Three a.m. was a best guess as to when the Butt brothers came to snatch him out of bed. The clock readout made a puddle on the nightstand, but that thaw never caught a glance, not once a kick to the door woke Migue in an awful fright. Half yet in dream he leapt to the headboard, backward like a crawdad, shoulders first. A smutty magazine had read him a bedtime story, and it shied into a curl on the floor. No lights went on as two shapes loomed close on either side of him.
“Get him up. You getting him up?”
“Quit barking orders. Fucking mongoloid—what’s it look like?”
“The dark. And it smells like jerking it. Goddam, if I touch cum—”
“Sew up your pussy and grab a hold.”
Cusses were as good as name tags here, or narrowed each man down to the same two. It was Rod or Jack at an armpit and Jack or Rod at the other. A hoist got him into a pair of slacks, and then the brothers drove him down the hall as he hopped a second shoe on. He pictured eyes at peep holes but never saw a face. Jack and Rod were no twins but the brute ugliness was the same. Beneath streaks of white on their temples—the sole show of age—one was sandy blond, the other dark. Just which was which had never meant that much. The family name was Zaitsev. “Butt” had come thanks to a taunt from when they were all of nine, courtesy of an old number by the Jimmy Castor Bunch and the name of their mom. The joke was lost a sous chef from Guatemala City, who only hoped to keep all pairs intact, but it had shown the Butts a happier way. Through skirmishes with everyone and everything else, they bled each other somewhat less.
“Put him in there.”
“What am I, your sidekick?”
“I’d scope a nut if you’re asking. Migue, watch your head. Watcho your heado. Comprende?”
The trunk of their Buick Wildcat gave him a scrub through the turns. He thought the hatch would come open on the alleyway behind Chez Daphne—a steel door without handle or knob that swung inward with a deadbolt key. It led straight into the kitchen, which was where and how they knew him. But the how and where of the visit—how they had known where to find him—these were no less a mystery than the why. Bracing him against a turn, his hand found a stiff spot in the nap. Met up with sweat it gave back a scent of blood. He heard the bickering through the rearmost seats. No small feat over the thud of the stereo and the thickness of all that custom leather.
“Take a right.”
“I don’t know where it is? You don’t like the driving, tuck and roll, motherfucker.”
“Leave Bertha out of this. I said right! Well great! There goes the shortcut!”
“Christ! It’s a grid! North, south, west, east! You need a guide for that? Fucking Sacagawea?”
“What did you just call me?”
“Look. Donuts—first batch. Pull up, pull up.”
Well past the kitchen, to judge from the commute—even without stops for donuts figured in. Food was their love, and eating was the only time Migue had seen peace on those bitten faces. A slow chew at the table in the back, breath through noses under half-shut eyes. The kitchen would quiet down, meaning that the only yells would be coming from the chef, and those through the ruck of prep work. Daphne Waterbeeste was bi in the polar sense as well as the usual and tattooed out to midway geek, but you could only call her rash for bringing in Jack and Rod. Regulars before, big tippers and fans of the menu, now a piece of things—silent partners, she had likely hoped. Foolish, but she had to know the long game there. Migue had seldom worked for a better cook than Daphne, a restaurateur through and through, and he had been places. Never before in the trunk of a car, although he had to admit that it was spacious. They removed him from it almost gently once the Buttmobile quit with the veering and the lurching and the bouncing up and down. The latch popped, and the street light flooded in. Good thing they had a liking for him, or for the talent. Either could have stuck thumbs in to pry Migue open like a done hen, yet all they did was shove him into motion as they knuckled sugar from their mouths. Migue saw that he had come uptown—a residential street. Newer buildings, frameworks of glass and steel, so nearer to the river than the park and a scifi jewelscape in the eyes of a working man. A sharp palate let him smell the cinnamon and fruit on his two chaperones, so he knew they had gone with apple fritters.
The three came to a lift. There was no doorman, nor any concierge, but the lobby had a long desk where one should have sat, perhaps with smut of his own. Jack or Rod had a keycard, and he stuck it in a slot. Migue never would have took them for high society, and in truth he did not now. The misgiving grew, and it had already been at frantic.
The door reopened on a private foyer, and Migue had never seen the like. Past a short privacy wall and bureau table there was an open floor plan. Silly low-slung furniture, like corn chips made of aircraft fuselage, under row on row of potted downlight. A cityscape view swept about a conversation pit. It was like the reveal on a knock-knock joke told by the ghost of Eero Saarinen. Migue had few notions of architecture or of any joke in progress and saw only the keys in the dish on the bureau. He knew the fob on sight: a lightning bolt and the letters tcb. So this was Daphne’s home. She kept such long hours at the restaurant that she might have slept in a casserole. Beside the key dish was an address book, open to a scrawl. His own contact info, Migue knew without too close a look. The how.
Next, why, as in why a chef he trusted had a pair of goons fetch him out. But it was not Daphne who rose from the pit to greet them. Even with Migue’s present escort, the danger he knew so well, he felt gooseflesh break up and down his arms. There was nothing unusual about the look on the man—pale golf jacket, average height, slim, balding at the crown—but he bore an immaterial reek of death and was the only person Migue had ever seen, Daphne aside, to give the brothers an open stare.
“I don’t wait,” was how he led.
“Six?” Jack or Rod said. “How’d you get up without us?”
“You brought somebody in.” Not a question. “And left the scene to do it.” The eyes never went to Migue, and he was glad. Six, they had called him, like a name and not a number. Since the Butts were criminals—enforcers of note—it hinted at mayhem best left unknown. Six was worse.
“Never you mind our boy here. Migue, he don’t do American so good.”
English, that meant, and speak, and Migue outspoke theirs. The no se ploy came with regret—a petty vice among staff who wanted to skip the Anglo headaches, not to mention the whole apocalyptic katzenjammer of the Butts. He had only ever used it on those two and for that reason. It would protect him, true, but he was about to wind up eavesdropping. Worse than whatever would be said, he would have to keep the simper up while he did so—act the dumb Guat el norte took him for.
Like so: “Mister Rod, Mister Yack, is hokay? I go now jou want?”
“Stayo closeo,” said Jack or Rod. “We’ll just be un momentum. For pavor?”
“Si. Cuánta razón tienes.” Migue looked down and away as the Butts stepped in for the huddle.
“Here’s how it works,” Six said, pointing in a jab at the floor. “You call Mr. Bodiak, he calls me. I show up, you show me the problem, I take care of it, I leave. I don’t punk, not for a krysha.”
“Easy, Six,” said Rod or Jack. “We didn’t mean to be, like, fucking rude. There was some time to spare before you got here, and, you know, a pressing matter at hand.”
“It was serious,” Jack or Rod threw in.
Six shook his head. “Moving along. I saw how you left it. Too bad it can’t be staged. That’s the easy route most often—just scrawl a note and then whatever. But, you know, a bump on the head like that, nobody ever—so that leaves cleanup, and judging from what I saw, that was what you expected. Whatever movies told you, a tub’s no good. Any fluid that works, works—given a chance it would chew through the finish and even through the metal. As red flags go it’s a fifty-foot candid of a baboon’s ass. And the other way—the carryout—well, it takes time, it’s piecemeal, there’s more risk, and time and risk, those’ll run you extra.”
On tub Migue no longer wondered where the chef might be. Each hint brought a chill.
Six went on. “Keep that Mex out of the way. He’s your problem or you’ll be mine. I’m going to make a call.”
“Bossy,” Jack or Rod muttered once Six was in the back.
His brother said, “Yeah. I’m all, lighten up, Mother Superior.”
“Nice. Migue, hey Migue, comeo overo hereo.”
To a kitchen area, part of the open floor. It was just past an island and a row of backless stools. Had the lightning bolt gone unseen, he would have spotted Daphne’s handiwork there and then. Open prep surfaces, a chaos of tools magnetized to the backsplashes, save for the one good knife. This was a non-brand gyuto made of a chrome-moly steel. It had been honed so often that the tip had grown thin. It would cut you on a peek, and it lay between a bamboo cutting board and white towels in a trig little stack. Daphne Waterbeeste never let the one good knife roam far, and folded kitchen towels, those were like her wings. Funny to think of that unhinged and inky lady as an angel now, but he did. She would be the patron saint of duck fat. Migue fought the tears.
One area, near the sink, was a mess. Bowl on bowl had stacked up, smeared with a dark residue. All sorts of ingredients from refrigerator and pantry were strewn and smashed into paste and raggedly cut and torn, slopping off the counter onto the tile. Lettuce leaves, herbs fresh and dry, mushrooms and meats, all laid waste. The shards of plates were on the floor nearest the sink.
No time for surmises. Jack or Rod had gone to a deep pot on the stove and taken up the lid. Rod or Jack kept behind. There was heat in the cookware yet, thanks to an enameled cast iron. A steam rose that smelt of shrimp and cuttlefish and the seawater they swam.
Jack or Rod nodded him over, and Migue went to take a look. The contents of the pot were a uniform black, with chunks both small and large. None of the tasty smell seemed right for that mealy pitch. “Migue,” Jack or Rod said, “this stuff, it’s delicious. Muy delicioso. Si?” Migue thought on a broken watch that could speak Spanish twice a day. “We can’t figure out what’s in it. We had, like, half the batch, more, and we sure as fucking donkey tits want to eat up all the rest. But we need to know how to make it. What’s in it. Before it’s gone. We need to know.”
Migue chose his Spanglish. He had never needed to resort to so much of it before. “Jou want mees make jous dinner?” The ghost of raza pride owed him a punch in the throat, but dire was dire.
“No, no,” said Rod or Jack. He took Migue by the shoulders and turned him about. “We. Want. To know. How to make. To know. What’s. In it. The ingredients.”
“Ah—los ingredientes! Si, si, I honderstand. Then I make jous dinner?”
Jack or Rod took the shoulders, and Migue was spun to face the other mouth. Same gestures, same donut breath. “Just los ingrediochos, mon ami. My brother and me, we been learning how to cook for ourselves. How. To. Cook. We love food. Been getting taught on the side.”
“Que? No lo entiendo.”
“Getting. Taught. Teacho mucho aqui, aqui. Cook, cook, cook.” Jack or Rod was shouting now—right into his face, though without anger—and doing a pantomime. Chop, stir, a pepper grind. The smile never let up as Migue felt the mist of spittle. So that was how the Butts had come. At work they were a constant distraction. Daphne had likely seen lessons as a way to get them off her grill.
“Hokay. I honderstand. Los ingredientes.” He pointed to the pot. “I take a casa, si? To mees chome. Cómo decirlo? Chow jou say? Chome. Home.” And thought, Se prepara un incendio, San Lorenzo. Lo que deberé.
Rod or Jack had stepped up to make a united front with Jack or Rod. Soft smiles under deadly earnest eyes. Either had a hundred pounds on Migue, more, and that was the least of his trouble.
“Here,” said one.
“Now,” said the other. “That’s how it’s gotta be, Migue.”
“Yeah, Migue. Here and now.”
They would never let him go. Full tilt on a pollito clown act for nothing, and nothing left to do but keep it up, pray for the best.
What came out instead of any godly fixes was Six. “I spoke to Mr. Bodiak,” he said to the Butts from halfway across the carpet. “You two have a good night.” And on toward the door, unhurried.
“Whoa! Whoa!” The Butts were in pursuit, both at once. Migue listened in, but his eyes went to the nearest backsplash and what was hung there. “Just where do you think you’re going?” he heard Jack or Rod ask. There was a meat cleaver on the magnetic stripe.
“Not your concern,” Six said. “What should bother you is that Mr. Bodiak has revoked the privilege.” Not the Chinese chef’s knife people called a cleaver, nor that half spade the Japanese used to behead all the fish they ate, but a nice, heavy bone-thwacker.
“What the shit, Six?” asked Rod or Jack. The one good knife had a better edge but was far less good for bone. Steel that keen was hard and brittle. “What the hell? This is our out-of-pocket.”
“Mr. Bodiak asked for a briefing, and I gave him one. The circumstances, well, they just aren’t to his liking.” If not the ax, there was always the cheese grater. “Not my problem, in other words. You might want to take a step back before I feel abused.” A baller, a mandoline, a rice paddle.
The Butts had raised their hands and taken the step. “Six, hey, we don’t mean no harm. Never mind my brother here. I know he ain’t got no class. He’s like a turd in summer put there by a hobo. But, you know, what are we supposed to do about the situation?” Air quotes.
“Look in the closet for plastic bags. And there seem to be plenty of knives.”
Migue felt the eyes. Despite himself he glanced up from the cleaver. A bad tell, obvious, but the Butts were only considering the whole toolshed and the task at hand. Six was looking right to Migue. When their stares met, Six gave a wink. No reassurance, of course—that would never be the aim—but it also felt like more. As if Six were signaling a gag. The look stopped blood but was over fast. Six turned for the elevator. And the stammering from the Butts kept up until the door slid shut at leisure. The Butts stood there in silence. All at once the nape cuffing began, and it was mutual.
“Can’t take the truth, huh? Goddam—shoulda ate you in the womb.”
“We ain’t twins. I bet your dad ain’t even mine.”
“Same drunk, different hole. You didn’t need a name, you needed a flush.”
There was some wrestling on the floor, and Migue would have snuck past, had the action rolled any farther back from the elevator button. By the time he thought of a fire exit—somewhere in the back, not yet seen—the fracas was done with. The Butts took out pocket combs and slicked back the muss. Next they picked up their handguns, dropped in the scuffle, and slung them in waistbands.
“So how do we do this? We got to get the recipe.”
“Sun’s up soon. Best get this done while there’s still some dark out. We need to split the work. One of us gets the cooking tips, the other the et cetera.”
“So rosham for it?”
Migue saw no more. In truth, while those eyes were taken up with fists clapping to palms on a three count, he had pulled the cleaver off the stripe. He gave it a weigh below a sight line on the countertops, and by the time the Butts had come to terms he had put the steel back. There was no place to hide it and no advantage in doing so. Daphne kept a speedy kitchen.
All too soon, Jack or Rod was at his side while Rod or Jack was rooting around under the sink. “Have a taste, Migue,” said Jack or Rod, handing over a wooden spoon. “Tell me what you think.” He lifted the lid off the pot. Rod or Jack had given up that search and gone for the pantry.
The flop sweat went unnoticed. Migue thought quick. “Jou try too? Por el sabor. Eh. For taste.”
“Hey!” Rod or Jack said in the background. “Cinch Saks!”
Migue swallowed hard and went on. “Jou have un paladar fino. Good palate.”
He already knew what the dish was, more or less—a variant of seafood paella from Valencian Spain—but flattery would help keep the oaf thrown off. More time for a grab when the chance came.
“Aw, hell. You really think so?”
“Si, si. Como un jefe de cocina. Por favor.” Migue gestured to the pot and offered the spoon. The other Butt brother set a package of garbage bags on the counter and began to eye the kitchen tools.
The spoon in Migue’s hand went ignored. Jack or Rod stuck a hand, bare and unwashed, straight into the pot. Up came a wad of dark rice and shellfish meat—maybe a full pint in that big palm.
“Ah, ah, ah!” Migue said. “Smell first.” A bead of sweat chased into his collar. The other Butt was looking to the meat cleaver. He picked it up—a heft, lips pursed—and Migue felt defeat.
Jack or Rod let the mass of arròs negre waft into his nose and open mouth. He more than sniffed at it—he breathed it in, and deeply—and Migue saw the transport, the sure delight.
“What it smell like?”
The eyes kept shut. “Good twat.”
The other Butt had noticed the one good knife, and a grin spread. The cleaver rattled on the counter, left behind, and off Rod or Jack went with the brittler steel and the bag box.
No relief for Migue. He turned back to Jack or Rod. “Okay, sure. Go ahead and taste.”
Smeared into the mouth, all at once, like caulk for a staved hull. Cheeks puffed out, breathing through the nose. The chew was slow—in no hurry at all to be done. “Goddam,” Jack or Rod said at last. “That’s good. I wish I could feel this way all the time.”
“But what do you taste?” Fingers creeping for the handle. “Salt? Fish? A browning?”
“I don’t know, but I—”
The other Butt came back. “Hey, Rod,” he said. “It’s weird.” So for now Migue knew which was which. His hand fell away from the countertop and his eyes met the floor. He felt the haul of the cleaver, the fear of what he had to do, but he willed his gaze downward and kept his face meek.
“Goddam it, bro,” Rod said, on a quick swallow. “Do you have to wreck every good thing?”
“Six—it looks like he, uh, shot up.” Both hands were free—knife and bags left behind—and Jack did a pantomime of a hypo. “This big-ass needle—it was right beside the situation.” Air quotes. “Just, like, thrown there.”
“Yeah? So what? Maybe it’ll keep things, like, flexible.”
“But she—he moved the situation.” Air quotes. “The situation”—air quotes—“was on the situation’s back, and now it’s on its side, with the shirt pulled up.” A thoughtful look. Air quotes.
“So he’s a pervert. You gotta figure he’s in it for something. Look, Migue and I are on the verge of culinary discovery here, so kindly shut your uppermost dick hole and get back to it. Chop chop.” A pause, a smirk. “Chop, chop.”
“Good one.” Off Jack went again.
“Okay, Migue, back to school. You want I should try some more? Never mind. I just have one question. What makes it so black? It don’t even look like it should be food. But it’s the best fucking shit I ever ate, and I’ve eaten some delicious fucking shit. So what makes it black like that?”
The eyes were right on him, so Migue kept his own from what he wanted. “Well, it could be any one of a few things. It’s probably not bean paste, because that would make it starchy—”
“—and food coloring, that’s not too likely—”
“—so that leaves—uh—”
“Just me here, or did your talk get better?”
They stared at each other for a good while, one up, the other down. Migue was surprised to see the look worn—hurt at a betrayal. Any mercy this might have brought quickly gave way to rage. Migue realized with a gallows fascination that he had never seen a Butt angry until now. Things would have gone another route had Jack not just then come back around the corner.
“Rod,” he said with a quiet rasp, “she’s alive.”
“Huh? You sure?” Rod looked to his brother and away from Migue.
“Pretty sure,” Jack said, with blood running in a lollop from his throat and mouth. He pitched forward, and there stood Daphne Waterbeeste, the one good knife in hand. A crust of blood was matted through her hair, and it had pooled up to give her crazy panda eyes. Undershirt stained, sleeves of tattoos on bare arms, hair sprung, eyes afire, she was a harpy, a gorgon, a professional cook.
Rod took his time, which was short. “Cunt!” By the time the epitaph was said the gun was drawn and aimed, and no sooner drawn and aimed than hanging limp along with the beefy hand that held it. The stroke had landed right above the knob on the wrist, where the joint was weakest, and had sheared through to a hinge. Years of prep had given the sous a quick cut.
Wild eyes, pale shock—Rod looked to what had become of him, to the generous spurt, to the short Guatemalan who had become his end, to the cleaver brought high once more.
“Squid ink,” Migue said, but only after.
Daphne watched it all with a sleepier eye. She took a ragged step for one of the stools and held herself steady against the seat. The one good knife took a place on the countertop, set down with reverence, and she clutched her head once the hand was free. Migue had thrown the cleaver aside and rushed up to her.
“Chef! Are you okay? Where is the phone in here? I’ll call an ambulance.”
“Don’t call just yet,” she said. He had never heard that voice so weak. “Not before I try my dish. Degenerates. Always with a hand in the pot. Can’t take wait for an answer.” She righted herself with a push and began to inch toward the stove. “Now I have to look for new investors. Christ.”
Migue looked around him with a shrug. “You don’t have money?”
“My own? Into a restaurant? That’s nuts.” She took a step over Rod or Jack. Just which was which had never meant that much. At last she came to the hard-won pot. In went the wooden spoon. Daphne took a bite. A chew, a frown. She threw in a dash of salt.