Author's Note: Thank you for your reviews, they are, as always greatly appreciated. I've been reading my way through Karen Miller's excellent Stealth and Gambit, which has only managed to make even more annoyed with Anakin than I was already. I feel for Obi-Wan, I really do. In this part we see Obi-Wan continue with his investigations into the List, as he encounters another crime scene, as well as an inisight into his thoughts, as he reflects on Anakin, Padme and his experience with the List, before paying a visit to an old adversary turned dubious ally.
Part 31: The Hermit of Serenno
Obi-Wan opened the door of suite 515 of the Aldera Ritz to find almost the same sight which confronted him in Cantham House. The Aldera Ritz was a respected, luxurious hotel, located near the Manarai Mountains, with stunning views of that splendid landscape. Like almost all buildings on Coruscant, it was a high-rise edifice, made of a mixture of stone and transparisteel, in the style of Alderaanian architecture.
Unlike Cantham House, the hotel suite held only two rooms, an open-plan living and dining area with a small kitchen facility in one corner, and a bedroom, separated by a double door entrance. Nothing was hidden from view, the doors were left open, displaying the large bed and the naked body, nestled amongst crumpled silk sheets and blood red rose petals to his sea shaded gaze.
With a wave of his hand, he closed the door behind him, turning the key in the lock, before advancing further within. As before, the dining table held a dinner for two, which showed some evidence of being sampled, presumably by the victim before she succumbed to her fate in the bedroom. The suite was lit as before, a low, romantic setting in the living and dining area, maximum brightness within the bedroom.
He dealt the meal no more than a cursory glance, heading straight for the victim, just in case she was still alive. That hope proved to be in vain, even before he put his finger tips to her neck in quest for a pulse. Already he could see the dark purple bruising upon her, the glassy, vacant expression within her green eyes. Her skin was soft to the touch, and still warm, indicating that she had not been dead long.
Sighing in regret at the loss of life, Obi-Wan rose from his position of leaning over the bed and body to examine the rest of the suite more closely. In contrast to the murder at Cantham House, no one but the victim and the perpetrator had disturbed the crime scene, allowing for the possibility of him finding something which might shed more light on the identity of the latter. Stretching out with his senses, he used the Force to search for echoes of their presence. Every one, even those who did not possess the gift to be guided by that ancient energy, left an echo of themselves in their travels which could be used to identify them. The method for detecting such remnants was taught when one became a master, as well a way to eliminate them, though the skills for that technique were only passed on at the discretion of Master Yoda, to members of the Order who were often tasked with missions of stealth. As useful as this method was, the echoes did not last long, and were easily disturbed by others when they came to the same place.
Despite a thorough search, Obi-Wan could not detect any such echo within the suite. Nor was there evidence of the remnant being erased, or anything else which might point to the identity of the murderer. Exactly what he found at Cantham House. He was aware of his limits as an investigator, but he also knew that if there was evidence to be found, he would have done so by now. Permitting himself another sighing breath in disappointment, his hand slipped into his pocket to retrieve his comlink. He had a contact within the courts, they would handle the rest of this, as they had done with the body at Cantham House.
A medical examination was performed on Aline Kavaria, the results of which proved troubling. Cause of death; strangulation, but not through the act of person or persons unknown laying their hands around Aline's neck, tightening their grip until her life was choked from her, but from an unseen force crushing her bones from the inside out. There was only one conclusion he could draw from this; the murder was committed by someone trained in the use of the ways of the Force. This narrowed down the list of suspects, but not enough, and they were worrisome indeed. Jedi, Sith, or some new previously unknown Force-sensitive being, all in all a force to be reckoned with.
This was only the second death in his investigations, and although he had just put a call through to his contact in the courts, Obi-Wan knew the results of the examination on this victim would reveal the same findings as that on Aline Kavaria. Given the other evidence which was lying about the inert body; the blood red rose petals, no other conclusion could be drawn. And this was the fifth number on the second com device which Bail had given him, the one previously belonging to the Senator from Alderaan. Upon reflection he should be relieved that the four women before her were still alive and capable of allowing themselves to be charmed by him into wine and dinner, but nothing of the intimacy which they answered the call and agreed to the evening in prospect of.
Garen Muln may be his closest friend, not to mention so alike him in appearance that in their youth they were often mistaken for each other, but Obi-Wan never believed in indulging in all of the pursuits his friend pursued. One night of intimacies with women without the intricacies of holy ties or love had never been his desire, even before he met those of the fairer sex that held the potential to claim his heart. When Bail pressed the idea of an undercover assignment upon him, he had been absolutely determined that he would not follow all the rules of the List. He would go through the numbers on the little golden coms which had once belonged to Aline Kavaria and Bail Organa one by one, seek them out to make sure they were still within the land of the living. But he would do all he could to avoid coupling with them.
And so far, he had succeeded. Whether it was down to his notoriety upon the HoloNet, his reputation as a Jedi, or his looks and charm, - though it must said, while he was aware that he possessed the latter, he never allowed those gifts to master his better nature - all the women he had dined with allowed him the courtesy of refusing further intimacies, assured him of their future concern in embarking on such illicit encounters once more, and departed from him on good terms. He then returned to the Temple where he worked off the rich meal and fine wine consumed in a bout of lightsaber training.
Bracing himself, Obi-Wan returned to the body while he waited for his contact from the Courts to arrive. This time when he leaned over the woman, he retrieved not the quest for a pulse no longer present, but the little gold device clutched in her hand. Rising from his position, he studied the third communicator, in the hope that unlike the other two it would hold a record of the last incoming call. Such expectation was in vain however, for the murderer had once again foiled him there, by leaving no trace of the entry in question. At least now he possessed a triplicate which could be taken apart for further examination for the possibility of rewiring and retrieving the entry that way.
For a moment he contemplated giving the device to Anakin, for his Padawan was far better skilled in the art of splicing and rewiring than himself. It took but a second after this thought crossed his mind to remember the current state of relations between them. He hadn't seen his former Padawan since the knighting ceremony. When Vokara Che allowed him full use of the Temple, he searched for Anakin, without success. Until he could confront him, he remained uncertain as to whether the lad was avoiding him, but nevertheless that conclusion was there to be drawn. Certainly, Obi-Wan felt he could no longer trust him to carry out splicing and rewiring on the little gold com in his hand and keep what findings resulted from it between the two of them.
He could not deny that he wasn't disheartened by such a thought. He had believed that their ten years together forged a friendship, as opposed to the bond between master and padawan, so easily severed as the symbol of that apprenticeship was during the knighting ceremony. Had his failure to temper Anakin's emotions merely masked the true state of affections between them so deeply? His apprentice was given to extreme displays, unlike himself, his emotions governed by years of Jedi discipline.
While he had listened and sympathised whenever Anakin had a grief to vent, he never returned the favour, and now he wondered if that reserve had, however unintentionally harmed their relationship. While it was true that there was little he could do to mend the breach, even less considering how successfully Anakin was managing to avoid him, Obi-Wan was disappointed and could not help but feel he had failed his master in promising to take care of the boy. If he was another master he could have excused himself with the memory of Qui-Gon saying only to train the boy, no mention of care, but to him that word was an underlying condition of every vow a Master took when deciding to take a Padawan.
The sound of someone knocking at the door drew him out from his unpleasant introspection. Obi-Wan returned to the entrance of the suite and reversed what a wave of the Force had done with his hand, letting in the forensics his contact from the courts had sent. A part of him was relieved by the interruption, for he had been spending far too much time recently dwelling on his failures as a padawan master that it was starting to affect his judgement. He had the right of it a few thoughts ago. As Anakin was continuing to avoid him there was little he could do to remedy the matter. Whereas there were a few other problems he could put his mind to solving that were far more troubling.
Such as who was responsible for these murders. Given how intensely the List was tied to almost every form of governance within the Republic, it was not hard to fathom one likely suspect. The Sith Lord whom the Order had been searching for ever since he killed the apprentice on Naboo was such a being. Count Dooku had spoken of the being's desire to reform the Republic by miring it within a civil war, which was foiled by the peace treaty, so it made sense that the Sith would attempt some other means of division. The scandal that the List would cause if made public would undoubtedly engender just such an effect.
Yet that did not mean the Sith was solely responsible for carrying out such dark deeds. Before he had employed his lackeys such as Darth Maul and Count Dooku, there was no reason to suppose that he would not do on this occasion, just because the former was slain by his hand and the latter was in a state of asylum at the Temple. There was whoever tried to sabotage the peace conference, not to mention the possibility of another, previously unknown apprentice.
Obi-Wan grimaced as he recalled Count Dooku's warning concerning Anakin. While he had long since admitted to himself that a Sith lord would naturally covert the prophesied Chosen One, until now he had been resolute in denying the eventuality. But with the lad avoiding him, the certainty that he knew his former Padawan too well to discount the event was a certainty no longer. he remembered his first opinion of the boy, tempered by his sorrow and jealousy in being brushed aside by a master he had worshipped and loved, in line with the judgement of the Council, their authority impeccable. Too much fear within him, dangerous, unsuitable to be trained, they had declared and he had agreed with them, although the word he used to his master held quite another meaning altogether.
When he changed his mind about the boy it was tempered again by other circumstances; losing Qui-Gon, fulfilling his master's dying wish, the boy's miraculous heroism in ridding Naboo of the Trade Federation's blockade. All the Council's reservations escaped his mind, only to be dwelled upon later, whenever he failed to achieve something in his training. Now he wondered once more if the Council had been right. At the time, he was convinced that it was more dangerous to leave the boy untrained, but the power that Anakin could now wield, including the recently acquired training from Master Windu was a force to be reckoned with. And there was no denying that Anakin had good cause to have a grievance with the Order over Padmé, though if the conclusions he drew from her expression during the Senate session before the peace conference were anything to go by, his former apprentice had probably disobeyed the Order on that score anyway.
But despite how much his opinion of Anakin had changed since the discovery of their empty apartment after the knighting ceremony, Obi-Wan still found it hard to believe that the Sith lord would find his former Padawan a suitable apprentice. Compared to the predecessors Anakin lacked the discipline, wisdom and experience of Count Dooku, and the silent assassin qualities of Darth Maul. His former Padawan felt too much to deceive convincingly, to lead the whole of the Republic in a dance as the Sith lord had been doing these past ten years. He may not know precisely what Anakin was hiding from him, but he was reasonably certain that it concerned his love for Padmé and hers for him, nothing darker than that.
And yet there was one thing which worried him, more so since that night he entered his formerly shared apartment to discover its emptiness. Something which Padmé had not said when he went to see her while Anakin recovered from Geonosis, before she and his Padawan went back to Naboo, to either agree to remain true to the code, or, as he suspected, join themselves to each other before witnesses and a holy man. She had told him of Shmi's death, insistent that he asked Anakin if he wanted to know more. And he had tried, but it was yet another subject between him and his former Padawan which could not be breached. At the time, with her, he had said that he could forgive Anakin for his disobedience over Tatooine if it was for his mother. But Padmé's attitude concerning his love for Anakin,... she seemed unable to comprehend his affection, or to realise that her own feelings for the boy were like a supernova which would eventually burn out. Their love was too intense for longevity, it lacked true embers of sustainable passion.
It had been that incomprehension which prevented him from confessing his feelings to her, from arguing with her maturely, logically. Her emotions were too overwrought for allow for anything but simple stating of the reality that was her and Anakin's situation. Even as he heard her voice her acceptance, her resignation of his words, he knew she was unconvinced. She had been fixated on the idea that her love could save Anakin, when in truth it would only create another dependence that his apprentice could not allow himself to lose. A young love that had no idea of true domesticity. He dread to think what would happen if they ever disagreed, Anakin's temper was vile at the best of times. She did not know that his apprentice had set the idea of her, the little young Queen who had saved her planet, promised her care for him would never change, upon a pedestal, and would not look kindly on whoever dislodged her, and that included the lady herself.
Her attitude had not lessened his love for her, he knew full well the power of Anakin's charm, and the many who had been caught in its web, often requiring him to untangle them and set things right, usually without his apprentice even realising. That she resisted was both courageous and insensible, but not something which would cause him to begin to care for her any less. This was her first love, requiring time, wisdom and experience to temper her attitude, not remonstrations from others, however well-intentioned. He had waited ten years for her, he would wait all his life, accept that she never would come to care for him if he had to. Such an eventuality would hurt him, but he would rather see her happy than mired in the turmoil which Anakin was likely to cause her.
Obi-Wan emerged from his thoughts at this point to notice that the forensics team had finished their examination of the hotel suite as well as their clearing up so it appeared that the victim had left the room alive, and nothing remained that would any suspicion otherwise to a member of the hotel's cleaning staff. As for the victim, she was being carried out of the room towards the nearest emergency exit in a body bag, requiring him to perform some necessary security tasks, such as taking care of the surveillance systems, and cloaking the party so they would not be noticed by any passers-by. Pushing his thoughts aside, he began to adhere to these requirements, following the team down the self contained staircase out into the city streets, then into the speeder which would serve to conceal the rest of their journey.
He returned to the Temple as the orbital reflectors began to darken, his thoughts still with the body hidden in the mortuary rather than the bright lights of Coruscant night life. As with Aline Kavaria, the murderer had left no clues to point to his or her identity, leaving him stymied in his investigations. All he had learnt about her was a name, living and career, which again was much the same as the first; a year or so younger than he, a business minded, single-focused woman in every way, her only vice, the membership of the List. No living relatives who needed to notified of her death, only a well established investment firm which would happily accept the need to keep the circumstances of her mortal departure secret until there was evidence enough to convict her murder.
The little gold com device was still lingering in his pocket, separated from the other two he already had, as they were indistinguishable from each other and he had no desire to take apart the wrong one for further examination. Traversing the grand lobby of the Temple, he nodded silent acknowledgements to his colleagues as he passed back, heading towards the area of the archives where he could study the piece of machinery properly.
At this hour only the most dedicated of padawans, knights and masters were hard at work, a situation which suited Obi-Wan perfectly, for it meant that of the few present in this area of the archives, none of them would be curious about what he was studying. Still musing over who could be responsible for these atrocities, he sat down before one of the empty booths and placed the com device in the hollowed out scanner. Automatically his fingers stretched to the control panel and tapped out the commands to bypass padawan control and identification process.
While he waited for the machine to conduct its examination of the little gold com device, his mind pondered again his reasoning behind who could be responsible; whether he was right to blame the Sith Lord, or wrong for refusing to deny that possibility. His every instinct was silently arguing with him to accept this, despite having no more evidence than just a suspicion weighed against the potential damage these murders could do if made public. That outcome was a distinct, almost inevitable eventuality, one he would do well not ignore. But it also meant that he needed to wrap this investigation up quickly, find who was responsible soon, so the Senate could control the outcry, while the Jedi punished the guilty.
For this was not a case for the Courts, where trials could carry on for years, hampered by an ineffectual justice system that was in dire need of an overhaul. Something the Chancellor had promised to tackle, then neglected in light of the threatening civil war within the Republic. And as much as Obi-Wan would like to press Palpatine to turn his attention to the reform now peace was at hand, this case was not one he wished to be used as an example.
The scanner beeped for attention, and Obi-Wan roused himself from his thoughts to attend to the machine's wants. As his sea shaded eyes became focused on his surroundings once more, his pupils caught a familiar artefact in another booth. A quick discreet glance at the occupier confirmed his recognition; one of the Order's most trusted scholars was studying an object he and Bail retrieved from the Sith Temple on Zigoola. The memory of that mission and all its horrors caused him to recall that there was one person whom he could ask about the Sith lord and perhaps receive an insight to his investigations. It would require trusting him with the details, but in his present position, Obi-Wan doubted that trust would be misplaced. After all, he had cause to trust the man before, and he had not been disappointed.
With this in mind, his thoughts were lightened enough to be able to push them aside and turn to examine the com device. The results scrolled before his eyes, his hand absently stroking his beard as he considered them. Not all the findings were what he hoped for. There was no recoverable information concerning identity of members, nor was there signal data to use for location searches. What had been retrieved was a record of the last number dialled, which presented quite another problem.
Obi-Wan could use the number, but if the device was on, he ran the risk of the murderer identifying who was calling him. While he worked through the members of the List logically, their anonymity still largely protected by his reputation as a Jedi and the discretion of the Order, not to mention the somewhat paradoxically sheltered existence within; one which exposed its Padawans to every degree of life, but left them very little time to develop an affinity, let alone an relationship with the beings they met. However, it would not be wise to assume that the murderer used the system; in fact it was highly likely that they knew who they were killing, or at least remembered the numbers they had used. Which meant if Obi-Wan tried their number using one of the little golden coms, they would be instantly on the alert and arm themselves against him.
But neither could he trace the murderer's identity another way. While Bail sponsored some new members, he was not the only former member who did, there were many others who did so too, as well as some of the current members. He could ask Garen for help, but since their return from Pais his friend had been assigned a mission to retrieve those former Padawans from Bandomeer that he had campaigned for the Council to allow them an option to return to the Order if they so choose. With the loss of so many at Geonosis, the Council had not failed to appreciate the need for new members, even those they had once sent away, due to the lack of knights and masters willing to train them.
Which left him only one option; rewiring his com centre in his new quarters to by pass the security procedures of the Temple and Coruscant, so he could call the number from there. Studying his chrono, Obi-Wan powered down the booth and left the archives for the area of the Temple that was reserved for Council apartments.
His new rooms were much the same as he had left them only that morning, a concoction of neutral tones accented by light blues, stylishly adorned with the gifts given to him and Qui-Gon by grateful governments or beings indebted for the Jedi's timely interventions regarding one crisis or another. Having been occupied by him now since he left his old apartment in the master and Padawan area of the Temple, the quarters were tidy, as befitted his nature, but also suggested a lived in appearance which lent the illusion to any who visited him that he had always roomed within the place.
After checking his messages, quietly relieved that none required an immediate response or attendance elsewhere, Obi-Wan set about pulling the com centre apart to reveal the wiring, then an uncomfortable few minutes crouched underneath the desk as he reattached the cables in the positions required. He had taken the precaution of securing the lock on his quarters before he began, a wise one, as if anyone had entered the apartment while he thus engaged, they would have been shocked to see the most creditable master of the Order committing a mischief which his former Padawan was usually charged with.
It was unfortunate perhaps that after all that hard work, the number in question failed to raise a reply, let alone a location as to its possible whereabouts. Frustrated, Obi-Wan left the com centre as it was for the moment, deciding to try again in the morning before he abandoned the idea entirely, then left his apartment for another, taking care to secure the entrance against visitors once more.
Since his request for asylum had been granted by the Council, Count Dooku had spent his time at the Temple akin to a hermit on a lengthy pilgrimage.
Solitary, with many hours spent in meditation, except when roused from his devotions to offer counsel to Yoda concerning a Sith artefact or a wayward Padawan seduced by the temptation of the easy path towards the dark ways of the Force. A master in the form of Makashi, his services had yet to be offered to assist Master Drallig, largely due to his actions on Geonosis. His behaviour and conduct were impeccable; not once had he contacted any of his former disreputable associates; his communications with the Separatists were limited to matters of governing only.
Obi-Wan had not seen him since his return from Zigoola, when several meetings were conducted about the Sith artefacts he and Bail had retrieved. While he respected the former master, and trusted, to a certain extent at least, his reformation, the relationship he maintained with his master's master was not as close as Qui-Gon perhaps might have wished. Still, Jinn would be pleased to see that his former pupil no longer sought out the magnate of Serenno as an adversary.
Dooku greeted him at the first beeping from the door, detecting his arrival through the Force before he had the chance to signal his coming. Brushing aside his concerned inquiries as to whether he was disturbing him, the Count ushered Obi-Wan inside, saw him to his seat, placing before him tea and a steaming bowl of sustenance.
Struck by the warm welcome, Obi-Wan took his time to glance about himself, admiring the suitably austere, yet infinitely Jedi-style furnishings and decor of the apartment. He took a sip of his drink and was pleased to notice that the blend was his favourite, while the food was equally sampled and noted to be delicious as well as needed, for he had yet to consume his evening meal.
When the necessary civilities were swept aside, the Count directly asked what he could do for the Council's newest master. Although Obi-Wan was shielding his thoughts only minimally, he could not detect that Dooku ever attempted to read his mind, so his surprise at the answer which he received was genuine.
"So," Dooku mused, "that scandalous secret has been tarnished, has it? I can't say that I'm shocked by the news. With so many beings involved, in light of their connections, it was only a matter of time before something gelded it. Is this an official mission?"
"No," Obi-Wan replied, causing the Count to raise an eyebrow at the sight of a Council Master neglecting to seek that body's blessing before investigating. Something Qui-Gon was frequently known for doing as well. "The source who entrusted me was understandably anxious that this be kept quiet for as long as possible. And given the current level of interest surrounding the Order's activities, I thought it wise not to inform them."
"A wise precaution," Dooku agreed. "So, why are you informing me? I'd thought that I would be the last being whom you could trust with such a crime."
"Quite the contrary," Obi-Wan replied. "The mysterious Sith lord, whose identity you still protect is the beneficiary of such an epithet. Speaking of him, do you think he would be responsible for these series of atrocities?"
Dooku was not offended by Obi-Wan's rebuke, his frown was more of a reaction due the possibility than at the direct countering by his Padawan's Padawan. After a long moment of consideration, he replied. "My first answer would be no, but given that everything he has attempted to use has failed to achieve his goal, I think he might decide to try using the List, though the uninhibited nature of the group is something which he detests." He paused to regard his companion's reaction. "I see my answer has only confirmed your suspicions. Surely you haven't found anything to implicate him? He's usually so meticulous in covering his tracks and nearly always orders an underling to do the dirty work for him."
Obi-Wan shook his head. "Nothing, which is why I suspected him. With each crime scene there is an attempt to dress it up in the style of a serial killer, but the result is half-hearted at best, as overall the whole appearance leaves a aura almost devoid of any emotion. And yet there is a kind of manic joy in the display, with a healthy mix of rage and sadistic pleasure thrown in for good measure."
Count Dooku nodded grimly. "Yes, the perfect recipe for a Sith. However, I am still of the opinion that he commanded one of his acolytes to do the deeds for him."
Struck by something implied in the scion of Serenno's response, Obi-Wan pondered, and not for the first time, the possibility that the Sith lord and the Count were of an age.
"Given my past experience with some of his deeds, I am inclined to agree," he answered, keeping his speculation to himself for now. "But, unfortunately your confirmation only serves to darken my investigation."
Dooku rose from his seat to clasp his the shoulder of his Padawan's Padawan. "There is little advice which I can give to you that shall be of any comfort, Obi-Wan. But what I will say is this; you can do nothing but continue as you have been. Conduct the investigation as you would any other. If he has planned this as meticulously as he usually does, and I have no doubt that he has, then wherever your investigation takes you next, he will be three steps ahead. You will find the proof you need when and if he intends you to, not before. But by playing him at his own game, you might be able scupper him at last."
Obi-Wan nodded, and rose as the Count withdrew his grip, sensing through the Force that he had learned all he could from this evening. The hermit of Serenno saw him to the door, silent until his guest had crossed the threshold.
"Of one thing you can be certain," Dooku said in parting, "the Sith lord has always vastly underestimated you, Master Kenobi. And that will be his fatal mistake."
To be Continued...