Beside Myself [MultiFormat]
Click on image to enlarge.
eBook by Ginger Simpson
eBook Category: Romance/Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: The newspaper headlines that a serial killer is on the loose in Cynthia's neighbourhood and the victims bear a striking resemblance to her. Fortunately her handsome neighbor is a police officer. But their first kiss deals them a startling jolt when they experience a body transference. Now he has to go to her job as an accountant, and she has to solve the crime and save him from becoming the serial killer's next victim...
eBook Publisher: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, Published: Writers Exchange E-Publishing, 2004
Fictionwise Release Date: July 2004
5 Reader Ratings:
"Women still missing--No Leads." Cynthia Freitas straddled the complementary copy of the daily newspaper lying in the hallway in front of her apartment and gulped. The thought of a kidnapper loose in her neighborhood sent a shiver up her spine.
With two grocery bags balanced in one arm, she strained to see around them to find the keyhole. Just as she unlocked the door and stepped inside, the bottom of one sack gave way, sending her carefully-selected apples skittering across the warped floorboards. An assortment of vegetables landed in a premature salad at her feet. She clenched her teeth in frustration. "Damn! Damn! Double damn!"
Not in the habit of cursing, she winced and turned to see if anyone was in the hallway and had overheard. Seeing no one, she took a deep breath, removed the dangling key, and closed the door. "You've picked up some bad habits, Cynthia Ann."
She stepped over the spillage, still grasping the torn bag, and placed it and the intact one on the stained kitchen counter. With a deep sigh, she dropped to her knees and crawled from apple to apple until she had recaptured all the escapees, but not before crinkling her nose in disgust at the recent rodent droppings next to the stove. She made a mental note to buy another mousetrap on her return visit to the store.
Cradling the Granny Smiths in one arm, she stood and dumped the fruit into the sink. Curiosity drew her back to the hallway to retrieve the newspaper. She tucked the daily edition beneath her chin and fiddled with the deadbolt. It still wouldn't work. The super hadn't responded to her call, and this wasn't the best of times to have a broken lock. After placing the flimsy chain across the door, she added making another call for maintenance to her growing mental notebook.
Cynthia sat and unfolded the paper. The hair on her arms bristled when she read the startling headlines again. She quickly scanned the story beneath the bold print. It wasn't encouraging. The kidnapper hadn't left any clues, and there hadn't been much progress on the case. Reading about the crimes made her nervous, and she was just about to toss the paper aside when the word divorced, describing the victim, jumped out at her and yanked her thoughts elsewhere. Her mom and dad had split, but both still lived in Ord, Nebraska--a dim spot in the road to somewhere else. She left home because of the small town scandal.
Their separation soured Cynthia on relationships. Not that she'd had any of which to speak, but, if an occasion arose, she planned to use caution and move slowly. Besides, she wasn't sure she trusted in love anymore. People always talked about how divorce affected young children. The pain in her heart reminded her of the equal effect on someone thirty-one.
She folded the paper, placed it on the coffee table and returned to the sink to rinse the apples. The pipes squealed and vibrated in protest, but finally sputtered a thin stream of liquid into the discolored basin. She shook her head in utter disgust, praying God spared her any more surprises in her apartment from hell.
When the clean fruit was stowed in the antique refrigerator, and the rest of the mess cleaned, she turned to her usual cleaning routine. A stale, musty odor, a constant companion in the dank spaces of The Cairns, greeted her when she opened the coat closet to retrieve the vacuum.
A flip of a switch and the machine whirred to life. Was this how everyone else spent their Saturday morning? A pang of sadness gripped her heart. The murdered women would probably give anything to be able to tend to even the most boring of chores. Those darn headlines; she just couldn't get them out of her thoughts.
She vacuumed the threadbare carpeting in a crisscross pattern, moving the worn furniture as she went. Being thorough was a must. She never did things half-heartedly, and although she hadn't yet entertained anyone in her home, cleanliness was important to her.
She tucked a bothersome strand of hair behind her ear, stashed the Hoover back in its niche, and pulled out a dust cloth. The apartment was so old, a constant coating of dirt seemed to sift through the walls. She wrote her name in the latest layer on the coffee table. Dusting would be a waste of time, but fortunately, on weekends, time was something she had in abundance.
Lost in the mundane task, Cynthia inspected each nick and scratch and pondered who or what caused them. Her mind wandered. How many people had lived in her apartment before her? What brought them to The Cairns ... and what finally made them leave?
She chuckled at her last thought. If she could afford to move, she certainly wouldn't be living here, especially with a kidnapper running loose in the neighborhood. Maybe moving to the city hadn't been such a good idea.
Cynthia worked for Harris & Morgan Accounting. She had expected big city life to be exciting when she'd moved to San Francisco after completion of her MBA at the University of California, Davis, but now she questioned her rationale. Spending most of her time commuting back and forth to work and the hours spent there didn't give her much time to explore. Her days were spent crouched at a desk and her evenings in this crummy, run-down apartment. The rent here was all she could afford on her starting salary. Who would have guessed everything would be so expensive? But then, what did she know? In Ord, everything was a bargain ... and safe.
The silence wore on her nerves. She turned on the radio to her favorite, smooth-jazz station just in time to catch the news; but as she listened to more disturbing reports about the missing women, the phone rang.
"Hey, Cyn, what's up?" The voice on the other end was her brother.
"Kevin! Same ol' same ol'. What's new with you?" Nothing could have made her day better than hearing a familiar voice. She plopped down in the armchair, and pulled her feet up beneath her.
"Just thought I'd call and check in before I head over to Sara's. We have an office picnic today ... big doins' in Ord." His voice bubbled with the great personality she remembered. "Just didn't want you to think I'd forgotten about you."
"A picnic? How nice. It's been ages since I've been on one. Actually, it's been ages since I've done anything." She couldn't hide her envy.
"Sounds like life in the big city isn't as exciting as you expected."
Her thoughts turned to the missing women. The hair on her arms stood on end. "Scary is more like it. Ord never prepared me for anything like what's happening right here in my neighborhood. Women are disappearing, and the police haven't caught the kidnapper yet."
"Haven't you made any new friends? I don't like you being there all alone and knowing no one." His voice tinged with concern.
"It seems like all I do is work, eat, and sleep. I haven't had time to meet anyone, except the people at work. If you count sitting at the BART station waiting for the train to work and back, I'm gone twelve hours a day. When I get home, I'm too tired to do anything else."
"And you thought San Francisco had so much more to offer." He chortled.
"It probably does, but I've yet to experience it," she confessed. Even his half-hearted laughter lifted her spirit. Her best friend, he'd kept her smiling and made life tolerable during their parents' split. She pictured his freckled face and laughing blue eyes and sighed. "I sure miss you, Kev. Your weekly phone calls are great, but I wish we weren't so far apart."
"I know, Sis. I miss you, too. If it weren't for Sara, I'd probably have left Ord right behind you."
"Well, if you ever leave home, make sure you check the cost-of-living situation. You have no idea how expensive it is here."
"Well, then, I guess I'll find out. I've decided to see what the big attraction is for myself."
"Yep, I'm coming to visit. If that's all right? Do you have room for two?"
Trying to imagine where she could fit two more people into her cramped apartment, she cleared her throat. "Sure, there's always room. As long as you don't mind sleeping on the floor. You did say two?"
"Sara is coming with me."
Cynthia's thoughts of her dismal living situation were lost in feelings of excitement. Besides, Kevin already knew her money issues. "When? I can't wait to see you."
"In three weeks. Maybe our visit will be the opportunity you need to experience San Francisco first hand. You can be our tour guide."
"Some tour guide I'd be." She laughed. "I can only find my way to work and back. Maybe we should hire a professional, or ride around on one of those buses that show you where all the notable places in the city are located."
"Or ... maybe you can actually get a date and we can double like we did when you were home."
She rolled her eyes. "If you could see me right now, you wouldn't even suggest such a thing. I'm in the middle of cleaning and I look horrible. Besides, I haven't been out with anyone in ages. I haven't met anyone here, and even if I had, I don't think I'd know how to behave on a date."
"Why are you always so hard on yourself? When you're all dolled up, you're a looker, whether you want to admit it or not. Just put on your best smile and do a little flirting. You remember that old cliché, men prefer petite blondes?"
"Sure!" Her cheeks warmed at his kind words. "That's why men are beating down my door." She thought how easy it would be to pummel through her flimsy apartment door and almost laughed aloud.
"Yeah, yeah! I give up." Her brother sounded frustrated. "You never could take a compliment. Okay, you're ugly, and men will never give you a second look. Is that what you want to hear?"
"Not really. I liked your first description better." She chuckled, but wondered why she was always so unreceptive to positive comments. Did her behavior have anything to do with her parents divorcing? She didn't remember being so negative when she was younger. Why couldn't she take a compliment? After all, she wasn't the ugly duckling.
"So, do you have your flight number and arrival time?" she asked, changing the subject.
"Not handy. Sara made the reservations. I'll call you the week before we come and give you the info. Love ya, Sis!"
"Right back atcha." She hung up wishing she hadn't missed the rest of the news, but with it being a hot topic on all the broadcasts, she was bound to catch a report on TV later. Her thoughts wandered back to the safety of Ord. Nothing like this ever happened there. Why hadn't she stayed put?
She shook her head. "What's done is done. No use whining about bad choices."
Standing with dust cloth in hand, she recalled Kevin's suggestion about double dating and laughed. He must think single men grew on trees in California.
She hummed as she went about the rest of her Saturday cleaning. Still, in the back of her mind, she wished she lived somewhere more presentable. How was she going to explain this rat hole without being embarrassed? She stood back and assessed the drabness. Maybe if she planned lots of fun things, they wouldn't have to spend much time at The Cairns.
She took a deep breath. "Stop it Cynthia! Kevin and Sara know you're just starting out. They won't be expecting the Ritz!" They also wouldn't be expecting her to talk to herself as much as she did lately.
Armed with her bottle of window cleaner, she pushed aside the tattered rags masquerading as curtains. Once her checkbook was back in the black she planned to buy some new ones. There was no use asking the super about replacements. He hadn't even fixed her lock.
She misted the glass then wiped it dry. Why she bothered she didn't know. It must have been years since the outside was cleaned. There were so many water spots, it looked as though she hadn't touched the pane, but there wasn't much to look at anyhow. Her gaze rested on the littered alley below. It wasn't much of a view but it fit the motif.
She leaned in. Something caught her eye; a man seemingly pilfering through the trash bin. Maybe one of the vagrants she passed every day on her way to the station. She wasn't used to seeing so many bums and homeless people on the street, but this man didn't look like one of those types. There was something vaguely familiar about him--perhaps his frame, his hair. What was it? She squinted through the blotchy glass.
He bundled something inside a blue wrapper then, glancing from side-to-side, he poked around in the trash, appearing to move things about before tossing his package into the dumpster. He almost looked to be hiding something, and when he turned, she saw his face; the building super!
She shrugged and pulled the window coverings back in place. "You watch way too much television, Cynthia. The man is only throwing out his trash."
Alexander Carlyle slammed his apartment door so hard, he heard the "2E" on the other side loosen, and swing back and forth several times. The paper-thin walls attached to the door shimmied like plywood in a windstorm. He had already placed two calls to the new apartment super requesting that the latch be fixed, but still no dice. Besides not responding, there was something about the guy that bugged Alex. He couldn't put his finger on what it was, but this time he wouldn't be quite so nice when he left a message. He pulled on the knob to make sure the door had shut securely. It hadn't.
"Friggin' door!" He slammed it again. "Whadda ya gotta do to get service in this hell hole?" He exploded from the stress that had built all day from dealing with the scum of society. Alex worked for the San Francisco Police Department, and had lived in 2E in the building for two years. His fiancée had had a change of heart and left him for someone else. He had needed to find a place fast and The Cairns was the best he could do on short notice and matching funds. Why had he stayed so long? It certainly wasn't the charm and allure of the place. But he had nowhere else to go. His hopes of building a family were as dead as his mother and father, and Alex, an only child, had no one he considered family. He certainly wasn't eager to enter into another relationship and have his heart broken again. Besides, he spent most of his time at work and the apartment served as a place to eat and sleep, and that was all he needed.
He secured the dead bolt and snapped on the light switch, illuminating the squalor. The peeling paint and fading curtains did little to enhance the well-worn furniture that came with the apartment. The avocado-green carpeting, a throwback to an era gone by, had more bald spots than remaining shag.
Odors of rotting leftovers wafted past his nose when he opened the fridge, but he ignored them and grabbed a beer. He dropped all six-foot-two-inches of himself into his easy chair and twisted off the bottle top. As usual, he engaged in a game of trying to bounce the cap off the wall and into the trashcan, but failed. The metal round landed among the other missed shots that peppered the carpet around the wastebasket. Being a slob was a perk of living alone.
He took a long, satisfying swig then placed the can on the end table, almost perfectly atop one of the many other watermarks left by previous beers. Leaning forward, he searched the debris on the coffee table for the remote control and found it buried under last Sunday's comics. The ancient table teetered precariously to one side. Alex bent and pushed a folded piece of cardboard back under the uneven leg.
Draping one long leg over the frayed arm of the chair, he took another swig of Bud Light, while he selected random buttons on the remote, channel surfing for something to occupy his mind until bedtime.
Normally, he worked a regular beat with his partner, but they'd been the two uniforms assigned to assist detectives on a kidnap/homicide. Thoughts of the crime invaded his mind on a constant basis. Another young woman had vanished--the fourth in a month. One body had been recovered so far, but there were no leads as to the perp's identity. Alex shuddered at the thought of finding the others dead and ran a hand through his hair. No matter how he tried to block the case from his mind, the crime connected him with memories of another that haunted him.
His mother had been murdered when he was only twelve, but he still remembered it as though it happened yesterday. Her battered body had been found sprawled on the floor, her face still contorted with fear for the intruders who robbed and beat her. Eventually, the coroner covered her with a sheet, but Alex still had visions of blood soaking through, changing the white to crimson. That was the moment he chose a career to follow.
He lost both parents that day. His father was never the same and died within a year. Alex had watched him wither away before his very eyes. The local police never caught his mother's killer, and once Alex graduated from the academy, he pushed himself to the limit to solve any cases assigned him. He'd be damned before he let his current investigation be the defeating one.
He took a swallow and pushed his loneliness aside. Another Friday night with no plans. His fingers thrummed the worn chair arm. His work buddies had invited him out for a drink, but he got his fill of their braggadocio during the day. Alex preferred to leave his badge at work when he left, even if he couldn't leave his thoughts. He'd bet some of the guys had egos so big they actually wore their badges on their pajamas.
He focused on the TV screen. Going out with his pals probably wouldn't have been any better than watching this nerdy-looking guy on Channel six forecasting the weather. Besides, drinking at home was cheaper. Alex took another gulp of beer and glanced out the window to confirm the accuracy of the weather report. "Yep, sun going down, sky is clear, day is done."
Alex rolled over on his back and stretched. He glanced at the clock on the nightstand and was perturbed to see it was only seven thirty a.m. Even on Saturday, his internal alarm clock wouldn't let him sleep in.
Thoughts of his job flashed through his mind. Too many missing pieces of the puzzle made it impossible to link the few clues together. He curled one arm beneath his neck, snaked the fingers of his other hand under the waistband of his boxers, and scratched his flat stomach. "Okay Alex, what big plans do you have for today?" He sighed. "Oh ... nothing again. How exciting."
He rolled to the edge of the bed and sat for a moment, then swaggered into the bathroom to relieve himself of the six pack of beer he'd finished before bed. As he drained his bladder, he stared through bleary eyes at his reflection in the medicine chest mirror. His dark shock of hair lay flat on one side while the other looked like a tornado had rumbled through. Rubbing the palm of his hand against his stubbly chin, he longed for the days of youth when he didn't have to shave every morning.
"I guess being tall, dark and handsome has its drawbacks," he quipped, while slapping both his cheeks. Too much alcohol always made waking up tough.
"Hmm! Maybe I shouldn't shave and see if I can pull off that Miami Vice-Don Johnson look." He studied the image staring back at him. "Ah, maybe not ... then I'd have to get one of those white, linen outfits like he wears." How would that famous TV cop solve this case? As hot water always took at least five minutes to reach his apartment, Alex turned on the shower. While he waited, he threw the covers back up on the sagging bed and straightened the pillows. Knowing he'd done his part for good housekeeping, he dropped his boxers on the floor and stepped out of them, then went back into the bathroom. He was intent on taking a shower, albeit more like walk beneath a light rain.
When the drizzle of water turned warm, Alex stepped in and quickly soaped and rinsed. One thing he had learned from living in The Cairns was that hot water didn't last very long.
He yanked yesterday's towel from the wall rack, sending the securing hardware flying in all directions. Amidst the tinkling of scattering screws, the entire bar clattered to the floor. He shook his head and sighed. "Shit! What next?"
With terrycloth wrapped around his waist, he left the mess lying on the floor and went into the bedroom. Should he fix the bar or call the super? Such important decisions made him laugh. He decided to fix the bar later--right after he picked up all the bottle caps on the living room floor.
Alex donned his sweat suit and tennis shoes. If he didn't get out of his cramped environment, he'd go crazy thinking about his job. Hell, it was all he had to think about these days. No woman, no relationship, no family--life was a bitch lately. A quick run around the nearby park sounded like just the ticket. Besides, a little exercise would counter-balance all those calories from his nightly beers, a habit he'd acquired since the breakup, and one he needed to discard.
He picked up his Walkman and clipped it to his waistband. As he opened the door, the heaping trashcan in the kitchen corner caught his attention. The contents overflowed the container and spewed onto the floor. He donned his headphones and cranked up the volume of his theme song, Travis Tritt's, Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof. Singing along and not caring that he wasn't in tune, he picked up empty beer cans and potato chip bags, and stuffed them all inside the garbage sack. After tying the top, he hefted the bag over his shoulder and strode out into the hallway, keeping step with the musical beat.
While passing Apartment 2A, the door opened. The tenant backed into the hallway, two garbage bags in tow. Not watching where she was going, she bumped right into him.
Obviously shocked by the sudden impact, she spun around. "Excuse me, I'm so sorry. I should..." Her widened eyes traveled the length of his body. Her mouth gaped.
He towered over her petite, maybe five-foot-three frame.
She gazed up at him. "Uh ... I should have been watching where I was going."
Alex dropped the trash bag on the floor and removed his headphones. Unable to resist, he returned her once over, but with a much slower scan. Blonde hair drawn back into a ponytail presented a youthful appearance, but her clingy, terrycloth outfit did a great job of outlining assets that proved she wasn't a child. The way she licked her full bottom lip, maybe a nervous habit, made him want to savor a taste for himself.
Realizing he had missed most of what she said, he forced himself to stop ogling her and pay attention. He'd heard her apology and needed to respond. His mouth turned dry as dust. He cleared his throat and smiled. "No problem," he managed to croak.
Puberty and voice change passed through his mind, but that took place a long time ago. He swallowed hard and pointed to her trash bags and then to his own. "Looks like we're both headed for the same place."
"Yep, it's Saturday, my cleaning day. Same routine every weekend." Her head tilted in a way that made her beautiful hazel eyes sparkle.
Suddenly his palms turned sweaty. He wiped his right hand against his pant leg then extended it. "Name's Alex Carlyle. I live in Apartment 2E."
Her tiny hand disappeared inside his. "Hi, Alex. I'm Cynthia Freitas. Looks like we're neighbors. How long have you lived here?"
Why did she make his knees weak? "Going on two years already. Time flies when you're having fun."
"Wow, two years!" The rise and fall of her shoulders showed her shock. "I've only lived here for three months and I'm ready to move."
He laughed. "Me, too. Service is lousy around here, and everything is falling apart. But don't give your two weeks' notice yet. There aren't too many other affordable places to live this close to the city."
He still held her hand, but dropped it like a hot coal the moment he realized it. If she was bothered, it didn't show.
"That's for sure." She seemed to want to keep the conversation going. "I looked at lots of places, but this is the only one within my price range. So, here I am! Why haven't we run into each other before?"
"Strange that we haven't, especially since we're just two doors apart. But, then, I pretty much spend all my time at work. When I'm home, I hibernate."
"What do you do when you aren't ... hibernating?"
"I'm in law enforcement--police officer."
"Gee. I didn't know a policeman lived so close. I guess I'll have to keep my wild parties to a minimum." Tipping her head back, she giggled, not in a flirty way, but more a nervous titter at a joke made at her own expense.
A woman's laughter sounded good after so long, and she was so darn cute. "Hmm, so, that's where all the noises are coming from. I just thought the pipes were creaking and the floor settling." He leaned against the wall, relaxed and not wanting the conversation to end either.
"Actually, that's exactly what you heard. Squealing pipes pretty much describes the only sounds coming from my apartment."
"Right! A pretty girl like you?"
Her cheeks reddened. "Thank you. But I haven't had time to mix and mingle with anyone other than colleagues from work. I'm an accountant by trade, and they aren't the most exciting folks in the world. I like to leave that part of me behind at five o'clock."
Her blush surprised him. Surely she was used to compliments, a looker like her. He reached past her and put his hand on her doorknob. "Got your key?"
She produced one from her pocket. "Right here."
He pulled the door closed and locked it. "Don't want to take any chances with your valuables. And ... you mentioned not having excitement in your life?" He picked up one of her trash bags along with his own. "How's this? Allow me to escort you to the dumpster."
Once in the alley, Cynthia flashed back to the Building Superintendent and his suspicious behavior. She fought the urge to dig for the bundle he'd deposited, and almost laughed. Wouldn't that make a great first impression on her handsome neighbor?
Alex snapped his fingers in front of her face. "Can I have your other bag or have you become attached to it?"
"I'm sorry," she said, handing it to him. "I guess I drifted off somewhere."
Alex took her elbow. "Garbage delivered, mission accomplished."
She chuckled as they walked back into the building. "Next time I hope you take me some place that smells a little better."
She noticed the slightly ajar first-floor apartment door as they ascended the stairs, but didn't mention it. For the first time since she'd arrived, she felt safe.
He watched the couple disappear from sight, inched his door shut then leaned against it. He placed a cigarette in his mouth and struck a match. The acrid smell of sulphur curled around his nostrils. What a disgusting display he had just witnessed. A chuckle, sounding evil even to him, escaped his puckered lips as he held the fire to the tobacco end and watched the Camel come to life.
The way they'd laughed and carried on while he peeked through the door. She was a looker, that blonde from upstairs, but then she probably knew it. The way she worked her wiles on her unsuspecting victim made him sick to his stomach.
The sun had climbed higher in the sky and left his room virtually dark. He moved to turn on the light and pondered saving the poor schmuck who'd been with the bitch. So many blondes and so little time. But, it was his responsibility and he'd take care of her soon--very soon.
Cynthia couldn't believe she'd actually churned up enough nerve to invite Alex for dinner. Talking with him came easy, and the fact that he was drop-dead gorgeous didn't hurt either.
While they'd been at the dumpster, she pondered mentioning what she'd seen from her window earlier; but the last thing she wanted was for him to think she had nothing better to do than spy on people. She'd decided to keep it to herself, at least for the moment. Still, she wondered about the strange man who oversaw the building. His swarthy appearance made him seem evil.
Rummaging through the cupboards, she grasped for ideas on what to prepare. She had chicken in the fridge, so she could broil the breasts and top them with melted Parmesan cheese and chives. Now all she needed was a side dish. Perhaps mac and cheese. Didn't everyone love it? Standing on tiptoes and still barely reaching the second shelf, she teased the box forward until it fell into her hands. She then surveyed the can goods on the shelf below. Green beans? Corn? Such a dilemma. She snapped her fingers. "Got it. I'll do green beans with sliced new potatoes and bacon bits." Her menu made her stomach rumble.
She put the cans with the beans and potatoes on the counter next to the box of pasta to simplify preparation later. Afterwards, she made one more sweep through the apartment making sure everything was tidy before she showered.
In the bathroom, she stood with her hand under the running water for what seemed an eternity. When the coldness finally changed to warm, Cynthia stepped into the tub and drew the shower curtain closed. As usual, the pressure was terrible. Water dribbled out rather than sprayed. She lathered her body with fragrant, liquid jasmine, then struggled to remove the suds with the diminished trickle.
"Gees, a drooling old woman produces more liquid than this," she complained.
Suddenly, the pressure increased at the same time that the water turned to ice. She screamed and bolted from the tub, goose bumps dotting her ivory skin. She reached in to turn off the shower, then quickly grabbed a towel. "Yikes! I hate this place. First no water, then cold water. What next?"
It was nearing seven o'clock. Dinner was ready, the oven set to warm. The last hour, she'd spent checking and re-checking her appearance. After all, this time she wanted to make a good impression. His first glimpse of her hadn't been all that great--sweaty, hair a mess, and probably smelling pretty awful.
The small table in the kitchen was set for two, complete with candle and cloth napkins. Smooth jazz played softly on the radio. She nervously paced, mentally chastising herself for getting ready so early.
At the sound of a knock, she adjusted her blouse collar and made sure her shirttail was tucked into her jeans. Before opening the door, she bent at the waist and vigorously swept her hair from side-to-side to give it a fuller, more natural appearance--a hint she picked up in a magazine. A sudden wave of dizziness overtook her when she straightened, and she held her hand against her forehead. "Whew," she whispered. "Head rush! Let's not do that again."
Feeling a tad disoriented, she opened the door.
He looked magnificent in his form-fitting Levi's and a cobalt blue T-shirt that almost matched his eyes. His thick, black hair, no longer confined beneath headphones, was impeccably styled, and he sported white, tennis shoes that were as unblemished as his dark complexion.
Her heart fluttered and she still felt dizzy, but surely not from any crummy beauty tip. "Hi. You're right on time. Come in."
His outstretched hand offered a bottle of wine. "I hope you like White Zin."
"I love it. It's my favorite." Her hand grazed his as she took the bottle. "Would you like a glass before dinner?"
"Sure, why not? Wine has never been my forte, but Emily Post says it's good etiquette to bring a bottle of wine to dinner. So, for the sake of appearances I'll have a glass before we eat." He cocked his head. "During the meal? Maybe afterwards?"
"Well, I'm thinking you should have brought more than one bottle," she quipped.
He smiled. "Actually, I can probably only handle one glass. Although a good, cold brew is my drink of choice, tonight I'm making a sacrifice. I'm trying to make a good impression. So ... how am I doin' so far?"
Retrieving the only two wine glasses she owned, she glanced over her shoulder as she poured. "You're doing just fine. You picked a wine I like and I have just enough glasses. I'd say you're on a roll."
Cynthia walked over and handed him his wine. "Sit. Please. Make yourself comfortable. But..."
She was just about to warn him when the weakened springs of the dilapidated sofa collapsed under his weight. He sank into the worn cushion, his knees almost level with his eye-brows, his glass raised to keep his wine from spilling. Confusion etched on his face, he looked up at Cynthia. "Should I have sat somewhere else?"
She didn't know whether to laugh at his situation or cry from embarrassment, but he looked so funny she collapsed into a fit of giggles. "I'm so sorry. I was just going to warn you about the broken springs. Only two cushions provide any support whatsoever and guess which one you picked? You might want to move."
She took the wine glass from his hand and motioned toward the other end of the couch.
Developing a rocking motion, Alex struggled to his feet and moved to the other end of the sofa. He lowered himself with caution, then took a deep breath. "Well, this is better. I think your couch was built in the same era as mine." He fingered the material on the cushion next to him. "But, yours appears to have a little more fabric left."
His joke lightened the moment. She handed his wine back, set hers on the coffee table, then sauntered over to the radio. "I find it hard to believe that your furniture is any worse than mine."
She switched from the radio to CD and popped in a disc. There would be no newsbreaks about the case to disturb their evening. She sat next to him and picked up her glass. Finally, there was something to appreciate about her shabby furniture--his closeness. His aftershave was intoxicating. She leaned a little closer to inhale the delightful fragrance, feeling more comfortable than she ever recalled with a man.
Alex seemed nervous. Hopefully, not because of her. He tipped his wine glass up and drained it, then put it on the end table. Wiping his hands on his pant legs, he glanced at the stove. "Something smells great. I'm starved."
She felt a pang of disappointment. Eating was the last thing on her mind. It would be preferable to stay just as they were and continue talking, but reluctantly she leaned across him and put her glass on the table next to his. "Then I guess we should eat."
She went to the table and lit the candles. "I hope you like chicken, macaroni and cheese and green beans. It's what I had handy. I know most men prefer beef, but I don't eat red meat so I never buy it."
He rubbed his hands together. "Sounds like a feast to me. I'm usually on my second bag of nachos, and my third beer by now."
"Why don't you make yourself comfortable while I clear the table," Cynthia insisted.
"Are you sure I can't help? I think I remember how to wash or dry."
"Nope, I'm just going to dump everything in the sink and handle it later," she said as she balanced the dirty dishes in her arms.
Alex wandered back over to the safe couch cushion and sat. "Mind if I kick off my shoes?"
Normally, that casual request on a first date would have been shocking, but there was something about him that made it feel natural. Apparently, he had relaxed.
Cynthia looked over her shoulder and scrunched up her nose. "Did you wash your feet?"
He put his sock-clad feet on the coffee table and replied, "Yep, sure did. Even changed my socks." He closed one gorgeous eye in a wink.
Who cared if he made himself at home? She brushed aside thoughts that he was acting just a little too casual and recalled growing up with a brother who had smelly feet. She glanced back at Alex again, and that one look wiped away the memory. Nothing about this man could possibly be unpleasant. Meeting him was like finding a comfortable, missing slipper to match the one you had.
Cynthia rinsed and dried her hands, then hung the dishtowel on the edge of the sink. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"That sounds good. You know ... it's funny. When I go out to dinner, which is very rare, I always enjoy a cup of coffee afterwards, but at home, I never make the stuff. Too much trouble for one cup, I guess."
"I know what you mean. There are times I'd love to bake a cake just to have a good smell to cover the musty odor of this old building, but I know it would get moldy before I could eat it all, and I'm not one to waste things. But I do make my coffee every morning, couldn't make it through the day without it. I'm not about to become one of those people who stand in line at one of those fancy coffee places every morning. Number one, I don't have the time, and number two, I can't afford it." She poured water into the drip-style coffee maker, plugged it in, then wiped the counter. "Take a breath, Cynthia," she muttered. "You sound like a babbling idiot."
"Did you say something?"
She turned and shrugged. "No, not a thing." She turned back to the cupboards. "How do you take your coffee?"
Her precious china clinked against the counter as the fresh brewed aroma wafted up to meet her. When the bubbling noise subsided, she filled two cups perched atop delicate saucers and carried them back to the sofa.
Alex glanced around the room. "How come your apartment looks so much better than mine?"
She set the cups on the coffee table. "What do you mean? Your furniture can't look worse than this stuff." She scanned the peeling walls. "I even considered doing the repainting myself, but when I asked the super about it he just rolled his eyes at me. I took it as a no."
Alex scratched his head. "It's not the furniture or paint, it's the ... Okay, I got it! It's the ... cleanliness. I think I answered my own question."
She sat next to him, handed him coffee and grinned. "You know what they say? Cleanliness is next to Godliness."
Alex looked awkward holding a dainty saucer in one hand while he held the steaming china cup with the other. "Well, in that case, I don't think God even knows my name. I'm not filthy, just not a very tidy guy when it comes to picking up. I used to be neater, but in this place, it doesn't seem to matter." He took a small sip. "Tastes just as good as Starbucks," he said, waggling an eyebrow as he set his cup down.
Cynthia held her cup to her lips and blew away the steam. "I could have sat in the chair, but it's actually worse than the man-eating couch. I've been pierced by its broken springs more than once."
"I like you just where you are." His eyes sparkled.
Pleasantly surprised when he moved a little closer, she felt a surge of heat in her cheeks. Her mind echoed his sentiments. There was no place she'd rather be at the moment. She relaxed against the back of the sofa and sipped her coffee. She was about to say how much she was enjoying the evening when total darkness engulfed the room.
"Shit! The wiring in this dump sucks." The building superintendent commented on the flickering lights and hoped it wasn't a problem he'd have to address. Usually, the dimming meant that someone had blown a breaker, but on occasion the entire building went dark, and he'd have to trek down to the basement and find out which switch had been thrown.
He sat, expecting to become engulfed in complete darkness, but the lights stayed on. He breathed a sigh of relief. "Whew, I hate having to fix things."
He picked up his newspaper and turned to the interesting continuation of the headline story--Dead and Missing Women.