“You brought another one home last night.”

It wasn’t a question, but it wasn’t quite accusatory, either. It was more… disappointed. Though what she had to be disappointed about, I couldn’t fathom.

“Whose house is it?” I reminded her. Stephanie huffed, stood up on tip-toes to reach the biscuit tin at the back of the worktop. Stirred her coffee, chucked the spoon in the sink with a plop, and took cup and biscuit tin to the chair by the open fire. I wasn’t offered a biscuit as three disappeared in rapid succession. “Don’t spoil your dinner.”

She huffed again, and I sat down opposite her, staring down at her bare feet. Little patches of condensation formed around her toes on the cold floor tiles, but she didn’t notice. Her feet just swung and rolled in abstract twists and turns over and over, spreading the condensation, and eventually warming a little area of floor. Her long, pale legs stretched out in front of her as she settled back in the arm chair and scoffed a few more biscuits. Then she looked up at me, and I found myself falling into those big blue eyes of hers again.

“Aren’t I allowed a little bit of pleasure in my life?” I asked. She sniffed, licked a crumb from her lip and crunched another biscuit.

“Courf not,” she mumbled. “Yoof got me. What elfe could you poffibly want?” Then she swallowed and grinned at me. It was far from comforting.

She put the biscuit tin down, and then drank her coffee in silence. I sipped mine. I had to ask, but I daren’t. I already knew what the answer would be, but I had to ask. This was the game we played, every time I brought a new woman home. Stephanie would act all disappointed and aloof. I would be all pained and supplicatory. We would dance round the subject, sometimes taking ages over it. Finally I would find out what I wanted to know, and then almost immediately wish that I didn’t know.

“Where is she?”

“Upstairs, I think I heard her in the bathroom on the second floor.”

This is a big house, and though there’s just the two of us now, we used to rent out rooms for lodgers. Help with the upkeep. Too many questions got asked though, so we stopped. But the upper floor of the house was still set aside for guests, with its own bathroom. Stephanie used the the whole top floor to play on, sometimes. It was her domain. I rarely ventured up there anymore. Unless I had to. I would have to, later this morning.

I looked out of the kitchen window, at the icy morning. The ground will be hard, it’s going to be tough to dig in this. But I have my work to do, and there is that lovely little plot down at the bottom of the garden. Just beside the roses. Blood red, they will bloom. Beautiful flowers. And then there’s my collection, of course. Up in my room, all along one wall. Rose after rose after rose after rose…

A log explodes on the fire, twisting and turning. A handful of sparks strays out, landing on Stephanie’s leg. She peers down at them as they sizzle and burn into her skin, not even bothering to wipe them off. They are gone in a few seconds. Stephanie doesn’t even whimper.

“You really ought to go find her, y’know,” she says at last. I nod.

It was a good night, last night. The gig was busy, so full there was barely room to squash together below the stage. And when the circle pit opened up, elbows and ankles became forfeit to the swirl of bodies crashing into each other. Young men with bare chests shoulder charged each other. Long hair whirled and flicked. At one point, a drunken boy with sharp studs on his wristlet caught my back, really dug in. The scratches were still there when I got home.

I first saw her between the early bands, while a roadie desperately ran to and fro on the stage trying to sound check a guitar that just wouldn’t cooperate. I found her at the bar, smiled and said hello. It was easy to talk to her, she was open for it, you could tell. We were back in the pit together soon after for the main band. At first she just stood next to me, her black hair throbbing with the beat, sweat pouring down her face and her back, soaking her vest-top. She was a goth, and more than once her boots stomped on my toes and caused me to grimace. But whenever she looked at me, I was smiling at her, I made sure of that. When someone behind us pushed us forward, and a pit thrummed into life, her hand slipped into mine, and we were still holding hands nearly an hour later when the band left the stage.

We almost ran outside, and leant against the wall as she locked her lips on mine. I held her tightly, and we shuffled off to the station. She came so willingly. I remember throwing her cargo pants on the floor beside my bed, I remember writhing on top of her. She was wild, the best I’ve had in a long time. And she slept so sweetly afterward, curled up on my chest, breathing softly against my skin. I could have stayed like that forever.

But no such luck. Not with Stephanie around.

I ease myself up from my chair slowly, drain my cup, and place it next to the sink. Stephanie springs from her own chair, far too eager and excited. She slams her cup down, and then is racing ahead of me to the stairs, her tiny legs carrying her far quicker than I can walk. She seems to sprint, dart, almost. When she runs, it is too much for me to be able to watch her, so quick is she that my eyes cannot focus on her spindly body. A blur, a smudge on the world, blonde hair trailing behind her pale frame. Always a little flash of red at the lips. Those blue eyes.

Stephanie forces herself to climb the stairs slowly, so I can keep up with her. When I reach the landing, she is like the child she appears to be, hustling and spinning around, jabbering on at me with wide eyes and an even wider smile. I see her white, perfect teeth glint in the light.

“I know where you can put the next rose, right on the end of the top row, to the right,” she gushes. “There’s that little space just at the end, and I’m sure it will look absolutely gorgeous there…”

I zone her out as I climb to the last landing, then step towards the bathroom. The door is shut, and I pause with my hand on the door knob. As an afterthought, I knock twice, short and sharp. There is no response, and behind me, Stephanie giggles expectantly.

I open the door.

There she is, lying naked in the bathtub. Her black hair is still damp and matted, just like last night. Her breasts are smooth and round and pert. She is perfect. She is perfect.

“Is my shovel in the shed still?” I ask numbly as I kneel down next to the tub and start to roll up my sleeves.

“Right where we left it,” Stephanie whispers. Her warm body presses up against mine, and I realise she is naked too, just like the girl in the bath. I look down at her, and she bobs her head. “Don’t want to ruin my favourite dress!”

“It’s cold outside.”

“I’ll be fine, you know that,” and she cuddles my arm to her chest in that way that little girls do. I stroke her shoulder, disentangle my arm.

“How soon…?” but my question is answered as the girl in the bath begins to breathe a little quicker. “Just time, then.”

Stephanie hands me my pocket knife from my back pocket, and I reach down. My knee brushes the little cloth on the floor, and the tang of the chloroform hits the back of my throat. I grunt, and Stephanie scoops up the cloth, dropping it in the bin, closing the lid firmly. I reach down with both hands, place them firmly on the girl’s body, and slowly, carefully, etch around the tattoo on her abdomen. It’s low, but not low enough to be hidden by her hipsters when I saw her last night. That’s how I noticed her.

I cut in, and the girl begins to rouse. A few more strokes, a little flick of the wrist, and the skin comes away in one piece. She is perfect.

Finally, she drags herself awake, the chloroform worn off by the pain. Her eyes open, and the first thing she sees is a piece of her own flesh in my hands, dripping warm blood down on to her naked body. She screams, but Stephanie is there already, her small hands and nimble fingers clamping down over the girl’s mouth with astonishing strength. Then Stephanie leans in, her lips caress the girl’s throat, and she bites down hard.

I leave her to it, get up and stumble back to my room. The piece of skin in my hands is beginning to dry, I must be quick.

A piece of board is ready, and a sheet of glass cut to just the right size. I stretch the skin out, a few tiny pins in the right places. Then the glass, and the masterpiece is complete. Even a small rivulet of blood looks like a continuation of the stem. I reach up to the top shelf, to the far right where Stephanie said, and I hear her come in beside me and hug my waist in satisfaction.

“Had enough for now?”

She nods, and I look down at her. Good job she took her dress off, she is covered in blood from chin to crotch to ankles.

“Well, let’s get you cleaned up first. She’s not going anywhere.”

Stephanie detaches herself from my side, and we go to back to the bathroom where I sponge her down from the sink. The white tiles run red, then pink, as we clean her up. Finally, she slips her dress back over her head, ties it off, and leads me by the hand back to my room. We sit down on the edge of the bed, Stephanie resting her head on my shoulder.

“I think that is the most beautiful in my collection,” I tell her.

“Well, it is your birthday,” she whispers. “Perfect rose for your birthday!”

We gaze up at the rose, tattooed so delicately on the girl’s skin. Intricately detailed, several shades of deep crimson to show the light and depth. A true work of art. A fine addition to the collection. I think I have every colour of rose imaginable, now. But especially red roses. I like red roses.

“Why do you still think you need anyone but me, hmmm?” Stephanie asks. I shrug.

“I don’t even know what her name was.”

I get up, and head to the door. Stephanie lets herself flop down on my bed, her head on a strange angle, still staring at the rose.

“Lily,” she says suddenly. “Her name was Lily.”

I nod, and hold out my hand. Together we go to bury the body, beside the rose bush in the garden. Stephanie strips off her dress again, and will no doubt be covered in mud by the time we are finished. She never feels the cold.

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