When Spider opened the freezer door the next morning a furry creature shot between his legs. He pressed a human bone into Wendigo’s hand before the spirit could follow it out into the kitchen. “Good morning, Elder Brother!” he said with a smile, stepping back and beginning to close the door. “Here’s your breakfast. You must be a good manitou now and wait patiently and quietly for your lessons tonight, understand?”
It was hard to tell if Wendigo heard him over the loud crunching and smacking sounds he made. Spider closed and locked the door. “Phew!” he said, turning to Coyote and yawning. “It’s nice to have things back on track, but I wish I could start out with a little more sleep.”
Coyote fixed him with a narrow golden-brown glare. “You have no right to talk!” he growled. “I don’t want to hear a single word! You have no idea what I had to put up with in there.”
“How did Elder Brother behave himself?” Spider said, hiding a yawn behind his hand.
Coyote paced a stiff circle around him. “You can hear about it later, or mop a puddle off the floor,” he said.
Spider grimaced and made a shooing motion with his hands. “Go, go!” he said.
Coyote dashed away in the direction of the men’s room, leaving Spider glad that no employees had arrived yet.
Coyote scrabbled at the door handle, claws slipping and gouging the wood. It opened and he leapt inside, staking out the nearest urinal. Unwilling to take the risk of popping while changing forms, he stood on his hind legs and rested his front paws on the tile on either side it. He let his tongue loll from his jaws and breathed a sigh of relief.
In hindsight he wished humans had been thoughtful enough to design facilities for the comfort of customers of a more canine persuasion. He threw a pawfull of paper towels over the splash-back and stomped on them. He left feeling very good about himself for the extra mile he went in cleaning up.
Spider paused in his early-morning preparations to wrinkle his nose at Coyote. “That is disgusting,” he said. “Go get dressed and wash up. If you behave yourself I’ll let you help out today.”
There was a clinging sensation on Coyote’s hind paw. He turned to look, and then gave the leg a few kicks until the paper towel came off. “Okie dokie smoky!” he said, and trotted away to Spider’s office.
He returned sporting a dog collar complete with custom engraved paw print tag. He sat at Spider’s feet and puffed his chest out. “All right,” he said, “what’s the game plan? You want me to wait tables? I could wait tables. I’m good at balancing stuff on my back.”
“OK, that’s strike one out of one,” Spider said. “Go. Now. I won’t have people thinking I let vermin run around in my restaurant.”
Coyote gasped. He stood on his hind legs and pointed at the tag. “I am not vermin!” he said. “I’m Odie, the lovable mutt thing. Yip yip!”
The back door opened and footsteps made their way toward the kitchen. Spider grabbed Coyote by the scruff and shoved him into a large cabinet that was only mostly full of bowls.
“Wow, you’re here early,” a female voice said behind him.
Spider whirled around and greeted his favorite assistant cook, Jessica. “Oh, sure,” he said. “Just wanted to get things started to save time for the staff meeting.”
She nodded, and then gave him a quick look-over. “It’s good to see you again, Mr. Iktomi.” she said. “I was getting kind of worried about you.”
He chuckled. “Oh, I’m feeling much better now!” he said. “It was a shame taking so many days off, but you can never be too careful. I’m still a little tired, but my doctor says everything is good to go.”
She swallowed the lie with a pretty smile and got to work. Within a few minutes the rest of the staff arrived and they all gathered around their boss.
Spider fixed them with a grave look. Some of the more nervous humans, used to their boss’s sunny disposition, fidgeted. “Welcome back,” he said. “What I have to tell you today is not going to be easy, and I certainly didn’t expect to have to deal with it right after my illness, but I assure you that business will continue as usual.”
He let it sink in for a few tense moments. “I just thought you deserved to know,” he continued. “The restaurant is haunted.”
The human’s expressions ranged from confused to incredulous, but to their credit no one burst out laughing. Spider put an extra tinge of severity in his voice. “I believe this is my cousin’s fault,” he said. “If you have met him for only an instant you know exactly who I am talking about. Trouble always follows him, but I am the only family he has left so I cannot abandon him. It seems he awoke an angry spirit here when he visited right before I got sick. I consulted a Medicine Man, and he told me the restaurant was built over an Indian’s grave. The spirits hate my cousin. The Medicine Man gave me a spell to keep it contained in the freezer, over which its grave was dug.”
Every head turned to stare at the freezer.
As if on cue, a cheerful voice echoed from within, “Bonjour, humans!”
Jessica shrieked, and several people took a step back. One of the waiters met Spider’s eyes with a dubious look. “Why would an ancient Indian ghost have a French accent?” he said.
Spider shrugged. “One of the mysteries of the spirit world,” he said. “What I do know is that it is a dangerous spirit. We must avoid interacting with it. I am working with the Medicine Man on setting up a cleansing ritual, but until then we can’t use the room. You may notice some minor damages done to the restaurant. I actually got better a few days ago, but then I had to figure this out to make sure everyone will be safe. The spell weakens late at night when the spirit is at its most powerful, and it leaves the freezer to use its powers against the building. This will get better over time, but for now we just have to wait it out.”
Whether frightened or skeptical, each person regarded their boss in a new way. His past was sketchy, and aside from a love of certain types of food and art he drew little attention to his ancestry. He spoke with a certainty that left no doubts about his belief in the strange story. The pay was good and the work environment hospitable, so they kept their opinions to themselves.
Spider handed them each a newly printed menu. “I’ve made some changes,” he said. “Who knew that being haunted could be so good for business? From now on we’ll be buying exclusively from local markets. Nothing frozen for later. Freshness is hot, and we’ll deliver it in a style no one else in town can match!”
They marveled at the variety of new dishes and refinements of old favorites. If any other chef had proposed the plan he would find himself alone to carry it out, but it would take more for them to abandon “Ian Iktomi.” Even those who disbelieved his ghost story had to admit there was something almost supernatural about the way he understood food.
A clanging noise drew their attention, and a cabinet door opened with a flood of bowls and brown and gray fur. Coyote shook himself off and looked at the crowd. “Yip yip!” he said.
Spider seized his scruff and shook him, wagging a finger in his face. “There you are, Odie! Bad dog! Bad!”
Coyote licked him on the mouth.
Spider let go and gagged, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. The “dog” bounced around the kitchen, yipping and wagging its tail. It stopped beside Jessica and leaned against her leg.
She smiled and scratched Coyote behind the ears. “Aww, he’s cute,” she said. “Where’d he come from?”
Spider made a dive for Coyote and missed. “Sorry about this,” he said. “He belongs to my cousin. He dropped him off right before you got here. He doesn’t have a place to live at the moment, so he’s staying with me. He informed me this morning that while he’s out job hunting I need to take care of the little rascal.”
The skeptical waiter caught hold of the collar when Coyote ran by and lifted him off his feet. He wrapped his arms around the squirming canine and gave Spider a nonchalant look. “You want me to put him in your office?” he said.
“No!” Spider said. “I mean, uh, no. No, I don’t trust the little varmint. Just toss him outside.”
Jessica gasped. “You can’t do that!” she said. “What if he gets hit by a car?”
“Trust me, he won’t,” Spider said. “My cousin lets him run all over the place. He never gets hit or runs away. He might try to get back in though, so watch out for him. I’ll give my cousin a call and tell him to come get him.”
The waiter headed for the door. Spider signaled for him to stop. “One more thing,” he said. “I never was able to convince my cousin to get him neutered, so watch your legs. If he decides to give you any ‘special attention’ just bop him on the nose or kick him in the ribs. Be as firm as you want. He has to learn somehow.”
Odie the dog locked eyes with Jessica, and she could have sworn he winked at her. The waiter dumped him out the back door.
Coyote raced around and found a shady spot of grass by the front entrance. He stretched out on his belly and waited for the customers to arrive. After the first few were admitted he got up and paced, preparing himself for a day’s hard work.
A young couple came out with breakfast leftovers in white bags. Spider’s breakfasts were large and legendary. Coyote sat up on his hindquarters and tucked his legs against his chest. He pinned his ears against his head, widened his eyes to a size that rivaled those little breeds of dogs with squished faces, and whimpered.
The woman grabbed her husband’s arm and pointed. “Oh Ricky, look!” she said. “Poor thing.”
She knelt, bag held in her lap, and extended a closed fist.
Coyote stretched out his neck and sniffed at it. He wagged his tail and said, “Yip yip!”
The woman smiled and pulled a white box from her bag. She opened it and set the remains of an omelet before Coyote.
Coyote inhaled it. He licked his chops and opened his mouth for a yawn, which ended in a loud belch. He put on his puppy dog face again and said, “Yip?”
Ricky frowned. “Yuck,” he said. “Come on honey, let’s go.”
They left. Coyote grabbed the empty box, ran around the side of the restaurant, and deposited it in a spot where the wind couldn’t blow it away. By closing time there was a small hill of trophies for him to lay proud eyes over.
He greeted Spider at the back entrance with a grin and a wagging tail, sans collar. “Yip yip!” he said.
Spider groaned and rubbed his temple. “Am I going to have to leave you locked up with Wendigo all day?” he said.
Coyote stepped inside and shifted back to his human form. “Oh no you don’t!” he said. “Not in that tiny little room. He’ll drive me crazy!”
“And this is different from my situation how?” Spider said.
Coyote pulled at his hair. “I won’t do it!” he said. “You can’t make me!”
“All right, sheesh!” Spider said. “I’m not forcing you to do anything! Now would you please go get dressed and help me set up? I’ve got a few procedures I’d like to do before we start working with him.”
Coyote grabbed Spider’s uniform and stared into his eyes with manic intensity. “I can’t do it!” he said. “You don’t know what he did to me in there! He’s so stupid! I feel dumber with every moment I spend around him! I do not deserve this! I’m leaving!”
He let go and strode, still naked, out the door.
Spider rolled his eyes. “What about your bet with Gray Fox?” he said.
Coyote froze in mid step. “Oh yeah,” he said.
He turned on his heels and stepped inside, flashing Spider a sour look. “I left my cloths in Elder Dingbat’s cage,” he said, and headed for the freezer.
Spider ignored the nickname and smiled. “Elder Brother appreciates your gambling addiction,” he said. “He will thank you when he learns how to.”
They unlocked the freezer door and backed away.
Wendigo tore through the restaurant for several minutes, knocking over chairs and pausing only to give some object or surface an investigative sniff. He returned with a wide smile and held out his hands to Spider. “Give me food!” he said.
Spider addressed him in a firm but gentle voice. “That is not how we ask for things, Elder Brother,” he said. “There is a magic word the Creative Spirit gave us to use, so that we may ask for things with respect. Can you guess what that word is?”
Wendigo furrowed his brow and tugged at his beard. “Trade favors?” he said.
“That’s two words, genius!” Coyote said, emerging from the freezer. “And what in the name of the Creator’s backside made you think this was food?”
He held up a shredded strip of buckskin legging. There were just enough beads left to hint at the hand-woven traditional pattern. “Do you have any idea how long it took me to find one of these to steal?” he said, shaking it at Wendigo. “Bad manitou!”
Spider jammed a finger into his chest. “Two words,” he said, voice dipping low. “Duct tape.”
Coyote held his hands behind his back and pretended to find something fascinating on the ceiling.
“All right,” Spider said, “let’s try this again. See what happens when you add ‘please’ to what you said before.”
Wendigo gave it a few moments’ consideration. “Please give me food?” he said.
Spider took a small bone from his pocket and handed it to him. Wendigo crunched away and held out his hands again. “Please give me food!” he said.
“Halfway there,” Spider said. “Do you know what to say after someone has done something for you?”
Wendigo nibbled at a claw, face drawn with concentration. “Please do that again?” he said.
Spider suppressed a chuckle. “Nope,” he said. “Try ‘thank you.’”
Wendigo held out his hands. “Thank you. Please give me food.”
Spider handed him another bone. “Here you go,” he said. “And thank you for paying attention. Another part of respect is being patient. We need to save the rest of these for your tests and lessons. Are you ready?”
“Yes!” Wendigo said. He stepped around Spider and reached for Coyote. “Thank you for company! Please be dog again!”
Coyote held out his hands and backed away. “Oh no you don’t!” he said.
“Hold on, Coyote,” Spider said. “He did say please. We do not always get what we want when we say please, but it is the best way to try.”
Coyote huffed. “Fine,” he said. “Please be gentle with my fur and I would thank you not to squish me to death!”
He shrank down and became a coyote again. Wendigo scooped him up, wrapped his arms around his chest, and hugged him until his eyes bulged.
Spider reached for him. “Not like that,” he said. “That is not how we treat doggies. Please let me have him.”
Wendigo handed him over, and Spider tucked one arm under his hind legs and one under his front legs. He held him against his chest until he thought Wendigo understood. Wendigo took him back and lost his grip while figuring out the new position. He caught Coyote around the waist before he could land on his head.
Coyote glared up at them. “I hate you both,” he said.