Amelia had a moment of questioning everything they were about to do when they walked in through the large front doors of the Alto mansion. But it seemed that no one was suspicious of a bunch of people who – according to the fake invitations they had – were from Sim State University, and who “had unfortunately missed the museum opening”. Amelia wasn’t sure if they were just that convincing or if Vanja whispering incoherent words and waving her fingers had something to do with it.
In any case, they were in, and Amelia looked around the extravagant mansion in amazement. The hallway they came in had marble floors and custom made window shades. The house itself wasn’t much bigger than Amelia’s home, but it certainly looked more like actual rich people lived in it. For one, it didn’t seem to have broken appliances or plumbing problems, and the polished statues and the fact that there was what appeared to be a butler leading them through the hall and into the backyard painted a very wealthy picture. Amelia felt like she had found the castle to go with her fairytale.
Fancily dressed people were slowly swarming to the backyard like lavish, elegant ants with too much money on their hands. Did rich people even have backyards, or were they always called gardens? Amelia tried to locate Jay, but couldn’t find him. She then focused on a middle-aged couple, who were greeting the guests. Amelia recognised them as the Altos thanks to the images Novak had showed them on his computer. The Altos’ teenage daughter – apparently named Holly – was also standing there, looking considerably more genuinely cheerful than her parents.
“Hello!” she greeted them when they got close enough, “Let’s save the kittens!”
“And you were from…?” said Holly’s mother, frowning at them, “I didn’t see you at the museum.”
“There were too many breakable things there,” Tad lamented, and then cleared his throat, “I mean… we were very busy.”
“We’re here on behalf of Sim State University,” Vanja was quick to cut in, “It made quite a big donation. We do a lot of study on wild felines there, as you probably know.”
“Of course,” said Mr. Alto in the tone of voice that indicated he really had no idea, “We hope you enjoy the evening.”
“We will,” Amelia said mostly just to say something, “Thank you so much for arranging this.”
Mrs. Alto nodded stiffly.
“Of course. We all care about things.”
Amelia noted that a part of the dress Mrs. Alto was wearing was in leopard print. She smiled at the Altos, and Holly was the only one who actually smiled back. Judging by her enthusiasm and behaviour, she was probably the one who had come up with the idea of saving the kittens. Or at least she was the one who believed in it the most.
They were soon swept along the small tide of rich people and idle chatter, and Amelia quickly noted the tiny foods at the buffet before she had to focus on smiles and greetings. She hoped they’d have time to at least try the food. But as the quick Sunset Valley sunset approached and the party got properly started, she guessed that they probably wouldn’t.
“Okay,” Vanja said quietly once they had cleared the welcome committee and dealt with the greetings from strangers, “The Deacons shouldn’t be too hard to spot. If I focus for a while, I can sense the brother’s magic easily among these… non-magical people. And then we can try to get them to a spot where we can talk in peace. Right?”
“Yes,” Tad whispered, nervously tugging the collar of his burgundy suit jacket, “Emphasis on ‘peace’.”
Amelia looked around, trying to catch a glimpse of each guest and hoped she would recognise the Deacons. Novak had showed pictures of them too. It had been a weird and stalkery way of doing things, but Amelia supposed it was for a good cause. Besides, the Deacons had been the ones to intrude first by stealing. So it was only fair that Tad got back what was his, right? So that he could… go… home. Amelia frowned. Tad had told her he would be staying even after the gemstone had been found. But would he really be allowed to do such a thing? For some reason Amelia had never really let that thought sink in. Or then she had, back when she had been more afraid of him. And when she had got over her fear, her optimism had buried the possibility of Tad leaving soon under other thoughts. Amelia looked at Tad, who seemed so lost and out of place among the decorated rich people – and really, among people in general. Would this really be it? She had just thought of it as an adventure, but would it be her last adventure with the Grim Reaper? And just when she had learned how to deal with it too!
Well, her optimistic side said, We can worry about that later. I’m sure it’ll all turn out fine.
Vanja suddenly pointed.
“There they are,” she whispered a bit dramatically. Amelia looked at where she was pointing and indeed saw the duo of siblings she remembered from pictures. They were dressed much more formally than in the photos, of course, and Lydia Deacon had straightened her lovely, wavy hair for the occasion, but it was clearly them. Tad stepped next to Amelia and narrowed his eyes.
“This is strange…” he said, “Not seeing, I mean. Hold on, I need to concentrate…”
He was quiet for a focused moment, and then his shoulders slumped.
“Well, I can see a blur of… something. Come on, we can at least try to talk to them. I need someone to tell me what they say, in case I cannot hear them either.”
“Oh, I can do that!” Vanja raised her hand like an over-eager student, “It makes sense for me to do the talking, anyway. From one researcher to another.”
“Good. Meanwhile…” Tad’s eyes glazed over for a second, “Mr. Sanguine is nearby. I assume he is trying to find the best place for… signals? Yes, for his phone. So he can see things better.”
Amelia wasn’t sure if it was possible to hijack security cameras with a phone just like that. Oh, she believed it could be done, but Novak made it sound so easy that it was a bit hard to believe. Well, that part wasn’t really anything she needed to worry about. She should just focus on not losing sight of the Deacons and being there for… well, probably for diplomacy, if things got bad. Though it seemed unlikely that a few kind words could properly defuse a situation that might erupt between thieves, witches, and Death. But one never knew. A little bit of kindness and diplomacy usually went a long way.
Though little did Amelia know what sort of clashes the night would really hold.
For it was time for Fate to keep her promise to the Deacons.
It had begun before, as already stated, of course. But now things would really start to get going somewhere.
Fate stood in the midst of the crowd, uninvited and invisible. It felt like a waste to be dressed for the occasion if she wasn’t even going to show herself, but at least she knew she would be doing this in style. She looked at the security cameras in the garden, and willed one of them to break. Then another one, and another, until the whole garden was in the dark to anyone who might have been planning to… say, hijack the cameras and follow the events from a distance. Sure, Sanguine might not show up just because his electronic eyes had gone blind – he had also planned to blind them at some point, after all, so maybe he still needed one more nudge.
Fate didn’t even have time to think about what it could be, however, before the people made it happen for her.
First it was Death himself who sensed her power at work, and turned, his focus momentarily gone from the Deacons. Then it was Gaius Deacon who sensed the presence of both Fate and Death, and pointed towards Death and whispered urgently to his sister. And then, as a metaphorical final nail to the equally metaphorical coffin, the man named Jay Arkwright noticed Amelia Sprigg.
Amelia was startled when Tad suddenly spun around to watch the crowd behind them. Vanja crossed her arms.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I felt Fate,” Tad said quietly.
“What? You’re feeling faint?”
“No, Fate. She is there, among the crowd… invisible…” he pointed to a spot where there didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, “I told you there was something at work here.”
Vanja squinted at the crowd.
“Am I supposed to see something? Or is that elderly gentleman supposed to be Fate?”
“Amelia! There you are! Did you see all the tiny foods they have at the buffet?”
Amelia turned, and Tad quieted suddenly when Jay Arkwright approached them. Jay looked very nice in a black suit and with his hair combed back from his face. Next to him stood a platinum blond, middle-aged man in a suit in shades of gold and brown. It was the kind of suit only an appropriately rich person would dare to wear.
“Hi, Jay!” Amelia said, “I was afraid you wouldn’t be here at all!”
“Of course I’m here. I mean, my boss is here, right? This is Mr. Phineas Beagle. SimNation’s number one importer of external hard drives. Also a cat lover, despite the surname.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” said Mr. Phineas Beagle, shaking everyone’s hands, “Apparently you made an impression on my bodyguard, Miss Sprigg.”
“Oh, it was very nice to meet him. And you as well, sir.”
“They’re getting away!” Vanja hissed between clenched teeth and nodded towards the Deacons, who were quickly trying to slip back towards the Alto manor and the crowd of people near it.
Mr. Beagle frowned.
“Is there a… situation?”
“Oh, no!” Vanja said a little too quickly, “No situation at all! Just an old friend! Excuse me for a second!”
She was suddenly power-walking quite impressively in her high heels, quickly catching up to the Deacons. She grabbed Gaius Deacon’s shoulder and spun the young man around.
“Oh, it is you!” she said in obviously feigned surprise, “Gaius Deacon! I saw you at the university! There’s so much I want to ask you concerning your theory on… decomposition.”
“Well, she seems very forward,” said Mr. Beagle, “And you… uh, Miss Sprigg, is your other friend alright?”
Tad’s eyes had glazed over again.
“No, everything is fine,” he said absently, and then looked at Mr. Beagle with an oddly hardened expression, “It is… informative to meet you, Mr. Beagle. I think I have seen you before.”
“Really? Well, I am on the news sometimes.”
“Ah, of course. Excuse me, Amelia and I need to see to our… colleague.”
Amelia hesitated. Were they really in such a hurry? Couldn’t she have spared just one moment to talk to people?
Her unasked question was answered when a commotion erupted in the middle of a small crowd.
Vanja’s plan had been simple: stop the Deacons or at least stall them until the others could catch up. She caught Gaius and spun the man around.
“Oh, it is you!” she said in her best surprised tone, “Gaius Deacon! I saw you at the university! There’s so much I want to ask you concerning your theory on… decomposition.”
Gaius frowned, and Lydia stopped impatiently.
“Do I know you?” Gaius asked.
“I’m sorry, but we don’t really have time for this,” Lydia cut in, pushing Vanja’s hand from her brother’s shoulder. The Deacons were about to turn away again, when Vanja crossed her arms.
“I’m Vanja Leifsdóttir.”
That made Gaius’s eyes spark in recognition.
“Oh! I remember now! You were at the… convention. From the uh… chemistry side of things?”
“And physics,” Vanja added, and knew this was her chance to reel at least one Deacon in, “You know, I was very fascinated by your theories.”
“You were? Really? That’s great!” Gaius said, and Vanja knew she had been right when she had banked on the man’s fanatic dedication to his research, “It’s still in progress, but once I work on it more, it should revolutionise the way we think of dead bodies and the… uh, possibilities that death can bring.”
“Gaius…” Lydia said in a warning tone. Vanja noticed the gemstone in the woman’s necklace. That had to be what Tad was looking for. Or at least a part of it. According to the briefing she had been given, the gemstone was in pieces now. Fascinating, and quite impressive, really.
“Just a second, Lydia,” Gaius said and turned back to Vanja, “I’d love to speak more about this, but this isn’t really the place for it, if you understand. But maybe we can schedule a time when we could talk in peace! And your work is quite adequate as well. I’m sure that if you keep it up, you’ll be a renowned scientist in no time.”
“Wait, what?” Vanja blurted out, “I already am a renowned scientist! My work is more than adequate!”
“Gaius…!” Lydia said again, this time much more agitatedly, “We should really be going now…”
“Oh, well I’m not saying your work is bad in any way,” Gaius said quickly, ignoring his sister, “It’s just… alc- I mean chemistry is kind of an old field without much future in it.”
“Oh, like playing with corpses has that much future either?” Vanja scoffed, “Isn’t that what got your family’s reputation besmirched to begin with?”
Gaius’s eye twitched. That was the only warning Vanja got before she was pushed almost down the hill behind her. The crowd around them gasped.
“Don’t talk about my family like that!” Gaius snapped, “You have NO RIGHT!”
“Who is making a scene at our party?” the voice of Mr. Alto boomed above the gasps.
“This is a tasteful meeting! Not a… fighting ring,” Mrs. Alto added and turned to Lydia, “Miss Deacon, can you control your immature brother or do you have to be removed?”
Lydia sighed, clearly not liking the distasteful look Mrs. Alto sent their way.
“Of course. Gaius, that’s enough!”
Mrs. Alto tutted and muttered something about good-for-nothing, tasteless losers. Lydia’s eyes narrowed.
“Right. Because it’s sooo tasteful to be wearing snow leopard in a cat charity!”
And that was the beginning of a chain reaction. It started with snooty laughter and Mrs. Alto’s frenzied war cry of:
“IT’S FAUX FUR!”
And then she accidentally pushed someone, who tripped and hit someone else with their elbow. Soon there was a cacophony of accusations and pushes and even thrown drinks all around them. Poor young Holly Alto was left in the middle of it, desperately trying to calm everyone down.
“Would you people please think of the kittens?!”
Her cries went unheard. And as the fight took almost everyone’s attention, another much more perilous situation sparked behind their backs.
Vanja noticed it only because she started to wonder why the rest of her group hadn’t caught up with her yet.
Novak cursed when the cameras went dark. It seemed to be a malfunction of some sorts. What was suspicious was that it seemed to affect just the cameras in the garden, where all the guests were. Had someone turned them off on purpose? That was odd. One would have thought that the Altos wouldn’t want any guests stealing the silverware and getting away with it or something. Still, only when the sounds of a fight drifted all the way to where he stood a safe distance away from the Alto mansion did he start to really get worried.
What the heck was going on in there?
He reluctantly left his safe spot and started walking towards the Altos’ backyard. It would be fine. He’d appear to be just some random passer-by who had been lured in by the sounds of rich jerks fighting. No one would even pay attention to him, if all went well.
Novak reached the hedge that surrounded the yard and the manor, and saw that his allies were mostly not involved in the argument that had broken a bit farther away. He skulked closer and tried to make his presence known to Death as well as he could without actually making a sound. He wasn’t sure how it would work, but he figured that if Death could talk in his head all the way in Bridgeport, he’d probably notice him hiding just a few metres away too.
And he did. Tad turned his head, and Novak managed to mouth “What’s going on there?” before he noticed that Tad and Amelia weren’t alone. There were two men in their company, and one of them turned around when he noticed that Tad wasn’t entranced by the commotion. The man saw Novak, and Novak definitely saw the man.
There were many moments in Novak Sanguine’s life when he acknowledged that he had done something very stupid. But there were only a few instances that he actually, honestly regretted.
This, as he would decide after his brain had stopped panicking enough to form coherent thoughts, was one of them.
His panic lasted only for a second, but that second was enough for the man’s eyebrows to furrow very menacingly.
“It’s you!” he whispered loud enough that Novak could hear, “Brent.”
At the sound of the fake name he had given to the crime boss he owed all that money to, Novak bolted.
Tad was just about to go and catch up with Miss Leifsdóttir, but he stopped to look back at Mr. Sanguine when he realised that the man had left his hiding place. It was clear that the commotion had made the man curious, but why hadn’t he just used the hijacked cameras or whatever it was he had promised to use? Maybe they didn’t work. Maybe that had been why Fate was there. Maybe Fate had caused all of these… distractions to happen to begin with. For what reason, Tad couldn’t know for sure, but he had a feeling that it had a lot to do with Fate’s distaste for Tad’s recent choices in life.
Mr. Sanguine’s lips moved to form the words:
“What’s going on there?”
Before Tad could answer, Mr. Beagle, the man on whose hands Tad could sense the blood of dozens of people, turned to look at Mr. Sanguine as well. The man stiffened, and all the connections between the two made Tad come to one conclusion.
And it was that they were having the worst luck at the moment.
“It’s you!” Mr. Beagle whispered, “Brent.”
At once, Mr. Sanguine started running away.
“Get him!” Mr. Beagle snapped to Mr. Arkwright, who nodded and started running after Mr. Sanguine.
“Wait, what?” Amelia exclaimed, “Jay! What are you doing?”
“Is everyone going crazy here?” asked Miss Leifsdóttir, who had apparently forgotten that she should have been pursuing the Deacons, “What’s the meaning of this?”
Mr. Beagle smiled, all the people he had murdered in his life reflecting in his eyes.
“Oh, don’t worry, ladies,” he said in a saccharine tone, “There was just someone sneaking up on us… probably going to rob everyone or something. I think I’ll just go and call the police. Right now. Really, no worries.”
He pushed past them and towards the manor. The squabbling people were finally calming down, and some of them glanced curiously at Mr. Beagle, but didn’t otherwise hinder him.
Miss Leifsdóttir watched the man go with narrowed eyes.
“So, I know we probably shouldn’t start yet another scene here, but that man is so up to something.”
“Yes,” Tad said, “He knows Mr. Sanguine, and sent his bodyguard after him. And he is not a very law-abiding person.”
“But you are right, we should not confront him here. And I doubt he wants to start anything either around all these people. Are the Deacons still here?”
Miss Leifsdóttir glanced at the crowd.
“They slipped through the band of idiots when they started fighting. I think they’re gone.”
“Could you still make sure?” Tad asked, and then sighed, “Though I am quite sure you are right. I cannot feel any blind spots here anymore…”
He looked at the shadows where Mr. Sanguine and Mr. Arkwright had disappeared into.
“I will go and find Mr. Sanguine. It is my fault he got into this mess, after all. And uh… maybe you should call the police. I doubt Mr. Beagle will really do anything of the sort.”
“But…” Amelia protested weakly, “I… okay. Just be careful.”
It was still quite confusing yet touching that Amelia kept worrying about him.
Amelia watched when Tad started running. When he was far away into the quickly falling darkness, he disappeared from view. Amelia guessed that he had probably teleported. Other than that thought, her mind was numb. Jay was working for a criminal? She knew that first impressions weren’t always right, but Jay had seemed so… nice! It was just so hard to believe that he’d be… no, he couldn’t be that bad. Maybe this was all just a misunderstanding. She needed to talk to Jay. Get clear answers.
“Sooo…” said Vanja, breaking Amelia from her trance, “We aren’t going to let them just run off on their own, are we?”
“You mean… we should go help them?” Amelia asked.
Vanja rolled her eyes.
“No, I was thinking we should take pictures of their daring escape of course I meant we should help them!”
“No need to get snippy,” Amelia huffed, “Okay, let’s check that the Deacons are really gone, and then call the police, and then… hope the others haven’t got too far.”
She also hoped that things hadn’t gone too wrong by the time they got to the scene.
Author’s Note: I feel like I’m playing chess with my characters as pawns in these kinds of chapters. I had to really think about where everyone is and where they go and how it all works and it’s just… gah! It’s difficult, and while I kind of like the end result this time, I’m not sure if it’s actually any good! But at least there’s some excitement or something. I don’t know. And I got to write people crashing a fancy party and that’s always fun! Also this is the second to last chapter in my chapter buffer so soon I have to actually think where I’m going after this whole mess has been sorted out…
I hope you have a lovely time!