Celatrix Julianne Verna would have passed for a school teacher, if not for adornments of her office. She wore blindingly white robes, a silver and gold gryphon necklace, and a silver circlet holding down her slightly grey and exceedingly curly brown hair. Her role as Celatrix of the Ministrae meant she kept the secrets of Mercury’s Indigimenta, a book which included all the rites and names of gods met during Mercury’s travels. However, hers was a dual role, for she was also the Archeireus of the Templus de Ambros, charged with maintaining the spiritual health of the kingdom. She monitored the Ignis Fatui and taught the rites of Mercury. She had a bad habit of thinking before acting and nearly always acted rationally. Both behaviors caused problems during her ascendency. Problems which magically disappeared once she’d assumed her role as Archeireus et Celatrix Ministrae. All in all, she was a busy lady, laden with heavy responsibilities, and quite unaccustomed to receiving orders. At the opening of the gallery doors, she was blasted with the unbridled hostility emanating from Brimley and openly reflected by Santos.
“At ease,” Celatrix Verna ordered.
Though Santos was under no obligation to obey orders from the Celatrix, he immediately stepped into parade rest, with his feet shoulder width apart and his hands clasped behind his back. Brimley glared at Santos, then mimicked his actions. The young rector watched the exchange with mild interest, far more interested in watching Celatrix Verna handle the impertinent Merc.
“You’ve a message?” Verna asked.
“Colonel Dagon requests your presence,” Santos answered.
“Is that all?”
“All I’m allowed to say.”
“How very cryptic,” she said with a hint of amusement.
“My orders are to escort you to Colonel Dagon,” Santos said.
“And, what made him think that I’d drop everything I’m doing for a soldier who’s ignored every protocol we have in place?”
“You’ll have to ask him, Celatrix,” Santos bowed, “for I’m a lowly runner.”
“May I?” she asked while taking Santos’ hands.
She examined the front, back, and sides of both his hands. When she was thoroughly satisfied, she nodded to him. “Brimley, with me. Rector Jameson, make sure that a new duty officer is posted. Clericus Reston, maintain the post until your relief arrives. Young man, can you tell me how long I’ll be gone?”
Santos stared at her a moment, thought about it and shrugged. Then, with all seriousness, he said, “that will be for you to decide after you meet with Colonel Dagon.” He started to say more, but stopped himself. His orders were to bring her to the colonel, not to run his mouth.
“Two shots. Close range. Small caliber,” Marcia Silvan said, pointing to the entrance wounds. Her husband, Jason Silvan, held a ruler next to the wounds and snapped two quick photos. Together, they had prepared hundreds of bodies for burial, most died of natural causes. Even Kaiser Edward Imler had succumbed to nature—heart attack. “Damn it, Jason,” she whispered, holding back her tears, “what’s going to happen now? He didn’t have an heir. Why would anyone murder him? He was a good man.”
Putting down the camera and the ruler, Jason walked over to his wife. He wrapped his arms around her and murmured, “I don’t know, love. The Antigone’s got procedures for this sort of thing. I’m sure the Justices will find a solution.” He glanced at the silent guardsman who kept an unwavering eye on everything that they did. “Regardless, we’ve got work,” he squeezed her shoulder, and then returned to his camera.
The Inquisitor stood in the doorway of the warehouse manager’s office. The loft was created for the manager to have a bird’s eye view of the entire warehouse floor. From there, the Inquisitor could see Jougs strapping unconscious women into shipping crates. He could also see the open cold storage door and hear Vorant’s bone saw at work on the evidence. Thirty-two minutes since the duumviri’s arrival and still no Gaseleo or Butano. Without his entire crew, Plan A was shot to shit. No other choice but to act as if the team were compromised, which meant Plan B was in full force. Walking down the stairs, he thought about the loss of half his team. A set up? Adonis? He has to know that I’ll kill him. The meeting tomorrow…a trap? With half the team gone, there’s no way we can move the merch and cover the meeting. I’ll be there alone. Unless… Yes. That’s it. He smirked.
“Mr. Jougs,” the Inquisitor called, “when you finish with the cargo, get Mr. Vorant to help you move it to the loading dock. Go for Plan B. I’ll be back in an hour, there’s something I’ve got to handle.”
Glancing up, Jougs raised an eyebrow. Upon seeing the Inquisitor’s smirk, he said, “roger.” Over the years, Jougs had seen that expression plenty of times, though usually right before a session. That look meant someone was about to have a very unpleasant evening and the Inquisitor was about to get off on every second of it. Jougs had no qualms regarding the men he worked with. And, they had none about him. All were psychopaths with a penchant for torture, dismemberment, and murder. Jougs was certain none enjoyed their work quite as much as the Inquisitor. With the boss gone and his cohort busy, Jougs had time for a little extracurricular activity. While he wanted to pull one of the girls out, he knew screwing sleeping beauty wouldn’t be fun. Instead, he marched up the stairs to the warehouse manager’s office. If he could find out what the Inquisitor was hiding, he might be able to cover his losses when the shit hit the fan. Judging by the way this job was running, that seemed the likely outcome.
“Shh,” Carmel hissed at Praline who rolled her eyes.
“They’re out cold,” Praline giggled while digging through Loco’s trouser pockets.
“Nothing,” Praline stood up, scrunched her face, and then bent down to rifle through Machine’s pockets. “Who travels without money or docs?”
Dangling the two sets of dog tags in front of Praline’s face, Carmel answered, “soldiers.”
They both giggled.
“Give me the lipstick,” Praline ordered.
Complying, Carmel asked, “what are you going to do with it?”
“You’ll see,” Praline chuckled as she leaned over the bed where they’d placed the two unconscious men.
A fire truck and ambulance arrived on Anna Caliber Drive within minutes of each other. The retiree viewing gallery was pushed across the street to give the emergency crews room to work. The fire crew quickly set a water barrier around the smoldering corpses, before dragging their hoses into the backyard where the shed and wooden fence were still in flames. Ensign Balin stood off watching the paramedics attend to Kent Wheelock, who was utterly insensible ranting about a bird. The paramedics tried to calm him, but nothing they said or did helped.
Sweat streamed down Patrick Field’s face. Although he received a regular work out doing landscaping under the hot sun, he hadn’t run this much in years. His shins thrummed in agony with each footfall, he had a stitch in his side, and his throat ached. He breathed heavily, continuing to jog up toward Ensign Balin, who was absorbed in his observations.
“En-sign,” Field wheezed.
“You!” Balin growled, “where’s Colonel Dagon?”
“He’s fine. Wants his bag.”
“How do I know you’re not making it up?”
Field ran a hand through his sweaty hair, “are you kidding me? Like I’d even know about the damn bag if he hadn’t ordered me to fetch it. I don’t have time for this. Where’s it at?” He pushed passed Balin headed for the military truck.
As Field approached, a giant wearing paramedic coveralls yelled, “who the hell do you think you are? Get back. Nothing to see!”
“I don’t want to see anything,” Field huffed. “I just need something out of the truck.”
“Oh, really?” the big man sneered, “and, I need the rest of my day off. Doesn’t look like that’s happening though, does it?”
“Let him by,” Balin ordered.
“Under who’s auth—oh,” the large paramedic backed up, tossing his hands in the air as he went.
Balin’s right hand rested on his service pistol. “Under the passenger seat,” he said as he dropped his hand and nodded to the paramedic.
Walking around the truck, Field overheard Kent rambling, “he’s gone. Fulco? Where’s my bird? I need to find him. If he’s crispy chicken, what am I?” Kent laughed, a hollow sickly laugh, “I’m the bard-tender.” Without stopping, Field hurriedly opened the passenger door, and grabbed the black bag. As he passed back by, Kent sang, “ate my eye, then daddy died. Who am I? They all lied. I’ll never know, that’s how it goes. Head hangs low, too many woes.”
When Field made it back to Balin, he whispered, “you know who that is, don’t you?”
The annoyed ensign glowered at Field, “no.”
“Saw him with Fintan the Bard earlier. He’s in training. I wonder where Fin—ahh. Oh,” Field suddenly felt sick.
Balin visibly paled. He looked from the charred remains to the young man in the bed of the truck and back again. In that moment, everything clicked into place. He waved the giant paramedic over. When the big man stepped in front of him, Balin struggled with how much to say. Finally he decided blunt, but minimal, “radio the Templus Ministrae. Fintan the Bard is dead. Tell them to send the Celatrix.”
“What are you on?” the giant asked.
Balin pointed to the charred remains, “he’s there. And,” pointing to Kent, “that fellow is the next Bard.”
“You can’t be serious,” the paramedic did a double take, “he’s insane. Have you heard anything he’s said?”
“Do your duty,” Balin ordered.
The incredulous paramedic glanced at his crew, “we can’t tell them. He’s in shock. Damn near lost it. They take a knee before him, he may never come out of it.”
“Whatever you think is best,” Balin conceded. “When you clear him, I’m to take him to Merc HQ.”
“Whatever you think is best,” Balin conceded. “When you clear him, I’m to take him to Merc HQ.”
“I can’t clear him. Has to be cleared by a doctor.”
“Uh, while you two discuss it,” Field interrupted, holding up the bag, “I’ve got to go.”
“Wait,” Balin leaned toward Field, “when you deliver that to the colonel, tell him,” Balin waved a hand, “about this.”