| A light was on in the room. Stephanie Haley could see it from her kitchen window across the alleyway. She continued washing the same dish for so long she nearly wiped the floral pattern off. Who is living there? No one had lived in that apartment since the Bronson murders. Who would want to?
A shadow flashed past the sheer ivory curtain, too quick to make out who it was. Stephanie bit her bottom lip and craned her neck to get a better look when the doorbell buzzed(,) startling her. She could taste the metallic piquancy of blood. “Shit!”
Dropping the sponge and placing the plate in the rinse water, she hurried to the intercom by the front entrance and pushed the receiver. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Steph. I brought dessert.”
She punched the button to let her best friend, Dawn, in. Within minutes, she could hear her heels clicking on the stairs. Steph opened the door before Dawn had a chance to ring the bell. She grabbed the bag of donuts out of her hands and moved aside for her friend to enter.
“Nice to see you, too. Thank you for the donuts,” Dawn said as she removed her damp jacket and hung it in the small closet by the door.
“Sorry, thanks for the donuts. Love you.” Steph kissed her cheek and then headed back into the kitchen.
“Need help with that?” Dawn picked up a dry towel.
“Sure.” Stephanie leaned forward, trying to get a better look at the apartment across the way. “Do you know who’s renting the Bronson apartment?”
“Someone moved in?” Dawn stared over her shoulder.
“I saw a light come on and then a figure walked past the window.”
“Could be old Mrs. McCaughey cleaning up the cobwebs. That place has been vacant forever.” Dawn took the plate out of Stephanie’s hand and began drying it.
“Yeah, but she’s like really tiny. This was a pretty tall person.”
Steph shrugged. “Don’t know, the curtain’s closed.”
Dawn placed the plate in the drying rack and took the glass out of her hand. “Could be some old eccentric dude who has some fascination with like, the macabre. That was a horrific murder scene. I mean who does that, right? Guy comes home from work and out of freaking nowhere decides to stab his wife like forty times, and if that ain’t enough, he butchers his three kids in their sleep and then waits for the nanny. My God, really, who does that?”
“I know. And who wants to live there?”
“I forget,” Dawn grabbed another glass, then continued, “how did he kill the nanny?”
“He didn’t. The son-of-a-bitch ran off with her.”
“Get out of here, really?”
Stephanie nodded, gave Dawn the last plate and went over to the kitchen table where she’d left the donuts. Picking out a chocolate glazed, she shoved a chunk of it into her mouth and opened the refrigerator to retrieve a glass of milk. “You want some?” She held up the carton.
“Yeah, and save me a Boston Cream. Hey, maybe it’s a cop going over more evidence.”
“Na, the murders were like over a year ago.”
“So, they never caught him. Did they?”
“Hey, what if the guy you saw tonight is Matt Bronson? You think about that?” Dawn snatched the greasy bag and hunted for a Boston Cream.
“Why would he come back here?”
“I don’t know.” She took a bite of the donut. “Don’t murderers always come back to the scene of the crime?” Dawn asked while spitting crumbs on the table. She grabbed a napkin and wiped them up.
Steph rolled her eyes. “That would be stupid.” She stopped and stared past her friend.
“What is it?” Dawn turned her head and looked out the window. “Wow.” She licked her lips. “That ain’t Mr. Bronson, girlfriend. Not by a long shot.”
“No shit.” Stephanie walked past Dawn and leaned on her sink as she took in the view.
Dawn stared from behind her shoulder.
The window across the alley was open, the curtain drawn. They watched as the tall, lean shirtless man sat in the windowsill wearing nothing but a pair of faded jeans. He lifted a bottle of Budweiser to his lips and took a long swallow.
“Who the hell is that, and how do I get one of those?” Dawn asked.
“You already have one of those, or did you forget your husband, Frank, already?”
“That ain’t no Frank. Heck, that dude makes Mel Gibson look like a freak.”
“Update. These days Mel Gibson is a freak.” Stephanie started to wash a clean dish.
“You know what I mean. That guy is hot.”
“Steph, if you think he’s just alright, I’d like to meet the guy that meets your standards. Come to think of it, does he even exist? You haven’t been laid in like, what, ten years?”
“Funny. A year, two months, three weeks, six days, and…” Stephanie stared at the imaginary watch on her wrist. “ten minutes, thirty-three seconds. But who’s counting?”
The man across the way stood, turned and disappeared somewhere into the apartment.
“Damn!” Dawn shrugged and took a bite of her donut. “Hey, I gotta get going. Frank is getting home early today. I just wanted to pop in and say hi.” She kissed Steph’s cheek and headed for the closet to fetch her jacket.
As the evening progressed into night, Steph forgot all about the mystery man in the apartment building next door. She was too busy caramelizing onions, and adding the finishing touches to her haute cuisine to give him a second thought.
“Chef Stephanie. I was told Michael Rand has just been seated in section nine,” one of the waiters announced.
“Shit. Okay, let me know what table is his and what he orders.”
“Yes, Chef.” The young waiter turned and flew out of the kitchen.
Several minutes later the server returned, handed her a ticket and announced the table was Mr. Rand’s.
Steph studied the check and smiled. “Going Indian, Mr. Rand. Great, my favorite.”
Steph slid behind the line and replaced her Sous Chef. “This one is mine, Alex.”
“What did he order?”
“A simple northern Indian dish, Yakhni Biryani.”
“Chef, that’s not on the menu,” Alex protested.
“It is tonight. Can you get me some lamb?”
The Sous chef retreated to the walk-in.
While saut©ing onions in ghee and adding just the right amount of Garam Marsala, Steph thought about how important a good review from the infamous Michael Rand would be to her reputation. Of course, a bad review could have the opposite effect.
Once the dish was finished, garnished, and met with her picky approval, she presented the plate to the waiter. She stepped away from the line and handed the reins back to Alex. Walking to the double doors, she discreetly peeked out of the small glass window which had a clear view of Mr. Rand’s table.
“Oh, my God.” She had never seen his face before and expected a much older gentleman from the way his reviews were written. Not only was this man not old, but he looked like the guy from the window. “No way,” she mumbled.
After two bites, Rand wiped his mouth, wrote something in a small notepad, left cash on the table and stood. Steph watched as he exited her restaurant.
Up before sunrise Monday morning, Steph dressed and hurried down the street to the closest newsstand. She grabbed the morning paper and skipped to the restaurant review section. Skimming the article, she nearly screamed, “What the hell does that ass know? Mutton? Where the hell am I supposed to get Mutton? Not traditional? I’ll show that son-of-a-goat, traditional.” She snapped the paper shut and threw it into the trash.
“Hey, lady. You gonna pay for that?” the wrinkled man said from the kiosk.
She dug into her jean’s pocket and handed him a five. “Keep the change.”
Fuming, Stephanie nearly ran the two blocks back to her apartment. “Mutton. Please.”
She was about to go upstairs when she changed her mind and headed directly to the next building. She scanned the labels under the doorbells, and there it was, clear as a Hawaiian spring, Michael Rand. Steph pushed the buzzer and didn’t remove her finger until the sleepy voice of her neighbor spoke through the intercom.
“This is your neighbor, Mr Rand. I need to talk to you right away.”
“Do you know it’s like six am, my neighbor?”
“Yes I do. It’s important.”
The buzzer sounded, she pushed the door and flew up the stairs.”
Before she had the chance to pound on the door, it swung open and Michael Rand stood before her. “Now how did I guess my irate neighbor would be none other than the great chef of the La Monde Cuisine?”
She wanted to smack the smirk right off his face. His gorgeous, tanned, sculptured face. “Mutton! Are you kidding me?” She tilted her head and her eyes bugged like an insect.
“Ms. Haley, why don’t you come in. I have neighbors, you know. I don’t want to piss them off so early after I’v moved in.” He stepped to the side to make room for her to come in.
She brushed past him and couldn’t help notice he smelled like soap and shampoo. Stop that, Steph, he’s an asshole who knows shit about fine cooking.
“So, I’m in.” She stood, arms crossed, eyes slits and mouth pursed.
“You look a little angry, Stephanie.”
“Ms. Haley, Mr. Rand.” Her foot tapped the hardwood floor. The sound reverberated from his sparsely furnished apartment.
“Excuse the mess, I haven’t completely moved in yet, as you can see.” He dumped the contents of a milk crate to the floor and placed it upside down, then did the same with a second crate. Sitting, he tapped the other one. “Have a seat and we can discuss this like adults.”
“I’d rather stand, if you don’t mind. What’s with the bad review? That dish was impeccable.”
“You used lamb.” He looked up at her and attempted to cross his long leg, but nearly fell off the milk crate. “The tradition is mutton.”
Steph tried not to laugh at the sight of the six-foot-something man sitting on the plastic box. His light blue eyes were distracting under dark thick lashes. His mouth curved slightly, accentuating what might just be dimples. Stop it.
“Mr. Rand, I do not appreciate you telling all of New York City I don’t know a goat from a horse, and should not present myself as a worldly chef if I can’t tell the difference. I can tell the difference. You ordered an item that wasn’t on the damn menu and I was considerate enough to make it for your tasteless self. I do not carry mutton in my restaurant and had to substitute what I believe to be the next best product.” Her voice rose and she could feel her face flush.
Rand stood and towered over her five-two frame. “Stephanie, excuse me, Ms. Haley. I do not appreciate being attacked in my own home and having my reviews thrown in my face. So, if you don’t mind, please leave.” He pointed toward the door.
“Are you kicking me out?”
“I am asking you nicely to vacate my domicile.”
“You said my Marsala was burnt.”
“I said you may have let the Marsala cook a little longer than would normally be expected with this dish. Do not turn my words around.”
“Are you deaf as well as illiterate?” His face came close to hers and his azure eyes sparkled. She could feel his heat radiate, the angrier he became. She tried to ignore his sensual mouth and how bad she wanted to kiss him. For Pete’s sake, kiss him? He’s an asshole with the taste of a grasshopper on crack.
“Wait, did you just call me illiterate, you tasteless buffoon?”
“If you actually read the whole bloody article you would have realized I did not call your Marsala burnt, but taken too a higher level of flavor, and I also said if one were to substitute one protein for another then the chef had done an exceptional job. What review did you read?”
“You said that?”
“Yes, I did.”
“So, you’re not a tasteless buffoon?”
“I think I would suck at my job if I were. Actually, I think I have very refined taste.” He moved closer, getting into her personal space. The scent of him enveloped her, making her feel a stirring she hadn’t felt in a very long time. Without thinking, she glanced directly up into his eyes, seeing him and drinking him in. Is he telling me the truth? Am I so blinded with fear and anger, I hadn’t really read what he wrote, but what I assumed he wrote? His eyes penetrated hers and she couldn’t help herself, allowing him to kiss her. She felt the heat rising within her and wanted him so bad it was hard to control. But I don’t know him. He’s just some guy living in the apartment across from me who happens to write reviews on up and coming chefs. He’s the guy who moved into the apartment of a known murderer. Did he know that? Everyone in New York knew that. Unless you were buried beneath the subway system, it’s impossible not to know about the Bronson murders and Bloody Monday. Is he related?
She pulled away. “Ah, I’v got to go.” Rushing toward the door, Stephanie tripped over one of the milk crates and crashed to the hardwood floor. Her head hit the ground with a loud thud, and she blacked out.
When she woke, Stephanie was laying in an unfamiliar bed. Where am I? She remembered Michael Rand and thinking about the Bronson murders, freaking out and falling. Her head still fuzzy, she glanced around the room. Not much to see, a single dresser, a chair, and that was about it. Was she still in Rand’s apartment? She had to get out. Trying to sit up, Stephanie felt lightheaded again.
The door opened and Michael appeared carrying a white towel, his hand concealed underneath. She thought about what could be under it. As he approached her side, she tried to scramble away from him.
“Stephanie, what’s the matter with you?” He sat on the edge of the bed.
“What happened?’ She managed.
“You fell over the crate. Why’d you rush away like that?”
She watched his hand as he lifted the towel, then flinched when he placed it behind her head. It felt cool and damp.
“I’m sorry I kissed you. It just happened. When you got all angry you looked so — well, you looked so beautiful. I’m really sorry. I thought it….”
“How long was I out?”
“Only a minute. I called an ambulance. They’re on the way.”
“You didn’t need to do that.” She placed her hand over his which was still holding the towel to the back of her head. “Ouch.”
“Don’t want to take any chances. I can see it now, ‘Restaurant critic Rand knocks out renowned Chef Haley in his own apartment.”
She laughed at the thought and wondered why she was behaving so stupidly. “Hey, Michael?”
“You know about your apartment, don’t you?”
“You mean the Bronson Murders?”
She nodded her head slowly, and raised her eyebrows, hoping for a reasonable explanation.
He stared at her, making her uncomfortable. Finally, he stood and left the room without answering. Fear gripped her. She tossed the towel to the carpet and swung her legs over the side of the bed, grateful she was still fully dressed. Here she was laying in a stranger’s apartment, in a stranger’s bed, and she basically threw herself at him. What the hell am I thinking? This is the guy I — just a short time ago — thought ruined my career, and worse yet, maybe he’s somehow connected to the most horrendous murders in New York in the past decade.
Before she could push herself off the bed, Rand appeared in the doorway, one hand behind his back, a questioning look upon his face.
Sweat trickled down Stephanie’s back.
“I really wasn’t ready to do this, Stephanie, but I thought about it.” His hand still behind him, he approached the bed. “I don’t know why, but I think… Okay, let me just show you and….”
His arm swung from behind him. Stephanie nearly jumped, but then she saw what he was hiding.
“Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I don’t know why I feel it’s okay to show this to you, but I think it’s because I really would like to get to know you better. This is why I chose to move into this apartment. This, and it came pretty cheap under the circumstances.” He handed her a thick envelope.
She stared at it for a brief moment and then slid her finger under the flap. Opening it, she removed several pages of paper. She read the top of the first.
“Bloody Monday, the story of Mathew Bronson and the brutal slaying of his family, by Michael Rand.”
“You’re writing a true crime novel?”
He tilted his head and smiled. He bit his lower lip, but not before she saw the dimples she knew were there. “I just started it and hesitate to let anyone see what I write until it’s done.”
“Why not? Why not start at the top, I always say.”
“Why show me then?”
“You ask a lot of questions. Like I said, I would like to get to know you better, and I was hoping you would like to get to know me too.” He put the pages back in the envelope. “You think I’m crazy?”
Stephanie touched the back of her head and cringed.
Michael reached behind her and pulled the pillow up and leaned her back on it. “There, you better rest before the ambulance arrives.”
She pushed up and toward him. “Wait. You asked what I thought. I think it’s weird, but also kinda cool writing a crime novel. I also think I might like to get to know you better too.” She touched his cheek and then pulled him toward her. As the kiss became more passionate, Stephanie heard the sirens in the distance. “I wish you could call them off,” she whispered, as she clutched him even tighter and kissed him deeper.