No rain fell at the funeral procession that day. Full cloud cover, no sun, but still no rain. Romeo carried an umbrella, even though his suit remained bone dry. When he’d heard the forecast for today, he’d thought it apropos. That even God was crying for Sylvester. But as the ceremony progressed and nobody showed up to grieve, the doors to heaven remained shut, the sky black but unwilling to shed a single tear. It seemed as though God had truly forsaken them this day, when neither the light and the warmth of heaven nor the tears of their Lord Jesus Christ found their way to Sylvester’s tomb.
“We gather here to commend our brother… Sylvester, to God our Father, and to commit his body to the earth,” the priest rambled disinterestedly as the coffin was lowered into the hole, closed and unseen even by the few in attendance. Sylvester’s death had not been a pleasant one, and while his only remaining family consisted of distant relatives, in attendance more out of obligation than genuine mourning, Romeo knew they wouldn’t want to see him so carved up and mutilated.
The chains being used to hoist the body into the ground groaned, rusted from disuse and put under strain by the cold and unfavorable weather. For a second the coffin jerked, catching everyone’s attention, but it was quickly steadied again. The priest continued. “In the spirit of faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, let us raise our voices in song and offer our prayers for Sylvester.”
Romeo quickly made the sign of the cross, offering his prayers in silence.
“I had a feeling I’d find you here.”
The hulking giant Felix, the second of Romeo Vitali’s bodyguards and right-hand men (now singular), put a hand on the young Vitali’s shoulder.
“We read in sacred scripture, ‘This is the will of the one who sent me, says the Lord, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.”
“I’m the capofamiglia of the Vitalis,” Romeo said. “It just… felt like I should be here, at a time like this… you know how it is.”
There was another sudden jerk as the chains went slack, dropping one half of the coffin closer to the grave than the other. Attendants rushed to grab the chains, pulling on them to prevent it from falling any further.
Felix faltered as people grunted trying to hold the chains. “Well it’s a good thing you are I guess. I know no one else would’ve showed up if you hadn’t. Man wasn’t exactly a people-person. Always going on about the killin’ ‘n shit, forgettin’ the mission… made me sick. You can say what you want, but that man was a zealot in all the wrong ways.”
“Yeah, but…” Romeo said, stuttering and trying to maintain his composure. “He was always kind to me. You both were. You’ve been with me ever since my father… and you’ve taken care of me. You’ve been like the family I never had.”
“Boss Romeo…” Felix said.
“I mean, I know he wasn’t the best of men, but he respected my father, and he respected his mission, even if he didn’t understand it the way we do. He was always… he always did good by our family. And isn’t that enough?! I mean, for him to die like this…”
Tears fell down Romeo’s face.
“I don’t know what to do, Felix. I just don’t know what to do. We’ve lost our support from Paulie. Our recruitment’s down. Some of our best men have just been killed. And now this? If I were to lose you too… it’d be like I was losing my father all over again. I don’t think I can take that…”
The young capofamiglia buried his face in the chest of the only true family he had left. His face concealed, he wept without constraint, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Crying like this… I’m so pathetic. Father in heaven must be so ashamed of me right now…”
“It wasn’t your fault, Boss Romeo.” Felix’s voice thundered through his chest.
“Yes it was! I was the one who ordered the strike!” he sobbed as though it was an admission of guilt. “I thought… I thought we could make up some lost ground after we failed to stop the Marquis from gaining control of that homunculus, but…”
“But you failed,” Felix said gently. “We all do. In the face of the almighty we are all judged, and we are all found wanting. You, me… the Marquis too. You have nothing to feel ashamed about, Boss Romeo. You did what you thought was right.”
Romeo sniffed, then gently pushed Felix away as he cleared his eyes of the tears.
“You’re right… of course you are. No one is perfect-”
“Except the Lord, our God,” Felix reiterated.
“-but when other men are found wanting, only they suffer. When I am found wanting-”
“Others suffer for you,” Felix said again.
Romeo glared at him halfheartedly. “Stop that.”
“Stop finishing my sentences! Stop trying to make me feel better! I don’t deserve it!”
“Because?” Felix said, raising an eyebrow.
Romeo looked up into Felix’s eyes. “Because of me, now we are less.”
“Boss Romeo…” Felix said. The giant man knelt so he could give his young friend a hug in his massive arms, enveloping him in his warmth so he could shield him from the harshness of the world. Romeo’s eyes widened as Felix slowly ruffled his hair.
“We were less when your father died. We were less when the faith fell, we were less when this world became twisted with evil and rife with blasphemous magic. We are not less because of you, no matter how many men we lose. Now, because of you, we are more. Because you give us strength. Direction. Leadership. And faith in our cause. Even when we all gave up on your father’s dream for a better world, you never did. It is because of you we are even here at all.”
“Felix…” Romeo whispered before frowning and shaking his head. “No, you don’t-”
“You’ve accomplished a whole hell of a lot as capofamiglia, Boss Romeo. Things you should learn to value more. But you’re still young. No one expects you to be as good a leader as your father. But you will be. One day. So keep that chin up, and stop judging yourself for every damn little mistake. That shit? That’s the Lord’s work. Be free of it. And if you can’t, let me worry about it instead. I worked for your father. I know what makes a good leader, and you’re it. I don’t give a shit fucking good godda-”
“Hey! Language,” Romeo said, reprimanding him. Felix cleared his throat.
“Sorry, boss. I almost took the good Lord’s name in vain.”
Romeo smiled. “You… always did have a way with words, Felix. Thank you.”
Felix released him, returning to his full height. He’d done his duty. Romeo’s heart had been steeled again, freed of doubt. Until the next challenge, anyway. But one day he’d learn to walk on his own. Until then…
“We can only press forward,” Felix said, handing Romeo a manilla folder.
“What’s this?” Romeo asked, accepting the brown package.
“It’s the completed mission dossier. I know you always like to study them. See what you did right.”
“What I did wrong,” Romeo corrected.
“What you did right,” Felix insisted.
Romeo opened the folder, adjusting his umbrella so it covered the creased, weary paper. Even now he still held out hope that it would rain.
“What are you looking for?” Felix asked.
“The eyewitness reports of the attack. I wanna know who killed our men, and how they did it.”
“Uhhhh…” Felix droned, casting a glance at Sylvester’s coffin. “I think it’s pretty obvious how Sylvester died, boss.”
Romeo ignored him. Felix and Sylvester had never gotten along, but he knew he didn’t mean it. You didn’t say that kind of stuff about family if you really meant it.
“Reports say he was killed by…”
Romeo leafed through the portfolio, his eyes darkening.
“… a white-haired girl. With rabbit ears, who was wearing a red dress.”
He handed the folder to Felix, who growled like a coal-burning engine. “That bitch…”
“Felix…” Romeo said. “This means Sylvester was killed by…”
“By the homunculus,” Felix growled, crushing the manilla folder in his clenched fist. “I knew we were right! He meant to use it as a weapon all along! That pagan blasphemy against God and nature! Shit!”
Felix threw the folder to the ground, and a wrinkled photo fluttered out. Romeo leaned over and picked it up.
“No, Felix… that’s not it. There’s another photo in here.”
Romeo squinted, stretching the picture out. The young, boyish face pictured in the photo seemed familiar.
Black hair… brown eyes… a white suit and a red scarf…
Romeo’s eyes widened. He remembered. The young man in the picture was wearing newer, nicer clothes, but he hadn’t forgotten his face. Romeo flipped through the folder in a hurry, trying to find the page the photo had been clipped to. Finally he stopped in the middle, his fingers trembling.
“Felix… it’s him.”
“Hm? Who?” Felix said.
“That medium that works for the Marquis,” Romeo said, his voice wavering. “Sylvester wasn’t killed by the homunculus. He was killed by this man. Alfonso Anastasio.”
Felix looked confused. He was a brilliant man, an excellent hunter, and a well-read gentleman (though he sometimes had a foul mouth). Most importantly, his faith was a rock. But because he was a zealot, because he hated magic more than any of them, even Romeo, things like this escaped him. He didn’t have a concept of knowing your enemy the way Romeo did. So Romeo explained it to him.
“A homunculus is a tool, Felix. It’s a machine created in the image of man to serve man. It doesn’t have a mind, a soul, or free will. It’s just supposed to do what its master tells it to do.”
His bodyguard’s eyes widened.
“Do you understand now, Felix? A homunculus can’t kill the same way a gun with no hand can’t kill. Someone needs to pull the trigger. And that person is the killer.”
The funeral rites had come to a close, and the ground swallowed Sylvester, its white tombstones closing around his coffin like teeth. Now that the body had been laid into the earth, it was time for it to be buried. Shovelfuls of dirt were piled on top of it, each slowly erasing the memory of the man that had once been as the vicious circle of life came to its end, curling back up and eating its own tail. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Felix’s stare hardened beneath the spectacles perched atop his bald head. “And by that person you mean…”
“Yeah…” Romeo said.
His fists clenched, he stood completely still as it finally started to rain. And although God Himself had finally found tears to shed, Romeo found that now the moment had come to cry, his tears had been all but dried up. Now, as the last shovelfuls of dirt were hurriedly dumped on Sylvester’s tomb and the attendants scattered to escape the rain, there was only one thing left for him to do. Only one thing left for him to say.
“I don’t care what we have to do. We’re going to defeat the Marquis,” he said solemnly. “And then we’re going to take Alfonso Anastasio, and make him watch as I take away everything from him that he holds dear. Sylvester’s killer will not go unpunished. By the name of the Vitalis, this I swear.”
Felix grinned. This was what he’d been waiting for.
“What do you want me to do, Boss Romeo? To where shall the Lord’s fury be directed?”
Romeo turned to face Felix, who was now kneeling before him as a sign of his fealty. With a strong voice, he commanded, “Gather a group of men to investigate him. Follow his every movement. I want to know where he lives, where he eats, where sleeps. I want to know where he goes most often and when. I want to know everything about him. Anything that could be considered a weakness.”
Romeo’s car, a 1930 Delage D6, rolled up outside the cemetery gates, his chauffeurs rushing to get their capofamiglia out of the rain. As Romeo started walking towards the car, Felix asked him one last question.
“And the Marquis?” he questioned expectantly.
“If this report has reached us he’ll be returning soon, and he’s bringing Hell with him.” Romeo smiled, his expression innocent the same way a child’s is. “Let’s see that we do what we can to push him into it.”