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The brick in his hand dropped to the floor with a dull thud. For a long, long moment, all he could hear were the sounds of his own heartbeat pounding in his ears and Sarah gasping around her swollen throat. Atherton’s groans had died away and he lay supine and silent, the floorboards darkening around his head.
“Sarah?” he heard himself say as if from another room. “Are you alright?” His body was a grainy character in a moving picture, stepping towards his sister, while his conscience merely an audience member watching from the dark. Then Sarah flinched away from his outstretched hand and brought his awareness back to the present, somewhat.
“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 got stuck in his throat. He knelt to check Atherton’s pulse and found it absent.
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,” he said instead. His hands were shaking. “The servants will find him by morning and the police will be alerted.”
Sarah’s face was white. “What about you?”
“Those are hardly my letters on his desk,” he snapped. “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 cloth of his handkerchief clutched in his white-knuckled fingers looked far away. “You have to leave town - get out of the city,” he said. “Establish some sort of alibi.” With the same handkerchief, he scooped up the bundle of familiar envelopes on the table, wrapped together with neat blue string, as if they were on display in a stationary store rather than witnesses to a murder.
Sarah took them and pressed them to her chest as if they were the last solid things on earth. “I can't leave you to deal with this alone. It was my own foolishness that began it.”
“You were doing nothing wrong. It's not your fault that the eyes of society can't see the same.” He gripped her hands and felt the wad of envelopes crease beneath his palm. “You must go. 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 and cold, but the stubborn, flattened press of her lips was still the same. “I'm not leaving,” she said. “It would only look suspicious at this point, either way.”
“And there is only my own idiocy to blame for that,” he growled, turning away. He felt her reach out, felt the protest rise and die upon her lips. She knew better than anyone that such an argument with him now would be fruitless - especially now, with a cooling body on the floor beside them and blood on his hands.
“Perhaps we can make it look like an accident,” she said.
Bile rose in this throat before he forced it down. “The wound on his head is too distinctive,” he said through gritted teeth. “It's unlikely such a thing would work. And I will not cover up a murder, even if it was one I committed.”
Sarah, having slipped on her gloves, was already pulling books off the nearby set of shelves, setting them in rumpled poses on the floor. “Be that as it may, I will not have my brother convicted for a death accidentally dealt, and in my own defence at that.” She stopped, a copy of Les Misérables still in her hands. “Or you can go to the station and tell them the truth," she said haltingly. "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.” She did not look towards Atherton’s body.
But already he had joined her side and took a weighty tome from the shelf. “If I confessed, the circumstances of our being here would have to come out,” he said, laying the open book, pages down, upon the floor. “The letters, the blackmail - I can live with a guilty conscience if it means keeping you and Marie out of prison or the asylum.”
Fear and hollow agony glimmered in her eyes. “This was my doing,” she whispered, but he grasped her shoulder and gripped it tight.
“Never,” he vowed. “I would do it again, if I must. No one here is at fault, save the cad who once occupied that corpse -” he glanced at the shadowed figure crumpled some distance away “- and the law that enabled him to do this. It truly is the blackmailer’s charter.”
No more words were spoken between them, nor was there any need. Sarah was silent as the grave and he was fighting down nausea. He had seen many corpses in his lifetime, but never one that made him feel as sick as the one lying now at his feet. Such an ostentatiously cruel man in life looked so small in death.
He was awakened the next morning to a persistent shrilling from the telephone. He could feel his heart sinking into his stomach even as he fumbled for the receiver and held it up to his mouth.
“Detective Emerson!” Constable Clifton sounded 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.”
Such a call would normally have him dressed in moments, but now all he felt was ill. “Such duties are usually the realm of a coroner, if I'm not mistaken,” he said numbly.
“Oh, but it's not a usual death, sir. Sixty-eight Olivedale Grove - posh neighbourhood, 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 took a second glance and said it looks suspicious.”
He thought of his sister’s letters, now safely burnt, and the chipped brick he had thrown into the city reservoir. The blood beneath his fingernails had long been scrubbed away, and all remaining evidence was now in ashes or down the drain.
“I'll be there presently,” he said in response, and hung up the phone even as Clifton was still speaking. For long minutes he sat at the edge of his bed, staring down at his newly-cleaned hands. His breathing was very loud in the silence.