Hans Gredelmann drove his company van down a remote road lined with snowy evergreens looming in the headlights. His stomach growled.
The van’s high beams caught a flash of red and white. If this wasn’t the right fire number, 8900, he’d come back tomorrow in daylight. He aimed his flashlight and made out the name “Kane” on the battered mailbox. He drove up a long gravel driveway and parked beside an old farmhouse. Blue light from a TV bled out an uncurtained window.
Hans slid his mobile computer into his tool bag. On his way to the house, he played his flashlight over the collapsing hulks of broken-down farm machines. Beside the house sat a rusted Chevy pickup. A beat-up VW bug behind it sported four flat tires and a tree growing out its shattered rear window.
Hans knocked. Thick flakes of paint crumbled off the old paneled door. “Who is it?” said a man’s voice.
“Sears Repair. Amal Kane called about a stove?”
The door opened. A barefoot twenty-something with matted brown dreadlocks stood there, naked from the waist up and so skinny Hans could see his ribs. “I’m Kane,” the man said. “About time you got here.”
Kane led Hans toward a lit doorway at the back of the house. Hans glanced idly to his right into a living room where he saw a dilapidated couch and a TV on mute.
And a dog, a big black Malamute with blue eyes. The dog struggled to its feet when Hans walked by. It was attached to a peg in the floor by a heavy logging chain. The dog wagged its tail.
“Nice looking dog,” Hans offered to Kane’s back as they stepped into the kitchen. “What’s his name?”
Kane spun, grabbed Hans by his jacket, and slammed him into the wall. “She’s a bitch,” Kane said. Rotten breath spewed from a mouth full of mossy teeth. “And what’re you doing looking at her?” His black eyes smoldered.
Weird. Definitely. Crap. “W-we walked by the living room, I heard the chain rattle, there was the dog,” Hans said. His fingers closed over the flashlight in his pocket. “I have a little pug named Bitsy.”
“You don’t look at my dog.” Kane let go and pointed. “There’s the stove.”
Hans straightened his jacket and took out his mobile computer, setting it on the table beside a plate of cookies. The stove looked pristine: no grease spatters, no dried-on food.
“What’s wrong with it?”
“It won’t light without a match,” Kane said. “Have a cookie while you take a look.” In the living room, the logging chain rattled across the floor. Hans saw a black nose edge around the door frame. The dog whined.
“Get back, Sheila!” Kane yelled. The nose disappeared.
“Maybe she has to go out?”
Kane spun around and growled, “Who the hell are you to tell me how to take care of my dog?”
“S-Sorry. I’ll just look at the stove.”
“I couldn’t get the top off.”
Hans blinked at dents shaped like the business end of a crowbar. “There’s three screws in back holding it on. I can take if off for you, no problem.” The dog whined. Hans’s eyes flickered to the hall then up to Kane’s face. The black eyes narrowed. Hans took out the first screw. The dog yipped.
Kane stomped into the living room. Hans heard the heavy chain clatter to the floor. “I’m warning you, Sheila,” Kane said, “you screw around and you’ll be wearing the collar the rest of your life.” Sheila’s toenails clicked toward the front door. Nut job, Hans thought. He dropped the screw into his pocket and removed the others. He lifted the stovetop.
Hans expected a mess, but the stove was clean. He turned on all the burners. Four perfect rings of flame bloomed like blue flowers.
Hans’s Weird-o-Meter ping-ping-pinged. He plugged in his hand vac, gave the stove a once-over, and replaced the stovetop. He set the first screw and began to turn it with one hand while, with the other, he pressed the single digit on his phone that would dial Repair Central. When dispatch answered, Hans said, “Dispatch, this is Hans Gredelmann, number 547. I’m at 8900 Grosvater Road.” He’d never before had to use the full address, which was company code that a repairman was in trouble.
Dispatch said, “What’s going on, 547? Can you talk?”
“Affirmative,” Hans said, spinning in the second screw. “I’m out in the middle of a swamp. Guy named Kane wanted me to fix a stove that wasn’t busted.” Hans heard the front door shut and toenails click toward the kitchen. He started on the last screw. “I’m ready to roll, but check the van’s GPS on the big board in ten minutes.”
“Who are you talking to?” Kane said, stepping into the kitchen. Hans turned. Sheila stood beside Kane, her collar twisted in his hand. Her blue eyes never left Hans’s face. Her red tongue lolled out from a mouthful of beautiful teeth. Hans wished he could sink his hands into that soft, black fur.
“I was just talking to my boss to see if there was anything else I should do before I took off.”
Kane frowned at the phone. “Did you have a cookie?”
What’s with the cookies? “No. Thanks.” Hans slipped around Kane and Sheila and started punching numbers into his computer. Behind him, the floorboards creaked. Hans gripped the screwdriver.
Kane seized the plate of cookies. “Have one,” he said, holding the plate under Hans’s nose. “They’re fresh.”
“Nah, the wife’s making supper.” Hans printed out the receipt. “It’s $79.95.”
Kane slammed down the plate. “I’m supposed to pay you now? You can’t send a bill?”
“We’re supposed to collect at the point of service. Saves postage.” And then we don’t have to take deadbeats to small-claims court. “Debit or credit, but I can take a check if that’s all you’ve got.”
“All I have is cash, take it or leave it. “My money’s upstairs.” Kane leaned in, the fug of his breath shriveling Hans’s nostrils. “Have a cookie while you’re waiting.”
He snapped his fingers at the dog.
“Stay.” Sheila sat.
Kane thudded upstairs. Sheila’s tail swept the floor behind her. Hans reached for a cookie, but Sheila bounded over and nosed the jacket pocket where Hans always kept a handful of kibble.
Sheila held up a paw to shake. Charmed, Hans placed some kibble on his palm. Sheila lipped it up with the delicate manners of a queen. “You’re a sweetheart,” Hans said. He slid his hands into the plush coat and rubbed behind her front legs. Sheila leaned into him. Magnificent animal.
Steps pounded down the stairs. Sheila slipped out from under his hands.
Kane entered. “Here,” he thrust four bills at Hans, “eighty bucks.”
He glanced at the untouched cookies. “Too bad, Sheila,” he said. “Maybe next time.” He snapped his fingers at her. “Out.” Over Kane’s shoulder, Hans saw Sheila slink upstairs.
Hans handed over a nickel and the receipt, grabbed the handles of his tool bag, and headed for the door. “Thank you for choosing Sears Repair, Mr. Kane.”
Hans sprinted to the van, tossed his tool bag into the passenger seat, and locked the door. He exhaled and felt for the mobile computer so he could let Central would know he was safe.
The computer wasn’t there. Crap, I left it on the table. He had to get it back—it was $2000 to replace. Heart pounding, he trotted back and knocked more paint chips off the front door. This time, a porch light came on. A woman in jeans and a battered leather jacket slipped out. A mane of thick, black hair spilled down her back. The strap of a big bag weighed down her shoulder.
“Forget something, repairman?” Blue eyes smiled above perfect white teeth. She pulled Hans’s computer out of her bag and handed it over.
“Yeah, I guess I was in too big a hurry to get home.”
She dug out a set of keys. Inside, the dog howled.
“I hope the dog is okay?” Hans said. “She’s such a beautiful animal.”
“Thanks,” she said. “The dog’s fine. He’s just mad because you had my ticket out in your pocket and he didn’t know it.” She turned and yelled, “Shut up! I’m tired of living out here! Find yourself another kennel girl.” The dog began to bark frantically. The woman turned back to Hans. “Better take off, repairman. You didn’t eat a cookie, did you?”
Hans shook his head, confused. Something inside slammed against the door, snarling. He jumped back, paint chips showering down.
“I ate a cookie five years ago, and I’ve been stuck here ever since,” the woman said.
The dog clawed the door.
“Seriously, you better get out of here. He bites, which would give it to you worse than eating a cookie.”
She tossed her bag into the battered pickup. It coughed, but she revved it and spun out. The truck’s red tail lights flickered between bare tree trunks.
Hans’s frozen fingers clutched his computer. He had to go home. But—he tiptoed to the faint rectangle of light on the ground beneath the living room window. One look. He crunched to the window sill and peered in.
A scruffy brown dog lay in the blue light of the television with its head on its paws, the picture of dejection. When Hans’s breath fogged the cold glass, the dog lifted its head and sniffed, then turned and fixed coal-black eyes on Hans’s face. It bared yellow teeth in a snarl.
The van tires spat gravel as Hans sped over the bridge. Town calls only from now on.
Delaney Green lives in the American Midwest. She’s the author of “Tsunami Surprise,” published in Bouchercon 2014: Murder at the Beach and Jem, a Girl of London, the first book in a historical fantasy series about an orphan grappling with inherited magic she can’t control. Green has been a reporter, a copy editor, a professional actress, a Broadway theater concessions manager, and a farm laborer. Green studied theater at Bread Loaf School of English in Middlebury, Vermont, and earned a master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Kansas. She taught high school English for 25 years.
Lead image: “Hot Spots!” (via Flickr user Ben Jenkins)