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The poker in his hand dropped to the floor with a dull clatter. For a long, long moment, all he could hear was his heartbeat pounding in his ears and Sarah gasping around her swollen throat. Before them, Atherton groaned once, long and low, but the harsh panting of his breath was already growing shallow. Within moments he lay supine and silent, the floorboards darkening around his head.
“Sarah?” he heard himself say as though from another room. “Are you alright?” His body was a grainy character in a moving picture, stepping towards his sister, while his consciousness merely an audience-member watching from the dark. Then Sarah flinched away from his outstretched hand and brought his awareness back to the present.
“You’ve killed him, John,” she said. Her voice was still hoarse from her near-strangling and wavered with every word. “By God, you’ve killed him.”
“I didn’t mean to,” he said, or tried to. The words stuck like burrs in his throat. Fumbling to pull off his blood-specked gloves with trembling fingers, he knelt to check Atherton’s pulse and found only cooling, dead skin beneath his touch.
This wasn’t supposed to happen, he wanted to say. I’ve put you in danger. I’m sorry.
Then: What have I done?
“You can’t stay here.” His hands shook as he stuffed his gloves deep into his coat pocket, out of sight. “The servants will be here by morning and the police will be alerted.”
Sarah’s face was white. “What about you?”
“Those are hardly my letters in his desk,” he snapped, voice cracking. “Don’t worry about me. Did you touch anything?”
“Only the chair - and the doorknob.”
It took only moments to wipe them down. The white-knuckled hand before him did not feel like his own, and yet it moved when he willed it to and clutched the white cloth of his handkerchief with desperate resolve.
“You have to leave town - get out of the city. Establish some sort of alibi.” With the same handkerchief, he scooped up the bundle of familiar envelopes from the open desk drawer. They were inscribed with high-quality ink and wrapped together with neat blue string, as if on display in a stationary store rather than witnesses to a murder. Sarah took them and pressed them against her chest as if they were the last solid things on earth.
“I can’t leave you to deal with this alone,” she said. He winced at the rasp in her tone and moved to examine her bruised throat, but she pushed him away. He gripped her hands instead.
“You can and you must. You’ve done nothing wrong; it’s not your fault that the eyes of society can’t see the same.” The envelopes creased beneath his palm. “I won’t have you implicated in even the slightest way.”
The marks of fingers around her neck were turning sickeningly red and her hands were clammy, but the stubborn, flattened press of her lips was the same as always. “I’m not leaving,” she said. “I’m hardly going to abandon you just like that - what kind of person do you think I am? It would only look suspicious at this point, besides.”
“And there is only my idiocy to blame for that,” he growled, turning away. His gaze fell on the corpse splayed out on the floorboards and he couldn’t repress a shudder of revulsion, stomach churning. He could feel Sarah reach out, sensed the protest rise and die upon her lips. Any arguments now would be fruitless with a dead body cooling in the room with them.
“Perhaps we can make it look like an accident,” she said.
Bile rose in his throat before he forced it down. “The wound on his head is too distinctive. Either way, I will not cover up a murder, even if it is one I committed.”
“And I will not have my brother convicted for a death accidentally dealt, and in my own defence, at that.” Sarah pulled away from him with a jerk and surveyed the room, letters a crumpled wad beneath her arm. “There must be something we could do.”
He could only stand and watch in dull disbelief as she marched by him, her own handkerchief now wrapped around her hand. With one smooth movement she swept the books from a nearby bookshelf onto the floor in crumpled heaps. An ornate leatherbound copy of Les Misérables landed half-across Atherton’s face, masking the jagged wound in his forehead and spotting its pages with blood. Sarah seemed to freeze at the sight of it, before deliberately looking up and away from Atherton’s body.
“Or, if you wish,” she said, haltingly, “you can go to the station and tell them the truth. They may grant you leniency for your honesty, and the charge would be manslaughter instead of murder. I would not have you live with a guilty conscience on my behalf, either.”
There were no other choices before him. It made him vaguely ill to pull on his gloves once more (soft leather, barely two months new, and now the stately grey was stained with rust-red blotches), but a single misplaced fingermark could prove fatal for them both.
“If I confessed, the circumstances behind our presence here tonight would have to come out - the letters, the blackmail, all of it.” With both hands he pushed against the side of the bookshelf, testing its weight. Its heavy oaken bulk creaked but moved with effort, and a glass figurine tumbled off the top to smash into glittering fragments next to Atherton’s sprawled form. He stepped back and eyed the bookshelf critically, hating how his mind instinctively calculated the angle and damage needed to make their plan look the most convincing. “I can live with a guilty conscience if it means keeping you and Marie out of the public eye or the asylum.”
He turned back to Sarah and started at her expression. Fear and hollow agony carved gaunt lines into her face, and her eyes were wet. “This was my doing,” she whispered, but he gathered her into his arms and held her tightly, as he did when they were children. She clutched at his coat, heedless of the spots of blood mottling its surface.
“Don’t say such things,” he said fiercely. “You can’t do this to yourself. The only,” he swallowed, “the only murderer here is me, and I would do it again, if I had to.”
Should he have been frightened of the certainty he felt in that statement?
No more words were exchanged between them, nor was there any need. Sarah was as silent as the grave, and he was fighting down nausea. He had seen many corpses in his lifetime, but never any that sickened him more than the one lying now at his feet. Such an ostentatious, cruel man in life looked small and shriveled in death.
He awoke the next morning to a persistent shrilling from the telephone. A cold draft seeped through the frost-fogged window as he emerged groggily from the bedcovers, sending shivers down his spine, and his heart sank into his stomach even as he fumbled for the receiver and held it up to his lips.
“Detective Emerson!” Clifton sounded even more agitated than was his usual wont. “Thank the Lord you’ve picked up. The Inspector has requested your presence to deal with a death, sir.”
Normally such a call would have him dressed in moments, but now all he felt was ill. “Those duties are the realm of a coroner, if I’m not mistaken,” he said, closing his eyes.
If Clifton noticed his weak response, he didn’t remark upon it. “Oh, but it’s not a usual death, sir. It’s up at that posh neighbourhood, Olivedale Grove, and some poor devil by the name of Atherton has had his skull done in. Looks like a bookcase fell on him at first glance, or at least that’s how his butler found him, but the Inspector said it was suspicious and wants you to take a second look.”
He thought of his sister’s letters, now safely burnt, and of the bent poker he had thrown into the city sewer. His ruined gloves had been destroyed, blood-spotted coat scrubbed clean, and all remaining evidence - save for the body itself - was now in ashes or down the drain.
“I’ll be there presently,” he said, and hung up in the middle of Clifton’s hasty farewell.
The floor was frigid beneath his bare feet as he turned and stumbled away from the telephone. From the corner of his eye, he thought he spotted a too-familiar figure lying crumpled against the wall of his bedroom, but when he glanced over, it was only his own dressing-gown, discarded on the floor from the night previous.
For long minutes afterward he sat on the edge of his bed, staring down at his newly-cleaned hands. The winter morning soon filtered through the curtains, sending sunbeams flickering across the room. He looked up to watch them, numbly, and his breathing was very loud in the silence.