This story is featured in J. Brandon Lowry’s short story collection, Finding My Voice.
The rose blooms at midnight.
The words run through my mind again as I shrug myself through the door of Jimmy’s. It’s a cheap dive, a favorite haunt of the type of scum I usually spend my days chasing down. I take off my hat at the door and slouch over to my usual stool. Jimmy brings me a Macallan 12, neat, without me even asking. He’s a barman of the old school, the kind of guy who keeps his ears open and his mouth shut.
Not much action tonight. I see a few heads poking up out of the booths in back, little tendrils of smoke drifting up like the ghosts of Chinese dragons. Records spin in the Wurlitzer at the back, the music occasionally interrupted by the hard clack of pool balls. Sleepy Jack is at his usual spot at the end of the bar, barely conscious. I knock back the slug of whisky and signal Jimmy for another.
A letter arrived at the station today, the third one in two months. Same fine handwriting. Same pink stationery. Same damn perfume.
Detective Landon, What’s taking you so long? You should know better than to keep a lady waiting like this. It’s ungentlemanly. You saw what happened to the last man who kept me waiting. Do I need to send you another message?
It went on. She’s a rambler, this one. The psycho wranglers say she’s an intelligent narcissist with a “deficiency of empathy”. I think she’s just being honest. As far as I’m concerned, the murders are simply a way to get attention, those poor schmucks her unfortunate pawns in a game of her own design.
The scent comes back to me as I’m staring into my tumbler of golden amber consolation. Midnight Rose. Five mutilated men. Five perfume soaked corpses. She puts it on the letters to taunt me, making sure I won’t forget the sight of those slashed and bloody bodies. As if I could. It doesn’t matter how many crime scenes you go to, you never really get used to seeing the barbarity humans are capable of.
The rose blooms at midnight. Her closing words are a warning and a promise. There’ll be another corpse in the morning, the sixth victim of the Cuddle Cutie Killer, as the alliteration addicted papers like to call her. Personally I prefer the Queen of Thorns, though generally I just refer to her as “that bitch”. Not very kind of me, but I think she’s earned it.
They say scent is the sense most strongly tied to memory. I take a sip of the Macallan and wonder, not for the first time, if she knows it was Laura’s scent. It’s possible that it’s just a coincidence. After all, life has a way of finding the knife handle and giving it a good twist every now and then. But as the drink sinks to the bottom of my soul and stirs up the dark thoughts lurking down there, I know it’s intentional, and I hate her for daring to soil Laura’s memory like that.
“You look like you could use some company.” I look up at the dame leaning against bar. I don’t know if she’s just come in or if she was hiding in the back, but she’s a vision in red, a glowing ember in this dim pit of a bar with her fiery auburn hair, emerald eyes, and a snug crimson cocktail dress. Delicate fingers play on the stem of a martini glass, and though she’s not exactly smiling, her eyes are hungry and full of mirth.
“If it’s all the same to you, miss, this glass is all the company I need tonight.”
“You sure about that?” She leans in, her plump red lips pursed provocatively, and that’s when I smell it. Midnight Rose. Now I’m looking deep into those emerald eyes, those hungry lioness eyes, and I know who I’m looking at. Does she? I wonder. I glance at my watch. The rose blooms at midnight.
“Let’s go someplace a little more private,” I say, and now she does smile. I don my hat and hold the door as she wiggles her way out, the dress doing its job of accentuating those curves. I pat the holster under my jacket just to make sure I’ve got my piece, then follow.
The motel smells of desperation and cheap booze. It’s no place to take a lady, but there’s a group of guys down at the station who have an understanding with the owner, sort of a see-no-evil hear-no-evil type of thing. Like me and Jimmy, only he’s there to help me catch criminals, not to become one. I flash my badge at the desk clerk. He nods and hands me a key, taking a moment to eyeball the woman at my side. For some reason this makes me want to clip him. Instead we make our way up the creaky staircase to our room.
The door isn’t closed for two seconds before her dress hits the grungy carpet and she’s standing there splendorous as a Greek goddess. Then her lips are pressed to mine, and I know it’s a terrible idea, but dammit it’s been so long and she’s irresistible, and she knows she’s irresistible, and my jacket and trousers and everything else hit the floor. I close my eyes, I don’t want to, I want to take in every inch of her bare flesh, but I do it anyway and then it’s just me and the sensations and her scent, Laura’s scent, and in that moment all those bad memories fade. I no longer see her face hollow and empty from the cancer that’s slowly eating her alive, she’s young and vibrant and in bloom, the rose blooms at midnight and what the hell am I doing here…
I roll over and make my way to the crummy little ensuite, lighting up a cigarette as I relieve myself. The smoke is good, but it can’t cover up the taste of my shame. I’m readying myself for what comes next when I realize my piece is out there on the floor. You idiot. Victim number six, and this time I’ll be the first cop on the scene. Maybe I deserve it. Maybe this is how it’s supposed to go for me. Hell, it beats spending the rest of my years slowly wasting away, waiting for my body to turn traitor, falling apart like cancer in slow motion. I take a deep breath, bracing myself for what comes next.
I hit the door hard, hoping to catch her off guard, but she’s standing by the door, naked and waiting. The .38 claps three times, bright yellow sparks flashing out of its snub-nosed muzzle. I look down to see three bright red roses blooming on my chest. The rose blooms at midnight. I sit down on the bed, numb. My eyes close, and underneath the acrid tang of gunpowder I can smell Laura again. My midnight rose. Then those lips are on mine again, smiling. “Night night, detective.” I hear the window rattle open, the clank of heels on the fire escape, the cool breeze on my face clearing the air as my last breaths rattle in my chest.
I’m coming home, Laura. At long last, I’m coming home.