“Parsley… thyme… dried ginger… bay leaves… oregano…” Elias read the list of spices to pair with sage from a cookbook next to the stove. “Parsley, thyme, and oregano. Parsley, thyme, and oregano. Parsley, thyme, and oregano.”
He wiped his hands on his apron, leaving a slight residue of olive oil and flour on the charcoal fabric. A strand of dark curls fell in front of his eyes, causing him to push the hair behind his ears. He ran his hands through his hair a second time to make sure it was all pushed back, and once more to smooth it all out. I’ve gotta leave a good impression, he thought to himself. Elias looked down at his hands, noticing they were shaking. He checked the time. 6:00. An hour was plenty of time for a glass of wine; just one, though, to steady his nerves. On his way to the wine rack on the other side of the kitchen, Elias stopped to grab a long-stemmed crystal glass from the mahogany cabinet next to the fridge.
Chardonnay. Sav blanc. Zinfandel. Chianti. Pinot noir. He analyzed the green and black bottles on the rack. The Pinot or the Chianti would definitely go best with the Italian spices, but I should probably save that for Lena. She’ll see how well I pair my wines and it’ll impress her, I’m sure. She seems like a woman who appreciates a good wine pairing. Pinot noir it is. Yeah, Pinot.
He pulled both the red he decided on and the Sav blanc from the cabinet, setting the white on the counter next to his glass and the red in the center of the dining room table, surrounded by a triad of unlit white candles. The tangy, herbal spritz from the wine cooled his nerves a bit, enough that he felt ready to continue preparing his meal. He had already finished the handmade noodles, now he just needed to finish the sauce and the dessert. Plenty of time.
Tonight was Elias’s first “official” date with Lena and he intended for there to be more to come. He was off work, meaning they had the whole evening to themselves. Lena was drop dead gorgeous; a perfect three years younger than Elias with long brunette hair that cascaded over her shoulders and the most understanding caramel eyes he had ever seen. They had met only once before, but Elias knew they had shared some kind of profound connection.
Elias had walked into the same coffee shop he stops at every morning after his night shift and there she was. Elias was there every single day so he would have seen her before if she was ever there; she must be a new customer. Her nose and cheeks were still pink from the winter wind outside, rosy and fresh as though the color was painted on by hand. Her hair was damp where snow had settled before melting, dripping just slightly onto the wool coat hanging over the back of her chair.
“Hey, Eli,” the barista said when he finally escaped his fixated stupor enough to approach the counter, “You want your usual?”
Elias had to blink a few times before he fully processed her question. All he could think about was the woman sitting near the front window, her pale fingers typing away and taking an occasional break to cradle her mug to her face.
“Um… yes please,” Elias finally answered and, as a sudden afterthought, added, “Could I also get two chocolate croissants, too?”
“Yeah, totally. Coming right up, Eli.”
He nodded vaguely in response as he moved away from the register to wait for his order. He unfolded the newspaper on a nearby table, peering over the top rather than focusing on the story. She -- he still didn’t know her name -- was typing something on her laptop. He was too far away to read anything on the screen but it was long. A novel or a thesis of some kind.
A writer, of course, Elias thought, or a grad student. I’m sure She’s brilliant; brilliant and beautiful. Brilliant and beautiful. Brilliant and beautiful. We could study together; She could write Her thesis, I could edit it for Her. I’m sure it’s about art. Or music. She has the nimble fingers of an artist. A painter. Or maybe a pianist. Either way, She is too beautiful not to create something beautiful. She could read me Her thesis while I cook us dinner. We could split a glass of red wine with our food and visit the coffee shop every morning. Of course, I would put a piano in our apartment. Or an easel. We could walk through Central Park in the spring, or whenever this snow melts, and the sun would gleam in Her eyes and make Her skin glow. Even in the dim light of the shop, Her skin is glowing. Imagine what the warmth would do. She has to be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen --
“Eli, here’s your stuff. I warmed the croissants up for you.”
Elias jumped at the barista’s acknowledgement, his train of thought dissipating before his eyes. He was suddenly back in the corner coffee shop rather than his warm apartment with Her. He ran his fingers through his hair a few times to compose himself.
“Oh, right, thanks.” Elias grabbed his coffee and the bag of food, dropped three one-dollar bills into the tip jar on the counter, and shook off his nerves.With a deep breath, Elias stepped across the shop towards where She was sitting. As he got to Her table, he was overwhelmed by the scent of fresh linen and…
Daisies, Elias thought, No, not daisies. Peonies? Roses? No, gardenias. She wears gardenia perfume. His heart stuttered. He took another deep breath.
“I’m so sorry to bother you, but I ordered a chocolate croissant and they accidentally gave me two. You seemed like you could use a snack; would you like one of them?” Elias gave Her his warmest smile, trying to give a good first impression.
She looked up, startled but not scared, “Oh! That’s so nice! Sure, I would love one,” She said, Her voice floaty and kind.
Elias fumbled for the paper-wrapped pastry in the bag. As he turned to walk to a nearby table, She spoke up again. “Hey, did you want to sit down here for a bit? I could use a break from this,” She motioned to her laptop.
His heart stuttered again. “Oh… sure,” Elias dragged a chair from an empty table and sat down, “I’m Eli, by the way.”
“Lena,” Lena smiled, holding out a gentle hand, “short for Alena.” Her fingertips were cool and her skin was as soft as Elias imagined it would be. Lena shut her laptop and unwrapped the croissant.
Even her hands are perfect, he thought, dainty and painted with a light pink polish. They’re like something in a catalog.
A timer rang on the oven, snapping Elias out of his memory. He jolted to stop the noise, knocking his glass of half-drunk wine off the counter in the process. Elias’s eyes darted back and forth between the oven, the broken glass, and the unfinished dessert next to him. He was running out of time to get everything finished.
“Damn it,” Elias swore while reaching for the towel hanging on the oven handle, “damn it. Damn it.” He tossed the towel over the spill and a temporary fix.
The green LED clock on the oven read 6:30. Lena would be at their date in half an hour. Elias pulled the baked pasta out of the oven before the parmesan burned and covered the top of the dish with foil. He wanted it to be nice and warm for Lena. He slid the angel food cake onto the oven rack for dessert. Still plenty of time to get ready.
6:50. Lena would be sitting at that table any minute. Elias, after cleaning the Sav Blanc and shards glass off the hardwood, had changed into a crisp button up and his best slacks; he gelled his curls back and freshened up with a new cologne: Once on his chest and once on each wrist in the scent of fresh linen. He returned to the dining room table to light the candles -- gardenia scented -- and set out the dishes.
Knife, fork, spoon. Water glass, wine glass, plate. Knife, fork, spoon. Water glass, wine glass, plate. Knife, fork, spoon. Water glass, wine glass, plate. Can’t forget anything.
At the sound of footsteps outside his door, Elias turned to the mirror on the wall and straightened his shirt. There was a series of loud knocks and he moved towards the door.
“Elias Strauss, open the door right now!” The voice on the other side of the door was harsh and grizzled, nothing like Lena’s gentle inflection.
Elias stopped in his tracks a few steps away from the door. It shook violently, as if someone was trying to break in. He stepped back. Elias’s view darted to his closed bedroom door, wondering if he could make it down the hallway in time to hide from the intruder. Suddenly, with a loud crash, the door flew open. A stream of men in black Kevlar vests poured into the apartment, one of them tackling Elias and pinning him to the ground.
“Wait! Wait, wait! What are you doing here? What,” Elias called, “where is Lena?! Lena? Lena!”
“You know exactly where she is, Elias,” the officer holding him to the area rug shouted.
“Woman down in the bedroom,” another officer called from down the hall.
“No! No, no! You don’t understand! You’re ruining our first date! It would have been perfect.”
As he was being escorted out the front door by two more police officers, Elias caught a fleeting glimpse into his bedroom, the door now wide open. Lena was on his bed, reclining against the pillows in a tight, black cocktail dress. Her hair was curled, falling over her shoulders in soft tendrils. Her beautiful honeycomb eyes were closed, but they were coated with smokey eyeshadow. Elias imagined them reflecting the candles as she glanced at him over a glass of Pinot. One of her milky white arms draped over the side of the bed limply, the other folded in her lap modestly. He imagined her eyes, her hair, her skin, as pure and untarnished as a porcelain doll in the dim light.
“Elias Strauss, you are under arrest for the kidnapping and murder of Alena Jereau, Elizabeth Morgan, and Annabelle Garcia. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be held against you in a court of law --”
The agent’s voice faded from Elias’s mind as he was ushered out of the building towards the blinding lights of cop cars. He shut his eyes and saw Lena. She was the love of his life. She was nothing like Lizzy and Belle; neither of them were quite right.
But Lena, Elias thought, Lena would have been perfect. We would have been happy forever, if only these pigs didn’t ruin our dinner date. After all, third time’s the charm.