On Ash and Blood

12

12

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 skin 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. Her issued tent was dwarfed in comparison to the primary command tent right next to hers. However, it had enough space for a single Sundowners investigator's necessities to work with in comfort and silence: a desk and a bed. 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.

As she entered her private tent with the three boxes in her grasp, she was stunned at what she was seeing before her. Right in front of her desk, standing tall at six foot one, khaki trench coat, black trousers and sparkling black oxfords. Puffs of smoke emanating from his face, 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.”

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

“Oh, what’s your case?”

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. As she walked closer to Investigator Keller, she noticed her desk was emblazoned with printed pictures and documents—Keller had also drawn a timeline across her wooden desk… she’d hoped the marker wasn’t permanent.

“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. “I also thought it might have something to do with Brother Andrew's disappearance, so… I was thinking we could exchange any info we have.”

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

Nathan cut her off before she could finish her question. “I snooped around your laptop. Hope you don’t mind.”

“It’s encrypted.”

His face turned into a bowl of perplexity stew, with pieces of disbelief garnished with a pinch of disappointment. “Please.”

“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 in Brother Verulus’ chamber.”

Connors inspected the pictures closer. Various bible verses were written in 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 clearly read.

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

“Yeah. Just waiting on the confirmation.”

Upon looking closer into his eyes, Connors can’t help but notice his pained expression. Nathan had also tried to avoid direct eye contact ever since he arrived and when he did. He was clearly in mourning—mourning from their last deployment together.

“Listen, Keller, about Prague-”

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

“I’m just saying—if you need anything… I’m here.”

Nathan took a deep breath, and looked her in the eyes. They were glistening, as if he was close to his breaking point. It was clear that he appreciated Connors not only as a partner but as a friend as well. Back when Keller was working with her as her mentor, he kept the fact every single partner he had always worked with ended up dead away from her—and that he'd object the Division Commander repeatedly, requesting for him to work alone again. With him personally reaching out to her, informing about his case and requesting her help, even beyond words, is a fresh change of pace… and it made her happy.

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

Keller put on a desperate expression and sighed. "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. His pupils dilated and his gaze became razor sharp—like a stalking tiger making its final move on its prey. He gritted his teeth—like he was sharpening them.

“He’s in. Let’s go.”

“Wait, now?”

“The suspect won’t be waiting for us to catch up. Grab your jacket.”

She sighed and groaned in frustration, giving up all hope for just a little rest. She picked up her sweat-drenched blazer and put it 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 he could be during his hunts, Keller always had the tendency to do something rash in his bouts of blood lust. Thankfully, Connors was there as his trusty advisor.

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

“No, just because they promoted you to a senior investigator, doesn't mean you have the skill level.”

Connors took offense to Keller’s response. “What… I'm sure I can handle myself; I learned everything I know from you, Keller.”

“Looking back these past 2 months…" Keller smirked. "I don’t think so.”

“I think I did well back then!”

“Ah, denial. One of the reasons I still outrank you to this day.”

Connors groaned in frustration and took a deep breath. “Well, then what should I do?”

Keller looked back at her, one command in mind. “You be the good cop.”

As Keller entered the tent, he was halted by an ASF guard. Once he showed his MST Sierra-8 badge, all was well. Connors followed suit just behind him. One of the personnel directed him to chamber 4, with Brother Verulus inside waiting for questioning.

The “interrogation chamber” was not sound-proofed. Hell, even the tent had holes and tears around it, leaking inside conversations to the outside world. Well, they had to make do with what was available at the time, so they needed to get used to privacy violations. 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 detained? Are you here to interrogate me?” 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 unlocked the handcuffs and 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 Connors 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 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 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.”

“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.”

In the meantime, Keller was sitting down, all silent—trying to read and observe Brother Verulus' tone, his subtle facial expressions and his breathing pattern. As far as he 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 Brother 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 Brother 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 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 true identity of Brother Navarro, his house address and his workplace.

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

“What is your name, dear?”

“Connors. Kelly Connors.”

“I want you to have this.” Brother Verulus took his cross 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. The blessing had put Connors’ mind at ease, soothing 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, pain and longing in his eyes.

“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.”



On Ash and Blood » At Road's End

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