The orchestra is silenced, the laughter and chatter slowly dying down as all heads turn toward their host.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” says Michael, gripping the banister. “I feel foolish for asking, but does anybody know where my sister is?”
A ripple of conversation washes over the crowd as heads turn to look at one another. It takes only a minute to determine she’s not in the ballroom.
It’s Cunningham who spots her first.
Touching my arm, he points toward Evelyn, who’s weaving drunkenly as she follows the braziers toward the reflecting pool. She’s some distance away already, drifting in and out of the light. A small silver pistol’s glinting in her hand.
“Fetch Michael,” I cry.
As Cunningham pushes through the crowd, I drag myself to my feet, lurching toward the window. Nobody else has seen her, and the commotion’s building again, the temporary fuss of the announcement already fading. The violin player tests a note, the clock showing 11:00 p.m.
I’ve reached the french doors when Evelyn arrives at the pool.
She’s swaying, trembling.
Standing in the trees, only feet away, the Plague Doctor watches passively, the flames of the brazier reflected on his mask.
The silver pistol flashes as Evelyn raises it to her stomach, the gunshot slicing through conversation and music.
And yet, for a moment, all seems well.
Evelyn’s still standing on the edge of the water, as though admiring her reflection. Then her legs buckle, the gun dropping from her hand as she topples facefirst into the pool, the Plague Doctor bowing his head and disappearing into the blackness of the trees.
I’m only dimly aware of the screams, or the crowd at my back, surging past me onto the grass as the promised fireworks explode in the air, drenching the pool in colorful light. I’m watching Michael, sprinting into the darkness toward a sister he’s too late to save. He’s screaming her name, his voice drowned out by the fireworks as he wades into the inky water to scoop up her body. Slipping and stumbling, he tries to drag her from the pool before eventually collapsing, Evelyn still cradled in his arms. Kissing her face, he begs her to open her eyes, but it’s a fool’s hope. Death’s rolled his dice and Evelyn’s paid her debt. All that was of value has been taken.
Burying his face in her wet hair, Michael sobs.
He’s oblivious as the crowd gathers, as strong arms pry him from his sister’s limp body, hoisting her onto the grass so Doctor Dickie can kneel down and make his examination. Not that his skills are required, the hole in her stomach and the silver pistol on the grass tell the story
eloquently enough. Despite that, he lingers over her, pressing his fingers to her neck to check for a pulse, before tenderly wiping the dirty water from her face.
Still kneeling, he gestures for Michael to come closer, and taking the weeping man’s hand, he bows his head and begins muttering what looks to be a prayer under his breath.
I’m grateful for his reverence.
A few women are crying into accommodating shoulders, but there’s something hollow about their performance. It’s as though the ball hasn’t really ended. They’re all still dancing, they’ve just changed the steps. Evelyn deserves better than to be entertainment for people she despised. The doctor seems to understand this, his every action, no matter how small, restoring some small part of her dignity.
The prayer only takes a minute, and when it’s done, he drapes his jacket across Evelyn’s face, as though her unblinking stare is of greater offense than the blood staining her dress.
There’s a tear on his cheek as he gets to his feet, and placing an arm around Michael, he leads Evelyn’s sobbing brother away. To my eyes, they depart older men, slower and more bent, carrying a great weight of sadness across their shoulders.
No sooner are they inside the house than rumors bounce through the crowd. The police are coming, a suicide note’s been found, Charlie Carver’s spirit has claimed another Hardcastle child. The stories are spun from one mouth to another, and by the time they reach me, they’re rich with details and patterns, strong enough to be carried out of here and into society.
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I look for Cunningham, but he’s nowhere to be seen. I can’t imagine what he could be doing, but he’s got a quick eye and willing hands so no doubt he’s found a purpose—unlike myself. The shot has shattered my nerves.
Taking myself back to the now empty ballroom, I drop onto the couch from earlier, where I sit and tremble, my mind racing.
I know my friend will be alive again tomorrow, but it doesn’t change what happened, or the devastation I feel at having witnessed it.
Evelyn took her own life, and I’m responsible. Her marriage to Ravencourt was a punishment, a humiliation designed to push her over the edge, and however unwittingly, I was part of it. It was my face she hated, my presence that drove her to the water’s edge with a pistol in her hand.
And what of the Plague Doctor? He offered me freedom in return for solving a murder that wouldn’t look like a murder, but I watched Evelyn shoot herself after fleeing a dinner in despair. There can be no doubt about her actions or motivation, which makes me wonder at my captor’s. Was his offer just another torment, a sliver of hope to go mad chasing?
What about the graveyard? The gun?
If Evelyn were truly so despondent, why did she seem in such good cheer when she accompanied Bell into the graveyard, less than two hours after dinner? And what about the gun she was carrying? It was a large black revolver, almost too big for her purse. The gun she used to take her life was a silver pistol. Why would she change weapons?
I don’t know how long I sit there thinking about it, amid the delighted mourners, but the police never come.
The crowds thin and the candles gutter; the party flickers and goes out.
The last thing I see before falling asleep in my chair is the image of Michael Hardcastle, kneeling on the grass, cradling the dripping-wet body of his dead sister.
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