Authors: Jonathan Rabb
Cesare said nothing; he laid the paper on Pearse’s lap.
“And if I say no?” Pearse asked.
“Sebastiano is dead. If I go back to San Clemente, maybe those men are there; maybe this time, it’s not questions. You’ve told me there’s a real link here to something that was supposed to have been rooted out centuries ago.”
“And if it wasn’t,” Pearse insisted, “what possible threat could it pose now anyway? We’re talking about ideology, Dante. The church has had fifteen hundred years to establish itself. I don’t think an ancient heresy has any hope of undermining that authority.”
“Fine. Then why have these men gone to such lengths for a prayer? Does that make any more sense to you?” Cesare waited before continuing. “Doesn’t it strike you as odd that it’s Vatican security who have been the ones to take such an interest? Whatever this is, it’s clearly important to someone. Important enough to take a man’s life.”
Pearse stared into Cesare’s eyes. For several moments, neither said a word. Finally, he reached down and took the paper from his lap.
“Thank you,” said the monk. “And tomorrow, we’ll take it to this expert of yours.”
Pearse stared at the scrawled map. “You’re sure you’ll be okay tonight?” he asked.
“They’re old friends.” Cesare stood, placed a hand on the younger man’s shoulder, then turned and began to walk away. About ten yards from him, he turned back. “Go in peace.” The two exchanged a smile before Cesare turned again and headed off.
Sitting alone, Pearse watched as the monk made his way past the arch.
Go in peace
. If only it were that easy.
Stefan Kleist sat in a small sound studio, several television screens in front of him. One of the monitors pictured a girl, perhaps seven years old, playing on the grass, other children with her, an older woman on a park bench in the distance. A typical spring afternoon. The camera zoomed in on the older woman. She had nodded off, her head tilted back, one hand having fallen from her lap to the bench. The camera again panned to the girl. Kleist spoke into a microphone, a device
placed at its base to distort his voice. “I could have taken her then while the old woman slept. Your sister should be more careful with her granddaughter.” The tape moved to another scene. The same girl, this time with a younger woman on a busy street, the woman staring into a shop window, unaware as the little girl ambled farther and farther off. The camera now zoomed in on the woman as she turned from the window. Panic rose on her face, her eyes scanning frantically as she realized the girl was gone. When she spotted the tiny figure two stores down, she ran after her, grabbed her arm, and berated her for wandering off. Again Kleist spoke into the microphone. “Or then, when your niece was preoccupied. So easy to have taken the girl then.” Once more, the screen faded to another shot, this one through an iron fence, the girl seated on a set of stairs, her small chin resting on tiny hands as she waited in front of a convent school. The camera whipped around and lighted on a young priest making his way through the far gate. “That could be me,” intoned Kleist. “Or there,” he added as the camera focused on a sister coming out from one of the entrances. “What child wouldn’t take the hand of a nun?” The screen now filled with myriad images of the girl—at school, with friends, the park—anywhere a seven-year-old might find herself. “So many choices. So difficult to guard against them all. And if you think the police could help you, don’t. I would know before you had hung up the phone. And the girl would be gone.”
The screen dissolved to black, then to an old newsreel clip. It was difficult at first to recognize the picture. The Vatican. Smoke from a chimney, thousands watching as the puffs lifted into the air. The 1920s by the look of things. White smoke. Cheering. A nondistorted voice broke through. “Pope Pius the Eleventh is elected in Rome. And the world celebrates. …” The voice faded, replaced by Kleist’s. “When it comes time for you to make your choice, Eminence, don’t forget the little girl. Don’t forget what can happen even to a cardinal’s grand-niece.” Another picture of the girl at play, then black.
Kleist rewound the tape, ran it through once more to make sure the sound was right, then pulled it from the machine. Rudimentary but effective.
The election won’t be the problem. We have to think of the weeks after
. How right the contessa had been. Still, the work now was
. Kleist checked the label—Madrid—and slid the tape into its cover. He then set it on a stack of perhaps twenty others that stood to his left:
Buenos Aires, Sydney, St. Louis—just a few of the titles. Reaching to his right, he pulled another—New York, as yet without narration—and slid it into the video recorder. Sixty or so to go.
He knew it would be a long night.
Pearse had walked from the Colosseum, back to the Piazza Venezia, the Corso, the twin churches at the Piazza del Popolo, and finally the bridge out to the Vatican. Crossing at the Ponte Regina Margherita might have been a bit out of the way, but he’d always preferred the area just across the Tiber, the wide avenues and trees that reminded him so much of Paris. As much as he loved Rome, there always seemed to be a kind of heaviness to it. Maybe it was in his own mind. Paris just seemed a little lighter.
His thoughts, however, were not of Paris tonight.
—the more he walked, the more it gnawed at him. Augustine had referred to it as a collection of Jesus’ sayings. By itself, Pearse knew that didn’t set the prayer apart from any number of fourth-century tracts. He’d heard of the various collections that had floated around, most inauthentic, each trying to assert some sort of connection to the Messiah, a way to validate one strain of a burgeoning religion over another. That the four Gospels had eventually won out had done little to diminish the quest for the true words of Christ. What so many believers didn’t realize—even now—and what Pearse himself all too often confronted in his own quest, was that the Gospels offered only a smattering of Jesus’ words, each of the books steeped in interpretation, colored by the historical necessities that had faced their authors. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, each essential to the task of shaping the church and its dogma, but each too far removed from the spoken Word not to fall prey to inconsistencies. Ever since his days in Chicago with John J., Pearse had believed that to read Christ’s genuine teachings, to come face-to-face with their simplicity would clarify everything, remove all doubt, all uncertainty. A
of his own. Faith at its most essential.
Something Petra had never fully understood.
Arriving at the Piazza del Risorgimento—rush-hour trams swallowing and spewing passengers by the dozens—he allowed himself a momentary flight of fancy. What if the prayer did connect to those words? What if the real Christ lay hidden somewhere within it? Freed from the
that had engulfed them over the centuries, those ideas couldbreathe new life into a faith growing ever more static, distant. Ignite a genuine passion based on the purity of the Word.
As he stepped from the curb, however, an equally powerful thought entered his mind, brought on more by the events of the last few hours than by anything else….
It’s clearly important to someone. Important enough to take a man’s life
. He had done his best to dismiss the possibility twenty minutes ago; now, he found it far more difficult. Could a scroll like that be seen as a threat—a single voice, Christ’s teachings made plain at last? How might that be received? he wondered. Not as an answer to the complacency, but as a shock to its very core. Here would be something to strip away the layers of exegesis that sat atop the parables, the Beatitudes, all the dogma that had grown out of the myriad attributions of meaning. Could such clarity actually appear dangerous, even the hint of it prompt someone within the church to suppress it—better to maintain the current structure than to upend it, no matter how true to Christ’s own insights the source of that clarity might be?
The real paradox of faith: Truth versus Structure. Pearse had to believe that the church was beyond such fears.
And yet, a man was dead.
He cut across the road and sidestepped his way through traffic, one or two angry horns spiriting him on his way. Once on safer ground, he moved along the sidewalk, the Vatican wall—sixty feet of weathered brown-gray stone and turrets—lowering above him; twenty yards down, he turned into the Santa Anna gate, an equally imposing archway,
—dressed in the customary blue tunics and capes—manning the gate. A few cars were making their way out—never more than a glance from the guards for those leaving, far more care with those trying to get in. Even so, the man nodded Pearse through, a token look at the Vatican
of a familiar priest.
He might have felt a bit cheated by the world beyond the gate, so little in the way of real grandeur, but he never did. The affectations were reserved for the more public areas—the museums, St. Peter’s. Here, it was a collection of administrative buildings, post offices, loggia, the only truly regal sight the fifty-foot archway leading off to the library and beyond. Even that was in need of a good cleaning. But, unlike anywhere else in Rome—perhaps the world—Pearse felt a genuine sense of security within its walls, a safekeeping that ostentation could only mar. And
with it, that sense of lightness seemingly unavailable to him in the rest of Rome.
It was why he’d accepted the offer of rooms on his arrival, why he’d petitioned for Vatican citizenship a year after that. Spiritual refuge. Genuine connection to the heart of the church. A taste of the certainty he so desperately craved.
Unfortunately, his choice had dramatically changed things with his family, talks with Jack and Andy less frequent, a sense that the priest was somehow now even more off-limits. His parents hadn’t quite known how to take it either, the final realization that their son was truly the church’s and not their own. He’d tried to convince them otherwise, but there really wasn’t much hope of that. Nor of any of them understanding what had prompted the move—that maybe, just maybe after all this time, Petra wouldn’t be able to follow him inside the Vatican walls.
Then again, maybe not.
Managing his way along the cobbled drive—still slick from the rain—he thought about picking up a few pieces of fruit, something sweet at the market, but he couldn’t muster the appetite. He remembered some cheese in his rooms. It would have to suffice. Stepping through another, more commonplace archway, he hurried across a stone courtyard before arriving at the entrance to his building.
Three flights and a corridor later, he turned his key and stepped into the two rooms that had been his home for the past few years.
Sofa, chairs, desk-cum-table greeted him as he kicked his shoes across the floor, two small windows on the far wall, neither of which—as far as he knew—having ever seen the sun. But there was always hope. He kept a plant atop the waist-high bookshelf between them just on the off chance a ray or two might creep in.
It was his eighth plant in two years.
Only at night did the light venture in, harsh, from somewhere above, enough to cast shadowed bars across the room from the rusted fire escape. Tonight was no exception. The slanted black lines were instantly erased as he flicked on a standing lamp. At the same time, he pulled off his collar—always the most relaxing moment of the day—and, stretching his neck, moved across the linoleum floor to the books. He crouched down and pulled several volumes out, placing them in a pile on the table just behind him.
. Time to see how much he had remembered.
He pulled a ball from his glove on the floor and moved to the table. Sitting, he began to toss it back and forth between his hands. Always the best way to concentrate.
The first book was one of the red-bound volumes of the
Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum
, which contained Augustine’s anti-Manichaean works. Pearse recalled several references to the prayer appearing during Augustine’s own struggle with his faith. Long before he had decided to “take it and read,” the hero of
just how high the “true ascent” might actually take him. Those were the questions Pearse now scanned for, that sense of possibility so clearly felt by the young Augustine.