"-Effective immediately. Until a suitable replacement can be appointed, Lieutenant Hammersmith will serve as the interim Director of Project Malleus, under our direct supervision."
"You could have at least had the decency of firing me face to face, Samuel."
"You're not fired, Henry, merely suspended. Don't make this any harder than it has to be. You brought this on yourself, you know. I warned you."
"Yes… I suppose you did."
"All Project Malleus controlled artifacts are to be transferred to the Shepherd Corps until we decide what to do with you. And I do mean all of them. Do I make myself clear, Henry?"
"Good. We'll discuss this further once I land. Don't do anything stupid, you hear?"
"Come now, when did I ever do anything like that?"
Two Weeks Prior
“Left. Left. I said left, for heaven’s sake, left!”
“Yeah, Raymond, I got it.”
“You’re still going right, Brickjaw! I told you left! The map says left!”
“I thought I told you not to call me that, Raymond.”
“And I thought I told you to go left, yet our trajectory remains decidedly right-bound!”
“My way is faster.”
“How on earth would you know that? You’ve never been here before!”
“It’s my sense of direction, it’s perfect.”
“Oh you bloody…”
Henry DeMontfort rubbed his temples for the fourth time in ten minutes, and groaned as his subordinates continued to bicker from the front seat. This has been a long, long drive. He reached for his pocket, searching for his electronic cigarette, when the tiny rented Fiat swerved suddenly and knocked the plastic tube from his hand and out the opened window. Barely holding back a curse, he turned to Lieutenant Levit, who was driving, his enormous hands almost completely encompassing the steering wheel.
“Lieutenant, what was that?”
“Yes Sir, sheep on the road.”
“Why was there a sheep on the road?” This was asked by Operative Raymond of Baskerville, a fairly recent addition to Project Malleus, transferred on his request from the Shepherd Corps. Wet around the ears, but certainly not lacking in enthusiasm.
“How should I know?”
“Didn't you use to herd sheep, Brickjaw?”
The huge, rough-featured man rubbed his face with both hands, leaving Raymond to desperately grab the wheel as the car zigzagged on the narrow dirt road. “I herded goats, Raymond, not sheep. Entirely different. And don’t call me that.“
DeMontfort leaned back in his seat, sighing. Lieutenant Levit was usually as trustworthy and capable a man as anyone could wish for, but driving…. Well, driving wasn't one of his strong suits. The only reason he was at the wheel at all was because Raymond couldn't drive, and DeMontfort was too exhausted to trust himself at the task.
“What’s so different about goats? They’re just uglier sheep.”
“Goats are smart. A sheep goes where you tell it to; a goat goes where it wants.”
“Looks like this sheep didn’t get the memo, because I certainly didn't tell it to stand in the middle of the road.”
It was getting dark, and DeMontfort began worrying they wouldn't be able to find the school before nightfall. The South Italian countryside was almost completely bereft of proper road marks, and the hilly terrain was very difficult to get one’s bearing in. DeMontfort began to doze, but jerked into wakefulness again as Levit swerved the car once more, this time to avoid hitting a pack of wandering wild fowl. Levit slammed on the breaks. Wheels screaming in protest, the Fiat veered sharply to the left, smashing into roadside shrubbery until finally coming to a stop when it struck a wooden signpost, which slowly toppled until finally hitting the ground with a loud crash. Groaning, and his head hurting even worse than before, DeMontfort struggled to open the passenger door, which proved to be stuck. After a few futile attempts at hitting it with his shoulder, he was unceremoniously pulled out through the window by Levit. Raymond was inspecting the damage.
"Well, we ain't going any further with this one, that's for sure. Nice going, Brickjaw."
"S'not my fault. Couldn't well hit that chicken, now could I?"
"Better it than us, surely?"
"I dunno, I can't really think of any advantage you have over a good bird, Ray."
Raymond opened his mouth to reply, when the expression on DeMontfort's face made him close it again. In his time in Project Malleus Raymond heard many horror stories, and witnessed a few himself, but nothing scared him nearly as much as the look. Hell hath no fury like that of a jet-lagged, pissed off nicotine addict on withdrawal. He was about to apologize, when Levit nearly brained him while attempting to straighten the fallen signpost. Apology forgotten, he turned to give the huge man a piece of his mind, when he noticed what was written on the sign. It seemed DeMontfort noticed as well, as his sharp face showed an emotion other than annoyance for the first time in days.
"Looks like we're here."
"See, Brickjaw, I told you it was to the left!"
"Shut up, Raymond."
"Both of you shut up. Raymond, run ahead to let them know we're here. Lieutenant, get the crate from the car, we'll be taking it with us."
Raymond nodded and began tracking up the dirt road the broken sign was pointing to. Levit watched him go, then turned and lifted the crate on one shoulder.
"What's in there anyway, chief?"
"A few items that might prove useful sometime in the future, nothing major."
"S'pretty heavy for something not major."
DeMontfort gave Levit a pointed look, then the two started after Raymond, their backs to the golden rays of the setting sun. "Well, that's what I have you for."
"Huh. Not quite what I was expecting, chief."
"I said it was a school, Lieutenant."
"Well, yeah, but you never mentioned it was so…er…"
"That's one word for it."
As the two men were strolled into the school's foyer, their eyes were assaulted with a veritable barrage of all things fluffy, pink, and above all, girly. Levit almost dropped his crate on his toes as a group of schoolgirls, no older than eight, began circling around him like an inquisitive pack of giggling piranhas. They were gone a moment later, scampering down an adjacent corridor now pursued by a haggard looking nun.
"I thought this was suppose to be a Catholic school."
"Unless that was a particular tired penguin, Lieutenant, I'd hazard the guess that it is."
"But it's so…cheerful. I thought these sort of places were all iron discipline and rulers."
"The Mother Superior of the school has a different approach to education. Rulers don't feature very heavily. Or any sort of discipline, for that matter."
Walking beneath a severe depiction of Jesus on the cross which seemed rather out of place amidst the crayon drawings and floral arrangements which surrounded it, the two man spotted a bemused-looking Brother Raymond, holding what appeared to be a large slice of chocolate cake. Seeing them, Raymond tried to wave, forgot that he was holding the cake, and dropped it on his shoes.
"Sir, Mother Superior says she'll see you in the garden, if you'd be so kind as to meet her there."
"Is that what she said?"
"Er, not in so many words."
"And in so many words?"
"Um. 'I'm having my smoke. If the pup wants to yap at me, he can damn well find me himself.' Unusual language for a nun, if I can so bold as to comment. She did give me this cake though."
To Raymond's surprise, the Director smiled at that. "Very good. Raymond, take Levit and find the wine cellar. I want that crate stored there. After that, busy yourself until I return. I shouldn't be long. Oh, and clean your boots."
"A wine cellar in a Catholic school, Sir?"
"Don't you doubt it."
DeMontfort replaced the handle of his old dial phone and shivered. He'd been expecting this day for months now, but that didn't make its arrival any easier to bear. More than thirteen years of work, all gone in a moment, and the worst part was, he didn't have anyone to blame for it but himself. He'd let zeal conquer his better judgment, and now came the time to pay the price. Rising from his high-backed chair, he strode to the narrow window of what would soon no longer be his office. An early summer's thunderstorm has recently passed, and the city was washed with the soft, golden light. It smelt of rain.
"Good afternoon, Mother Superior."
DeMontfort was standing in a shaded corner of the school's wide, well-kept gardens. In front of him, sitting at the base of an old olive tree, was a woman that made the tree seem young. Her face was a leathery deep-farrowed map of wrinkles, laugh lines and scars, made all the more obvious by the huge grin on them.
"Why, looky here. If it isn't little Henry the pup. Nice of you to take a break from your busy burning schedule just to see your old gran."
"That would have made more sense if you were my grandmother."
"Well I can hardly be that, can I? I'm a bloody nun! Daft boy."
Looking around to see no one else was around, DeMontfort shimmied down to sit next to the old woman. "I missed you, Mother Ursula."
"Aye, I know you have. It's good to see you, my boy. Even if you are an idiot."
"Not enough of one to come without tribute." Searching through his pockets, DeMontfort pulled a neatly rolled cigar, relieved to see it survived the journey intact.
"Ah, you did always know how to woo a lady. Gimme." Lighting it, the old woman gave the cigar a contented puff, then settled down further between the tree's gnarled roots. "So, what's your angle?"
"Can't a man pay an innocent visit to his favorite," he searched for a word, "old mentor?"
"A man can. Henry 'the Weasel' DeMontfort can't. And don't call me old, I'm just seasoned."
"Hardly anyone calls me that anymore."
"Well, they're afraid you'd burn them, I suspect. What's your angle?"
Grimacing, DeMontfort reached for his own smokes. "I came to ask for your assistance, Mother Ursula. Your connections, to be precise."
"I suspect this has something to do with your upcoming booting, eh?"
This caught him off-guard. "How did you know?"
"You come to me for my connection, and you're surprised I know things? Silly. That, and I spoke to my brother recently. Bernard could never keep that mouth of his shut."
"To be fair, you're not an easy woman to keep a secret from, not even if you're a member of the Tribunal."
The old woman cackled, a sound DeMontfort was very familiar with. "He's been my little brother for a long, long time, my boy. Wouldn't be much of a big sister if I didn't know how to give him a proper shake. So, what do you need?"
"A safe place to keep some relics, first among them Samson's Locks. I suspect I won't be holding to my position for much longer, and, as much as it pains me to say it, I don't trust most of my men with these particular artifacts. They've proven to be… indiscreet, lately. "
"You're one to talk."
Ignoring the remark, DeMontfort continued. "I've stored some less sensitive equipment here already, in our usual place. I trust it won't be found. The relics, however, are a different matter. I need someplace no one but us could ever find them."
"So it's not just your men you want to hide the relics from, eh? It's my brother and his companions too. You're betraying the Initiative."
"I'm not, I promise you." He shifted uneasily, cigarette dropping from his mouth. "Ursula, there's something foul in the air. I can't explain it, but something tells me that there will be a desperate need for these relics soon, and that even the Tribunal cannot be trusted with them until that need is fulfilled."
"Something tells you? Or do you mean Someone?"
"I…I don't know what I mean. Not anymore. I've fallen far, Mother. I've become something I used to hate."
"Well, you can always-"
"No, you don't understand. I became what I am because that was what I needed to be. What He needed me to be. What I feel about it is irrelevant. It's simply another test of my faith. Please, Mother. I need you to trust me."
Slowly, the old woman nodded. "I know a man. Never met a harder one to find, if he don't want to be found. You won't like him, though."
The garden became deathly quiet as Ursula explained the details. DeMontfort's headache returned with a vengeance, leading a host of its kin to storm the last of his patience.
"You want me to entrust some of the Initiative's most powerful artifacts… to him?"
"You did say you wanted someone who couldn't be found, right? Someone who could deliver the relics to you when they are needed?"
"But the man is a lunatic, and a heretic besides! What's to keep him from selling the relics, or using them for himself, or doing heaven knows what with them once he gets his hands on them?"
"Don't you worry about him, he owes me one. Not to mention, I have some dirt on him. Nasty stuff."
Despite himself, DeMontfort was curious. "How did you get dirt on Saturn Deer?"
The old woman gave him a crafty look. "I wasn't always a nun, you know. Well, what do you say?"
"Are you sure you can keep him in line?"
"Positive. Was never as smart as he thought he was, that one."
"I guess I have no real choice then, now do I?"
"That's the road you choose for yourself, my boy. There's always a choice."
The phone rang again. Reluctantly drawing himself from the window, DeMontfort answered.
"This is DeMontfort."
"Henry. It's Salah."