At Road's End

4

4

Infobox
Canon: Baseline
Series: Sub-Vesuvia
Canon: Baseline Series: Sub-Vesuvia

With the sun setting fast, Keller and Connors made their way to the Port of Naples in Keller’s trusty standard-issued sedan. The muddy soil initially gave some traction problems but there was nothing that a tow from an Italian C1 Ariete main battle tank couldn't solve.

After quite an embarrassing piggyback down to the valley of Mount Vesuvius, Keller drove straight down to the Autostrada A3 highway. It should lead directly to the Port of Naples in the northwest. The scenery along the way was gorgeous: Mount Vesuvius towering over the city on their right, with the sun illuminating the gorgeous red soil, now setting beyond the bright azure waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea. The nightlife in the city was just starting—people coming down to bars and clubs and into the beaches after a hard day at work. If only these people aware of what is currently happening just a few kilometers away from them…

Connors was fixated on the bronze cross necklace Brother Verulus gave her just a while ago. There was something about it that captivated her. Of course, it clearly wasn't made out of gold, or silver, or platinum—nor was it encrusted in diamonds, rubies or emeralds… No, it was just a bronze cross on a bronze chain, pure and simple; although it did bear a few Latin scriptures on its side. She found herself fidgeting with it in her hands, completely oblivious to her surroundings.

With a jolt of reality kicking in, Connors asked. “Wait, I thought you’ve put out an APB on him, why are we driving there?”

“I figured we’d meet him personally, try not to spook him. He should be just finishing up once we get there.”

“Right.” She replied concisely, still fidgeting with the cross.

Keller glanced over to Connors’ hand, curious as to what she had in her grasp. “What you got there?”

“Oh, Brother Verulus gave it to me, said I reminded him of his daughter—late daughter.”

“Ah.” A simple reply from Keller.

“He also uhhh…” Connors hunched down on her seat. “Blessed me.”

He turned his head to her, bewildered. “Blessed you?”

Connors sighed. “Yeah, I know. Weird.”

“Considering the context… I don't think it's weird. We're dealing with actual demons here.”

“Yeah, I… I guess so.”

They arrived at the port just after sunset. Navarro’s shift had ended just a while ago, made evident with a large number of blue-collared workers leaving the port. Keller parked his sedan in the harbor parking lot, right next to a white pickup truck. He left his trenchcoat in the car and Connors was planning on following suit. However, she had forgotten the fact that she had her service pistol strapped onto her right hip—and it immediately cancelled her decision. As such, she simply rolled up the sleeves of her blazer. Considering it was the onset of winter, the night over the city was rather hot at the moment.

Keller was fully aware that there was a chance of losing Navarro in the crowd. He intended on reducing that chance to near-zero, so he did what any reasonable people would do: ask others where Navarro was.

He walked up to a random worker walking towards the exit. In his expansive knowledge of Italian, Keller asked. “Sto cercando Diego Navarro, lo conosci?”

“È su quella gru.” He replied, pointing to a harbor crane.

“Grazie.”

Keller then made his way deeper into the harbor, with Connors on his side always. Kelly once again found herself holding onto the cross, fidgeting with it subconsciously as they walked, so she elected to wear it around her neck and inside her shirt, as to not interfere with her ability to draw her pistol.

“You never told me you spoke Italian.” Connors remarked.

“Yeah, I’ve visited Italy too often—picked up a few along the way.”

They later found themselves under the shadow of the gigantic harbor crane, standing tall with four legs in its shining yellow skin. A man wearing a reflective safety vest and a yellow hardhat was seen descending the crane through the tall ladder. He was shouting words to his colleague upstairs as he descended. Connors could only wonder what they meant…

Navarro stopped in his tracks and shouted a few more Italian words. Judging from the tone, he was most likely arguing with his colleague. Keller could not wait any longer, so he shouted Navarro’s name—and it caught his attention, as expected. He glanced back at Keller while still hanging on the ladder, before shouting one last strong word upstairs and continuing his descent. Finally, he was back down on the surface of the Earth.

“Come posso aiutarla?” Navarro asked.

“I was told you speak English, Mr. Navarro.” Keller said.

He wiped off the sweat off of his eyebrows with the towel he had wrapped around his neck. “Well, your sources are correct. How can I help you folks?”

“Are you familiar with Aldo Niccoli?”

Navarro froze on the spot, his face filled with suspicion. He squinted his eyes, moving his gaze from Keller to Connors—back and forth while inspecting their outfits, their skin color and their faces. Almost like they were being screened at an airport.

“I take it you’re with the Authority?” Navarro asked, voice far lower than what he had been speaking before.

Keller took a brief pause and simply nodded.

Navarro took a deep breath, put his chin down and sighed. “Finally.”

“Alright, I suppose introductions are necessary. We just have a few questions. What happened between you and The Order?” Asked Keller.

“Oh, the reason I left? Well. I told them that we shouldn’t reject your offer for aid and they scolded me for it. Said I was… ‘deviating from The Order’s teachings’.” Navarro started to get emotional—his body bounced, trying to contain his temper. “That night, I was planning on going to the town to contact the Authority but Niccoli stopped me and he had the nerve to accuse me that I was… sabotaging their work!”

“Well, were you?” Connors asked.

Navarro moved his gaze to Connors, confusion and animosity smeared all over his face. “Of course not, miss. I’ve dedicated my entire life to The Order—I wouldn’t want those demons roaming around just as much as you do…” Navarro took a few steps closer to Connors—leaning in closer, locking eyes with her. “…but they are too blind to notice that we are growing more and more powerless!”

“Mr. Navarro, are you aware what happened to Brother Niccoli?” Keller intervened.

Navarro was still fixated on Connors’ gaze. “No, why?”

Keller took a deep breath, preparing to pull the pin off of a grenade. “Brother Niccoli was murdered, just yesterday.”

Navarro turned his head around, face turning pale and blank. He took a brief pause and parted his lips, trying to get a word or two out. Failing, he made the sign of the cross while reciting Latin blessings. The position of his fingers while making the sign was unlike anything Connors had ever seen before. She knew the teachings of The Order of Saint John originated from the ancient times but she didn’t know it was that old.

“I hate to ask you this, Brother Navarro… where were you last night?” Keller asked.

“I was at home, watching the football game with my friends. If you need to ask them, I will provide their contacts. And please, don’t call me Brother Navarro, it’s… it’s not who I am anymore.” Navarro said with grief in his voice.

“Mr. Navarro, you should come with us, we can offer you protection.” Connors said.

“That’s generous of you but… I would like to stay.”

“I understand. If we need to contact you-”

“You know where you can find me, yes, I know. Thank you so much for your help.” Navarro reached out to shake Keller’s hand.

When it was Connors’ turn to shake his hands, Navarro immediately retracted his hand at the moment their skin touched. He was visibly agitated. “You got a shock there, mia signora.” Followed by a chuckle… a nervous chuckle.

Navarro wished them a good night before heading back to his colleague just under the crane. There was something about him that piqued Connors’ interest. As for her observation, he never showed any signs of deceit. His language is precise, face muscles relaxed and eyes poised. But somehow… She knew. What was that last bit about the handshake?

Keller blew a hard sigh. “I’m hungry, are you hungry? Come on, let’s get something to eat. I know a good restaurant not far from here.” He said, patting Connors’ shoulder.

***

Connors sat silent on the drive, not even opening her mouth for small talk. No attempts to initiate a conversation from Keller either, since he just loved the silence. Even with the bright neon lights of downtown Naples shining their warm lights on her face, she never even bothered to look up and bask in its charm—she just stared out the window… at nothing.

They later arrived on a cozy little Italian restaurant named “Ristorante Amici Miei”. Keller parked his sedan just out front. He had made his way out of the car but Connors was still there dead silent—still staring at nothing. It was only when Keller walked around to her side and knocked on the window that Connors finally snapped back to reality.

After being greeted by the host, it wasn’t very long until they get their own seats. By the looks of it, the restaurant had just opened, so there weren’t many guests inside. They sat down on cushioned chairs, just in front of a round table wrapped in white cloth, topped off with a lit candle. Connors was now aware of her surroundings but she still wore the same blank face since exiting the car.

A young redheaded Italian lady approached their table with her notepad and pen ready. “Buona sera. Cosa posso fare per voi?”

Keller took the freedom of ordering for both of them, as he knew well what Connors liked. “Prenderò una bistecca al sangue, con purè di patate. La signora prenderà una lasagna.”

“Che Vino sceglie?”

“Cabernet Sauvignon, per favore.”

And with that, Connors was still sitting dead silent. However, her hand started slithering upwards to her neck. Once she reverted to holding onto the cross again, Keller got visibly concerned.

“What’s wrong with you?” Keller asked.

Five seconds after he asked the question, she replied. “Navarro was lying.”

He chuckled. “No shit. I already have his immediate relatives and his landlord’s contact info; I’ll follow up on them first thing tomorrow morning. Just take your mind off of it.”

“It’s a dead end.” Connors remarked, fixing her posture on her seat.

She took his advice and shook her head, trying to clear her mind. She rubbed her temples a couple of times before succumbing back into the darkness. However, this time, it wasn’t because of Navarro or the case—It was something else entirely… and Keller can see it in her blank brooding face.

“So… how are you liking being a Senior Investigator?” Keller asked, trying to make small talk.

“I don’t know, Keller. I have you here, still bossing me around.”

“Yeah, when this is all over, you won’t have to worry about me. Ever again.”

By the looks of it, his mood has lightened rather quickly. Keller was visibly more engaging with Connors these past two hours, with small talks and lighter tone in his voice. Still a dull expression on his face but it was obviously a sweet addition to the night. However, she feared that his lightened mood would not last to dawn, as she wanted to ask him a question—something quite… contentious.

She took a deep breath and focused all of her attention to him. “I’ve always wondered…”

“Yes?”

“Back in Prague?” Her heart quickened, anticipating his reaction.

A 5 ton wrecking ball right through Keller's face. A complete facial reconstruction. The light had just blown off. “What?”

“How did you do it?”

He slowly looked all around, avoiding eye contact with her. “Do what?”

Connors breathed ever so slowly, trying not to make a sound. It almost felt like choking instead of inhaling fresh air. “You’ve rallied The Syndicate with the Authority's Czech Branch… how did you do that?”

“Common enemy.” He said, slowly looking all round.

She wanted to go on with her questions but her other half said that she really shouldn’t. She could feel her lungs contracting and expanding faster than before. She was close to hyperventilating. She blinked her eyes six times, just to oil them. Her jaws rattled lightly as if a mass of arctic ice had just appeared in the room.

She hunched down to the table. "I… I should stop. I'm sorry."

Keller saw through the locks of blonde hair right to her partially-enclosed green eyes. Her rattling lips… fear? No, grief. Both of which emotions that are not supposed to be instilled by his presence. With the silence, he reflected right back inside. What would she grieve for? Him? Keller thought to himself—she shouldn't grieve for anyone nor anything; what happened then wasn't anyone's fault. Did she think that he had blamed her?

That was where he put two and two together—she was just looking after him. All of their work together, every case, every arrest, every gunshot… not once did he ever glanced her the slightest smile. It was time to talk. He wanted to but what happened then… was too painful to him.

"And also a common friend." Keller said, bottling up his anger and sorrow.

Connors pulled her head back right up, visibly confounded. "Wha… what?" She asked.

He paused for a moment, trying to give the impression that he was reconsidering his decision… "Veronica. I don't think you've met her. We go all the way back." but he already made up his mind.

"Oh… I'm… sorry, I don't think I've… met her." She stammered, trying to make sense of the situation.

"Shame… She would've liked you."

"What-what was she like?"

He raised his eyebrows, slightly shook his head and rattled his lips trying to get some words out. "Oh, black hair, brown eyes, round face, slim build, average weight, average height…"

Connors cracked a crooked smile. "…That's a police description."

Keller took a moment to relish her new expression. The guilt's gone, that was what mattered at the time. "Well, she…" He stammered, failing to make out the words. "Let's just say that you two would be best friends."

Connors pressed her lips against each other, not sure whether to flash a smile or not. She took quite a lengthy pause before taking a long breath. "Keller, I can't imagine how much pain you must be going through…"

As she continued to reiterate her consolations, Keller sat down on his chair, just looking at her mannerisms. She was hunched down, shoulders narrowed, forearms retracted and rested on her thighs and only at the rarest of times braved herself to move her eyes to look at him.

"Just say it, Kelly." He intervened her.

She looked back up, lips parted. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry about Lea."

Nathan should be consumed by rage at the mention of her name but somehow, right now, he couldn't even lift a finger. "It wasn't your fault."

"No… I'm sure there was another way. And… I shouldn't have let you do it."

"There weren't any. It wasn't her and I knew it. I did what I had to do."

"I'm sorry, Keller. For everything."

"Stop apologizing." Keller covered his mouth with his palm, eyes watering. "Death did us part. What's done is done."

Connors couldn’t lie to herself that she wasn't sharing his grief. Losing the light of your life like that—twice—would break even the most steadfast of man. She couldn't say that this was the first time she saw him break down in front of her this hard. Luckily, there weren’t any guests coming in since their arrival—and the waiters weren't around to see, anyway.

Keller took the napkin on the table and wiped his eyes. He held the napkin up to his nose and reclined back into his chair. “Clear the table; wine's here."

The redheaded waitress came back to their table with a bottle of wine in her grasp. She presented the bottle to them before taking a corkscrew in and and around, popping the wooden cork open. She took the liberty of filling both of their wine glasses resting the bottle on their table ever so gently, making sure not one drop spilled on the pearly white tablecloth.

“C’è qualcos’altro che posso portarle?” The waitress asked.

“No, è tutto, grazie.” Keller replied, with a forced smile on his face.

He raised the glass up into his nose, smelling its delicate aroma before taking a small sip. “The Italians makes Cabernet Sauvignon better than anyone else.”

It was amazing how fast Keller’s mood can change. Maybe Connors can still learn a thing or two from him.

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