On Ash and Blood
Infobox
Canon: Baseline
Series: Sub-Vesuvia
Canon: Baseline Series: Sub-Vesuvia

tagnone

1

1



PROLOGUE





The gentle waves of the bloody Tyrrhenian Sea rocked the hull of the ANV Magdalene’s Tears ever so gently back and forth. This relatively old Authority deep-sea survey boat was sure to just rip itself apart any day now. The seasickness had passed shortly after they left the Port of Naples but there was still this uncomfortable dangling sensation, as if a piece of vomit had managed to lodge itself in her throat.

Investigator Kelly Connors had attempted to wash it down repeatedly with the ships purified water reserve. This ship was stocked with supplies to last at least three months at sea, so being liberal with supplies was never really a concern.

A large cataclysmic event was detected by their surveyors at exactly high noon today. They would have gladly informed headquarters, only if it weren't for The Ping that had knocked out most of their electrical components. The Ping itself was… unique, to say the least. It had traces of increased memetic activity just like how a regular anomalous entity would show up on the sensors. But this… this was a million times more potent than what they've ever seen and the following EMP blast suggested of an artificial origin.

They were thankful however, the engine was not affected by The Ping, so at least they had lights, warmth and a comforting white noise. Unfortunately, the event had an adverse effect on the elderly: The Captain, Chief Cook and the Master-at-Arms all fell ill just shortly after The Ping.

Kelly overheard some of the crew conversing in Italian. She did not speak a word of it but she did manage to, however, pick up specific keywords and extrapolating the context and their tones. Most likely, they were discussing—or even debating—whether this cataclysmic event was related to the happenings over at the Mt. Vesuvius monastery. Operation Sub-Vesuvia was over six months ago—the fear of dangerous anomalies wreaking havoc upon populated cities had practically gone.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the crew, she had partaken in the investigations during her time up in the monastery and around the ancient city of Naples. Normally, she would have been sent straight back to her home, receiving the operation debriefing and her subsequent paycheck upon arrival. But here she is, six months later, aboard a rustbucket lost at sea. The reason? Now that would be a hell of a story to tell.

She was sitting down in the mess hall on a moistened cushion seat in front of a weathered, yet sturdy, oaken dining table. The room was dimly lit with only a single incandescent light hanging on a wire, gently rocking back and forth. There sat several other crew members, including the Chief Engineer, a Deck Hand, the Third Mate and an approaching Boatswain.

“We’ve only got whiskey. We haven't restocked on that Arabica.” The Boatswain offered her half a glass of fine Tennessean whiskey.

“Oh, that’s… that’s fine, thank you.” She took the glass from his hands and downed the liquid in one fell gulp.

“Want a refill?” He offered, face looking a bit impressed with a splash of concern.

“I shouldn’t but… okay.” She reached out her glass.

The Boatswain poured a sizable amount of the precious fermented malt into her glass and she downed it with a single gulp just like the first time. She thanked him and elected to be alone with her thoughts once again.

He sat down on the chair across from her. He looked at her face, scanning for her expressions. “You’re not an Authority documenter, aren't you?”

Panicked, Kelly articulated a counterargument. “What, of course I am… why-why'd you think that?” And maybe the 40% alcohol content had clouded her judgment.

“I saw you at the Port of Naples six months ago. You were talking to Diego Navarro.”

Kelly was puzzled. “I… don't know what you're talking about. Besides, how could you even remember that far back?”

“Navarro was my close friend. When he didn’t return home the next day and that little incident at the Dipartimento di Psichiatria, I knew it had something to do with you… and I remember faces very well.” The Boatswain answered.

Well, it looked like her cover’s blown. Nothing she could do about that. “God… dammit. Alright fine… I’m a Sierra-8 investigator.”

The other crew members present all turned their heads in sync. Just seconds later, they now have their full bodies turned to her direction, attention included.

“W-what?” Kelly started to feel unease.

“You were at the mountain… Right?” Asked the Boatswain.

“Yeah… I was.”

The crew moved their seats closer to her. They all had this… relaxed yet curious expression on their faces and bodies.

“You want to… you want to know what happened?” She asked.

They all nodded.

She sighed and took a deep breath. “Alright.”

It was nearing 5 o’clock on a late Friday morning underneath the ancient volcanic roots of Mount Vesuvius. Fog, light drizzle the usual cold crept up the skins of the Authority personnel, who had just raised the temporary command tents and barracks. Whirring of gigantic helicopter blades filled the calm night skies and the flood lights illuminated the basecamp like it was the Fourth of July. Italian lend-leased main battle tanks and armored vehicles were driving in and out—some heavy artillery pieces were airlifted through the utility helicopters. Armed ASF personnel with guard dogs were seen marching around the outer perimeter of the camp.

Investigator Connors parted a lock of her blonde hair and wiped the sweat off of her dark face with her trusty handkerchief. Her sharp navy suit was drenched in sweat—fortunately, the dark color had masked the stains. She was just standing right in front of her private tent, waiting on the final shipment of her documents and intel necessary for her investigation. She had exhausted all of her energy during the day just to organize her workplace; her true work in The Order of Saint John's monastery was yet to start. Not long after, the hardworking Authority couriers riding in a hulking Humvee dropped off three cardboard boxes with her name on it. Finally, rest.

She stopped right on her tracks just a few feet into her tent. An electrifying pulse, a static discharge throughout her body; a sudden vacuum in her trachea; five extra pounds suspending from her knees and elbows. Right in front of her desk, standing tall at six foot one, khaki trench coat, black trousers and sparkling black oxfords. His position just below the low-hanging single ceiling light in the middle of the tent casted a long shadow from the desk all the way to the doorstep. Facing away from her, with puffs of smoke emanating away from him, filling the room with a fog thicker than outside's. The smell—Turkish blend cigarettes. His short black hair, his light skin tone, his broad shoulders and his sturdy, upstanding posture… she knew exactly who he was.

“Keller.”

“Connors.” He replied simply, not bothering turning around to face her.

“I… thought you transferred to homicide.”

Connors rested the boxes on top of the canvas bed on her left, took her blazer off and threw it onto the chair on her right. She walked around the table, focusing on Investigator Keller's head. The calm, undisturbed smoke obstructed most of his face—she directed her gaze to her desk before the smoke had a chance to dissipate. The desk was emblazoned with various printed pictures of unknown faces and zebra-crossed documents—Keller had also drawn a timeline across her plastic desk… She'd hoped it wasn't permanent.

“I did.” He replied concisely. “I was tasked here.”

“Oh, what’s your case?”

He took a long drag from his cigarette before resting his hands on the desk, leaning in closer into the lightshaft and only revealing his big blue eyes and his sharp, chiseled jaws. A friendly face? Far from it. He refused to move even a single muscle to show the slightest expression. He was just utilizing his mouth to talk… Nothing else. Like staring into a mannequin.

“Brother Aldo Niccoli. Fifteen stab wounds, died from blood loss. Bible verse markings all around his body. Liver temp' suggests the time of death was somewhere around one to three AM, this morning.” He handed her a picture of the scene. “They had an idea that it might have something to do with Sergio Andrew's disappearance, so… I was tasked to take over this case.”

All information regarding Brother Andrew was for Connors’ eyes only. Bewildered, she asked. “Keller, what do you-”

"Sorry, it wasn't my idea." Nathan cut her off before she could finish her question and handed her a piece of paper from his breast pocket, detailing his assignment order to her case. “I also snooped around your laptop earlier. Hope you don’t mind.”

Assignment order… signed by Colonel Bacall… Everything seems to be in order—couldn't argue with that. “Well… any leads?”

“The markings on his body is a paste made out of olive oil, cymbopogon and myrrh. We had every single room in the monastery searched just an hour ago. Those exact ingredients were found…" He pointed a picture of a senior man off to the far side of the table. "…in Antonio Verulus’ chamber.”

Connors inspected the pictures of the scene closer. Various bible verses were written with the paste across Brother Niccoli’s back, some had been diluted with his own blood to the point it’s no longer legible. John 4:4, Corinthians 2:11, James 2:19 among others she can barely read.

"I take it you've already done your research on Sergio Andrew?" Asked Keller.

"No, actually, I was just finishing setup here."

"Hmm." A simple reply. A disappointed hum. It sounded… almost like a growl.

Connors pulled a picture of the stab wounds closer to her. The multiple stab wounds across his torso piqued her interest. Quick and shallow stabs, concentrated on the left side of Niccoli's corpse. Suspect was right-handed, with a crude and weak method. She'd know more once the autopsy results came in.

"But I do know he was with Niccoli the night he was murdered."

"Hmm." He hummed in agreement while taking another drag on his cigarette. "We'll know more once we talk to Verulus."

“I take it you had him processed for questioning?”

“Yeah. ASF should be picking him up right now; Just waiting on the confirmation.”

She glanced into Keller's face once more. Still displaying the same static expression… although upon a closer look, she found that his eyes are reflecting the light far more distinctly than usual. He had this subtle sigh every time he took a drag from his cigarette. He also tried to avoid direct eye contact with her since she got into her tent—always staring on the desk.

"Keller? You okay?"

He glanced at her eyes all but for a fleeting moment, as if he wasn't happy to see her face. "I'm fine."

Clearly not fine. She tried to talk to him about it… “Listen, Keller, about Prague-”

Keller cut her off, moving his head away from her and with it, his peripheral vision. “Save it, Connors. I said I’m fine.”

…and it came out like she was prying. “I’m just saying—if you need anything… I’m here.”

Nathan took a deep breath, and braved himself to look her in the eyes for the first time. They were glistening—close to his breaking point. It was clear that he appreciated Connors not only as a partner but as a friend as well. What happened back in Prague had… exhausted his faith and trust in people… Completely. It has been almost half a year since she last saw him in Prague. With him personally reaching out to her in person, informing about his case and requesting her help, even beyond words, is a fresh change of pace.

Connors reached out her hand. "So… partners?"

He looked at her open palms, then back at her face. He squinted his eyes just by a few degrees. There was this… look of disdain and reluctance on his face. Him being here, taking over Connors case wasn't his own original idea. She was sure he'd rather be somewhere else if he had a say in it. He looked back at her open palms again, seriously considering his choice to trust her.

"One last time." He said, shaking her hand.

Not long after, his phone rang. As he looked into the glass screen, his expression changed drastically: Blood rushing back into his pale face, turning it back into the usual tone; pupils dilated and his teeth gritted—like a stalking tiger making its final move on its prey.

“He’s in. Let’s go.” He uttered, before quickly darting out of the tent.

She sighed in frustration, giving up all hope for just a little rest. She picked up her sweat-drenched blazer and put it back on. Connors recognized his behavior—storming off into his objective, not stopping for anyone or anything. Nathan Keller was a predator—and the hunt had just begun. Regardless of how fierce and calculated he could be during his hunts, Keller always had the tendency to do something rash in his bouts of bloodlust.

***

“You sure you don’t want me to conduct the interrogation?” Asked Connors, concerned about his mental well-being.

“I'm fine, Connors.”

"You're clearly tired, let me help you." With the natural light, the fine details of Keller's face was illuminated and with it, the dark bags under his eyes. "Did you even sleep last night?"

He took one last drag from the stubby cigarette before dropping it on the muddy grounds. “Did you?”

"I… Look, just let me have this one."

He stood just in front of the entrance to the Processing Tent. "I said, I'm fine." He said, while chivalrously holding open the tarp for her.

Connors sighed and non-verbally admitted defeat; Keller was clearly annoyed and it was pointless to argue with him in a bad mood. She did what she was told and walked in. As Connors entered the tent, she was halted by an ASF guard. Once she showed her MST Sierra-8 badge, all was well—Keller followed suit just soon after. One of the personnel directed them to Chamber #4, with Brother Antonio Verulus inside waiting for questioning.

The “interrogation chamber” was not sound-proofed; the "walls" separating the interrogation chambers did not stretch all the way up to the ceiling. Hell, even the tent had holes and tears all over its outer skin, leaking inside conversations to the outside world. As if the badly-maintained tent wasn’t enough, the “door” to the chamber was only a piece of plastic. This was not an interrogation tent, this was a repurposed barracks tent. Nevertheless, Keller and Connors entered the chamber and went on with their business.

They entered Interrogation Chamber #4. In it, a man in his late sixties sat on a cold steel chair, handcuffed to the table. He was wearing black robes with purple accents, bearing the symbol of The Order of Saint John's cross. His old and wrinkled face had a thousand yard stare—hoarding visions, experiences and wisdom of ages past. He spotted Keller's silhouette with his decaying eyes.

“Am I being arrested? ” Cried Brother Verulus in his thick Italian accent, visibly disgruntled with his situation.

“Calm down, we’re all on the same side here; this is just a simple questioning.” Keller sat down on the chair in front of him, telling him sweet lies, hoping to get him into a cooperative mood.

"Can you at least unlock the handcuffs?" He bleated.

Keller stared at Brother Verulus for a few seconds, before he gave in to his own mercy. He signaled Connors to unlock the handcuffs. Luckily, the lock was universal, so she could unlock it with her own spare key.

“If this is really just a simple questioning, we could’ve done this at the monastery!” Brother Verulus said, rubbing his wrists.

“This is just a formality; we don’t want your… privacy to be violated. Now, we’re only interested in…" Keller threw a small picture of Brother Niccoli's dead and bleeding body on the table. "…Brother Aldo Niccoli.”

Brother Verulus sighed. “What do you want to know?”

“Well… let’s start with the markings. It was written in a paste made out of olive oil, cymbopogon and myrrh. Would you care to explain why…" Keller threw another picture on the table—this time, it was a picture of bottles and bags of herbs, lined up on a table. "…we’ve found those exact ingredients in your chamber?”

Brother Verulus took a deep breath. “That… paste, is an anointment used to prepare the righteous for battle against demons. It’s a long tradition, passed down through generations, even before I was born. But I assure you, I did not kill Brother Niccoli.”

Keller laid back on his chair, disbelief on his face. “Why would you anoint him?”

Brother Verulus countered him with another question. “I assume you know what we’re holding in there?”

“What about Brother Sergio Andrew? You know anything about him?” Connors asked.

“Yes, I anointed him too, the night Brother Niccoli was murdered… the night he disappeared.”

“Did he tell you anything about where he's going? Does he have a family in the town?”

“No, Brother Andrew was taken to our Order as a blind beggar; he said that his family was killed during a house fire when he was little. That's also how he got… blinded." Brother Verulus paused, rubbing his eyebrows. "He came to me that night with Brother Niccoli, asking to be anointed. I thought it was an ordinary request, that they were just preparing for the ritual… to keep the demons at bay.”

At this point, Keller would have shot her down and questioned Brother Verulus himself… but not this time. He was just sitting down, all silent—trying to read and observe Verulus' tone, his subtle facial expressions and his breathing pattern. It could also be that he was testing Connors' interrogation skills.

“And you allowed a blind man to partake in the ritual?” Connors asked.

“Of course, that's why Brother Niccoli was there. I’ve had my suspicion that one of the demons had killed Brother Niccoli. As for Brother Andrew… We never found him after the murder… I can only imagine the worst…”

“Well, is there any… demons that might’ve escaped?”

“No. We did a full inventory check right after we found Brother Niccoli’s body. That’s also when Brother Giuseppe contacted the Authority.”

As far as Keller was concerned, Brother Verulus had been telling the truth this whole time. The sincerity of his language, his word choices, the calmness of his voice… none of those traits belonged to a person who has something to hide. However, there was always a chance he was just good at lying.

“Where were you the night Brother Niccoli was murdered?” Keller intervened.

“I was cooking dinner with Brother Guillermo. You can ask him about it. I would provide you with CCTV footage but, heh… we can’t afford them.” Said Brother Verulus sarcastically.

Keller leaned closer to him, eyes locked. “I’ll hold on to that statement.”

“Does Brother Niccoli have enemies? Anyone who might have a motive to hurt him?” Connors asked.

Brother Verulus’ forehead shrunk, recalling memories of ages past. “Brother Niccoli and Andrew were very good friends, so I doubt he had anything to do with his murder. But… two years ago, Brother Navarro had a big argument with Brother Niccoli. It caused Navarro to leave our order."

“Did you catch the conversation?”

“I’m not sure. It was at the dead of night.”

Keller was getting more and more restless; none of the information Brother Verulus had been spewing out of his mouth for the last ten minutes had been of any use. Keller ran his fingers through his hair, repeatedly, trying to ease off his irritation. "Alright. Tell me everything you know about Brother Navarro." Keller asked.

"Well, he's a member of our Order–was a member of our order. He handled outside communications, like rejecting your representatives' offer for aid… or even just buying groceries for the month. His name is Diego Navarro, he was twenty-seven years old when he left the Order. When I asked Brother Niccoli the morning after he was ousted, he told me that Brother Navarro was trying to sabotage our work, so he had him exiled."

Keller's heart quickened. That sounded like a plausible motive for someone to kill. Even after two years, someone who was cast out at midnight, stripped of their titles and honors could very much come back to take revenge. His finger muscles twitched, giddy with excitement.

“Can you at least tell us where Brother Navarro is?”

“Of course, he still writes us letters asking to be brought back. He now works at the Port of Naples.”

Keller lightly slammed the table, showing excitement. “Finally, a good lead. I’ll put out an APB on him.”

Keller walked out of the chamber with his phone up to his ear. He hastily contacted Authority assets within Italy, instructing them to find out the details about Brother Navarro's life; his house address, his workplace, his day-to-day routines, everything.

Connors stood beside the plastic sheet hunched with her arms crossed in total silence. She hadn’t noticed Brother Verulus standing up and walking towards her.

“What is your name, dear?”

“Connors. Kelly Connors.” She answered, slightly startled.

“I want you to have this.” Brother Verulus took his necklace off and handed it to her. “Let me bless you with the Lord’s strength.”

Brother Verulus chanted some Latin words while holding her hand. It was weird and unexpected at first but she eventually went with him. She had no idea what he was saying but the tone of his voice… soothed her emotions.

“Thank you. Why are you doing this?”

“You remind me of my daughter. She would be your age by now.” Brother Verulus said, looking at her like she was his own.

“Connors, let’s go.” Keller called.

It was clear that Brother Verulus lost his daughter—and possibly several members of his family. Was it death? Was it abandonment? Or did Brother Verulus just decide to leave? Leave it all behind so he might dedicate his life to serve the Order of Saint John? Connors had many theories.

Brother Verulus made one last blessing, to both Keller and Connors. “Go forth with God, my child.”

=
***
/=

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 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 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 was no reason to rattle his chains like so.

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 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 fake smile on his face.

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

On Ash and Blood » Hellion's Conduit

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License