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Paper Roses

By 2maggi All Rights Reserved ©

Mystery / Thriller

Paper Roses

It was exactly like her dream: One moment there was no one in sight, only the gravestones pearly grey in the early morning mist. Then he appeared, striding up the wide gravel path, black trench coat unbuttoned and swirling around him like a cloak.

Only this man had a face.

At this distance it was still a blur but, in a moment, Kate would was sure she’d see the face of her sister’s killer.

It was one year to the day since Sydney had been murdered. Stabbed again and again, and left propped up in a chair with the twisted wire stems of paper roses thrust into her eyes.

“The Paper Roses Murder” the papers had called it. Pictures of roses, even the word itself, still made Kate shudder. For her, roses, the symbol of romance, were an instrument of death.

Hidden behind a marble angel Kate watched the man stoop to read Sydney’s headstone. It was November and  a light powdering of snow covered the ground. It glinted like salt as the sun struggled to break through the cloud. She could see his footprints, already melting and turning to water.  Soon he would leave and she would be no wiser. Fiercely she rubbed away the tears that were running down her cheeks. The time for crying was past. Now was the time to do something.

But what?

The same feeling that had brought her to the cemetery propelled her across the grass. She had felt sure that he would come. If she believed in ghosts, which she didn’t, she would say that Sydney herself had told her. Her twin’s uneasy presence seemed always to hover by her side, unable to move on while her murderer remained free.

Crows called raucously from the bare branches of a massive elm. They were so noisy the man didn’t hear her footsteps. Just stood, resting his hand on the headstone. Then he turned and Kate recognized him immediately. Asher Marks, the popular television news anchor. A man Sydney had had a brief affair with, before dumping him in favour of an Italian waiter from the trattoria next to the TV studio.

“He was conceited. Too controlling. He got to be a bore!” Sydney said, then laughed, her unexpectedly rich contralto laugh, so much deeper than Kate’s. The following week she’d broken up with the Italian waiter, saying he wasn’t attentive enough. Typical Sydney behaviour. Impulsive, unreliable, infuriating but, at least to Kate, always loyal and loving and so much fun.

People found it hard to believe they were twins. When they were five, they had looked identical. Red hair, grey eyes, gap-teeth. But even then differences were apparent. One photo  showed Sydney wearing a frilly pink princess dress, a tinsel crown on her head, while Kate was a street urchin in wet shorts and a Save-The-Whales tee-shirt. She had fallen in a mud-puddle trying to rescue the scrawny cat she clutched to her chest and her right cheek bled profusely where it had scratched her.

The differences became greater as the years went by. Sydney was the glamorous one, who wanted to light up the world: Kate the serious one, who wanted to save it. No wonder they ended up on opposite sides of a camera. Before she died Sydney had been the star in a long-running TV Soap, called Hook Up, about inter-net romances, whereas Kate was the photographer for an environmental action magazine.

Something changed in Marks’ face as he saw Kate coming toward of him. The darkly handsome features, admired by so many viewers seemed to melt and slide into one another like candle wax. He was startled. No, afraid.

 He thought she was Sydney! The mist rising from the ground, drifting around her like smoke, obscured her fuller figure and redder hair. She walked steadily towards him, not saying anything and he shrank back, seeming almost ready to run.

Then he realized his mistake.

“Kate! I should have known you’d be here.” He looked intently at Kate, as though he had never seen her before. In the flesh he was even handsomer than on the screen but there was something in his eyes that made Kate shiver.

“She must have called us!” he said. “I think about her so often. You’ve no idea.”

He talked for a while. Asked Kate about her work and laughed when she told him that she was doing a book of photographs of rural mail boxes because they were fast disappearing from the landscape. “It’s a wonder you’re not crusading for the smallpox virus,” he said. “I understand  it too is on the verge of extinction!”

He noticed Kate look at the empty cast-iron urn on the grave. “I should have brought flowers,” he said and something stirred in his eyes. It was like looking at clear blue water and catching a glint of oily black scales coiling below the surface.

He walked Kate to the cemetery gate, where he had left his car. “I’ll call you,” he said. “We can talk, about Sydney.”

The following week, although she hadn’t given him her number and wasn’t listed in the directory, he did call. He invited her out to dinner and, a little nervously Kate accepted. There was always the chance he might slip up and give himself away. The more she thought about their encounter in the cemetery, the more she was sure he was the one who had killed Sydney.

The evening was uneventful. He did talk about Sydney. Said how much he’d cared for her. How much it had hurt when she dumped him. Then, he laughed and said “But, hey, that was Sydney, wasn’t it? He sounded so light-hearted, so normal, that for a second Kate wondered if she could be mistaken. Until he added quietly, “She was a hard woman to pin down.” 

Next day the roses came. Not paper roses but, still, red like the artificial ones that had been used to pierce Sydney’s eyes.

He phoned to see if they had arrived safely. He said he always sent roses after a date. “For remembrance.”  He talked about how roses had come to be associated with romance.  Told her a story about the Persian sultan who had poisoned his young wife for taking a lover and then, filled with remorse, ordered her women to sew her a shroud of rose petals. Again there was nothing Kate could use to incriminate him but she had a sick feeling that he was playing with her, enjoying the idea that she knew but couldn’t prove anything. It was as though they were performing some kind of macabre dance and she was his partner.

She took the problem to Marty Reims, the detective who had been in charge of Sydney’s homicide. He shook his head, “You’re playing with fire, Kate. Murderers and pedophiles have a way of convincing themselves that their victims enjoy being hurt. It’s how they justify what they do. Hell. It turns them on! Control is the other thing. They’re control freaks!” He leaned back in his chair, his shirt gaping over the beer n’ donuts belly that seemed to go with being a cop. He added, “This guy is the puppet master. Don’t let him pull your strings.”

“I’d pull the strings - right around his neck!” Lucy Rosso, Marty’s partner, muttered. She was a slim, deceptively fragile-looking black woman. Kate had “spotted” for her once at the gym and been amazed at how much she could bench press.

Her words gave Kate new courage. If you really cared, you had to take risks. She had learned that from her crusades to save the whales and the rainforests. It had even been necessary with mail boxes.

As soon as she got home she began to make plans. She could almost swear she heard Sydney laughing.

It took several days. She needed to know Marks’ movements and then make arrangements. Some were easier than others. Having Room Service at the downtown hotel deliver him paper roses was no problem. They arrived under a covered-dish along with the whiskey he ordered. The bell boy would have delivered a scorpion for an extra ten bucks.

Kate would have given anything to see Marks’ face when he lifted the cover.

The next time, she almost did. The roses were delivered to his desk just as he was about to go on camera to interview an older actress, who had often appeared in “Hook Up” with Sydney.

“He went white, darling! Literally paper white!” Kate had phoned the actress to ask about the interview and Mark’s reaction to the roses. “Then he lost it completely. Couldn’t keep his mind on track. What’s going on?”

Marks phoned Kate the following day. “You’re embarrassing me,” he warned. “You’re asking for trouble.” The phone vibrated in her ear, reminding her of an angry rattler about to strike.

For his birthday she had a DJ friend dedicate a recording to him. “Now, for Asher Marks, the popular TV anchor, we have a request for any music by GUNS & ROSES. The lady wants you to know she’ll never forget, or forgive, Asher!”

She thought that might do it but, nothing happened, except she had a distinct feeling some-one had been in her apartment.  She got Marty Reims to dust for fingerprints but he came up with nothing. “Be careful, Kate!” he warned again. “If he’s the one, you’re on the road to being his next victim. We can’t arrest him for making insensitive remarks.” Lucy Rosso blew a bubble with the gum she was constantly chewing, burst it, and said laconically, “I’d check my laundry bag if I were you. See if anything’s missing. Psychopaths really get off on panties.”

Her words made Kate more determined than ever to find proof that Asher Marks was her sister’s killer.  

But proof was hard to get. So was persuading Ben Lever, the gossip columnist, to add a postscript to his next column. It was only by promising him an exclusive story if the paragraph brought results that Kate got him to do it.

He wrote “What’s with Asher Marks and the paper roses that someone has been presenting him with lately? Are they from a fan, or the reverse? For the record, Sydney Farne, the popular TV star and a close friend of Asher’s, was brutally murdered three years ago in what became known as The Paper Roses Murder.”

The night before the story was due to appear, Kate dreamed she was walking a tightrope over a pit full of snakes. They twined and writhed beneath her, forked tongues darting, and when she looked down she found the rope she was walking on was actually another snake.

All through the next day she felt as though a storm threatened. Her head ached and the pressure, the need to do something, became unbearable. Surely now Asher would act? But although the phone rang several times with people anxious to discuss the news item with her, it was never him. By evening the tension was unbearable. Pulling on blue sweat pants she did a few stretches and then went down to the street. She’d run two or three miles, just as she usually did, and perhaps that way entice Asher to attack her out in the open.

She’d told Marty Reims about the snippet in the gossip column and he if possible he’d send one of his men to keep an eye on her apartment building. “But I can’t promise anything,” he’d warned her. “If anything else comes up, the deal’s off.”

It was almost eight and the street was practically deserted. All Kate saw was one battered grey car going slowly along the road ahead of her. It could have been an “unmarked” but perhaps that was wishful thinking. Probably wishful thinking too was the feeling that her sister ran beside her, keeping pace every step of the way.

For mid-December the temperature was mild. A light drizzle had been falling all day, dampening the sidewalks and forming a misty halo around the street lights.

Kate ran easily, breathing lightly, her limbs gradually loosening so that her stride lengthened and she felt the tension that gripped her receding. Each time she ran past a stand of trees or bushes, she veered into the road, knowing how easy it would be for Marks to lurk there and grab her. But nothing happened and, all too soon, she was back at her apartment building.

Sweat ran down her forehead. “Face it,” she told herself. Asher Marks probably wasn’t Sydney’s killer. His remarks could all be explained away. It had never been so much what he said as the way he said it.

The apartment foyer felt too warm after her run. It had a stale musty smell that wouldn’t go away until the heating was turned off next spring.

She took the elevator to her apartment on the fourth floor, reluctant to face the echoing concrete stairwell with its uncertain lighting. Inside, her apartment seemed bleak and unfamiliar. Even the lamps seemed to have a lower wattage than usual.

She took a shower and came out toweling her hair. It was only nine. Still too early to go to bed, though she couldn’t think of anything else she wanted to do.

The phone rang.  It was Asher. “Kate. This has got to stop. People are starting to ask me what’s going on.” The mellow voice held no rancor. If anything Asher sounded sad. “Listen,” he said. “I’m just leaving the TV station now. How about we meet at Rinaldo’s?” He named the restaurant where Sydney’s waiter had worked. “We need to talk. There is something I should have told you about your sister. Something you obviously don’t know. Will you give me a chance?”

Kate was thrown off balance. She hadn’t expected this but she couldn’t see the harm in meeting Asher in a public place. She told him she’d meet him at the restaurant in half an hour, then finished drying her hair and slipped into jeans and an Adopt-a Frog tee-shirt.

As she let herself out, she wondered what he would tell her? Was there really something about Sydney that she didn’t know? Some dark secret? She thought of the embarrassment she must have caused the television personality and knew she would be lucky if he didn’t sue her.

To be on the safe side, she made a quick call to Marty Reims to tell him where she was meeting Asher but the call went to voice mail. Then she waited for the elevator. When it finally came, it was dark inside. The bulb must have burned out. She hesitated before getting in. It had happened before.

Hurtling down in the pitch dark felt eerie. When the elevator stopped she stepped out and paused, disoriented. The steamy laundry smell told her she was in the basement not on First. She must have pressed the wrong button.

The door slid closed behind her.

A hand gripped her arm, fingers digging into the soft flesh. “What kept you?” Asher Marks asked. He grinned, the boyish grin that thousands of women loved. “Ah, the marvels of modern electronics. Here you are thinking I’m safely half way across town and all the time I’m down here with my cell phone. Fixed the elevator too. I could have programmed it to go to the moon if I wanted. Right now it’s stuck between fourth and fifth. No one will arrive unexpectedly to interrupt us. Move!”

He jolted her forward, twisting her arm up behind her back until she was afraid a bone would snap. In his other hand he held a butcher’s knife, the blade glinting darkly. He brandished it in front of her face. “Don’t make me use it here!” He warned. “Just keep walking. My car is parked by the door. Get in on the driver’s side.”

“You won’t get away with this!” Kate’s voice was thin. Against her ribs her heart beat frantically like the heart of an oil-slicked bird. 

Asher laughed. “Why not? I have before. Three times. Killing is like sex. You get better the more you do it. Sydney was lucky she wasn’t my first. That one died so quickly. She hardly had time to know what was happening. My technique improved considerably with the next.  You’ll see.”

Their footsteps echoed. They went past the laundry room. Unlike the hallway, it was in darkness. No one to hear her if she screamed.  But they might outside. It was a forlorn hope. The back entrance was mainly used during the day by trades people and tenants moving in or out. The tenants’ car park, where Kate’s car was parked, was in front of the building.

Marks was still talking. His voice was exactly the same as when he was in front of the camera. Intimate, warm. “I’ve planned this ever since that day in the cemetery,” he said. “Only not so soon.  I didn’t want to make the police suspicious. Now you’ve made it more dangerous for me NOT to silence you.”  He sniggered. “I want to do something different this time. We’ll pin that pretty tongue of yours like a butterfly. I can hardly wait.”

For the first time, Kate saw the red paper rose stuck in his button hole. He bent his head. “If you’re good,” he said, his tone caressing, “I’ll tell you what the roses mean.” She could feel his breath on her cheek, warm and moist. “The others pleaded with me to tell them but I wouldn’t. You’re different. You challenge me and I want you to understand. We’ll go to my special place, where we can relax and be alone.” He sounded as though he believed they shared the same erotic fantasy. Sheer terror made her stumble and almost fall.

He jerked her back to her feet, fumbled with the knife as he moved it to his other hand so that he could open the EXIT door. He pushed it open, shoved Kate through.

“Now!” She couldn’t tell whether the voice was in her mind or whether she, or someone else, actually said it. She reached up, grabbed the rose, and stabbed wildly at Asher’s eye with the twisted wire stem. He yelled and she jerked herself free, saw his face contorted with pain and anger, the rose for a moment sticking grotesquely from his eyelid. Then he pulled it out and lunging forward, kicked Kate so that her legs buckled and gave way.

A horn blared, tires screeched, headlights blinded them. Almost before the car stopped, the door opened and Lucy Rosso flung herself onto the asphalt, her gun aimed squarely at Asher Mark’s heart. He turned to run.

“Do it, Scum! Give me a reason to shoot you!” the detective yelled.

For a moment he hesitated but Rosso’s harsh, taunting tone, unnerved him. Wordlessly he dropped the knife and put out his hands so that she could cuff him. “Creep,” she muttered as she unhooked her cell phone from her belt and called for backup.

“I was watching the front of the building when your message to Mary was relayed to me.” Russo told Kate. “It took too long for you to come out to your car. I knew something must be wrong. Lucky I decided to try the back parking lot first and not go into the apartment building to look for you.”

Two more police cars squealed into the lot, lights flashing. Pulling on a latex glove Russo bent down to pick up the paper rose and put it in an evidence bag, which she flourished triumphantly under Marks’ nose. He only stared at it vacantly. His left eye, the one the stem had pierced, was red and watering. He looked limp and crumpled as a deflated balloon.

“Doesn’t turn you on anymore, huh?” Russo turned to grin at Kate. “Well at least one thing is sure. Now it will help turn him off. Permanently!”

Kate laughed and wondered as she did so if anyone else heard the echo - deeper, richer, lingering for a moment, then finally gone.


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