Story by J.A. Prentice
Illustration by L.A. Spooner
They dragged Fraser Cameron’s corpse from the river, his jacket dark and heavy, his face pale and bloated. He stank of river and rot. Even the undertaker, used to the decay of the dead, turned up his nose as the villagers laid the body down on the grassy riverbank.
In the frigid night air, the river water was like ice against their skin. They gathered around the body, peering at the open, staring eyes and the pale lips. Most of them would later swear that he looked surprised.
Calvin Burke bent down, his tailored trousers and black coat thick with mud. He had a lean face with blond whiskers, a hawk-like nose, and a heavy brow. Just the night before, he and Cameron had been drinking together. Now, after hours of scouring the countryside, tracking the slightest of clues to dead end after dead end, Calvin found himself staring down at his waterlogged corpse.
He reached for Cameron’s lapel, gently brushing it as he pulled out a single object, holding it up. Dripping wet petals, red as fresh blood, glistened in the pale moonlight. Grey threads from the dead man’s jacket had caught upon the thorns.
Calvin’s cheeks went pale and he stepped back, letting it fall from between his fingers and land in the mud. Ignoring the body of his friend, ignoring the whispers that whirled around him like flies, he ran, boots pounding deep into the wet earth.
The rest of the search party watched Calvin go, then, as one, turned their gaze to the object of his terror, resting in the reeds by the roaring river.
It was a rose.
— ♦♦♦ —
“Someone’s coming for us,” Calvin said as he sat down opposite Algernon Brook’s padded brown armchair, searching the shadows behind the looming bookcases in the study as though they might hide paper-thin assassins. “They killed Cameron and we’re next.”
Algernon Brook sat beside the crackling fire, a clay pipe in his mouth and a pair of jet-black silk slippers on his feet. His dressing gown swirled with black-and-blue patterns, bordered with the same solid blue as the sash that held it in place. All around him were symbols of wealth and taste: polished wooden furniture, leather-bound books, a pair of crossed swords resting above the fireplace, an Oriental rug just below his chair.
Algernon raised a thin, black eyebrow and took a long draw from his pipe. He was wreathed in tobacco smoke.
“Really, Calvin,” Algernon scoffed. “You are a trifle paranoid. First, you hide like an insect for two weeks, then you come in here shouting conspiracy. Yes, Cameron was killed, but he was a man who made many enemies. I’m not sure he ever left a pub without being hurled out.”
Calvin’s blood boiled as it always did when Algernon insisted on acting superior. He studied Algernon’s smiling face – his square jaw, his twisting lip, his curls of dark hair – and thought of how much he wanted to drive his fist into it until only bloody pulp was left. For all the man’s protestations, Calvin could see the tremor in his hand and the torn corner of the newspaper article sticking out from under a copy of the Strand.
“Interesting reading?” he asked.
Algernon waved his hand, dropping ash from his pipe onto the black sleeve of his jacket.
“You know how it is with me,” he said. “As much as I like Doyle’s puzzles, my sympathy is often with the criminal rather than the detective of Baker Street.”
Before Algernon could stop him, Calvin snatched the newspaper article from under the magazine. There, in stark black-and-white was the tale of Cameron’s demise.
“You are worried,” he said.
Algernon sighed. “I have considered the possibility.”
“Considered the possibility!” Calvin stood, throwing his arms wide. “My God, Algernon, a man is dead!”
“And you fear it was because of what we did. But how could anyone have known?”
“Edwin,” Calvin replied.
Algernon gave a dismissive shake of his head. “Not possible.”
“Why not?” Calvin asked. “We haven’t seen him since that night. Five years and not a sound.”
“Edwin Elliot was a coward,” Algernon said, “but he won’t talk. And he certainly wouldn’t kill us.”
A knock upon the door interrupted Calvin’s response. The maid entered, a silver tea tray balanced in her dainty hands, a stream of black hair falling over her pale face. Calvin thought she might have been considered beautiful if it weren’t for a scar slashing through her left cheek.
“Tea?” she asked, glancing hesitantly at Algernon. Calvin noticed a small bruise above her white collar and remembered how cruel Algernon had always been with his servants. He wondered if that thin red scar was his doing as well.
“Thank you, Miss Briar,” Algernon said. “Pour it and get out. We wish for no more interruptions.”
Her hand shook as she poured Calvin’s cup. Brown sloshed over the white saucer. Miss Briar tried hurriedly to wipe it up, her sleeve dipping over the cup.
“Careful!” Algernon snapped. He gave Calvin an apologetic smile. “She’s new to this.”
When the cups had been poured and Miss Briar had slipped from the room, Algernon turned to Calvin, his eyes lingering on the copy of the Strand.
“Let us decide, then,” Algernon said, “who it might be that wants us dead. Lay out all the facts and we shall find our man. If we are in danger, let us play at detectives.”
“With yourself as Holmes and me as Watson, I assume.”
“Naturally.” Algernon’s lips spread in a thin smile. “Begin with the article, Burke. The death of Fraser Cameron.”
“Found in the river, five miles from his home, two weeks ago. I’d been drinking with him the previous night,” Calvin replied. “There was some girl he kept trying to get the attention of. Not the respectable sort. I left him to it, knowing he’d have no more luck than he ever did.” Calvin sighed. “The next I saw of him; a knife was stuck between his ribs and he was floating in the river.” He paused. “And a rose was found in his lapel.”
Algernon waved his hand. “A gift from a lover.”
“Or a sign,” Calvin said. “I…” He breathed deeply. “I have received a rose myself. Two nights before Cameron went missing. There was a boy on my doorstep, and he said he’d been told to leave it at my house by some gentleman. At the time, I thought little of it – a wrong address, most likely – but–”
He saw the twitch of Algernon’s brow and the way his dark eyes flickered towards the roaring fire.
“You received a rose,” Calvin said.
“It was in the paper,” Algernon replied, “trapped between pages like a pressed leaf. It was fresh, plucked only that morning. Still wet from the previous night’s rain. I cast it into the fire.”
“When was this?”
“Three days ago. Tuesday.”
“And still you insisted that there was nothing wrong?”
“How could they know?” Algernon stood, turning his back to Calvin, his eyes fixed on the fire. “After all these years.”
“Do you remember that day?” Calvin asked.
“In perfect detail.” Algernon’s eyes seemed distant and Calvin wondered if he was picturing her: the ringlets of golden hair, the piercing blue of her eyes. “She had been ill that week. She permitted nobody to see her but her physician. When she was well, we all rode out together to her house on the moors. It came like a tower out of the mists…”
— ♦♦♦ —
There was a bouquet of roses in Acacia Addison’s bedroom, water dripping over red petals and sharp thorns. Algernon looked at them, then over at Acacia. She was radiant, her hair brushed neatly into a golden cascade, her pale skin almost translucent beneath her sky-blue dress, a necklace of gleaming pearls resting around her long, white neck. Algernon’s eyes rested on the pearls for a moment, then traveled downward. Acacia’s blue eyes flickered with fire and he averted his gaze.
“Who got you these?” he asked. “Another suitor?”
“I was not aware,” Acacia retorted, “that you were a suitor, given how often I have told you that I am utterly disinterested in you.”
“I was distressed to hear of your fever.”
“I was distressed to have it.”
Algernon’s thin lips curled in a smile. “You had no visitors during that time. Not until today.”
“Quite so,” Acacia replied. “I found not being hounded by you and your pack so rewarding I almost enjoyed my illness.”
“And yet,” Algernon said, “these flowers are fresh. You had no visitors, but fresh flowers.”
Algernon ran his fingers over the petals, feeling the wet, velvety softness beneath his fingers. He gave one a gentle tug. It ripped, a torn scarlet fragment drifting down to the polished oak floor.
“No visitors,” he said, “except, perhaps, a doctor?”
Acacia slapped his fingers away.
“Keep your hands off them.”
In the corner of his eye, Algernon caught sight of her bed: white sheets spread out between four wooden posts, the duvet decorated with entwining flowers, two deep furrows in the mattress and pillows. A shadow fell over his eyes.
“I see.” Bending down, Algernon picked up the torn petal. “You don’t want me fouling your lover’s gift with my touch.”
“There is nothing of mine I want fouled with your touch, Mister Brook.”
Algernon crunched his hand into a fist, his lips pulling back to show gleaming teeth, his eyes narrowing – and then he smiled. “Of course, Miss Addison. I shall call again when you are in a better mood.”
“For you, I shall never be in a better mood.”
Algernon paused by the doorway, fingering the knob, then turned back. “Was it Devereux?”
Acacia sighed. “Was what Devereux?”
“The flowers,” Algernon replied. “Was it Doctor Devereux who brought them?”
“Whoever brought my flowers, they don’t concern you.”
“Of course.” Algernon stepped towards her. “If only I could convince you of the sincerity of my–”
There was a cough from the doorway. Algernon turned and saw the maid standing there, dressed in black and white, an expectant look on her blonde-hair-framed round face.
“Josephine,” Acacia said, “show Mister Brook the way to the door.”
Josephine smiled. “It would be my pleasure.”
Algernon found himself being led out down the stairs, through the entrance hall, past stern portraits and gleaming silver and hurled out into the grey morning, where a cold wind howled over the lonely moor.
“Is there a time,” he asked, “when I might call again?”
Josephine shut the door in his face. Algernon balled his hands into fists, feeling the petal crumble beneath his nails. The shreds of it drifted down to the dew-wet grass.
“How did it go?” Calvin Burke asked.
Of Algernon’s three companions, only Calvin had been bold enough to step forward. The other two hung back – mousy, twitching Edwin Elliot and hulking, broad-faced Fraser Cameron. They watched Algernon pensively from beside the black carriage.
“There’s another,” Algernon snarled. “She has taken another into her bed.”
“How do you know?” Calvin asked.
“There were two indents in the pillow,” Algernon said, “and roses upon her table.”
Calvin shook his head and clicked his tongue. “Young women these days. It’s appalling.”
Fraser and Edwin muttered their condolences as Algernon stormed past, flinging open the carriage door.
“Where are we going?” Edwin asked, his voice almost a squeal.
“Drinking,” Algernon snarled. “I want some ale to wash down the taste of her lies.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Stubborn girl,” Calvin replied. “And foolish, stringing you along like that.”
“This time it wasn’t just the words,” Algernon said. “The roses could have been explained away, but the bed…” He clenched his fist. “Someone else had lain beside her. Of course, there had been nobody to see her for a week. No other suitors. Her father saw them all away. He’d have nobody but me for his little girl.” Algernon looked at Calvin. “I have something of the ratiocinator in me. And this was not too difficult a puzzle to solve. Only one man had been permitted into that room.”
“Her physician,” Calvin said. “Doctor Devereux.”
Calvin remembered Devereux – a man with a trim mustache, a long coat, and curls of brown hair. Calvin had only met him once, but he felt there’d been something of the dashing romantic in him, hidden under his soft, professional exterior.
“Devereux,” Calvin muttered, “I wonder…”
“He didn’t see us,” Algernon interrupted. “Nobody saw us. It was just us and the Moon.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Their breath stinking of alcohol, their voices carrying over the lonely moor, Calvin, Edwin, Algernon, and Fraser stumbled down the path. Algernon laughed aloud at the sight of a sparrow upon a pinnacle of rock rising from the wild grass.
“Look at him.” He pointed with a wandering finger. “Bloody bird.”
“Got any idea where we are?” Edwin asked.
Algernon shrugged. “Not the foggiest.”
Then they saw her, like a ghost upon the moor, the white folds of her dress flowing around her. Against that vast emptiness, she seemed no bigger than the sparrow. Her eyes grew wide and her face pale as she saw them stumbling towards her.
Algernon’s eyes fixed upon a scarlet rose tucked in her dress and his lips twisted into a snarl. His heart thundered in his chest and his blood boiled in his veins as he stared at her, at the woman who had spurned him, the woman who had denied him, the woman who had betrayed him, the woman who had been false, the woman who had dishonored herself, the woman who had dishonored him, the woman who had wronged him.
Acacia was alone upon the moor: one of her, four of them.
“Get her!” Algernon roared.
The others followed his lead, the alcohol lending them courage and dulling their senses. They fell upon her like a pack of tearing wolves, hurling her to the ground. She stared like a frightened doe at the whites of Algernon’s teeth and recoiled at the warm stench of his breath.
“My father will hear of this,” she protested. “He will! He–”
“Quiet!” Algernon slammed her head into the ground and heard a loud thud. She went silent, her head falling limp.
“No!” Edwin stumbled back, shaking his head. He looked down at the prone body and shivered. “I can’t be part of this. I won’t! I–”
“Hold him down!” Algernon roared and Calvin grabbed at Edwin’s elbows.
The little figure was too swift for him and Edwin was away, racing through the grass.
— ♦♦♦ —
The moor was quiet after, waves of grass dancing under clouded moonlight. Algernon stood in the mist, an orange glow coming from his pipe and grey smoke spilling into the wind.
Acacia’s body lay in the muck, her golden hair falling in a trampled halo around her blank face. The cuts and bruises stood out on her pale skin – gashes of red, puddles of black. Her empty eyes stared at the sky, watching the stars.
Algernon plucked the rose from the torn remnants of her dress, turning it over in his fingers.
He winced. A thorn had slipped into his thumb and a drop of blood was oozing from his skin. He hurled the flower to the ground and stomped on it ‘til it was smashed into the mud, lost beneath the muck.
There was a buzzing from the corpse. A fly had landed on Acacia’s open eye and its six black legs scuttled over her, feeling her beneath it. An hour before, she would have batted it away, but now she lay cold and still, the fly was free to do as it pleased.
Acacia was dead and she would be receiving no more roses.
It was Fraser who stirred him from his thoughts, tugging upon his coat sleeve.
“We need to go,” he said. “They can’t know we did this.”
Algernon nodded. “Nobody saw.”
“Edwin saw,” Calvin said. “You should have let me catch him. You should have–” He looked down at the body and let out a soft cry. “My God, Algernon, what have we done?”
“She deserved it,” Algernon snarled. “She’s dead now, anyway. No time for regrets.”
“And Edwin?” Fraser asked.
“You two run to our lodgings,” Algernon said. “And if anyone asks, we were there all night. I’ll go after Edwin.”
And with that said, he turned and began the lonely trek across the moor. Fraser and Calvin took one last look at the corpse and then fled the scene, leaving no clue in their wake.
— ♦♦♦ —
“They found the body two days later, crawling with flies. I heard that the maid locked herself in her room from the horror and her father’s hair turned white with shock.” Calvin picked up the fragment of newspaper, turning it over and over in his fingers. “Edwin was right. It was wrong.”
Algernon shrugged. “We were young. We were drunk. All boys make mistakes. It’s only natural.”
“We weren’t even called to the inquest.”
“Because,” Algernon said, “nobody saw us.”
Calvin’s eyes flashed. “If nobody saw us, then how are we being hunted down one-by-one?”
“And you think what?” Algernon asked. “That Edwin didn’t appear at the inquest, but he was willing to tell someone else?”
“If that someone frightened him enough,” Calvin said, “or if his guilt ate at him over the years. Perhaps he told her father.”
“Or Doctor Devereux.” Algernon’s grip on the armrests of his chair tightened.
“Or perhaps,” Calvin replied, “it’s Edwin himself hunting us down. Perhaps he’s afraid we’ll implicate him in what happened.”
“Now you are reaching. Edwin was a coward and more a bystander than an accomplice. We have more to lose than he.” Algernon tapped his pipe and smiled. “But you strike upon an interesting notion. Perhaps it was someone who didn’t want to be implicated. Someone silencing his fellow conspirators to make sure none of them spoke.”
Calvin shot to his feet.
“You–!” he cried, then toppled like a two-legged chair.
“Be wary of tea poured by strangers.” Algernon unfolded from his chair, stretching his long legs as he towered over Calvin. “And remember the old adage: Three can keep a secret if two are dead. The crime was simple once I considered that.”
“You!” Calvin hissed, pulling himself up. “You killed Cameron!”
Algernon shook his head. “Come now, Burke. Give up the charade. You were the only other one who knew what we did. When Cameron died, I worked it out.”
“Charade?” Tears came to Calvin’s eyes as he laughed. “You think I did it?”
“Do you expect me to think you didn’t?” Algernon asked. “And that you aren’t here to kill me?”
“I did nothing!” Calvin shouted, leaning on the chair. “I’m as innocent as you.”
“But it must be you!” Algernon snapped. “It must be! Nobody else knew!”
“Edwin is dead!” Algernon roared. “I killed him!”
— ♦♦♦ —
Edwin was alone upon the hill when Algernon caught up with him. The grass rose and fell in a vast sea around them. Edwin’s green coat rustled around him, torn by twigs and stained by dirt.
“Algernon,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. But what you did – what we did – My God, we could have killed her. And you wanted to– It’s unspeakable. Unspeakable.”
He turned and Algernon saw the tears glisten on his cheeks like diamonds.
“I had to run. I had to say no. I had to say… to say it wasn’t right.”
“You were a coward,” Algernon snapped. “Like you always are. A sniveling little rat.”
Edwin was silent for a moment, then he shook his head. “No.”
Like a great wave, Edwin rose, his shoulders high, his chin stuck out, his eyes almost on Algernon’s level. “No. I’m not a coward. Not anymore. I won’t let you treat me like your… your servant.”
Algernon cocked an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“I’ll tell them,” Edwin snapped. “I’ll tell them what you did. How you almost–”
“No almost,” Algernon replied. “She’s dead. Cold. Trampled in the mud.”
Edwin shuddered. “You’re a monster.”
“I am a man,” Algernon said, “and I did no more than any other man so betrayed and rejected would have.”
“Monster.” Edwin spat. “I’ll tell. I’ll tell. I swear by God I’ll–”
The click of Algernon’s pistol sounded over the moor. Edwin stared at the small, silver weapon, glinting in the starlight.
“Y-Y-You won’t.” The words tumbled out in a storm of stuttering.
Algernon wasted no breath on a dead man. His finger tightened on the trigger and the gunshot rang out across the night.
Edwin toppled back, his head a shattered mess. Without so much as a glance at the corpse, Algernon wiped off his pistol with a handkerchief. Then, carefully as he could, he dragged the body to the shadow of a secluded rock, hiding it amidst wild bushes. He put the pistol in Edwin’s hand, just in case he was found.
He looked down with a twinge of regret, then turned away.
It was a shame to say goodbye to a good pistol.
— ♦♦♦ —
“You killed him?” Calvin’s shock faded and he nodded, tight-lipped. “Of course, you did.”
“He would have talked.”
“And if the rest of us had threatened to talk?” Calvin glared at Algernon. “Would you have killed us?”
“Yes,” Algernon replied. “But you didn’t. And, before you ask, when Fraser was killed, I was here at a very dull dinner party.”
“Surrounded by witnesses.” Calvin smiled. “How convenient for you.”
“If it isn’t me and it isn’t you,” Algernon said, “and it isn’t Edwin – unless the earth is giving up its dead, in which case Miss Addison herself is our prime suspect – who does that leave us with?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Calvin grunted. “You’ve poisoned me.”
Algernon sighed. “No, you idiot. I drugged you. You’ll be unconscious in a moment or two, but you’ll have no lasting harm. I saw no sense in killing you before I’d found the whole truth. So, play along. Who does that leave us with?”
“The father,” Calvin replied. “And Devereux.”
“And how would they have known?” Algernon shook his head. “Again and again, we come back to this: how would they have known? Nobody saw us. If anyone knew anything, he would have come forward at the inquest.”
“But suppose,” Calvin said, “he couldn’t prove anything, but he did have his…” His vision blurred as though the world were an oil-smeared funhouse mirror and he shook his head to clear it. “His suspicions. He came after us.”
“But why wait?” Algernon asked. “Why not voice his suspicions at the time? The girl’s father or a respectable doctor… The authorities would have listened.”
No answer came from Calvin. He collapsed face-first on the floor. Algernon looked at him with the same indifference he might show a slab of beef.
“You really aren’t contributing equally to this, are you, Burke?” Algernon took a long breath from his pipe. “Never mind. When you wake up, I’ll have the matter solved.”
He paced the study, his robe trailing around him, his pipe leaving a weaving path of smoke-rings. Calvin sprawled on the floor; his shadow strange in the crackling firelight. Outside the dark, smoky room, the moon had risen, spreading pale light over winding London streets.
“If the father suspected,” Algernon said, “he wouldn’t have the restraint to not blurt it out at the first opportunity. I can’t imagine the old fellow running about murdering people. Besides, he couldn’t have been more blind to my faults if I’d plucked out his eyeballs. He would never have let me up to his daughter’s room unwatched if he suspected me capable of such a thing.”
He paused by the fireplace. There the rose had burnt amongst the embers, the bloody red turning to charred black. The petals had curled, then crumbled to glowing dust.
“But Devereux…” Algernon thought of Devereux’s handsome face, his boyish charm, his picture-book-hero attitude. “He’s just the sort to turn vigilante. And the rose – the rose suggests that it was the lover. So, Devereux, it must be. She told him about me, spreading lies like a spider weaving its web. And so, when she died, he decided it must be me, even though we’d never exchanged more than a glance and a ‘Good morning.’”
Algernon shook his head. It felt wrong. He looked at Calvin and sighed.
“I need my Watson. It doesn’t fit. Not quite.” He drummed his fingers upon the mantle. “Yet it must have been him. It must have been the lover who left the roses. And only he entered her room. Only he could have left them. Only he could have…”
His fingers tingled and he felt the floor sway under him. The bookcases tilted; the fire grew into a haze of red; the shadows loomed like Grim Reapers.
My tea, he thought. Somehow the drug ended up in mine too. Somehow…
“Miss Briar!” he shouted. The stone was slippery under his fingers; his limbs were heavy as lead. “Miss Briar!”
He collapsed, fingers scraping at the mantelpiece, his sleeve sweeping pocket-sized old books down on top of him. His head struck the floor and his skull throbbed. His brain felt like it was wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth, a Pharaoh laid out for burial. Twitching fingers sought to pull him back up, but his legs were limp and boneless.
“Miss Briar!” he cried again. It sounded like someone else’s voice, a thin, dull echo from far away.
The door creaked open and Miss Briar entered. All he glimpsed were her shoes and the hem of her black dress. She made no sound.
“Help me.” Algernon tried to shout the words, but they came out a slurred whisper.
Miss Briar bent over Calvin Burke and turned him. Something was in her hand and Algernon strained to see it with his blurred eyes.
It was a knife.
She plunged it into Calvin’s heart. Blood flowed as he twitched once, twice, and then was still. Reaching into a pocket, Miss Briar produced a rose, laying it upon his breast.
She turned to Algernon, wiping the blade of her knife upon her skirts. He wanted to run, to fight, to shout, but all that had been taken away. He was helpless.
“You should have worked it out before,” Miss Briar said. She looked at him and shook her head. “Briar? As in Briar Rose.” She bent over him, turning him so forcefully his head struck the floorboard. “I suppose it’s true. A single detail can make for a good disguise.” She ran a finger along her scar. “And two make for a better one.”
She pulled the wig from her head, strands of dark hair falling away to reveal a shining blonde. Algernon looked at her and saw through the scar, through the invisibility of maids that had sheltered her then and now. Too late, he saw his mistake, the mistake he’d made years ago.
It had never been Devereux who’d sent the flowers. It had never been Devereux who’d lain in Acacia’s bed.
Her father had said she’d had no other visitors, but Acacia’s lover hadn’t needed to visit. She’d already been there, veiled in the disguise of her station and her sex.
“Josephine,” he grunted. “It was you.”
“I knew from the start you’d killed her,” Josephine said. “Whenever I tried to say anything, they shut me up. I was just a maid. How could I know? How could I dare impugn a gentleman so?” She shook her head. “Do you know why nobody questioned your innocence, Mister Brook? Because nobody wanted to. Nobody wanted to think it was one of them what done it – a well-dressed toff like yourself. Nah. They’d rather think it was some wanderers on the road, some monsters they’d never catch. It’s always easier believing in monsters outside than in.”
Algernon Brook was still, staring up at the corner, where the shadows pooled between the mahogany bookcase and the patterns of the wallpaper. There sat a cobweb, silvery threads winding together. Cocooned amidst strands of grey, a fly twitched helplessly, struggling to free itself. Its wings were bound in a steel-like grip, their fluttering useless as the last regrets of the dead.
“Are you listening?” Josephine gave him a kick and he twitched. “I’d hate to think I got the dose too high. I want you to know everything before I kill you.” She sat down beside him, turning the knife between her fingers. Fire glinted in the bloodied steel. “I want you to know how I loved her. How we danced beneath the moonlight. How I gave her flowers whenever I could. Always roses. She loved roses.”
Red petals whirled as Josephine produced a second rose, spinning it between finger and thumb.
“They’re beautiful,” Josephine said, “but touch ‘em wrong and the thorns ‘ll cut you.” She paused. Her slow breath was a lament. “Nobody ever loved anybody how I loved her. Not knights, not queens, not gods, not stars. Not the moon and the sea. You took that from me.” The cold of death in midwinter came over her face. “I walked the moors, looking for… I dunno. Answers. Clues. Death himself. But instead, I found your friend. The worms had got to him, but I knew his clothes. And I knew the pistol in his hand.” She looked at him. “I always thought he was the only one of yours that wasn’t a right bastard.”
The poker, Algernon thought. I can reach the poker. Bash her brains in.
His fingers refused to respond. It was as if his bones had rotted like maggot-infested rafters, growing soft and limp. The poker was inches away, but it might as well have been miles.
“I almost went to the police,” Josephine said, “but I knew I couldn’t trust them. And I didn’t want to tip my hand. So instead I waited. I planned. Five years. Five years of hate, turning sour like vinegar.” She stopped turning the knife and looked at her reflection. “I gave Burke the rose myself, done up like a paperboy. Told him it was a gentleman that sent it, just to throw him off. Cameron was easy. Never saw a girl he didn’t want. So, I painted myself up, put on a nice low-cut dress.” She smirked. “He wasn’t even looking at my face. Got him so drunk he could barely stand. After that…” She lowered the knife. “It doesn’t take much pressure to pierce the skin. Just anger. And I had enough of that.
“Getting this job was easy. I gave that maid of yours all that I had to quit. The look on her face told me she would have done it for free. And then I showed up the moment you put out the advertisement, so willing to work. You didn’t even see me, let alone recognize me.” A fingernail traced her scar. “The scar probably wasn’t needed. But I couldn’t risk you knowing me before it was too late…” Her fingers wrapped tighter around the hilt of the knife. “And like I said, it doesn’t take too much pressure to break the skin. Cheapest disguise you can get. The only problem is that it doesn’t come off.” A wistful smile crossed her lips. “I put the rose in your paper. Simple enough if you’re the one bringing it in.”
She stood and Algernon knew his time was almost over. He looked at the cobweb, at the twitching fly. There was the spider, traversing the web with a tightrope walker’s grace. He imagined the bite of the pincers, the brush of hairy legs.
“Mister Burke visiting was convenient,” Josephine said. “Two birds, one stone. Or two birds, one drugged teapot. A little extra in his, just as you’d asked, so he toppled over first.” The knife gleamed and she turned. “And that has us about caught up.”
The knife was cold as it slid between his ribs. It felt like night and ice and the distant stars, shimmering so far away.
“When you get to Hell,” Josephine whispered, “tell the Devil I sent you.”
He saw the rose, red petals growing redder as all else failed away, held between her rough, working-class fingers.
Then it fell, drifting down to rest upon his bloodied breast.
By the time it landed, graceful as a swan, Algernon Brook was dead, his glassy eyes fixed upon a dying fly.
— ♦♦♦ —
I was an accountant by trade, and ill-inclined to fudge the numbers. You know what a life is worth? $67.17. I could round it down, but I wanted you to see the clear picture like I did. $67.17, that’s it. At least it’s what James Murray’s life was worth.