeping silently toward the front door. Why am I doing this? she wondered. This was exactly why she normally avoided people—they just wasted your time with all their “fun.” Fun was addictive, she knew. Once you had it, you had to have it again, and again, and ultimately your tolerance for toil and academic drudgery became totally depleted. But something about Sophat’s face, the way he winked at her from across the room…
One time, she promised herself. Just this one time.
Here are the five handwriting samples that Brooke retrieved from the backpacks (including her own—she had nothing to hide, after all). To read further, determine who is the culprit by choosing the handwriting that best matches the writing on the recipe.