Jason Crawford was fortunate enough to have the entire complex to himself, a situation he would never have envisioned in his wildest dreams. Sure, once the overhyped COVID-19 fiasco ended, people would flock to the recently constructed Robin’s Nest Apartments—LUXURY LIVING IN THE HEART OF BRIER CREEK, according to the oversized banner displayed at the entrance. Nevertheless, for the moment, his third-floor dwelling was the only unit occupied.
But between the virus restrictions, the fact that he worked from home, and the highly addictive Uber Eats, he rarely ventured from his spacious apartment. Which had engendered a nasty case of cabin fever. In fact, on more than one instance, he had pondered whether a space explorer would feel the same way living unaccompanied on Mars.
Now, the temperature this particular August had been mild for Raleigh, which not only benefited the Magnolia but also Jason’s electric bill. Therefore, he was taking full advantage of having the sliding balcony door open until bedtime. And from somewhere outside, he heard a woman’s voice. It sounded like she sang “bad guy” frighteningly out of key.
“What in the . . .” he said aloud, meandering toward the door.
Dancing on the adjacent balcony was a twentysomething woman with stringy blonde hair, a cadaverous body, and evidently no rhythm. She wore skimpy red shorts and a white tank top that basically matched the pallor of her skin, which was not complimentary in any manner. He laughed because the first image that entered his mind was an animated pipe cleaner.
However, her unabashed vivacity touched something buried deep within his soul, so he stepped outside and said, “Excuse me, ma’am.”
She stopped mid wriggle and initiated eye contact but didn’t bother to speak.
“Ugh, hello,” he said. “I’m Jason Crawford.”
The awkward silence that followed made him regret the decision to speak with her. “Do you live here? Because the rental manager explained, I had the only apartment that was currently rented.” He smiled and then attempted to break the ice further, “If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your name?”
“Yeah, I do mind.”
Her repellant words took him by surprise. “I-I’m sorry to disturb you. I hadn’t intended to . . .”
She guffawed and with vigor said, “Just fucking with ya.”
He forced a chuckle and rubbed the back of his head. “Oh yeah, you really got me there.” This girl is really something else. “Seriously, though, do you work here? Because I don’t remember seeing you in the front office.”
“Name’s Candi—with an I.” She plodded over to the edge of the balcony and leaned over the railing as if attempting to flaunt cleavage God hadn’t bestowed upon her. “You like Billie Eilish?”
“You referring to the singer?” he asked, still struggling to read her.
“No, the fuckin’ astronaut.” She cocked her head and wagged her butt from side to side. “Yeah, the singer, dummy.”
“Can’t say I’m an admirer. I’m more of a country music enthusiast.”
She stuck a finger in her mouth and performed a keen mime of retching. “Yuck! You can’t have good sex to that shit music.” She hesitated briefly then asked, “Did your girlfriend ever tell you that you looked just like Brad Pitt, only younger?”
At that precise moment, a fragrant evening breeze caught hold of her hair, and the golden stands danced flirtingly around her pallid cheeks. Jason Crawford felt foolish for the pictures he painted in his head. After all, this woman wasn’t his type (did he even have a type?!), but Jason couldn’t help himself; he was already beginning to develop a strong attraction to this eccentric stranger. Maybe he was lonesome. Or perhaps he missed being in a romantic relationship, having somebody—a feminine somebody—to seduce regularly. “Oh, I don’t have a girlfriend. Not currently, anyway.”
“You live alone?” she asked.
“Yes, because I’m not especially interested in the whole roommate prospect. Too much drama for my liking.”
“Thing is, Jason, maybe if you found the right roommate, your tastes would change.” She winked at him with her pale blue eyes.
“I wasn’t talking about living with you—with a girlfriend, I mean.” Calm down and take a deep breath, you idiot. Unless you want this girl to think you’re a stalker. “I don’t want to share my place with one of my male friends is all I meant.”
She appeared to contemplate his words. “Then how the hell do you afford a swanky place like this by yourself?”
While he thought her question was a bit too personal at this stage, he answered, “I’m a computer programmer. I work for a big technology company in Silicon Valley, and I make fairly decent money.” But after hearing his own words, he added, “Not to say I’m rich—just comfortable.”
“Damn! You do all that complicated shit with just one little computer?” she said, standing and stretching enough to show her flat abdomen. “I can barely use Facebook with only one computer.”
“Oh, no, I have several machines, a few iPads, and various devices for testing.”
“Aren’t you worried about somebody stealing all that crap?” she asked. “Lots of bad people in this world, darling.”
Was this her attempt at flirting? It had been eighteen months since his last serious relationship, so his proficiency at decoding possible innuendos wasn’t exactly sharp. Although she had called him darling, it wasn’t uncommon for southern women to use that word loosely. “I never gave it much thought, to be honest.”
“Never lived in a big city, huh?”
“Guilty as charged.” He looked around at the beautiful flora, and a smattering of nostalgia tugged at his heart. “I’ve lived in North Carolina my entire life. It’s my home, so I never had the urge to leave.”
“Well, sweetheart,” she said, putting her hands in the rear pockets of her shorts, “I’m from Los Angeles—born and raised. I learned to think about shit like that.” She pushed her scrawny hips forward. “Maybe you just need a really good teacher.”
Okay, she’s not from the south; therefore, it would appear this lady was flirting with him. Sure, she’s a bit unusual, but unusual is exciting. And at this juncture in his life, he absolutely needed some excitement. Also, her sexual energy was palpable. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure, but you have to answer a question for me after.”
“I can do that.” He paused to collect his thoughts, hoping he hadn’t accidentally on purpose misread her words. “Would you have dinner with me tomorrow night? That is . . . unless you’re afraid of this virus mess?”
“No, sweetheart,” she said, laughing, “I’m not afraid of any old virus.”
He grinned so big he thought his face might split. “That’s great because I make a mean Chicken Parmesan.”
“Now it’s my turn, darling.”
She motioned for him to come to the edge of the balcony, a command he gladly obeyed. And now, with both of them positioned as close as the situation would permit, she whispered to him, “Do you know Rocco?”
“Rocco?” he asked. Stunned by the abrupt change, he searched his memory until he unearthed a possible match. “Are you referring to the big guy who works here—the maintenance man?”
“That’s the one,” she said, nodding her head. “You see, I met him online while he was doing a stretch in prison for manslaughter. A few conjugal visits later, you might say he became my boyfriend and partner in crime.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize—”
“He’s got keys to all the apartments,” she interrupted, raising her voice. “And he’s looking forward to meeting you, my love—right, Rocco?”
From behind him, a deep chiseled voice, “Right as rain, baby.”
He turned to see a hulking man standing in the doorway, a large bowie knife in one hand. And from behind Jason, Candi laughed sadistically. He attempted to speak, but his brain couldn’t influence his mouth to form the words. From somewhere overhead, a lone bird cawed.
Rocco stepped forward and buried the knife to the hilt.
At first reflection, Jason didn’t comprehend what had happed; however, after falling to his knees, blood spilling onto the newly finished wood, he grasped the situation. Then the world became quiet and black around the edges, and he managed to utter his final words.
“You’re fucking with me, right?”