At Road's End

13

13

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 an embarrassing piggyback down to the valley of Mount Vesuvius and a couple of catcalls coming from the tankers directed to Connors, Keller drove straight down to the Autostrada A3 highway 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. It made Connors sad that these innocent civilians are completely oblivious to 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 was clearly not gold, silver, platinum, nor was it encrusted in diamonds, rubies and emeralds… No, it was just a bronze cross, pure and simple; although it did bear a few Latin scriptures on its side. She found herself fidgeting with it in the car, completely oblivious to their situation.

“Wait, I thought you’ve put out an APB on him, why are we driving there?”

“Well, once I was told they already have his exact address and workplace, I figured we’d meet him personally, you know, try not to spook him. He should be just finishing up once we get there.”

“Right.”

Keller glanced over to Connors’ hand, spotting the bronze cross. “What you got there?”

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

“Ah.”

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

“Blessed you?”

Connors sighed. “Go ahead and laugh.”

“What, you think that’s funny? You know we keep actual demons back there, right? We’d need all the help we can get.”

“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 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 his car, Connors took off her blazer and rolled up her sleeve. 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. Sure, they can meet him in his house but Keller was not the kind of person that had an extended amount of patience in his heart. 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 limited knowledge of Italian, Keller asked. “Sto cercando Diego Navarro, lo conosci?”

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

“Ok, grazie.”

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

“You never told me you spoke Italian.” Connors said to Keller.

“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. 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 nationalities and their posture. It was like watching a deer caught in the headlights.

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

Keller took a brief pause and nodded.

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

“What happened between you and him?”

“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 Brother 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…” Navarro took exactly three steps closer to Connors—leaning in uncomfortably close, 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 light the fuse of a bomb. “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.”

“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 seemed surprised. “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 lying during their conversations but somehow… Connors knew. She just knew, even before the last bit about the handshake. Was it instinct?

Keller blew a hard sigh. “I’m hungry, are you hungry? Come on, let’s get something to eat. I know a good restaurant near here.” He said, patting Connors’ shoulder.

Connors sat silent on the drive, not even opening her mouth for small talk. No attempts to force 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, Connors never even bothered to look up—she just stared out the window.

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

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 on the door. They sat down at the table, wrapped in white. 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.

She took a deep breath. “Navarro was lying.”

He chuckled. “No shit. I already have his immediate relative 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 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 the case—Keller can see it in her eyes.

“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.”

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

She wanted to ask him a question—something quite… contentious. “I’ve always wondered…”

“Yes?”

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

Keller gave her a bitter look. However, he simply sighed instead of interceding her like last time. “What?”

“How did you do it?”

Keller’s foot bounced under the table. He slowly looked all around, avoiding eye contact with her. “Do what?”

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

Keller swallowed his phlegm and with it, his anger. “Common enemy.”

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 like she was shivering in the cold.

“Nathan, I am so, so sorry… about Lea–”

Keller slammed the table, leaning closer to her, pointing his index finger at her authoritatively. “Don’t you mention her name, ever again.

Connors couldn’t lie to herself that she wasn’t startled. She couldn’t lie about being surprised either, seeing on how she brought this on herself. She poked the tiger too much and now it was clawing her. She caught herself gripping onto her chair like her life depended on it. Luckily, there weren’t any guests coming in since their arrival—and the waiters weren't around to see, anyway.

Keller reclined back into his chair, arms lowered. “Just… please, take your mind off of it and just…” He took an ocean trench-deep breath and let out a massive sigh. “…enjoy the night.”

She was more than happy to follow his advice and she made it her primary goal for the rest of the night. She was here on his hospitality, so there were no reason to shake his chain like so.

Not long after, the redheaded waitress came to their table with their order on hand. Keller got himself a hot plate of medium-rare steak, complete with his favorite sauce and a side of puffy mashed potatoes. As for her, she got a plate of authentic Italian lasagna; just her favorite. The waitress also filled their wine glasses with a serving of Italian Cabernet Sauvignon.

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

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

He raised the glass up into his nose, smelling its delicate aroma before taking a small sip of it. “The Italians make 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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