WARNING: This chapter contains gun violence and blood.
Novak had to give this to the guy Beagle had sent after him: the guy was a fast runner. That didn’t make him feel much better about his situation. In fact, it just made his lungs sting. He considered himself pretty good at escaping, but right now he had been taken completely by surprise.
How bad could his luck be? What twisted string of events had brought him and the crime boss he owed money to into the same party, thousands of kilometres away from the towns both of them mostly spent their time in? The universe had to be out to get him.
And he was right, in a way. Though in this case, he was also right in his other observation that he was just a pawn in this all.
He had made his way from the Alto manor to the science centre located near the edge of the town, and the bodyguard was still on his tail. He needed to find a good spot where to turn into the woods and disappear. But he needed to get a bit farther away from his pursuer first. He quickened his pace and ran past the science centre, towards the cemetery that lay almost in the woods near the town. Maybe he could lose the guy there. Maybe he could-
“Good to see you are still alright.”
Novak had to stop when his heart skipped a beat. He stumbled a few steps and then put a hand to his chest.
“Frickin’ hell… stop doing that!” he turned to look at Tad Dustpine, who had appeared seemingly out of nowhere next to him.
“Sorry. But this was the easiest way to catch up with you.”
That made Novak’s brain work again.
“On second thought, don’t stop teleporting. In fact, take us out of here right now!”
“I would rather not. Not right in front of the man who is after you. He is catching up remarkably fast.”
“Shit!” Novak broke into a run again, and sensed more than heard Tad starting to run as well.
“Well, could you at least do something?” Novak hissed, “Like… I don’t know, shake their souls around for a bit? Brandish a scythe at them?”
“That would be rather extreme,” Tad mused, “Besides, I am not exactly… allowed to save anyone from mortal peril. Unless it is caused by me or someone like me.”
“This is happening at least indirectly because of you!”
“Hmm… I suppose it is indeed direct enough that I can do something. If it makes you feel any better, you are very unlikely to die here, actually. If you keep running, that is.”
“Oh, that is not helpful!”
“And as long as you realise that Mr. Arkwright is trying to cut us off at that intersection.”
Novak assumed Mr. Arkwright was the man they were running from. He turned to look to his right and indeed saw the man running there. He must have taken a detour just to get a jump on them.
“Damn it!” Novak muttered, “And I was just about to turn right here… okay, keep going forward. We’ll lose him at the cemetery ahead and make for the trees. Or, if we get an opportunity, hide and figure out a plan to take him out. And then hopefully get the hell out of here.”
“All right. Just try to keep it down around the souls. They do not like people disturbing their graves,” Tad kept a thoughtful pause, “So, what is the story behind these people wanting to kill you?”
“Really?” Novak grunted, “You want to discuss it now?”
“Does it have something to do with you driving that truck full of money into the ocean?”
“So you know about that, huh?”
“I have been around.”
“Figures. But seriously, this is not the time!”
The cemetery Novak had spotted from the distance was right ahead. It was appropriately spooky and worn-out, with an old mausoleum and way too many weeds completing its image as a convincing final resting place. It also hopefully had several exits they could use to lose this Arkwright-guy. Or maybe even a few convenient corners where they could surprise him. Novak just hoped that Arkwright wasn’t too heavily armed. The formal suit the man was wearing couldn’t really hide any big guns, but there were a lot of smaller weapons that could be just as deadly. Meanwhile, Novak had basically nothing. He’d used most of his few sunlight flashbangs back in Bridgeport. The only other weapon he carried right now was a small knife. And he was very painfully aware of the fact that they had no plan either.
They passed by the mausoleum and arrived to the more tended area of the cemetery. A large pond took up the centre of the place, and on the other side of it there was a large Grim Reaper statue.
“Huh,” Novak whispered, “Now that’s metal.”
“Thank you,” Tad said. Then his eyes glazed over, and he stopped moving.
“Oh, come on, not now!” Novak hissed, “This really isn’t the time to look at extinctions or whatever! Move!”
He had a feeling that Tad didn’t even hear him. And that Tad couldn’t exactly control his episodes of seeing somewhere else. They hadn’t really talked about it, but it was pretty obvious. Novak stepped forward to drag the not-kid somewhere out of the open, but froze when he heard footsteps nearby.
Crap. That guy is really fast.
“Come on!” he whispered once more, and then turned and slipped around the mausoleum’s corner and hid. A part of him felt bad for leaving his “employer” to distract a possibly armed criminal, but come on, it was the freakin’ Grim Reaper! What could anyone really do to him?
Besides, it was the kid’s own fault for spacing out in the middle of an escape.
Tad stared at the pond in front of him without really seeing it. A part of him remembered that he was in the middle of something rather urgent, but on the other hand, he was always compelled by his job. The cemetery had immediately become restless when he had arrived. The spirits were scared because Death so rarely walked among the graves. Their worries drew him back into his garden, and concerned faces of the spirits faded into view.
“All is well,” he said quietly, “I will make sure nothing will disturb you.”
The spirits crowded in front of him, worried about their resting places. Tad raised his hands to quiet their chatter. He knew only very distantly that he didn’t have a lot of time before… things would start happening.
“Yes, I know this is rather irregular, but I…”
He was brought back into the cemetery by the barrel of a gun pressing into his back.
“Okay, kid,” Mr. Arkwright said, “No sudden movements, alright?”
Well, it seemed he’d had even less time than he had anticipated.
It wasn’t just the sunset that was quick in Sunset Valley, Amelia noticed. The darkness fell quickly too. Not that she could focus a whole lot on the beautiful moonlit view beside her, or even the fact that they had found no trace of the Deacons at the party anymore. She was too worried and in a hurry to find Tad and Novak. She looked impatiently at Vanja. The sorceress had her wand in her hand, and she was constantly casting some sort of location spell that used the memory of energies or something.
“They went along this road… past the science centre… towards the… cemetery? Yes, that looks like a cemetery alright. And one I’m not banned from either. That’s good.”
“Why are you banned from graveyards?”
“Eeh… some people don’t like other people gathering ingredients from the wild, it seems. It’s their fault for planting such valuable herbs at the graves anyway… Now come on!”
They approached the cemetery cautiously. In the daylight, the place would have probably been soothing and nice to be in, but in the dark, especially with the possibility of danger, just the thought of stepping into the place was a bit scary. But it seemed that the trail stopped there, and if it meant they could end this… whatever was going on at the moment, Amelia would step even into a haunted crypt of nightmares.
When they reached the cemetery’s gate, Vanja suddenly dropped into a crouch and yanked Amelia behind the beautiful, old brick fence with her. She put her finger to her lips, and both she and Amelia peeked round the corner. What Amelia saw made her blood run cold.
Oh, Jay… why?
“Alright, Brent or whatever your real name is, this is your last warning!” Jay was shouting, “I know you’re still in here and I’m really tired of playing cat and mouse. Come out or I’ll shoot the kid!”
In his hand there was indeed a gun, and it was indeed pressed against Tad’s head.
“Did you know,” Tad said in an almost bored tone, “That asking nicely usually works a bit better than shouting.”
“Shut up,” Jay commanded, “Well? Will you come out or do I have to shoot?”
“I also think that using guns in a cemetery is in very poor taste.”
“Would you shut up? At the party you seemed like a shy, quiet guy.”
“I am, but this whole situation is just so… amusing, you know? And I do feel the need to point out that shooting anyone here would be-”
Jay turned to study another direction, pulling Tad with him. He tightened the grip his free hand had around Tad’s neck.
“I’m serious. Just. Shut. Your. Mouth.”
In her hiding place, Amelia turned to Vanja.
“We have to do something!” she whispered.
“Of course we do,” Vanja replied, “I doubt that gun is going to hurt him, but this is still quite an unpleasant situation.”
“Jay and I really got along the other day,” Amelia said, “Maybe I can talk to him. He can’t really be that bad…”
“No way! That’s a terrible idea!”
“Could you cast some kind of a… shielding spell to help, then?”
“Well, if you were stupid enough to try and I’d see him starting to shoot you, then yes. But that’s still a very idiotic idea…”
“Good,” Amelia said and realised that she had again entered that state where she wasn’t really sure what she was doing, “Then be ready.”
She stood up.
“Don’t-!” Vanja started, but then sighed. Before Amelia stepped into the cemetery, she heard something that sounded like a forehead gently hitting a stone wall, followed by Vanja’s voice muttering, “You are insane!”
Amelia walked three steps before Jay turned. His eyes widened at the sight of her. There was a strange feeling in Amelia’s stomach. Like someone had carved her hollow with an ice cream scoop.
“Jay?” Amelia said nervously, “What are you doing?”
“Amelia?” Jay replied, “What are you doing? Here, I mean.”
“I followed you. I just… please, put that gun down. No one needs to get hurt.”
“Sorry, Amelia,” Jay said, and he really did sound sorry, “Boss’s orders. I’m just doing my job. I really need to get this guy and I need something to lure him out.”
Amelia bit her lip.
“I didn’t know this was what you were doing when you said you were a bodyguard. How can you… I thought you were nice!”
“I am mostly nice!” Jay argued, “And before you ask, I really do like you and I wanted things to work out. You know, emails, phone calls, maybe even dates, and-”
“You’re pointing a gun at my friend!”
“True,” Jay sighed, “Damn it! It’s always my job that comes between me and the nice women!”
“I am sorry to hear that,” Tad said, “For what it is worth, you did really seem to… how do you say… hit it off? But as Amelia’s friend I think I too have to say that there really is no future in-”
Jay pressed his gun more firmly against Tad’s temple.
“I swear, one more word out of you, and I will shoot!”
“Don’t!” Amelia shouted, “Just let him go, and maybe Nov… the man you were after will come out!”
She pressed her palms together.
“Please, Jay! You’re better than this.”
Jay thought about it.
“You really think so?” he asked.
“Yes! Just put the gun down.”
Jay pursed his lips, and then, after a few agonising seconds, he pushed Tad away.
“Fine. Okay, Brent! See? Your friend can go if you come out!”
“Thank you very much, Mr. Arkwright,” Tad said, rubbing the back of his neck, “I have to say that this all is quite a new experi-”
A gunshot interrupted his sentence.
Blood splashed onto stone tiles, forming a macabre inkblot test. Tad slumped to the ground.
Tad’s pale eyes were unfocused, shimmering dully against the blood that flowed from the bullet hole in his head.
He wasn’t moving.
I mean, that wouldn’t make sense, right?
Death can’t die, right?
At least not like that, RIGHT?
Amelia found it very hard to breathe. Jay, whose gun was still unfired, looked over his shoulder.
Mr. Beagle was aiming a gold-coloured pistol over the cemetery’s wall.
“Um, hey boss!” Jay said, “Good of you to catch up.”
“Just in time to fix things, it seems,” Mr. Beagle said coldly, “I just hope the bastard hasn’t ran away while you were playing around.”
He stepped over Tad’s unmoving body, and-
He can’t really be dead!
-raised his gun again. This time Jay followed suit, and Amelia realised they were both aiming at her.
“Okay, here’s the deal,” Mr. Beagle said, “It’s now pretty obvious that we’re being serious here. Come out, Brent, or we’ll shoot the woman too! You can’t run forever, so you might as well stop now and maybe we can still work something out!”
In many respects, life was like a rollercoaster. It had its ups and downs. Sometimes things were exciting or went too fast, and sometimes it was just a bunch of waiting in line. And sometimes there was a malfunction in the tracks that either meant a complete stop, or crashing and burning. Now Amelia felt like her rollercoaster car had stopped right after a steep climb, about to start going down towards an unsteady-looking part of the tracks. She was teetering on the edge of the crashing and burning, and she could only hope that there was something that would help her out before it happened.
Her life flashed before her eyes. Or at least parts of it did. The seconds before things started happening again weren’t enough for the whole thing.
“Well?!” Mr. Beagle yelled again, “You’ve got three seconds.”
Before he could start counting, however, a gloved hand patted him on the shoulder.
“Excuse me, sir, but that is not okay.”
Mr. Beagle turned, and Amelia returned from her panicked flashback to the present just in time to hear the man yell in surprise and shock.
Because behind him stood Tad, with blood on his face and with a row of angry spirits behind him.
It was said that ghosts didn’t like it when their rest was disturbed. Guns and shooting at a graveyard was definitely disturbing. As was probably hurting the person who offered the spirits a home while they tried to find their way forward.
Amelia hadn’t seen a ghost in the real world in a long while, but at the moment, she really couldn’t even be shocked about them. On the other hand, Mr. Beagle was so surprised that he lost his footing and fell. Jay spun around when his boss yelled, and Amelia knew that it was her chance to help end this.
Before she realised it, she had stepped forward, and when Jay turned back to her, she punched the man in the face with a wild swing of the arm.
And in that shocked moment of Jay stumbling backwards and Amelia realising what she had done, Novak had sprung from his hiding place and tackled Jay to the ground.
Amelia found her voice:
“Oh, gosh, did I really do that?! I’m sorry!”
“Well, I’m not!” Novak grunted, swiftly twisted Jay’s gun-arm behind the man’s back and then hit the man’s head against the ground.
Mr. Beagle stumbled to his feet and raised his gun with shaking hands.
“Oh, you’re not getting away with this anymore!”
And then he was hit in the stomach with a flash of light that sent him back down. This time he didn’t get up.
Amelia turned to look towards the gate she had come through, where Vanja stood with a wand in her hand and a smug smile on her face.
“Hey, I couldn’t just sit there being useless forever, now could I?”
Amelia glanced at the two men on the ground, and her mind properly caught up with the situation. She slumped to her knees.
The night was surprisingly warm when they waited for the police. Still, Amelia kept her arms crossed as if to fend off cold. She could slowly feel the adrenaline and the fear leaving her body. It felt like she was only now beginning to realise that it was over.
Jay and Mr. Beagle had been put into a deep sleep by Vanja, and they apparently wouldn’t wake up until Vanja willed it. Amelia, Tad, Vanja and Novak had gathered near the rather eerie Grim Reaper statue in the cemetery, mostly because it was a spot where they could both keep an eye on the two criminals and be a safe distance away from them. Without their guns the two men were perhaps a bit more harmless. Still, if they woke up, things could get dangerous again. Amelia hoped that Vanja’s spell really worked as well as she claimed.
“So, I know things really didn’t go according to plan,” Novak spoke up after a long silence, “But I’m grateful it didn’t become any more of a disaster.”
“I’d say it was pretty much a complete disaster,” Vanja muttered, “The Deacons got away because of your stupid tangles with criminals!”
“Why do you even care? You’re just here as extra backup.”
“Some of us don’t like failures!”
Novak rolled his eyes.
“Well, Grimmy doesn’t seem too disappointed. Ain’t that right, Tad?”
Tad was sitting on the ground right next to Amelia. He leaned to the pedestal of the Grim Reaper statue and seemed quite carefree. Well, for him, at least. Amelia tried very hard to ignore the blood that was still on his face.
“I think that the Deacons were quite clever to avoid us. Of course, there was a lot of bad luck involved too… a little too bad, really. But I think they have earned the right to keep the stone for a while longer.”
“What?” Vanja snapped, “We risked our lives and you’re just letting them go?”
“Do you even really have an actual plan about any of this?” Novak chimed in.
“Oh, worry not,” Tad said, “I am confident that we will find them soon enough. And Mr. Sanguine, I think this is a good time for your first payment. I shall fetch it once we have talked to the police.”
“I have a feeling that money isn’t going to work anymore. I’ve really pissed Beagle off way too many times. But thanks. I’ll take it. And I can always hope the guy bites it during the milliseconds he spends in jail before he worms himself free with cash and connections.”
“I will let you know if that happens.”
Novak leaned to his knees.
“So… chin down and onwards to new disappointments then, huh?”
The sound of police sirens started echoing in the distance. Vanja stood up.
“Finally,” she huffed, “Come on, we should give the police our statements.”
Novak stood as well.
“Yeah, about that… I think I’ll go… be somewhere else when the cops arrive. See you later. And Grimmy, maybe you should get that blood off your face before you talk to the cops.”
Tad touched his cheek, which was still stained red with blood.
“Oh, you are right. I took care of the bloodstain on the ground, but I forgot about all… this. You go ahead, Miss Leifsdóttir, I will catch up.”
After Vanja was gone and Novak had disappeared into the bushes, only Tad and Amelia remained at the Reaper statue. Tad stood up, and then touched his cheek again. The blood disappeared as if it had never been there.
“Is it okay now?” he asked.
“Good. Are you okay?”
“Not yet. I was really scared back there for a second.”
“But you were still so brave,” Tad said, “And you handled yourself well.”
There was regret forming somewhere in his eyes.
“I am supposed to stand back and let people handle their own problems. But this… I did what I dared, and what I could. And I was confident that you could deal with it.”
“But it was you who got hurt.”
Tad looked at Amelia, a gentle smile on his face.
“I am sorry if I scared you. I knew Mr. Beagle was there, but I did not see the bullet coming. I did not have time to think what to do, other than ‘keep the focus of the gun-toting people on me’. But it is nice to see that the in-betweeners were ready to come to my defence, even though they fear me.”
“Did it hurt?” Amelia asked quietly.
“A little bit. It was strange. Usually I do not experience pain first-hand. But at least that means my nerve-endings worked. I spent quite a lot of time on them.”
“I don’t think these are the good kinds of human experiences.”
“But they are experiences.”
Tad closed his eyes.
“Even though this did not go the way we wanted, and even though I did not want to put any of you in peril, I am glad we came here.”
“Well, I guess it was a lot of… something at least,” Amelia said.
They were quiet for a moment. The police sirens had stopped, and footsteps were nearing the cemetery. Amelia smiled a melancholy smile.
“You know… this is really silly, but I honestly thought this would be like a fairytale. A nice party, some dancing, pretty dresses, and maybe a suitably epic confrontation. It… really didn’t go that way. Well, I guess some parts of it were epic, but not really in a way I want to see in real life.”
“I am sorry,” Tad said, “Things are usually more… messy than in the stories.”
“I know. I told you it was silly. And that whole thing with Jay… I was so stupid.”
“I think it all just sounds very… human,” Tad said, “Optimistically human. I do hope there was at least something that made this trip worthwhile.”
Amelia watched the starry night sky. Her hands had finally stopped shaking. Disappointments and lingering fear were still making her feel hollow, but at least she had got out of the malfunctioning rollercoaster. And it really was a nice night, maybe even nicer because of all that had happened. They were safe. They were alive. And among friends.
“I guess there was,” Amelia admitted, “For example, this moment right here.”
She took in the night breeze and the scent of flowers that decorated the graves. Roses, lilies, chrysanthemums, and forget-me-nots. She put her hand on Tad’s shoulder.
“I think we should go and help Vanja with the police.”
Author’s Note: Well, there goes my chapter buffer… and I’m not sure if Tad likes me anymore. Though how is one supposed to have an immortal, basically invulnerable and/or fast-healing character and NOT have them horribly injured/in a situation a normal living thing would be horribly injured or dead at some point?
The “You know about that?” – “I’ve been around.” -conversation between Novak and Tad was a reference to/ripped off from the old-ish Discworld Noir -game, from a part where the main character (a noir-ish private detective) interrogates Death.
Also Novak’s “Chin down and onwards to new disappointments” is a more or less direct translation from a Finnish idiom/saying that was popularised by some athlete. Yes, we’re a cheery bunch, I know. 😀