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

5

5

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 when 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 tot he 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-t-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.”

On Ash and Blood » At Road's End

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