Chapter 13 is very…I don’t know how to say it. I guess you could say that three people dead or seriously injured in a chapter is pretty bloody. Well, at least I didn’t make it as graphic to make it rated 18. So one of our major characters will take a leave for maybe forever – who is it? Enjoy the chapter!
Deus Ex Machina
13 – Orbis non sufficit
Michael remembered his talk with Erin not too long ago at midnight, just as she had told him to do. Erin snuck out of her room stealthily, padded along the cold grass bare-feet and seated herself calmly at the garden bench by a small artificial pond, panting from exhaustion and relief that no one – especially Jenny – hadn’t caught her. Lotuses gazed up at the full moon that showered them with magical moonlight that made them look beautiful even in the dead of night, where not many could see these lonely flowers swayed ever so gently on the surface of the water. Crickets called for their lost soul mate, chiming their signature music like many church bells on a Sunday. If Erin strained hard enough, she could make out the whispers of the wind and the soft snoring of trees.
Meanwhile, Michael climbed down the tree house ladder and trudged sleepily towards the garden. His memory of the mansion was vague but the path towards the centre of the garden was still clear as day to him. He remembered spending his time with the younger Naitt children in the garden because they were not old enough to go to the tree house. If his memory was right, there was a miniature pond sprinkled with pastel pink and pristine white lotuses crowned on forest green lily pads. Beside the pond stood a cherry blossom tree and not too far away from it was a party of multicoloured wisterias, where the benches were situated at. Form the bench during springtime, you would be able to observe the petit scenery whilst being showered with wisteria petals that fall like angel feathers.
Michael saw the budding cherry blossom tree and walk on towards the flowering wisterias where he could make out a slight figure of Erin, who looked up when she heard his footsteps approaching. “You are late,” Erin deadpanned.
“I’m not.” A pause. “Okay, kinda. But at least you didn’t freeze to death!”
“It was freezing,” Erin said, “but that aside, we need to talk. Sit down.” Erin patted the space next to her and scooted an inch away from it to make more space – as if Erin was not small enough to make room for two more people. Michael took a seat and watched the lotuses dance in tiny steps above the water, the wind accompanying them in a silent orchestra. “Should we start now?” Erin enquired.
Michael shrugged, “Anytime you want, I guess.”
Erin nodded, “I want to talk to you about Cornelius. Don’t worry – Dea had removed the bugs in the garden not too long ago, before our pact was broken. This place is as safe as in the next city, unless Cornelius is out there eavesdropping.” Erin’s dark eyes scanned the garden while she was saying this. Her eyes reminded Michael of Ace and Jenny’s, and many of Jenny’s other children – darker than the abyss but holding a mysterious glint to it.
“It’s not related to our topic,” Michael said, “but why did you die your hair? Brown was not that bad.”
Erin paused for a moment. “My hair was dark brown, actually. I thought it didn’t suit my eyes, so I have decided to keep it as dark as my eyes. Besides, many favour this look more,” Erin shrugged nonchalantly. “They said it suits me more, being a sneaky introvert and all.”
“You’re like the opposite of Ace,” Michael commented.
“But like a twin of Timothy.” Erin didn’t miss the twitch of Michael’s eye when she mentioned her brother’s name. “I apologise for his past actions; I admit, he was not a very pleasant person.”
Michael nodded distractedly, “Yeah, no – it’s okay. It was a long time ago.”
“Moving on, I am pretty sure no one is here to listen to us so let’s proceed.” Erin clasped her hands and placed them upon her lap, a gesture she had adopted from Jenny when she’s being dead serious. “First of all, the thing you said about Cornelius having something to do with Zach is correct; it seems like he’s planning to eliminate Zach in order to achieve something. I guarantee you the purpose will be absurdly selfish. And how do I know this? This part is interesting.
“One day, I wandered off to Zach’s study for a bit of reminiscing and while I was skimming my hand on his desk, I heard a weird beeping sound at the bottom of the desk. Out of pure curiosity, I pulled the beeping object, which pulled a wire that opened a trap door that led to a stash of documents. They look like any of Zach’s other documents but what made me curious was the fact that the whole thing was written in Latin. Out of everyone in the current Naitt family, I’m the only who understand Latin fluently; the others’ skills are mediocre if not beginner. From what I have read, Cornelius has collected data of Zach’s usual activities inside and outside the town, as well as Zach’s business status before and current. There were also photographs, mainly of Zach but there were also of the others like Mum, Deanna, Annette and Ace. There were those of you and Brian, too. And of those close to you.”
Michael grew uneasy when Erin mentioned his and Brian’s name. The feeling intensified when the thought of his mother came to mind. The piercing fear he felt then was nothing compared to the pikes that tear through him when he received the message. Nevertheless, it was a terrible feeling.
Erin continued describing her investigation. “They were of our everyday activities, complete with accurate predictions of actions we’ll take based on our personalities, which were described with precision. Our talents, educational skills, and physical and mental capabilities and weaknesses were also taken into account; mine, yours, Brian’s and Vivianne’s skills ranking are at the bottom. Take note that I’m beneath Abel and Deanna while you are second to last.” Erin smirked impishly.
“I am not that weak! I’m, like, Randy Orton’s successor!” Michael exclaimed.
“I would love to rub that fact on your face for as long as this case lives,” Erin mused.
“You wouldn’t. Continue, please,” Michael huffed.
“Back to the rankings, Cornelius is planning to make some of us join his side, and these people are Ace, Annette and Nicky, Annette’s sister, because their skills were ranked the highest; Hiero’s was second but he was left out because, though he’s gullible, he must not be underestimated. Dea and Abel were also good choices but their loyalty to Zach must not be ignored.” Michael listened intently to Erin’s report but when she had stopped at that, he looked up, bewildered. “I truly am sorry, the rest of the document was written in an undecipherable code; Cornelius must have predicted that there will be a slight chance that I might read through his documents.”
“Oh, alright, then,” Michael nodded, “So…what now?”
“I say we must be on guard. Make sure you don’t do anything that will endanger your family or anyone close back at the outskirts.” Erin made Michael stare deep into her dark eyes, urging him to swear not to do anything. He promised. “Good, now you can go back to your slumber. I need mine, too.” Erin left without a word after that, yawning frequently as she made her way towards her room.
* * *
Ace was not the oldest Naitt child in the current Naitt children circle. In actuality, Vivianne was the oldest, followed by Annette, then Deanna and Abel and then finally him, Arthur Marcus Naitt (better known as Ace). Zach’s affair with Annette’s mother, Tammy Waters, was two months before the Peters incident. When Jenny had found out about the pregnant Tammy Waters, well, she was not pleased. Ace was five when Jenny had found out about Annette. The pure rage she showed that day was as clear as a fresh left hook to the temple. Vivianne was off the hook because she was adopted into the family by a Grandma Rae, so Jenny had no say in what to do with her.
And then Ace would wonder how furious Jenny would be when she one day finds out about his involvement with Cornelius – worry-anger is always bitter-sweet, right? Ace had to rethink about that because he remembered the silent roar of Jenny’s anger when he once went home with bruises the size of Russia. The next day, the upperclassman who bullied him moved out of the country because their parents “got a transfer due to promotion”. His mother was an author and his father was a doctor.
To add to Ace’s budding fear, there was Pietro Naitt, their estranged uncle. Jenny did not exactly hate Pietro; it was just that his trouble could someday be the death of her. Jenny would do her best to stay as far away from him, but according to the maids Jenny would sometimes meet up with Phillipa for a girls’ day out. She would also give gifts for both Pietro and Phillipa, usually consisting of household necessities and treats like fine wine and patisseries; behind Jenny’s spiked mask was a gentle girl.
But that didn’t mean that Jenny would help Pietro in whatever scheme he was planning. Ever since Phillipa’s kidnapping, Jenny had made it clear that if Pietro was to start any foolish charade, it will be Jenny’s hands that will squeeze the life out of him. Sure enough, Uncle Pietro got the point.
Ace stalled in his path when Erin walked up the set of steps in front of the house Uncle Pietro resided in. “Guys, you do realise Jenny will seriously kill us all if she finds out,” Ace said.
“Uh, yeah, we do. And since when did you become such a sissy?” Michael rolled his eyes exasperatedly.
“Since forever. Now let’s get in and get it done with!” Annette said impatiently. Erin nodded and knocked on the door to signal their arrival. At first there was no answer but just as Erin was about to give another set of knocks, the door was wretched open by Pietro, sending Erin stumbling past him and into the house. Michael suppressed a snort, and Annette bit her cheek whilst elbowing Ace to tell him not to snicker so loud. An amused grin grew on Uncle Pietro’s face, making his look a tad bit younger and more suitable for his age. “Hello, sir,” Annette greeted, having difficulty in remaining placid, “I assume you are aware of our presence?”
“Yes. I was the one who talked to Ace about bringing you all here,” Pietro said, “Come inside, then. Erin, it’s not nice to throw daggers at people, dear.” Erin ripped her glare from her siblings to look at her uncle. Everyone was right – he looked like her. Except that his hair was naturally black whilst hers was died, and he wore black contacts whilst her eyes were naturally dark (Erin could tell because of her experience around Vivianne and her aeon-long lecture about contact lenses and fake lashes).
The children filed in to the living room where they were all seated comfortably on any form of seating object; they’ve left a certain armchair so that Pietro could sit with them. Phillipa called out from the kitchen and asked what they would prefer to have for their drinks. All answered water. Pietro walked into the kitchen and exchanged some word with Phillipa before he walked back into the living room, taking the vacant armchair, legs crossed and leaning back as if he was at an interesting showcase. “We have not much time to talk about things so I’ll make it brief,” Pietro started.
“I’ve heard about Brian’s death and I’ve visited his death, first of all. Second is that Cornelius’s plans are working too fast for our good. Currently, he had successfully created a distraction as well as lowering our strength and motivation. I don’t know what he’ll be doing next but I need you to stay on guard. How many of you are aware of the documents in Zach’s study?” Erin and Michael raised their hands up – Annette and Ace shook their heads. “I don’t need all of you to know it – Erin can tell you the necessities. And have you unbugged the mansion?”
“Dea had done that a long while ago, but I think there might be some unidentifiable bugs still lying around the house,” Erin said.
“And that’s why you’re all here. Well, with the graduation coming up, there’s not much you can really do, with some of you moving out or being rarely home. But, you can help by doing research outside the box.” Pietro leaned forward, uncrossing his legs and resting his elbows on his knees. “See, Cornelius is a dead man. No one believes in his existence anymore and that’s what makes him a dangerous man. He can do anything without anyone’s consent, and then he’ll blame it on whoever he wants. But there is a way to make us see a ghost.
“Cornelius is likely to reside in this town but his precise whereabouts are unknown. You have to look out for elderly men that may seem suspicious – heck, look out for anyone that seem suspicious. Next, you’ll need to decode the contents of the document. Here is a list of possible code deciphering techniques.” Pietro pulled out a piece of paper from his pockets and places it on the table. It was filled with notes written in neat but miniscule handwriting. “Try these and if you still can’t decode it, contact me; I’ll be here for as long as I’m needed. The contents we can read in the folder might be a diversion. We need to know what that folder really contains in order to stop Cornelius.”
Pietro settled back into his chair when he had finished with his explanation. He gave a big sigh and called for Phillipa. “Honey, we’re done now. You can bring the food out.”
Phillipa walked in on cue with a tray of biscuits and teacakes and four glasses of water. “It’s not much but enjoy it, dears,” Phillipa said, flashing them a welcoming smile.
Though Phillipa was a very kindly and passive lady, an eerie air hanged around her – maybe that was Pietro’s influence. Even now, she was wearing an oversized sweater when it was clearly warm outside. What was she hiding? Nevertheless, everyone could easily relax around her and bring up a carefree conversation when her presence is nearby.
But the children took only one biscuit each, feeling tired and alert all at the same time that it frustrated them. Meanwhile, Pietro retreated to the kitchen with Phillipa. He casted a backward glance before he spoke, “All clear?”
“Not sure. I can’t see anyone out there but I still feel uneasy,” Phillipa said, biting her lower lip in worry.
“You’ve unlocked the escape route when something happens, right?”
“Yeah.” Phillipa leaned closer to Pietro, resting her head on his shoulder. “Pietro, I don’t really what’s going on. All of these things frustrate me and I just wish we were not involved in the first place.”
Pietro hummed thoughtfully and stroke her head affectionately. “Just a while more. Just a while more and we’ll go back home, okay? These kids need our help. Zach needs our help. He might be an annoying douche most of the time but he’s still my brother, and I love him.”
Phillipa snorted, “And I thought you were cruel.”
“I thought that, too.”
“But it’s only what people believe you to be. You were never cruel – you were just playing your part. Like Erin.”
Pietro stopped his caressing. He looked back at Erin, her small figure hidden amongst her other siblings. Her gaze was always downward but her posture held a no-nonsense frame, just like her mother. She was a sickly little girl who would be suitable for a punching bag, but she had that silver tongue and tough trickster attitude that could send a T-Rex crying back to his mamma. Everyone was right – she was just like him.
Phillipa stepped back and smiled at Pietro. As if she had read his mind, she said “See? Just like you.”
Pietro smiled back and stepped forward to reach for her –
The kitchen window smashed open with a loud crash. Phillipa jerked forward violently as if someone had just punched the air out of her lungs. Her eyes were wide, her mouth agape in surprise, but she was not responding. Pietro stood there in silence. Phillipa fell into his arms.
Two small objects flew through the window – one hitting Phillipa on her right shoulder and one hitting Pietro’s left side, a few inches above the heart. He stumbled backward, attempting a retreat, but another bullet drove through his right side, the bullet that missed Phillipa’s head by a few millimetres. But her scalp was still bleeding profusely – a scrape. Another bullet scraped the skin off his neck and another nipped off his right ear. The couple fell into a bloody head on the kitchen floor.
His consciousness was threatening to fade away. He could still feel the soft material of Phillipa’s sweater and the sweet fragrance of her honey brown hair –
Is she alright? Is she still breathing?
He could feel the blood bathing him in sickly red – his head spun and felt as if it will float away from his battered body. Everything spun and blur – it looked like the view when you ride on those spinning cups – he remembered how Phillipa would squeal whenever they spin so fast. He could hear her squeal at the back of his head, the image of her grinning face etched behind his eyelids.
No. Stop. Wake up!
Pietro Hadley Naitt, get a hold of yourself! There are matters more important than dying!
Pietro snapped his eyes open, regretting the motion when he felt bile rising up. The comfortable and familiar weight on his body made his eyes sting. He placed a hand on the nape of her neck and hauled in a long breath. Pietro turned his head towards the living room.
There, the children were crouched low. Annette was screaming for her dear life, her ears covered and eyes snapped shut. Ace held Erin close, covering her form with his bulk like a protective duvet. Michael’s eyes were wide and unfocused, his hands gripping his hair too tight, too frantically, too desperately. Bullets were screeching and hooting everywhere. Objects broken, glass shards flying like fallen wisteria petals in the wind, whizzing and whistling coming from every direction – they were ambushed.
Ace! Ace! What’s happening?! Who is –!
Guys, keep low! What the – oh my gosh! Uncle Pietro – hey, are you okay?!
No where’s safe. I should’ve known. I should’ve known.
Pietro sucked in coppery air and hollered as loud as he could. “Arthur! Get them – cough – get them out! Arthur!”
Ace looked up. His mouth was opening and closing like a dying fish out of water. No time for objections. “Arthur! Get. Them. Out!” There was a few milliseconds of soul searching and debate, with Pietro shooting venom from his eyes and Ace pleading with all he had. At long last, Ace nodded, eyes full of regret. He gave a last salute before he grabbed the Naitt children by the collar and dragged-crawled them out of the room.
Dragging the three other people were easier than Ace had thought – the others were too stunned to comprehend what was going on. Once he had gotten to a deeper part of the house, Ace stood up and dragged the three roughly towards a room of what seemed like a make-do study, boxes with books stacked neatly in a corner while a half-filled – or half-empty – bookcase stood in a corner, overlooking sullenly out the window.
Ace dropped the children to move the bookcase to the left, revealing a hidden door tall enough to fit a hobbit. He jerked the door open, turned towards the others and barked “All of you – get in! And don’t look back once you get outside. Run on until you’ve reached home.”
Only Annette responded, nodding her head frantically, and then tugging Michael’s and Erin’s shirts towards the open passage way. Annette crawled in first, followed by Erin, Michael and lastly Ace, who made sure no one followed. And to make a promise to Pietro that he’ll carry on their duty.
The cramped passage way led to the back of the house where it was shadowed by bushes and brambles. Annette looked both ways first before signalling the others to dart straight towards town. Ace ushered Erin and Michael when they were slacking or were distracted by the ongoing tirade of gunfire. Ace thought about Pietro and Phillipa’s fate – were they okay? The two were bleeding like a leaking water bed, slowly deflating into pathetic-looking pile of meat suits. He restrained himself from looking back, or even try to get back to the house, since his efforts might bring danger to his siblings, or could end into something pointless.
Ace heard a sharp yelp from ahead. He looked up and spotted Annette on the ground, clutching her ankle with a steel grip. Michael took the liberty of pulling her to the shadows while Erin stayed close to her, trying to inspect her injury. Ace skittered closer to the others and looked at Annette’s ankle.
Annette hissed in pain, clawing at her calf and shin to try to direct her attention anywhere but her ankle. Ace gingerly picked up her foot and inspected the swell, suggesting a sprain. Annette’s toes would curl in and spread out in response to the pain. Ace clicked his tongue and told Annette to climb onto his back. Reluctantly, Annette obliged. “Only because we’ll be full of holes, otherwise I’d choose to crawl,” Annette murmured heatedly.
Once they were settled, the children went out of their temporary resting post and sped down the slope, none daring themselves to see their pursuers. The sounds of destruction had faded into nothing more than a vague drum march, leaving them nothing but the faint smell of atrocity and the sharp, throbbing wound of loss. Their sprint slowly turned into a jog before they finally dropped to a stroll. Michael was first to stop, head hung low, giving the others an image of a pale forlorn ghost. Erin came up and rubbed his back soothingly, urging him to know that none of these was his fault – if they were to have someone to blame, it would be Cornelius. On Ace’s back, Annette willed herself not to tremble too much and to stifle her sob and tears; if Ace had felt the tremors and the wet puddles on his shirt, he had ignored it. It seemed as if mourning had become a regular activity for the Naitt children.
“…We should head back,” Michael rasped, voice rough from his attempt to hold his ragged soul upright.
Ace nodded in agreement and then added “And treat Annette…And we should take a break from all of this, while we’re at it –”
“We can’t rest, Ace. Anyone in a battle would never let their enemy rest,” Erin snapped, “All we can do is bide our time before another tragedy is executed, but that does not mean we can have all the spare time trying to escape reality – this Hell is reality, Ace. Our family is in danger. We’re in danger. There is no tree that can provide us shade. We can’t be sure that everyone is our ally.”
All was silent at that. Realisation dawned on everyone’s face – this Hell is reality. Anyone from their family could perish in any second of any day, and they would not be able to stop the deaths unless they continue to try to stop its source. After all, you get rid of weeds by pulling them to their roots.
Erin shoved Ace roughly, making him stagger back a few steps and nearly dropping Annette. Erin may be rational and cool-headed most of the time but her temper could match that of Jenny’s, and subsequently Ace’s – she would throw some blows if her top was to be blown off. He huffed a sigh and tried to calm her down. “Erin, really, I’m sorry for even thinking about dropping the case. I mean, I’m only worried about everyone’s well-being…” The rest of his sentence trailed off as Erin’s head collided with the blood-stained concrete pavement loudly.
She was shot.
Ace’s tongue was dry and heavy on his mouth.
Michael could do nothing but freeze and stare.
Annette’s mouth was locked in a silent scream.
His body reacted before his head did. He would apologise to Annette later for throwing her off his back haphazardly. Michael stepped in to catch her, gripping her body for his dear life.
How? There was no sound. Silencer? Where is the killer?
Without hesitance, Ace brought his sister’s body close to him. He shook her shoulders violently – nothing. Warm blood trickled from her back, bathing both of the siblings in deep scarlet. Ace couldn’t hear a thing. He felt his mouth move – he could make out Annette’s sobbing figure and Michael’s terrified look from the corner of his eye – but all was deafeningly silent. Erin’s chest rose and fell slowly, but not for long, Ace thought.
He hauled Erin up and sprinted down the path. Blood deafened his senses. He didn’t make sure if the others followed – his sister was dying.
“Hey – hey, Erin,” Ace gasped and panted, trying to keep his sister awake, “Erin, hey – can you hear me? I – I’m sorry for bringing that up. Brian’s dead now because of Cornelius. I don’t want anyone else to go – especially you. You know why?” There was no response, but Ace continued as if Erin was there.
“R-remember that time Timothy and I fought?” Ace choked back a lump in his throat and gulped in air before he talked. “Our siblings blamed it on me – they said I was just a dumb kid and will always be. Our half-siblings were too afraid to stand up for me. But you were there.” Ace reached a crossroad. The pedestrian light was red but he continued on. Honking cars and crude curses didn’t stop him – he talked on. “You have always were. Do you remember it? The prank you pulled on Timothy?” Ace let out a broken laugh. “It was the best – we even took a picture of his face and paraded it around the web. You were a genius. Some may hate you for being different, but I love you for it, for being able to bravely tell the world that you were not afraid of being hated.
“You have always been the stronger one, Erin.
“Why aren’t you rolling your eyes right now?
“You’re not teasing or beating me up, either.
“Don’t leave me.”