The heady scent of caramelizing onions wafted through the Cooking Network’s kitchen studio, although it was well past midnight. Mandy Sweet looked up from the baking table, where she’d been kneading bread dough.
“Remember Andre’s rule for goulash,” she said.
Jeanette Tilton nodded, not taking her eyes from the pan before her. Jeanette always focused on the work at hand. She tapped a knuckle to her forehead. “I have it memorized.”
“We all do,” Barbara Shawnessy said. She stood before the maple chopping block, scrubbing at its broad surface with a wetted brush. “Fry your onions in your fat until they’re golden, never darker. Take your pan from the fire. Add paprika right away and stir well.”
Goulash hadn’t been the only thing Andre Kovac stirred.
From his first moment on the air, two years ago, Andre had been at ease before the cameras, projecting a smoldering appeal that had nothing to do with the temperature of his burners or his ovens. One on one, in the kitchen or in the bedroom, he’d been irresistible. Mandy, Jeanette and Barbara, his network production assistants, had each sampled Andre’s extended bill of fare.
“When you add your meat, stir immediately again, coating it thoroughly with the onion-fat-paprika mix before returning it to the fire,” Jeanette continued the litany. “That guarantees the paprika’s flavor will be released by its contact with the hot fat and prevents the dish from tasting bitter.”
Andre had called his show The Hungary Chef and specialized in comfort food from his eastern European homeland. Stuffed peppers called toltott. Rakott Burgonya, a hearty dish with sausage, potatoes and hard-cooked eggs. Kohlrabi soup, thick with a pungent scent reminiscent of cabbage.
Jeanette began to sniffle. “The first time he cooked for me was right here on the set, about a month after his premiere.”
“Did you do the deed here, too?” Barbara asked.
Jeanette shook her head, not taking her eyes from her pans. “No. At the Plaza. A room overlooking the Pulitzer Fountain.”
“On the tenth floor?”
“That’s where he took me, too.”
Jeanette knuckled away tears, perhaps brought on by the onions.
“How about you, Mandy?” Barbara asked.
Mandy nodded, fingering the smooth, elastic surface of the langos dough, shaping it into flat circles big as her open hand. “Tenth floor of the Plaza. I’ll say this. When Andre found something that worked, he stuck by it.”
Barbara snorted, a hard, coughing sound. Soon her laughter, accented by Mandy’s giggles, echoed across the sound stage.
Jeanette adjusted the gas burner beneath the pan and rubbed her nose with the back of her free hand. She hiccupped. “I don’t see how you two can laugh at a time like this. The man is dead.”
“And we’re not,” Mandy said.
“That’s right,” Barbara said. “No crying. Eat, drink and remember. That’s how a wake’s supposed to be.”
“Amen to that.” Mandy slipped the last of the langos into place, scooped up the baking sheet, stepped to the smaller of the two ovens and slipped the flat bread inside.
“How long?” Jeanette asked.
Mandy twisted the timer knob. “Fifteen minutes.”
Barbara turned away from the chopping block. “I’ll toss a salad and pour the wine.”
“And I’ll set the dishes,” Mandy said.
The three women worked for a time in companionable silence.
Jeanette sighed. “He would have loved to see us, working together like this.”
Barbara scooped up a handful of greens and a Wusthof salad knife. Its razored edge tapped a staccato beat. She might have majored in broadcasting at Ohio State, but Barbara grew up in her father’s butcher shop in Strasburg, seventy miles south of Cleveland. She knew her way around a blade.
“So, Jeanette was the first,” she said, continuing to work. “When did he take up with you, Mandy?”
“Christmas, that first year. The Plaza’s lobby decorations were beautiful.”
“How about you?” Jeanette asked.
Barbara shrugged. “Not ‘til last April. His birthday. He cooked a full-course meal for me, right here. Naked. We recorded the whole thing.”
She settled the salad dishes into place and stepped to the wine rack, slid a bottle from its place to examine the label. “Here’s a thirty-year-old Egri Bikavér.”
Mandy nodded. “Good choice. Andre always said the Bull’s Blood Eger agreed with him.”
The timer dinged. Mandy opened the oven door, flooding the studio with the comforting aroma of baking bread. “It’s done. How about the goulash, Jeanette?”
“Well, it should simmer for another hour, to do it right, but given the circumstances, I suppose we’ll be okay. One of you get the sour cream from the refrigerator.”
Jeanette began to plate the food. The three women gathered at the table.
Barbara picked up her fork, leaned close to her plate, closed her eyes and drew in a breath, savoring the rich vapors from the stew. “Oh, my. That’s a perfect Goulash Andre.”
Jeanette lifted an eyebrow. “Shall we say grace?”
Mandy giggled. “Too late for that.”
Jeanette sniffled. “I suppose. I can’t believe he’s gone.”
“I can’t believe he screwed all three of us, in the same hotel room, all these months like clockwork,” Barbara said.
Mandy studied the dish set before her. “I can’t believe we just got wise to him tonight. What a bastard.”
Jeannette shook out her napkin and then lifted her wine glass in a toast. “Well, ladies, bon appétit.”
“Maybe we should let it cool a bit,” Mandy said.
“Don’t be silly,” Jeanette replied. “It’s just the right temperature.”
Barbara laid her fork beside her plate and pushed back from the table. “Mandy’s on to something. Let it cool.”
Jeanette shook her head. “It won’t taste right served cold. Andre would be adamant, would tell us goulash must be presented piping hot.”
Barbara moistened the tip of her napkin with her tongue.
“Maybe,” she replied, touching the wetted cloth to a spot of dried blood on Jeanette’s earlobe. “What do you suppose he’d have to say about serving up revenge?”
K.C. Ball lives in Seattle, Washington. Her short stories have appeared here at Every Day Fiction, as well as various online and print publications, including Analog, Flash Fiction Online, Murky Depths and the Writers of the Future 26 anthology. K.C. won the Writers of the Future competition in 2009. She is a 2010 graduate of Clarion West writers’ workshop and an active member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.