The Heat In The Kitchen: Hard-Boiled Short Fiction Stewart Dudley
Stewart Dudley, author of The Heat In The Kitchen, is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, Canadian Authors Association, and Crime Writers of Canada.
The plastic clock above the stove is stuck at 7:43. I watch the second hand try to climb past the nine, but it doesn’t have the juice and keeps falling back. Battery’s dying. Stove’s too old to have a clock. The microwave blinks like an idiot. No one reset its clock after the last power outage. Last night. Smart appliances, they call them. Fucking stupid is more like it.
If my mother was alive, she’d be nagging me, “Where’s the Timex I bought you? Paid good money for that.”
It’s dark and Kit ain’t home yet, so it must be at least eight. I passed out about three. Five hours sleep. Not bad. Two’s usually my limit.
The old hot-water radiator clangs like a ranch dinner bell. Sends my heart into my sinuses every time thinking about who could be banging on the pipes down below. This is what it’s like to live above a shit-hole funeral home.
“My brother owns this shit-hole and lets us live here for nothing.”
Kit comes through the door like a ghost. Probably the same door she used as a kid, when her old man ran the show, the family lived here in “the penthouse,” and the kids would play hide and seek in the casket showroom.
“I didn’t realize I said that out loud, about the shit-hole and all,” I say. “Thought I was just thinking it.”
Sends my heart into my sinuses every time thinking about who could be banging on the pipes down below.
“Maybe you were,” she says, tossing keys to the table and her parka over the back of a chair. “I don’t suppose you started dinner.”
“What time is it?”
She does that stop-and-stare thing, the abrupt halt that ensures she’s got my attention. She calls it her mask of incredulity. I looked that up one time but the meaning didn’t stick with me.
“How about some good news?” I ask, reaching for the battered Concise Oxford.
Her expression shifts, daring to hope.
“Got a job.”
She’s momentarily dumbstruck. I know she doesn’t believe it at first. I’ve had more jobs than I can count. Landing them’s never the problem, it’s keeping them.
“Chen’s small-engine repair.” I grin, thumb pointing over my shoulder. She knows where it is. “I can walk to work.”
“He needs a body. Pandemic’s got the world stuck at home. Cutting their own grass again, blowing snow, cutting firewood. Old man knows I’m good with my hands. Hell, I can rebuild a Briggs & Stratton carb with my eyes closed.”
“I thought Daryl—”
I wave a hand. “Water under the bridge.”
Her eyes narrow. “When do you start?”
“I fell asleep,” I say.
“If I did that, Belinda Cloutier’d have my ass.” She points a sudden finger. “And don’t you be saying nothing about Cloutier’s ass.”
My hands are up—innocent, unarmed.
Kit collapses into the chair across from me, starts emptying her pockets. She winces, it’s her feet. “Be a doll, will you? Get me the footbath.”
We say “It’s under the bed” at the same time.
I set her up, fill the reservoir with hot water, peel off her socks, turn it on. Damn thing hums like a vibrator. Some ultrasonic shit. Works for her, what the hell. Twenty bucks as seen on TV.
Kit shoves a slip of paper across the table. A copy of her pay stub. She’s logged fifty-two hours this week, and the week ain’t over.
“I can’t do this much longer, Coleman.” She uses my full name when it’s serious, same as my mother. “I’m fifty-eight years old—”
“And that makes me sixty-one. I know how old we are, Kit.”
It’s got nothing to do with the numbers. It’s that she thinks she’s starting to look her age, which she is. Means nothing to me, but she cares. Probably worried about trying to land some other guy if I fuck and run.
Kit shoves a slip of paper across the table. A copy of her pay stub. She’s logged fifty-two hours this week, and the week ain’t over.
She reaches for my hand; there’s something desperate about the gesture. She’s shaking a bit. Maybe it’s the footbath echoing through her bones.
“You gotta make this work, Cole.”
I nod. I can’t meet her eyes. “I got a plan.”
“Yeah, you always say that.”
I had a dog once when I was young. Musky. A big mut. Smarter than most people I ever knew. I’d hunt, he’d tag along for the walk in the woods. One November we get an early freeze and he goes through the ice on O’Brien’s pond. And it’s deep enough to feed him to the fishes. Musky was getting on. Ten, eleven. I don’t know, never counted. Of course the ice is just thin enough that every time he gets a paw-hold, it breaks and he’s under again. Hated water, Musky did. By the time I crawl out there, I got to fish for him. But he must have got a foothold on the bottom, ‘cause he comes up suddenly out of that hole like a rocket. I had him, but he did it on his own steam. Collapses right there, coat starts freezing to the ice. We lock eyes for a second; shared a few things right then, we did. He was telling me it was all he had left in him. It was enough.
I get it now. This is all I got left in me. It better be enough.
Next morning, Kit drops me at the shop. I could’ve walked. She follows me in.
“What are you doing?”
She waves me ahead like a mom steering her kid to the first day of school. She still doesn’t believe I’ve got this job. The door chimes, which is a waste. Harry Chen is the better part of deaf. He can read lips with the best of them, but you could empty a 12-gauge behind him and he’d only know for the smell and the falling plaster.
I knock the snow from my boots, Kit does the same. The old man is in his office just off the showroom. I hear a dull clunk, see him moving in silhouette.
“The wife drops you off on your first day. Cute,” Harry says, wiping his hands on a shop rag that returns to his back pocket.
“Mr. Chen,” says Kit.
I glance between them. “You two know each other?”
Kit smiles. “You haven’t lived around here long enough.” She draws her hand back and forth between her and the old man as if testing the connection. “Two prominent local business families. Dad dealt with the dead bodies, Harry tinkered with the dead lawnmowers.”
Harry grunts, adjusting a hearing aid. “Dynasties.”
“They were on council together once upon a time.”
“You know, Coleman, your girl should’ve married me, then she’d be Kit Chen.” He laughs to a cough, which reminds him to light a cigarette. Fucker must be eighty; more likely to die hacking.
Kit rolls her eyes and turns a thumb my way. “What convinced you to give him a job?”
Harry shrugs. “Why I got to tell you?”
The door chimes again. Daryl Chen drapes his parka on a hook. Heir to the small-engine repair empire. He has on a shop shirt, the CSER logo—Chen’s Small Engine Repair—peeking above his pocket protector. He gives me a blank stare, nods to Kit and disappears into the shop.
I spend most of the first day staying out of the way. Harry tells me to watch how it’s done. I clean, help a few customers until I have to call in the old man, and try to organize the growing line of generators, snowblowers, chainsaws and tillers awaiting service. Daryl never lifts his eyes from the workbench. The three of us barely exchange a word. The communication is astonishingly economical.
Not long after lunch I’m sweeping behind the service counter when I look up and catch Harry opening the door to an old countertop safe in his office. His back is to me, but I count three cash stacks carefully placed within before I feel Daryl’s firm grip on my shoulder.
“Phillips and Son, Birmingham,” I read off the safe’s closing door.
The old man spins the dial and turns away to his desk. The younger Chen digs an index finger around my clavicle.
“Admit it, Daryl, you’re just pissed cause it ain’t Chen and son, anywhere.”
“Keep sweeping, motherfucker.”
At two in the morning, I find Kit at the table, solo beneath the simple single-bulb fixture, like she’s about to deal poker. Except she’s nursing a tea in her Wile E. Coyote pyjamas.
“Why’d you have to get a job there?”
Good idea or not, I smile. It’s funny. Get a job. Get a job. Get a job. Not that one.
“It’s been what, two years since you beat the shit out of Daryl at the pub, I figured no way would the old man ever hire you—even though you’re the one person he should hire.”
She stands, flips the kettle back on, leans against the counter, arms crossed. “I’ve told you about the games we used to play downstairs. Christ, we were stupid. On a dare one time, I let my friends slide me into the fridge with a corpse. I was thirteen. Finally pulled me out after about twenty minutes; otherwise, I’d still be in there.
“Games in the casket gallery. We weren’t supposed to get in the caskets, but I did. A boy climbed in with me once, pulled down the lid, got to business, whispered he’d tell my old man about lying with the dead if I made so much as a squeak.”
The kettle clicks off. “I had boney knees back then,” she says, warming up her mug. “Perfect for planting between the legs of deserving boys. Once this one got his breath, he made plenty of noise for the two of us. Like a damn fire alarm.”
“Oh yeah. And this was not an episode that my mother was going to see swept under the carpet, even though that was the way of the world at the time.”
I hear the tick of the clock. She’s replaced the battery.
“Who was the boy?”
She sips. “Daryl Chen.”
I sit with that for a moment. “Who dared you to climb in with the stiff?”
She waves it off. “I know, this shit’s always supposed to come back and bite you, eat you from the inside out.” Her head shakes. “It’s not like that. He couldn’t get out of that casket fast enough.” Her mouth tightens. “He was bloodied bad. Harry had to buy the casket.”
So that’s why no charges were laid against me when I cleaned Daryl Chen’s drunken clock.
Her hands are wrapped around the mug, sucking the heat from within. She stretches out the fingers of one hand, admires her own strong fingers. “Only advice I ever gave a girl was not to chew her fingernails.” Kit’s are long and blue today. “Only weapon some of us will ever have.”
Her hand drops heavy to the table. “Goddam patriarchy,” she says, winding up. “You know why it works so hard to churn out soft and obedient fairy princess women?” She doesn’t wait for me; I’m not part of this. “Because if we were all bull dykes we’d be in charge.”
My dad always said there’s no such thing as stupid questions, just badly timed ones.
“What’s a patriarchy?”
She gets the measure of me for a second, then reaches for the little computer table, slips me the dictionary, sits back and starts spelling.
My finger finds the entry.
“Daryl Chen is of no consequence,” she says
Consequence. Another word I gotta look up.
“The Daryl Chens of the world,” she says, “all the hes and shes—they’re just aching for a taste of the great mystery. Happens so often to girls, we joke about it. Fiona today at work, she says to me, ‘Hey, you know what PTSD stands for?’ I know what it stands for, but I say, ‘No.’ She says, ‘Pull That Skirt Down!’”
The tea is cool enough to permit a long sip. Kit hasn’t talked to me this much in months. A pandemic thing, maybe.
When the ladder suddenly tilts, I drop the screwdriver and scramble for a quick grip on the crossbeam. Daryl splits a gut. I glance down to see where the old man went; he was supposed to be anchoring the base. As I regain my footing, he scurries back across the shop and lands a wicked full windup slap on the side of his son’s face.
“Not in my shop,” he hisses.
Daryl’s not having it, but by the time he recovers and I’m down the ladder, the old man has pulled a baseball bat out of thin air. I know he’d use it.
Daryl looks from me to his old man. “The hell he doing running wires around here?”
“Just rigging some lights,” I say.
“We got plenty of lights.”
“Entry indicators. They’ll flash red for six seconds every time the front door opens.”
“What’s wrong with the bell?”
I feel the tension easing.
“I can’t hear bell,” chimes in Harry, pointing a greasy finger at his ear as if to help number-one son understand where sound goes. “He put a light everywhere, even over my desk.” Harry lowers the bat. “For you, he even fix hi-fi.”
“Wi-fi,” says Daryl, touching the red welt that’s blooming on his face. “Where’d you learn that trick?”
I shrug. “Worked as a cable installer for a while.”
This prompts a laugh. “Bet you didn’t last two weeks.”
“You lose. I lasted four. Now be a good boy and go try the front door.”
Harry shoos him off. The LED blinks its way to six seconds.
“You a genius,” Harry says, clapping.
Daryl says they’ve lost thousands to showroom theft. The entire township knows the old man is deaf and rarely at the counter. And I hear Daryl hasn’t been around much. He’s only here these past few days to keep an eye on me.
He edges past into the shop. “Your woman’s here, genius.”
“You forgot your lunch,” Kit says. “My shift starts at noon, so…”
I give her a peck on the cheek.
“Daryl,” she says, looking at me hard and touching a hand to her left cheek. “You hit him?”
“Nah. That was parental abuse. You just missed it.”
Her mask of whatever again. I’m cursed, I think. The truth out of my mouth is often taken for a lie. I can see her forcing herself to believe me.
She asks, “How’s it going?”
It’s been four days. I shrug. “If these two don’t kill each other first, I just might make it to a paycheck.” I tell her that the old man’s letting me get my hands dirty. This morning he set a ‘60s-era McCulloch chainsaw in front of me, said, Good luck. I can’t get the timing right.
Daryl was tucking into porn on the old office computer, complaining about the wi-fi. I shoved him off and found a shop manual online courtesy of the Classic Chainsaw Owners’ Club of Chippewa County, Michigan. Said right there, Ignition timing: 26 degrees before TDC. Twenty minutes later I had that little 32cc beauty singing.
Kit looks past my shoulder. I turn. Harry’s at the safe again. More cash. I wonder if we’re really pulling in that kind of bread here.
“The old man doesn’t trust banks?” She looks from the safe to me.
Not sure what I’m seeing there, but it ain’t incredulity.
I have to do something to cool shit down. It’s like I can’t turn my back on Daryl. Harry scoffs, says his son’ll disappear in a few days. The old man thinks Daryl is jealous, doesn’t want his father hitching on to any gold-digger. Yeah, I mean, look around.
I help Daryl pull the rusted head off a neglected 12-horse Ariens snowblower and figure I should take the opportunity to build a little rapport.
“How is it you got a Chinese last name? You’re about as Asian as my old Pontiac.”
“It’s not Chinese. It’s Russian, short for Chenkov. My grandfather shortened it when the family came to Canada.”
“Leave the commies behind.”
“Something like that.”
“So why not Jones or Smith?”
“You want imagination, my grandfather was not your man.”
“Listen, fuckwit. You got the better of me once because I was wasted. I don’t drink no more, and for a nickel I will crush every bone in your body.”
Fuck rapport. I dig a coin from my pocket and flip it his way. It bounces off him and spins on the floor.
“Heads you win,” I say.
The coin settles, and the Queen stares at us in profile.
“And it’s a dime, Daryl. Consider it a generous tip.”
He bends over, picks up the coin and walks away.
“What are you waiting for?” I call after him.
“I’ve underpriced myself,” he calls over his shoulder.
The red LEDs flash.
“Someone at the door!” yells the old man, still delighted with his new security feature.
It takes me a week, but I finally gather enough footage from the high-def camera I installed with the light in Harry’s office. The thing is that he tends to always stand the same way when he’s at the safe. Getting the first and second numbers of the combination was easy. Then he repositions himself to dial in the last one and blocks the camera. Today something caught his eye, he stood straight and there it was.
As Harry predicted, Daryl’s become something of a ghost around the shop. Harry and I are content to handle things on our own. We’ve found a rhythm.
Sunday night the snow is falling hard. It’s the thick light stuff that covers tracks quickly. We’re due to get two feet by morning. Kit’s on a late shift – inventory until midnight. Roads are quiet. Nothing but plows and the odd snowmobile.
It’s three blocks from the funeral home to Chen’s. I borrow one of the light grey parkas my brother keeps near the garage door for unloading bodies in winter. The big, faux-fir rimmed hood, the black pandemic mask, it’s all for the best.
The shop is a classic one-and-a-half storey concrete block square, originally a BP service station. Harry still has the old sign. Rumour has it the fuel storage tanks are still in the ground. No one’s ever wanted to deal with them.
There’s a steel door next to the garage entrance around back. The door is heavily dented, thanks to the many who’ve tried to get in without a key over the years. The crack sounds the instant I turn the key in the deadbolt – as if I’ve pulled the trigger. The sound is sharp and abrupt against a night insulated by snow. There’s no echoing retort like you hear in the movies. Then it’s silent till I hear the distant scrape of steal on asphalt as a plow makes the curve on Dover Road. Been a while since I’ve heard a gunshot. Been a while since I owned a gun.
Maybe it wasn’t a gunshot.
I duck into the blackness of the workshop and pull the door closed silently behind me. I hear the chime, the front door. The LEDs flash red, casting a surprisingly bright glow that reveals something is where it’s not supposed to be.
“You here, Coleman?” She’s in the showroom.
“Stay there, Kit. I’ll be right out.”
“Did the power go out? I thought I saw someone leaving as I pulled up. Was it Daryl?”
I see her form at the end of the parts aisle.
No, it wasn’t Daryl. I step over the shape and flip the light switch. Pretty sure that’s his body and his blood on the floor. Kit screams, stumbles forward. I catch her before she gets too close, but not before we both spot Harry’s body crumpled by the workbench against the back wall.
“Jesus Mary Joseph, Coleman, what did you do?”
I hold her by the shoulders at arm’s length. “Oh, no. I was outside when I heard the shot. Understand? Didn’t you hear it?”
She shakes her head. “What are you doing here? I got home early, figured you and Harry might be working late. He said the snowblowers are backed up—”
“Who did you see, Kit?”
“What?” Now the tears start.
“You said you saw someone leaving as you pulled up.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“What did they look like? What were they wearing? Were they running, limping?”
“Coleman!” She melts against my shoulder.
Gotta slow down.
Both Chens are dead. I check them carefully. The back of Daryl’s neck is one big exit wound, so that accounts for the bullet. Harry, though, he’s stiff. Been dead for hours. And no sign of bullet or knife wounds or blood.
“Listen to me, Kit.” She’s trying to collect herself. “They’re both gone,” I say. “Do they have any relatives?”
I can tell by her face that this is a strange question.
“Daryl was an only child,” she says. “So was Harry I think.” She wipes her eyes, strangely, suddenly sober. “This place is nothing to them now. Convenient, huh?” She sniffs away the last of the tears. “Fact, this’s all been one parade of conveniences for you, hasn’t it?”
I feel a heat rising. “Honey, you’re losing me.”
She turns back toward the office. I follow.
“And what if I hadn’t showed up? What was the plan then?”
“Okay, I can explain—”
She turns on me. “You left the browser open the other night.”
“Honey, hang on—”
“Fact, you do it all. The. Time. Any bimbo could figure it out. So let me guess, huh? Toss the cash in a bag and hit the road in the middle of a snowstorm. Leave old Kit behind.”
Something’s stuck in her coat pocket. She pulls free a pistol that I’ve never seen before, levels it on me. I feel myself on a thin thread somewhere between hilarity and terror.
“I didn’t see anybody running off tonight,” she says. “But I seen you coming. For months I seen you coming. I did hear the shot, though. Fucking loud in this concrete box. Daryl. Found him blubbering over his old man’s body. Harry’s heart must’ve give out. Made me think I was doing Daryl a favour, putting a bullet in him.”
She looks to the safe but can’t manage a smile.
“You were outside,” I say.
“No, I was leaving. I was still inside at the front door. I heard you come in the back, so I opened the door to trigger your wondrous light show and make you think I just came in.”
I don’t know what to do with my hands. “It was going to be a surprise,” I say.
She thinks this is hilarious. “I’ll show you a surprise.”
I feel the punch of the bullet before I hear the shot, then I’m crumpled against the doorframe and don’t feel much of anything, not below my waist. I don’t want to look, but my hand touches warm wetness. I see her set the pistol down, pull on her leather gloves and dial in the combination. She jerks open the heavy door, makes her withdrawal into a shopping bag.
“Where’d he get all this—all these unmarked bills?”
I shake my head. I couldn’t say.
She spins the lock, gives it a wipe with a tissue. Her look tells me I’m already dead. She picks up Harry’s steno pad and pen, tosses them into my lap.
“Write your own epitaph.”
“What’s an epitaph?
The gun goes off again. I study the wound in my thigh. “I can’t actually feel that,” I mumble.
“I’m done wasting good ammunition.”
“They’ll catch up with you.”
She kneels, shakes her head. “No, they won’t. In fact I’m going back to the apartment right now to start looking for a new pad in town—and a bull dyke to share it with. But before I do, well, you guys have been so careless around here. Smoking, welding. The place reeks of oil, and I counted, um, four jerry cans of gas.” She stands. “Gonna be some torch. Purifying.”
I try to shape words. That had been my plan. Torch the place, run off with the woman I love. But it strikes me now that I wouldn’t want to be caught dead with her. It’s a liberating thought.
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